ND grads may be the most useful filters a landscape photographer can possess. But you’ll be glad to hear there is a way to achieve exactly the same result without them.
This method takes slightly more time because you have to shoot two images rather than one, and then merge them together in Photoshop. But for simple images with a straight horizon, this takes just a few minutes.
Take two shots
When on location you’ll need to shoot two exposures – one for the sky and one for the foreground. To ensure the images match perfectly, the camera must be on a tripod. Take the first shot in aperture-priority so the foreground is correctly exposed. Use exposure compensation if necessary. Next, take a second shot but dial in between 1 and 2 stops of underexposure using exposure compensation. For best results shoot in RAW, but JPEGs will also work if you prefer this file type.
Step-by-step: Merge the two exposures in Photoshop
1. Copy and paste
Open both images. While one is showing, hold down Ctrl+A and then Ctrl+C to copy. Bring up the other image and hold down Ctrl+V to paste. Next go to the Layers palette and click on the Layer Mask icon to attach a Mask to the top Layer.
2. Apply a gradient
Press G on the keyboard to select the Gradient Tool. Make sure it’s set to Linear, and that the gradient runs from black to white. Now left-click your mouse close to the horizon, drag up and release. If the gradient isn’t right, press Ctrl+Z and try again.
3. Fine-tune the Mask
Some horizons will have lumps and bumps that need to be lightened. Zoom into the image using the Zoom Tool. Press B to activate the Brush Tool, set the colour to black, select a small soft-edge brush and paint over the desired area of the image.