Ask any landscape or travel photographer and they will tell you one of the most, if not the most important factor to improving your photography and creativity is the use of filters. I remember the day, many years ago when I was first introduced to ND’s, Grads and polarisers.
My images improved tenfold almost overnight. It wasn’t only the effects these filters had on my images either. Once I had the ability to control light, I started to understand it and how the correct conditions could be harnessed to drastically improve my creativity.
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To those photographers looking to start using photography filters it can seem a little daunting. With so many different filter types and designs on offer from a range of brands. How exactly does each type of filter effect your image and how do you know which are the right filters for you?
The effect filters have on your images can be quite subtle at times to the untrained eye. While this makes things harder to spot, it is also the point. The majority of filters used by professionals are designed to be subtle and enhance conditions rather than completely alter them. All this doesn’t make things any easier for those looking to invest in a filter system.
So here we’ve put together an in-depth guide to all things filters. From the more common polariser and NDs to the more specialist mist and infrared filters.
Photography filter styles
Filters come in two main formats, threaded round filters and square/rectangular slot filters. Below we will discuss each of these in more depth.
Threaded filters are the best known and will more often than not be recommended by camera stores as a way to protect the glass front of your expensive lens. The most common type of screw filter is the UV filter.
There is a major discussion as to whether these are necessary and may actually degrade image quality. I personally use UV filters on all my lenses. I like the protection they provide on the front element of my lens. It is however essential that you go for a top-quality brand that uses only the best glass in manufacturing to avoid any negative effects on your images.
My screw filters of choice are B+W and more recently Breakthrough photography. I find these two brands to be of the highest quality construction and don’t negatively affect my images in any way. The team at Breakthrough have done extensive testing and found images to actually appear sharper with a X4 UV attached.
The downside to screw filters is that they aren’t a one size fits all solution. If you have lenses of different diameters you need to purchase filters for each lens. Not such a problem with UV filters as these are relatively inexpensive even for the top brands. But start getting into the more technical filters and things can start to get expensive.
Other common screw filters include polarisers and neutral density filters. I don’t find myself using screw ND filters as I prefer to use a square ND filters but this is just my personal preference as I find them to be slightly better quality. I do however on occasions use polarisers for situations when I am hiking or active as they are much better suited to mobility than the equivalent square or larger landscape circular polarisers from companies such as Lee filters which are attached via a filter holder.
It’s important to note that when adding any sort of screw filter to a wide angle lens be sure to use a low profile filter to avoid any vignette from the exterior metal element.
Square/ Rectangle filters
The second style of filter is the less common square or rectangular filters. Square filters tend to be the choice of pros and require a filter holder that is attached to the front of various lenses via a step-up ring.
These step-up rings allow you to use the same holder and filters on all your lenses. Whilst the initial outlay for a square system is more expensive than the equivalent thread filter you will only need to purchase each filter once to use throughout your lens range. And, if well looked after you will be investing in a system for life. One of the main advantages of the square system is that Neutral Density Grad filters (more on these later) are available primarily in this format.
You can get thread ND grads but the clear dark transition is always found across the middle of the frame. Not ideal for our rule of thirds compositions. Aside from the ND grads this system has two other fairly important advantages – quality and flexibility. Like for like the top end square filter systems provide a better image quality and employ the use of stacking via their holders in order to allow you to apply multiple filters to your image with great ease.
As with thread filters it is important to invest in a top quality brand. I personally use Lee 100 filter kit and have always found them to be of the best build quality and colour rendition. After almost 15 years of extremely hard use in the filed I have only just had to replace some of my filters due to my own carelessness. None were actually broken they had just become a bit too scratched.
When using a square filter system on your wide angle lenses you need to make sure to have a wide angle adaptor ring in order to place the system as close to the front element of your lens as possible to avoid any vignetting. I also recommend removing any UV or other screw in filters to further reduce the chance of a vignette.
Neutral Density Filters
Solid Neutral density filters are one of the most essential tools for landscape photography. ND filters reduce light across all wavelengths. The effect they have when placed on front of lens is to reduce the amount of light reaching your cameras sensor. Thus allowing you to use longer shutter speeds and smaller apertures in conditions that wouldn’t normally allow them.
These filters are ideal for long exposures when you want to create motion blur such as silky smooth effect you often see in moving bodies of water or waterfalls. NDs are also great to create those creamy streaking clouds that are great for adding a little atmosphere to your images.
The most common ND filters used by landscape photographers are the 3 stop, 6 stop (little stopper) and 10 stop (big stopper). Some brands such as Lee Filters also produce a 15 stop, Super Stopper. Three stop ND filters are most often used to give your image a type of realistic motion whilst the 6 and 10 stop are used for even longer exposures of up to several minutes giving your images that dreamy effect to your image.
Pro tip: By using ND filters and allowing your shutter speed to be longer you can often blur out most of the people (if they are moving) in a scene. Giving you a cleaner image without the crowds.
There are two types of ND filters. Fixed and variable. Fixed ND filters offer a single level of light reduction while variable ND filters offer varying levels of light reduction. Variable NDs are generally thread filters with a rotating mechanism within the filter to control density, similar to that of a circular polariser.
Variable filters allow you to set the exact level of light reduction you require and shoot without having to change filters to produce different effects. Fixed ND filters however only offer one light reduction level so you have to change filters more often. Not a big deal and what you lose in time you make up for in image quality with a fixed ND.
When using ND filters, you may notice some issues with image quality and colours casts. I find these issues to be greater with the variable NDs when compared to fixed stop filters. Some brands intentionally apply a cast to their filters in order to make your images warmer or cooler. These effects are great when desired but can become a hindrance.
This isn’t a massive problem as these colour casts can easily be removed in post production but if you just have to get it right in camera, then I find the Lee ProGlass IRND range offer the best and most natural results of any ND filter I have used.
One issue that you will immediately encounter with ND filters and particularly the 10 and 15 stops is that the image will often appear very dark in your viewfinder making it hard to compose the shot. My solution to this is to simply compose my shot and then add my ND filter.
A second issue is with that of exposure. With exposures often running well over 30 seconds it is no longer possible to rely solely on your cameras light metre. The exposure maths isn’t exactly difficult so can be done relatively easily in your head or calculator.
Simply take the base shutter speed and then multiply by 60 for the 6-stop or multiply by 1000 for the 10-stop to achieve your correct exposures. For those early mornings when the coffee hasn’t quite kicked in, all major brands such as Lee and Nisi have free, easy to use apps that do the calculations for you.
Graduated Neutral Density filters
Graduated ND Filters differ from your standard ND filters in that they have a graduated ND section starting at the top and ending around the middle with the top half being the darkest and the bottom half remaining clear. ND Grad filters are primarily used to balance the exposure across the frame when a certain portion, most often the sky is considerably brighter than the foreground.
In the past, I have used these filters upside down when I have a particularly bright reflection from a body of water for example. Its not very often this situation occurs but there is nothing to stop you from trying this method out if you think it may improve your shot.
There are three types of GND filters. Soft edge, medium edge and hard edge. These terms refer to the transition of the gradient from dark to light. Soft being quite a gradual transition, hard at the other end being a more defined line and medium taking up the position between these two.
The three edge levels are all available as 1,2,3 & 4 stop grads.
My most commonly used filters for landscapes are the soft and medium 2 and 3 stop filters as this is more often than not the exposure compensation required to get an even exposure at sunrise and sunset. Soft and medium have softer gradients then the hard edge making them more suitable when shooing objects that may rise above and beyond the horizon such as buildings or mountains. Hard edge filters are better suited to a flat horizon like you would find when shooting directly out to sea.
As I have previously mentioned you can get GND filters as a thread or square system but ND grads are, for me at least, where the square system comes in to its own.
Although the gradient is still 50/50 you have the ability to move the filter up or down in the holder affecting as much or as little of the image as you like. You can even turn them to any angle you require. I very rarely use these filters perfectly straight so thread GNDs just don’t cut it.
Some photographers choose not to use filters at all instead opting to achieve a similar effect in post-production. Others, myself included feel they are an important tool in producing the perfect single shot in camera and avoiding the additional work in post.
There are a number of different methods that can be used to mimic the effect of GND filters in post. The most common and best option in terms of quality and reality is to shoot multiple exposures and then blend them together in Lightroom or Photoshop. The second and much simpler method is to replicate an GND with the gradient filter in lightroom.
This method works really well for images where the exposure difference isn’t great but push it too far and the image quality starts to degrade and the overall look can appear to be a little unrealistic. The final method is the most recent and simplest method of all, just one click of a mouse.
With the release of latest version of Photoshop and Luminar 4, both these software have introduced the AI sky replacement tool. At the click of a button you can upload any sky you have in your image library and the AI will kick in and match it your image. With its intelligent selection it works really well even on busy backgrounds with trees and leaves.
It does fall short on some images where colours on the horizon and in the foreground are similar but this can be resolved with the slightly more complicated method of masking.
Luminar does a great job of matching the images tones and colours to suit the sky you choose but I would still suggest using a sky that was shot under similar conditions to that of your original image. The method I use is to shoot a perfectly exposed image of the sky at the same focal length from the same time as the shot I intend to use it on. I can then drop this sky in and my final image looks perfectly natural.
Circular polarising filters work by only allowing light from a single direction to enter the lens whilst blocking others. This results in reduced reflections and glare whilst increasing the vibrancy of an images. Polarisers are most commonly used to enhance foliage colours, darken skies and add a punch to the clouds.
Due to their ability to control reflections they are ideal for making bodies of water appear clear or even enhancing reflections depending on your preference. In a large body of water, it may be preferable to reduce reflection but in a puddle or other still body of water you may look to increase the reflection to mirror the sky, mountains or buildings. When shooting distant objects such as mountains polarisers can also assist in reducing haze.
The maximum degree of polarisation appears in a circular band 90 degrees from the sun making it pretty simple to work out where the sky will appear darkest. This means that when you are shooting with the sky directly above the polarization appears horizontal and constant throughout the image. When the sun is closer to the horizon at sunrise or sunset the polarisation appears to be vertical making one side or even the middle of you image appear unnaturally dark.
This is especially obvious in the sky where it can cause a very obvious banding affect. This issue is far more apparent on wide angle lenses so I generally don’t suggest using a circular polariser at sunset or sunrise when you want to shoot with a wide lens. If I do require a polarising filter at sunrise or sunset then I use my Lee 105mm landscape polariser.
Due to its large size of 105mm the darkening is far less of an issue as the worst affected area mostly occurs out of frame due to the filter being that much larger than the front element of any Nikon lens. It’s not always entirely possible to remove this from your image in camera but by getting the least amount possible you stand a better chance of fixing the issue in post.
I find that the radial filter in Lightroom is a really effective tool to lighten the sky. Just make sure to feather the transition appropriately to make the editing effect look natural. The adjustment brush also works well but is harder to use unless you are working with a pressure sensitive tablet such as those produced by Wacom.
Specialist Photography filters
Whilst the aforementioned filters are the most commonly used day to day by pros, there are a handful of other more specialist filters that you will often find making their way into the kit bag that warrant a mention.
Reverse ND Grad filters: These filters are similar to a standard GND but the filter gradient is turned on its head with the gradient extending outwards reducing the graduation as it approaches the top of the filter. As with a regular GND filter the bottom half remains clear un-affecting the light reaching your film plain. RGND filters are great for achieving a balanced exposure when the brightest point of your scene is at the horizon making them ideal for seascapes at sunrise and sunset shots.
Mist Photography filters: A really unique filter that certainly isn’t right for every occasion but can add a great deal of atmosphere to an image that may be otherwise lacking. My mist filter of choice is the Lee mist stripe. The filter has a light graduated mist strip running through the middle of the filter that replicates the appearance of a mist layer that can be placed anywhere in your frame.
This effect is great when shooting lakes or still bodies of water at first light to create a misty morning image. Mist filters are also available as a grad and clear spot, both great for highlighting a certain section of your image. From my experience mist filters work really well when shooting a very neutral scene or converting an image to black and white.
Graduated colour effect filters: Lee filters have a fantastic range of colour effect filters to improve, alter and enhance your skies, including sky blues, coral, sunset yellow, orange and red. There are too many combinations available to discuss them all but it’s well worth checking out their website for the full range of colour effect filters.
Infrared Photography filters: These filters pretty much do what they say on the tin. I never really shoot IR images for my work but I was lucky enough to get my hands on a Breakthrough IR filter recently to review and was very impressed with the results.
One of the great things about IR filters is that they work best in full daylight when the sun is at its highest making them the perfect option if you want to shoot creative images when the light would otherwise be pretty flat and unappealing.
Night sky & light pollution photography filters: With astro photography becoming more and more popular I’d be remiss not to mention these filters. As a fairly new addition to the camera market I haven’t been able to test many but the Breakthrough filters night sky is one that I have and the results were certainly an improvement over the image without a filter attached, improving colour rendition and adding definition to the image.
Whether you use a Lee Photography filters system or another brand, photography filters are an essential part of photography for any photographer. Learn how to use them and you will immediately see an improvement in your photography.
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Jordan Banks is a travel photographer with almost 20 years of experience shooting assignments and campaigns for some of the worlds leading brands and companies including many Iceland images. Jordan is well versed on social media photography and knows all the little tricks to up your social media photography game.
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