A Guide to Camera Lens Filters
I recently wrote a Gear Guide for Travel & Wildlife Photography, detailing some of my favorite photography tools in my bag, including the bag itself! I received a few questions about filters so I thought that this would be the perfect time to go over them a little more in depth. There is a great deal of information and types of filters so I am going to focus on what I feel is most important for travel, landscape and wildlife photographers.
What Is A Lens Filter Anyway?
Lens filters are physical pieces of glass, polyester, gelatin or resin that you put in front of your lens, some slide into a holder and some screw onto the front of the lens. The reasons for why to use a filter vary as different filters are used for different reasons which I will go over in a moment. I feel that lens filters are like magic for creating amazing photographs. Properly used, filters help make your photograph look like what you actually saw. They can also be used for more creative or surreal effects.
Digital cameras are technology and like any tools they have shortcomings. An easy one to spot is the dynamic range. Ever taken a photo and you check the lcd screen only to find that the foreground looks fine but the sky is like a flat white space? But then you look back at the actual scene frustrated that you're seeing a blue sky and clouds but your camera isn't. So you change your exposure and now the foreground looks like a flat dark area. That's a simple explanation of dynamic range, the ability to correctly expose both the light and dark parts of your scene in one photograph. Well, slap a graduated neutral density filter on your lens and now in one photograph you have your whole scene. Just like I did for the image below that I photographed in Yellowstone. That is the magic of lens filters.
There Are Many MANY Filter Types
As a general statement I do travel, landscape and wildlife photography. What filters you might want to have will defend a bit of what you like to photograph. I believe that all outdoor photographers should have a circular polarizing screw on filter. When you start to get involved with landscape photography that is when the benefits of other types of filters will become invaluable. There are so many different filter types from color correction (CC), "skylight", UV, soft focus, etc. I am going to discuss the filters that I think are actually useful and why with details of what I personally use them for.
If you would like to skip ahead, below there are links to the EXACT filters that I use with examples of photographs that I created with them. Okay, let's continue.
My very detailed thoughts on UV filters: no.
Teasing aside I am not a fan of UV filters, I would rather just put a circular polarizing filter on. There is a great deal of debate about them online if you do some research. Pretty much most photographers who use UV filters have them on because they feel it protects their lens from scratches or damage. The actual UV benefits of the filters are minimal at best. In my opinion if you want to protect your lens just slap on a circular polarizer which would actually be useful! I cannot recommend CP filters enough, the effects they create are just that good. Plus CP filters are rotated to deeper or lighten the effect. So when you don't want it polarizing just rotate it around to the "off" position. Personally the only time mine is in the "off" position is when I am photographing indoors or at night and you can just remove it if you want to then too.
Can't I just Save Money And Do This In Post?
To start off, yes, some of the effects that you get from lens filters can be artificially added later in post processing. Not always. Some folks would rather skip buying and carrying filters to just add the effects in later. Well, check out the above photograph. I used a circular polarizer to eliminate the glare in the water and boost the vibrancy of color in the sky and reflection. Let's say that you took this photograph without the filter. You would not be able to see through the water at all and the sky would be pale almost white. It would take a very long time in Photoshop to take the photo created without a filter and remove the glare on the water's surface so that you can see the beautiful rocks below at the waters edge. You would have to source some photos of rocks and add them in. Or you could just pop on a lens filter and capture it all instantly in camera!
Another thing to note is that if you manually alter your photographs with post processing to artificially create lens filter effects you will probably not be able to use them in many photography competitions who ban "photoshopping." Natural lens filter effects are okay but digitally altering the scene with post processing is frowned upon by many photography contests and organizations. There is a whole debate about it, pitchforks and all. It's a thing. Just check the rules of any competitions that you like to enter for their guidelines on post processing. This may not matter to you, but I thought it was important to mention for those who do like to enter their photographs.
The Nitty Gritty: Filters That I Use
This is the moment that you've been waiting for. So what filters do I think are worth it? There are four different types of filters that I have in my kit. All of them do something different. It is a lot of info so bear with me.
A CP filter was used here to cut the water glare and boost the color of the stormy sky and glacier.
Circular Polarizer: Versatile Filter, Good For All Outdoor Photography
If you only ever buy one filter get a circular polarizer. They are in my opinion a simple must have filter for every photographer that takes images outdoors. Why? These filters reduce glare, cut through reflections on water and glass, boost greens on foliage and dramatically cut haze for amazing vibrant skies. You will notice a big difference in your images with this filter. I pretty much leave my circular polarizer on my wide angle lens all the time.
Here is my all time favorite circular polarizer, currently on my lens:
B+W 77mm HTC Kaesemann Circular Polarizer with Multi-Resistant Coating - Don't forget to check the size to match your lens.
Good to Know: Circular polarizing filters screw onto your lens as an attachment and they rotate. To use this type of filter you physically turn it to control the strength of the effect.
An important thing to note with any filter is that you want to get a good quality one as some can add a strong color cast to your image. Even some of the best filters have a little color cast, that is the trade off to the amazing results they give.
The second thing to know is that because these filters screw directly onto your lens, you need to select the correct size that matches your gear. Look on the rim of your lens edge and you'll see a number there with a geometric ø symbol next to it such as ø 67mm or ø 77mm, etc. That is the diameter size you should purchase for that lens.
You can then get what is called a step down ring which is an adapter to use that size on smaller lenses. For example: I bought the ø 77 mm for my Canon 10-22mm lens and the step down ring so that I can use the same filter on my Canon 70-200mm which is ø 67mm.
A ND filter with a long exposure was used here for the creamy waterfall effect.
Neutral Density: Special Effect Filter, Best For Long Exposure Landscape Images
Next, a special type of filter that I use for creative images is a neutral density filter. I mainly use these to darken the scene so that I can do a long exposure. Long exposures add an amazing creamy effect to landscapes with water, especially waterfalls. You can also get a neat effect to skies, city lights, etc. Here is my go to ND filter:
B+W 65-073102 77mm Neutral Density 0.9-8x Filter 103 - I use these for long exposures. I have a few different ones of varying strength. For example, this one is lighter B+W 77mm ND 0.6-4X (102), etc.
A GND filter was used here to naturally balance the sky and foreground's dynamic range.
Graduated Neutral Density: Amazing For Landscape Photographers
Other than filters that screw onto your lens, I also use graduated neutral density filters when I am photographing landscapes. I consider a graduated neutral density filter to be one of the most important parts of a serious landscape kit.
I have two GND filter kits by the brand Formatt Hitech in my bag that I absolutely love.
85x110mm Graduate Kit 6 (3-Filter Neutral Density Graduate Soft Edge Kit) - I use these for most landscape photos, if it has a sky, I probably used it.
What Does It Do?: A GND filter is blended with the top edge darkened like sunglasses fading across the surface to a clear edge at the bottom. These filters are used to help correct the issue of having a too bright sky or too dark foreground aka the shortcomings of dynamic range. They do this by having the dark sunglasses like portion of the filter covering the sky which would otherwise register to the camera as overly bright. GND filters also come in varying strengths and sizes. The filters are rectangular and go in a special holder that screws or clips onto the front of your lens. If your kit doesn't include one, you would need to purchase the filter holder that matches your filter size. Alternatively you can just manually hold the filter in front of your lens.
A combo of the CP + ND + RGND on a long exposure were used to capture this vibrant sunrise and creamy waterfall.
Reverse Graduated Neutral Density: For Serious Landscape Photography Sunrises & Sunsets
Graduated filters also come in a type called the reverse or RGND. These filters have the darkest part near the center fading up outward. They are best for sunrises or sunsets when the brightest part of the composition is at the horizon line.
85x110MM Graduated Kit 7 (3-Filter Neutral Density Reverse Graduated Kit) - These are the ones I use for sunrise and sunset
What Does It Do?: The reverse graduated neutral density filter is a lens filter with the darkest part covering the horizon line. This helps correct images created at sunrise and sunset when the sun, and therefore brightest part of the image, is low in the sky. How does it do that? The dark part of the filter being right over the horizon line fixes the sky being too bright in that area during those specific times of day when the sun is low. I recommend them if you are serious about getting your sunrise or sunset landscapes photos looking their best in camera. Essentially, they correct the dynamic range issue discussed earlier but are really only intended for use during sunrise and sunset.
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