Welcome to the review of one of the most long awaited filters from Nisi, the Medium Graduated Neutral Density filter (“Medium Grad” for friends).
First of all a much needed disclaimer. I have been using Neutral Density Filters for more than ten years, which are an absolutely essential piece of kit for me. I also had the pleasure of being an ambassador for a well known filter brand for about five years, and then for the last two years I’ve partnered with Nisi filters, becoming one of their official ambassadors. I know that many photographers are tired of reading reviews by sponsored photographers, as they are usually regarded as partial and biased. Even though I’m now sitting on the other side of the fence, being sponsored by some photo brands, I’m very well aware of what it feels like to have a terribly limited budget to make the right choices while buying new gear. I will even dare to go as far as saying that I’ve seen my fair share of sponsored photographers recommending products which were not fit for the intended purpose, just for the sake of promoting themselves and the sponsor. Taking all of this into account, I want to make a clear statement that I review gear as impartially as I can, and I would hate to know you had spent your hard earned money on a product after being mislead by a review.
And so let’s move on to the review of the newest Nisi product, the Medium Graduated Neutral Density Filter!
So far I think I must have tried dozens of filters over the years, from at least nine different brands. The optical quality of filters has evolved a lot, with great advances mostly noticeable during the last three years, with the expansion of glass filter line-ups, achieving amazing colour reproduction neutrality. Right now I no longer use resin filters, as they are extremely prone to scratches and terribly difficult to clean in seascapes. Still, even though technology advances, there are some aspects of a Neutral Density Graduated filter that do not depend on technology but rather in design and practicality.
A Neutral Density Graduated filter should have some important features, namely be “neutral”, which means not affecting colours, and have a properly designed transition from the clear/transparent part of the filter towards the dark part of the filter. So far most filter brands carried a line of Soft Graduated ND filters and a line of Hard Graduated ND Filters. The former had a progressive transition from clear to dark, and the latter an abrupt/immediate transition.
To understand how a transition design affects an image, it’s important to know that the main purpose of a Graduated Filter is to selectively darken the brightest areas of an image, which usually correspond to the sky on top and, in some cases, the water. As you can guess, when shooting landscapes, a soft graduated filter would make sense to properly darken the sky on a scene where there are relevant elements located above the horizon, so that the darkening doesn’t occur to abruptly, underexposing these elements. In case you have a clear line of horizon, like it usually happens on a classic seascape, then you can freely use a hard transition filter, without having to worry with under-exposing elements above the horizon.
As you may guess, even though most Hard Graduated filter are quite similar, Soft Graduated filters are very different from brand to brand, with different transition sizes, and different progression rates from clear to dark. As soon as I started shooting I quickly learned that a properly designed Soft Graduated filter will be adequate for most of the scenes I shoot, even including scenes where you do not have elements above the horizon. The exception is when you have an extremely strong sunset on the scene, with no elements above the horizon, where you need a very strong dark filtering which is usually only achievable through a Hard Grad.
So, considering my big fondness for Soft Graduated filters, I’ve been on a constant pursuit for the best filters of this kind, knowing that this is my most used graduated filter by far. So the question is: what makes a great Soft Grad filter? First of all it’s important to know that, for a 150 x 100mm filter, if you are using a ultra-wide angle on a full frame sensor, shooting in horizontal orientation, you are only using 6.5cm of the filter in front of the lens (for a 16mm lens), or 7.5cm with a 12mm lens. If you consider that most landscape compositions are only using the top half or top 1/3rd of the image for the sky, it’s quite easy to understand that you are at most just using 2-3.5 cm of a filter for the sky area. Following this, if you are shooting a scene where you have medium sized elements that protrude above the horizon line, you’ll probably need a short soft transition of around 2-4 centimeters, so that it can progressively darken an image from below to the horizon, being a bit more intense above the horizon while not darkening excessively the elements above the horizon, and then fully darkening the very bright top of the sky.
You must be wondering why am I going into so much trouble describing the perfect Soft Graduated filter. Well, the reason for that is because I know that a properly designed filter is CRUCIAL to achieve good images and not waste too much time in Photoshop, sometimes making the difference between a great or an unusable image. Another reason for my concerns is that you can find in the market all kinds of Soft Grads, with transitions ranging from very large sizes to smaller transition filters.
When Nisi launched its Graduated Neutral Density Filters line, it went for an approach in their Soft Grad filter where they decided to make a very large transition, with about 6-7 cm. Even though these filters can be quite useful when you are shooting scenes where there are extremely large elements above the horizon line, almost touching the top of the image, I always wanted Nisi to release a Graduated filter with a smaller transition. Even though I know that Ray Wang, the lovely Nisi Ambassadors Program Manager, is probably traumatized from my constant requests to launch such filter, I’m very glad to see that it has finally been released! Thanks to a meeting between the UK Nisi Ambassadors and part of the Nisi team, the final draft for this filter was created and now we can purchase it in any Nisi distributor.
So, here you have it, the Nisi Medium Grad filter, with a 3 centimeters transition, available from 2 to 4 stops of light reduction at the top. It’s perfectly suitable for landscapes where you have elements above the horizon line, and it’s much easier to use than a hard grad. With a Hard Grad you always need to perfectly position the filter on the horizon line every time you recompose the shot, while with the Medium Graf you don’t need perfect positioning due to the progressive transition.
Besides that, as usual with Nisi, you can count on it having an extremely neutral colour reproduction, oleophobic and water repellent coating and well as anti-reflective properties.
For this review I used the 3 stops Medium Grad. I mostly use a 4 stops graduated filter, as I usually work with intense skies, so I can’t wait to receive the 4 stops version.
Many people ask me this and, even though I think Nisi has the best 100mm holder system in the market, you can use this filter with any holder from another brand, as long as it’s made for 100mm filters.
So, to sum it up, now you have the following graduated filters in the Nisi lineup:
– Hard Graduated Neutral Density filter – for scenes where there are no elements above the horizon and you need to get a strong reduction of light in the sky
– Medium Graduated Neutral Density Filter – the most versatile filter, which is the best option when there are some elements above the horizon. This filter is similar to other brand’s soft filters
– Soft Graduated Neutral Density Filters – filter with a large soft transition, suitable for scenes where there are very large elements above the horizon
– Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filters – filter with a hard transition at the horizon, becoming progressively less dark at the top
And finally let’s move on to the most important part of a review: the images made with the new Nisi Medium Grad filter! (click on the images for higher resolution and quality/sharpness)
As you can see by the example above, the Medium Grad filter is perfect to control the exposure of the sky, and avoid underexposing the elements above the horizon.
For this very demanding scene above, the Nisi Medium grad also allowed for excellent control of the sky, while still controlling some potential overexposure in the horizon area. As usual, color reproduction of the filter is spot on, sharpness is not affected and the glass is incredibly easy to clean when there’s sea spray on the filter.
Finally, last but not least, two more images made possible with the Medium Grad filter. These are perfect examples of scenes where you have elements above the horizon which you need to properly filter, to avoid under-exposing them:
Hope you have enjoyed the images! If you are located in Europe and would like to order Nisi filters, you can use my Coupon Code “JOSERAMOS” on the Nisi Spanish Official Distributor, to get a 10% discount!