The Best Filters for Sunset Landscape Photos

by Apr 20, 2021Photography Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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The Best Filters for Sunset Landscape Photos

In this article, we discuss the best filters for shooting sunset photos. By best, I don’t mean the brand of filter but the type of filter you might want to use when photographing sunsets. As well as sharing my thoughts about the best filters to use, I also answer the question do we even need to use lens filters. In fact, let’s start by tackling that point.

Should we use Filters for Sunset Photography?

Three arguments you often hear against using lens filters are:

  1. The RAW data from many cameras can now capture enough dynamic range that you don’t need to use filters.
  2. Digital filters can do everything a lens filter can and are more flexible.
  3. Exposure blending techniques mean you don’t need to use lens filters.

Dynamic Range

It’s certainly true that today’s cameras can capture a much larger dynamic range than even a few years ago. If you check the DxO Mark database, you will find many can capture more than 13 stops of dynamic range in the landscape. Whilst this may be sufficient for some shots, it’s doubtful it will be enough at or shortly after sunset. Typical the dynamic range of a scene is much higher at sunset or sunrise, especially if the sun is in the frame or just below the horizon.

It’s also worth remembering that not all cameras treat the extremes of highlight and shadow in the same way. For example, it may be easy to recover highlights in some RAW files but not others. You find the same problem if you want to recover detail in deep shadow areas. Some camera RAW files are fine, but others reveal poor detail and unwanted noise in the shadows. It really depends on the type of sensor used by the manufacturer as they will usually favour one or the other scenario.

Digital Filters

Digital filters try to simulate the effect of lens filters, typically the Graduated Neutral Density filter. They work by darkening the sky, and sometimes simultaneously lightening the ground. Most RAW converters include a Gradient or Graduated filter and there are also several third-party plugins of this type. The problem these all suffer from is that they can’t recover the highlights or shadows once they have clipped.

If you’re not familiar with the term clipping it refers to areas of the image that have turned to pure black or pure white. When this happens the histogram of the image is said to be clipped and the detail is lost in those areas. It’s therefore essential to capture the full dynamic range of a scene for these filters to work well. But when you do capture the full dynamic range in a scene, they prove to be a great way to fine-tune the exposure as in this image.

Sunset photo at Godrevey using Reverse Graduated ND filter and digital filters

In this scene a Reverse ND Graduated filter was used to control the exposure of the sky. This allowed the camera to capture the entire dynamic range in a single shot. The exposure was then correctly balanced across the frame using the Gradient and Radial filters in Lightroom.

Here’s what the scene looked like without a filter.

Sunset photo at Godrevey without filters

The clipping to the highlights is so extreme that it can’t be recovered with the RAW converter.

Exposure Blending

Whilst it may not be possible to capture the full dynamic range of a scene like the one above in a single shot, it is possible to use multiple exposures. Shooting multiple frames, you can capture the same image but at different exposures. Then using Exposure Blending techniques you can combine the images to create a single image with an extended dynamic range.

Using exposure blending techniques can be extremely effective and is sometimes a good alternative to lens filters providing:

  • You know/have the skills to create a good exposure blend.
  • Nothing is moving in the frame when you take the shots.

In the example above, the waves on the sea may cause problems when exposure blending as they are in different positions in each shot. That said, they are so small that it may be possible to still create a good blend.

Another important point is that you shouldn’t expect software to do the exposure blending work for you. I have yet to find software that can successfully automate the process and produce consistently high-quality results. You need to do this by hand using techniques like Luminosity Masking.

Which Lens Filters for Sunset Photography?

Whilst it is possible to produce good sunset photos without using Lens filters, they make the process much easier. The filters you should consider using fall into two groups:

  • Neutral Density – to extend exposure.
  • Graduated Neutral Density – to balance exposure.

Neutral Density Filters at Sunset

The Neutral Density filter darkens the entire frame which lengthens the shutter speed without affecting the colour of the image. The reason you might want to use a longer shutter speed is to blur movement in the scene.

In this image a 10 stop Neutral Density filter was used to create a long exposure of around 64 seconds. This has completely smoother the ripples on the water and created movement in the sky where the clouds are blurred.

If you are trying to understand the different filter numbers, I produced an article explaining what they mean and the different filter strengths available.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters at Sunset

The purpose the Graduated Neutral Density filter is to darken part of the scene (usually the sky) but without affecting other areas. This typically reduces the dynamic range of the scene to something the camera can capture in a single shot which avoids clipping.

At one time there wasn’t much choice in the range of Graduated Neutral Density filters available other than the strength of the filter. Today the range has expanded significantly but to simplify things we can create two groups:

  • Soft, Medium, or Hard transition.
  • Reverse gradients.

Soft, Medium or Hard Graduated Filters

Soft, medium, and hard refers to the transition zone between the light and dark areas of the filter. The wider the transition, the softer the filter is said to be. If the transition zone is short, the filter is said to be hard, and the two areas of the filter appear quite distinct.

As a general guide, the harder the filter, the easier it is to line up along the horizon because you can easily see the transition area. This can be a benefit when using stronger filters because it makes it easier to position the filter precisely. Unfortunately, it can also make it easier to see the filter in the image if you don’t get the alignment and strength quite right. And if there is anything above the horizon, like a tree or a mountain, that’s also darkened by the filter.

Much more forgiving is the Soft filter. Whilst you may struggle to see and align the transition zone of the filter, it is very forgiving. It often doesn’t matter if you don’t align it exactly with the horizon as the filter just blends into the scene. It’s also an excellent option to use with a mountainous landscape where the horizon isn’t level.

I personally carry both hard and soft filters of varying strengths. I use the soft filters where the horizon isn’t straight or there are trees or other objects cutting into the sky. If the horizon is flat, I opt to use hard graduate. Sometimes when photographing sunsets, a single filter isn’t strong enough. Soft filters make it easy to combine two filters (a hard and a soft or two soft) without it being obvious.

Reverse Graduated Filters

One particularly useful filter for sunset photos is the Reverse Graduated filter. These filters are stronger in the transition area, usually by 1-stop. So for example, a 3 stop Reverse filter may reduce the light by 2 stops but in the transition zone by three stops. This is extremely helpful when the sun is low in the sky like at sunset or sunrise.

Sunrise shooting into the sun using a reverse nd graduated filter

Here a Reverse Graduated Neutral Density filter was used when shooting into the sun. The brightest area of the frame is on the horizon where the sun is, and this is also the strongest part of the filter. This made is possible to capture detail in the foreground shadow whilst recording a good sky.

Glass or Resin

One final point when discussing the best lens filters to use for sunset photos is the question of using glass or resin filters. Having used both types for many years I must recommend high quality glass filters as the best. They make it possible to shoot into the sun without causing significant flare. That said, you do need to keep them clean, or you will have problems. Comparing this to when I was using resin filters, I often had to avoid shooting towards the sun because of the problem with lens flare. This is one of the reasons that I switched to using Kase Wolverine filters. It’s now more than three years since I made the switch and I have haven’t looked back.

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Summary of the Best Filters to use for Sunset Photos

We have covered a lot in this article, but I will try to summarise everything in a few points:

  • Lens filters still have an important element when photographing sunsets or sunrises.
  • If you can afford to, buy high quality glass filters. It’s well worth the additional investment.
  • Consider using Neutral Density filters to slow shutters speeds and blur movement.
  • Reverse Graduated Neutral Density filters are perfect for sunsets and sunrises where the horizon in the image allows you to use them.
  • Carry some soft graduated filters for times when the land isn’t flat, or you want to combine filters for a stronger effect.

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