Which camera filters do you need?
There are literally hundreds of different types of camera filters aimed at manipulating your images before they are taken. Filters can be really useful tools to help you get the look you want in your images but these days with great Photo shop tools available to us do we really need all these expensive filters?
Well as a professional landscape photographer I’m going to let you in on which filters you actually need so that you can buy the right ones without wasting your money.
Most filter effects can be done quickly in post processing using software like adobe photoshop and Lightroom, however some effects still can’t be replicated in software so you need to get the right filters for the job.
Circular polarising Filter
Circulalr polarising filters have many uses including making skies look a more rich blue colour which in turn helps white clouds to really pop. They also help to saturate colours in a scene and add contrast but all these effects can pretty much be done in software.
However there are uses which simply cant be copied in software such as the circular polarisers ability to cut reflections from wet and shiny surfaces. This is a great tool when you are shooting water or wet foliage or any highly reflective surfaces and it helps to bring out colour and detail in shots that would otherwise be hidden by the light reflecting off these things.
A circular polariser also makes a useful neutral density filter because they lower the amount of light entering your lens.
So a circular polarising filter should definitely be in your photography bag. I personally use Hoya Pro 1 filters and can recommend them although they can be a little tricky to clean as they smear a bit. The Hoya HD circular polarising filters dont have this issue.
You can click the image below to check out different filters on Amazon and if you buy through these links I will earn a small commission which helps with the running of this site, so thank you.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters
These filters work to balance the amount of light coming from different areas of your scene. They are usually used to lessen the amount of light from the brightest part of the scene. This is usually the filter enables your camera to capture all the light detail without the highlights being too bright (blown) or the shadows being too dark and not containing any detail (blocked up).
This can be replicated to some extent in lightroom and photoshop but it is much better to capture the image correctly when you take the picture, because if the highlights are blown that detail is lost forever and it cannot be recovered by using the ND grad tools of software. The same goes for loss of detail in the shadows, which although it can be recovered to some degree it will introduce noise into your image.
Instead of using graduated ND filters it is possible to use HDR techniques to merge multiple exposures but this can sometimes create a very different almost surreal look to photos and needs to be used with care. It also means more shots have to be taken and more work has to be done on the computer to get a finished image.
The other problem with HDR is that you have to blend multiple exposures which means that if there is movement in your scene then this will show in the final image.
You can process a single file in photoshop twice, in effect processing it once for the highlights and once for the shadows but this doesn’t always work for scenes with very high contrast.
Ultimately most landscape photographers will simply find it much easier and more flexible to have some ND Grads in their bag of tricks.
Now which filters should you go for?
Well in terms of which manufacturer then this decision will boil down to what you are willing to pay.
Lee filters (which I and a lot of pros use) are certainly amongst the best because they are very neutral and therfore do not affect the images colour balance. However they are one of the more expensive options so if you want to save money then a lot of people happily use Hitech filters and Cokin filters which both have lots of choices and options but you may find the colour neutrality is not quite as good as Lee which could result in colour casts affecting your images.
Soft or Hard grads?
This of course depends on what and where you shoot most often but for most people soft edged grads (where the transition betweeen the darkened bit of the filter and the clear part is smooth) will be more useful because the transition between filtered and unfiltered parts of the scene is not noticeable in your final image.
However if you do a lot of photography at the coast where you have a clear, straight horizon then you may want to consider hard edged filters where roughly half is filtered and half is not, with a clear and abrubt transition between the two. The transition point is then often placed on the horizon line where there is a clearly defined edge between the brightness of the sky and the darker tones of the sea or land.
ND grads come in different strengths, measured in stops of light. The higher the number of stops the darker the filter will be and the more light it will cut out.
I would recommend starting with a 0.9 ( 3 stop) and 0.6 (2stop) in your chosen variety or you could try one of the kits offered by the manufacturers which will often include a 0.3, 0.6 + 0.9 (1,2 +3) stops in your chosen variety. These are a great place to start out and see which filters you find the most useful.
One tip is that if you buy Lee filters, thanks to the fairly limited supply (as of writing this article in Feb 2012) they hold their resale value very well so you could try them out and if you find you don’t use some then simply sell them on Ebay.
Again if you found this info useful I would really appreciate it if you bought through my links. It wont cost you any more but will earn me a small commission which allows me to take the time to provide more articles and tips in the future.
Neutral Density Filters
Neutral density filters are used to reduce the amount of light that is let into your lens.
Why would you want to do this ?
Well it’s not to darken the image which of course you could do in software. There are a few uses for this, one of them is to gain creative control of your images.
If you are shooting water on a bright day (I would recommend saving shots of rivers etc for overcast days but sometimes this is not possible) then you may find that because there is so much light around your shutter speed is very fast.
Well whats the problem with this I hear you say? The problem is that if you want to get that silky smooth effect that you see in the pro’s shots of water you will need to be using a slower shutter speed (often 1/15 or slower). On a bright day even if you stop your lens down to a small aperture like f/22 and use a base level ISO like ISO 100 your shutter speed may still be too fast, not to mention you lose a little image quality due to refraction at the smallest apertures.
So this is where neutral density filters can help to limit the amount of light entering your lens, resulting in the ability to use longer shutter speeds.
Again there are various manufacturers selling a variety of strengths of filter. I would recommend buying your ND filters and ND grad filters from the same manufacturer if possible to ensure they are compatible. You will also have the choice of screw on ND filters which screw on to the end of your lens or slot in ones which slot in to a special filter holder which then attaches to your lenses.
I would go for a slot in design because this type of system will fit all your lenses with the addition of cheap adapter rings rather than having to buy new filters for each thread size when you get new lenses. You can then mix and match which filters you wish to use for a certain scene by simply sliding them into the filter holder.
Your circular polarising filter will generally be a screw on type design which you will attach to your lens before putting on other filters.
Now here’s the kicker here, because you will have already bought a circular polarising filter which can work as a ND filter too you probably only really need to get one ND filter in addition to this, which saves you a little money. I personally have a Hoya Pro 1D Circular polarising filter (which acts as a 2 stop ND filter) combined with a Lee 3 stop ND filter and I can highly recommend this combination.
You could possibly improve this by using a 4 stop filter instead but either way you should be covered for most situations.
I will link to these items on amazon and I hope that you will buy from there if the site has helped you out.
So I guess that just about sums up the most important filters that every photographer should have in their bag. You will be amazed at the difference these filters can make to your images. No more of those skies that are way too bright or where the ground is just black. And by using a circular polarising filter you can make your photos pop just like the professionals do .
I find warehouse express are a great store to order filters and other photographic equipment from too, they have quick delivery, great customer service, excellent prices and tend to get hold of Lee stock quite quickly so you may want to click on the link below to check them out.
Or you can see some great landscape photography tips to help you improve your shots.