What would you recommend for the first ND Grad to buy, in terms of F-Stops intensity? 2, 3, 4?

I live near the shore, so I'll mostly be taking photos of seascapes in the golden hours.

I already have a 10 stop ND filter.

EDIT: Just adding more info.

Missed saying I was looking at a Hard Grad, since I'll mostly be shooting Seascapes. I recently bought a NISI V5 Holder + ND 10 stop. So I already have a square kit, and that's what I'll be adding too. Main lens to use will be a Canon 16-35mm on a 5d Mk III.

The idea is to buy my first Hard Grad, but I'll expand my set in the future. Just undecided on which to start the set with.

Example of a photo, taken with the 10 stop filter: https://www.instagram.com/p/BQd4PkkA3OJ/?taken-by=vitor.sousa.photography

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is like asking what kind of vehicle should I get?, I already have a bus. No one can tell you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Feb 16, 2017 at 2:17

4 Answers 4


You haven't given enough information to produce a definitive answer, but here's how I suggest you can help determine the information yourself. I own and use 2 sets of ND grads from 1–3 stops, both hard-transition and soft-transition, plus a few specialty transition ND grads (reverse ND grad, "sunset strip" ND, 0-transition/continuous ND grad).

Hard vs. Soft Transition

Hard vs. Soft comes down to focal length of lens you want to use. Soft transition ND grads are usually used with wider angle (i.e., short focal length) lenses, whereas hard transition ND grads are used with telephoto / narrow FoV (field of view) lenses.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, whether they be for certain technical reasons for a particular scene or for artistic reasons. But simply, the wider the lens you use, the more hard the ND grad transition looks. If you are shooting a mountainous horizon where the transition line isn't straight and obvious, you probably want to go softer rather than hard on the transition. But if you are shooting an uneven horizon with a long lens (say, 200mm or more), a soft ND grad is probably too soft — you can't actually pick out a more-or-less transition region in the ND grad; it just becomes a 1– or 2– stop transition from one edge of view to the other, rather than a region of constant 1– to 3– stop reduction transitioning into a 0-stop region.

Number of Stops

To determine what you need, even before you buy ND grads, you should do the exact same thing that owners of ND grads do when they decide which ND grad to use: meter the scene to determine different exposure levels.

Assuming you are just using the camera's built-in metering:

  1. Begin by metering the foreground exposure.
  2. Then meter the sky (or whatever the region is visually different that you want to cover with your ND grad). Don't meter the sun if it's in the scene. Just meter a representative portion of the sky.
  3. Select the ND grad that reduces the difference between foreground and sky exposure to within 1 stop or so.

Without even buying a filter, you can go out and meter a typical scene you'd like to shoot. That will give you an idea of how stops your ND filter should be.

Personal Note

I live on the Florida seashore (east coast), so I have ample opportunities to shoot sunrise pictures over the ocean. I am also surrounded by an intercoastal waterway, so I can shoot some okay sunset pictures over water as well. Generally, I find that I use my 2-stop ND grads more than my 1– and 3–stop ND grads.

However, if I am shooting sunrise or sunset with the sun in the picture, I reach for either my 3–stop ND grad, or my "sunset" ND strip filter (or a combination of strip and 1– or 2– stop ND grad).


If you are primarily going to shoot with a normal- to wide-angle lens, I suggest getting a kit of 1–, 2–, and 3–stop ND grad soft rectangular filters. If you are going to shoot with a mix of wide and long lenses, I suggest getting both a 2–stop soft and 2–stop hard ND rectangular grads.

Why rectangular grads? Because it allows you to frame your camera as you wish, and then set the transition line where you want it. Circular grads have the transition line in the middle; therefore, your composition is dictated by where you want to place the transition line.

Additionally, rectangular grads allow you to combine them in interesting ways. Wish you had a ND strip filter to kill the bright sun near the horizon, but you only have a couple 1–stop ND grads? No problem:

ND grad combo to make a ND strip filter

If they were both 2-stop filters, you'd have a ND2 strip + ND2 solid filter, giving you a 2-stop reduction of the horizon relative to the rest of the scene.

This is just one example of how you can creatively combine ND grad filters.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the detailed info. I'm leaning towards 2 or 3 stop hard for the moment. Will read this again to process all the detailed information. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 16, 2017 at 11:41

It's all based on personal preferences. If you're unsure then perhaps your initial purchase should be a cheap set that you can experiment with until you discover what density does what you wish. A set with 1, 2, and 3 stop filters can be used in various combinations to get anywhere from 1 to 6 stops of density.

Graduated filters also benefit greatly from using square/rectangular filters in a holder, rather than spin on filters, so the position of the graduation can be adjusted to match your composition.

You may also want to experiment with "hard" versus "soft" graduations.

I'll mostly be taking photos of seascapes in the golden hours.

You'll need a darker one to take pictures facing towards the sun than you will to take pictures pointing away from the sun. The sky is not uniformly bright during the golden hour. The directly illuminated objects you see when facing away from the sun will also reflect more light than the shaded parts of objects you see when facing towards the sun.


This is an impossible question to answer.

You might think you need filter X, but actually you need Y. And you might find that you need multiple if the conditions are changing quickly!

As you already have the 'big boy' 10 stop ND, then why not go for a set such as this one from Cokin (BTW I did not check prices or compare so shop around!)

Then you can have multiple in your bag and decide what you need according to the conditions at the time.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Already having a 10-stopper is pretty much unrelated to deciding how much (and what type of) gradient you need. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15, 2017 at 19:36

First be sure that you will need a ND filter. Since you said "I'll mostly", that could refer to actual use, or future use.

if you aren't already taking the pictures, then evaluate if you really need one. when i take seaside pictures in the golden hour, at iso 100 to keep the quality high, i gradually lack light as time passes. so i may start at f11 and be forced to the widest opening as the sun sets, or having to bump up the iso. the last thing i would want is an ND filter eating away my dwindling light. Even a graduated one would bother me as it can realy limit composition options and degrade IQ particularly fo cheap ones. have you considered using a circular polarizer, if not using very WA, it cuts down some light and gives nices contrasty skies and supresses some reflections.

If you do need an ND, see the metering diferential between the sea and sky, so if the sky is +2ev, you would need a graduated -2 stops ND

  • \$\begingroup\$ I already got a 10 Stop ND filter. What I'm looking at is a Hard Grad to keep the sky in check during long exposures. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 16, 2017 at 11:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @reed have you considered a tripod? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Feb 16, 2017 at 16:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have several, used to use them all the time in the film days, but i mostly leave them home now. still adapting to the "new" world of digital... i also like AF now that i have L glass with USM and i even bough a sony A72 inspite of my misgivings as to sony processing as i need the FF Q to get the best from my present and future vintage lenses. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17, 2017 at 5:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ But even with tripods, seaside, where i am now would require a $1000+ tripod to be stable enough with the strong costal wind. and that would mostly be to milk away the sea waves...for normal shots, the wind shakes everything, so you need to keep a fast shutter speed...the only var are iso and f, with my present cam i never go above 800, and even when i switch to an f1.4 lens, i reach its limits soon, often minutes after sunsets \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17, 2017 at 5:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ Vítor Sousa the ND10 should have given you an approximation of what stoping power you would need...since you exposed for 60 sec with ND10, if you want say some slight movement blur an ND4 would let you shoot at 1sec...else instead of a set get an ND2, then later if it is not enough get and ND4 another, then another ND2, so you can go 2, 2+2 or 4, 4+2, 4+2+2 then 10, or get a variable ND bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/variable-neutral-density/ci/22490/N/… \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17, 2017 at 6:04

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