In a world where digital and post-processing are becoming more and more important, you might wonder: why would I need a camera lens filter? It is easy to take pictures without one these days, right? A computer can’t do everything, and a majority of professional photographers agree that some camera lens filters are still essential. This is especially true for landscape photography where we often want to attenuate, correct, or accentuate some aspects during the shoot. Digital photography is not just about taking pictures and doing post-production in Photoshop. Do you want to know more about camera accessories? Notwithstanding, filters are not new, since they were already in use at with analog photography.
This in-depth article does not pretend to explain everything you need to know about all the types of photo filters that exist. To do this, you can have a look at the other, more detailed articles that I have written, which I refer to within this post. In this article, I will explain to you the camera lens filters that I find very interesting today. In my opinion, the camera lens filter is essential to learn photography and above all allows you to spend less time behind a computer. Come on, let’s go for a quick course on my photography blog!
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Before telling you about all the filters, which are still useful in photography, here is some general information about these camera accessories, which apply, more or less, no matter what type of filters you use.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter about using filters in photography. Filters allow you to produce an effect when shooting your picture. A Polarizing Filter causes your colours to become saturated. The ND filter extends the exposure time by reducing the amount of daylight that goes in to your camera lens. The Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter, allows you to adjust and measure the natural light on a part of the scene to create an image correctly exposed during the shoot. The UV (Ultraviolet) are only used to protect the lens. Each filter has its own use, although you can combine and use several camera lenses filters simultaneously.
Here are, in my opinion, the three most useful filters today: the ND filter, the polarizing filter and the graduated neutral density filter (GND). Here are 3 important references that I have personally been using for several years now.
There are generally two types of filters: circular filters, which must be screwed/unscrewed, and square or rectangular filters that are placed in a filter holder. Both types of photo filters are placed in front of your lens, by either screwing or attaching.
Do I choose a screw filter or filter holder system?
This question comes up very often on forums and for all the people who are starting to want to progress, and go further in photography. That is what I believe you should remember about both systems.
The screw filter is considered much easier to use, since you only have to screw it in and unscrew it on the front of your lens. You can even leave it mounted on your lens and store it like that in your bag. It is light, compact, and does not take up space in a camera bag. In general, they cost less than the filter holder system, especially knowing that you can buy adapter rings. This means that you need only to buy one larger diameter screw filter and use it on your smaller diameters lenses. This is an efficient and economical solution. However, there are two major downsides for this type of filter. You will have trouble stacking other filters on top of it. You may end up with a large vignetting, especially on short focal lengths. In other words, you will see some black appear in the corners of your photos. In addition, you cannot use this filter with GND filters. This is where the filter holder system comes into its own.
The filter holder system is usually more expensive. You will need an adapter ring for each lens diameter you have. The use of filter holder systems is a little more complex and takes a little longer to set up, but with experience, you get used to it quickly. The major advantage of the filter holder is that it can be used in conjunction with the graduated neutral density filter (GND). I will briefly refer to it below, but the purpose will be to put the dark part of the filter on the brightest part of your image, the objective being to balance the brightness of your scene when you take the picture. Of course, you can use 2 to 3 filters at the same time on the filter holder. I have already used a GND filter to darken the sky, an ND filter (Lee Big Stopper – 10 stops) to do a long exposure, and I even added a polarizing filter in front of it to saturate the colors. If you want to know what this system looks like, I’ve just finished my review article on the Kase K9 filter holder system and the associated filters they sent me (Polarizer, ND, GND).
In any case, remember that, depending on the type of filter used, each type has its advantages and disadvantages (see below).
Whatever your lens (wide angle, telephoto, macro lens, etc.), you always have the possibility to place a camera lens filter in front of it. There are some exceptions for particular lenses that I have not mentioned in this post.
The only thing to consider is the diameter of your filter, which must be the same as the diameter of your optics. This is true but remember that you can use adapter rings to install filters with a large diameter (e. g. 82mm, 77mm) on lenses with a smaller diameter (e. g. 50mm or 55mm). This allows you to limit the costs and the number of filters to buy. So, I advise you to think about it carefully beforehand.
Which brand to choose then? Regarding camera lens filters, several brands stand out and are renowned in the world of photography for producing good quality filters (Hoya, Nisi, Cokin, Lee, Hama, etc.). There are of course other brands that are less expensive, however the quality is not always there. I am referring to the brands below and each section is dedicated to the different types of filters.
Keep in mind that for a camera lens filter, you usually get value for your money. There are probably goods filters produced by unknown brands, but I have always been too cautious from what I have read on the web, to end up with poor quality filters. I have always personally purchased equipment from Hoya, B+W and Lee. There are also quite a few very good quality multilayer filters or MRC (“Multi resistant coating”). On the other hand, a poor quality, low-end filter can degrade your photo and make you lose sharpness!
A brief explanation about the thickness of filters: There are two types, generally known as «normal ” filters and ” slim ” filters. The latter are thinner and are suitable for wide-angle lenses, for example to avoid vignetting. To simplify, if the filter is too large on a wide-angle lens, you may see the filter appear on the edge of your photo…thus not very beautiful, which is why I recommend that you use Slim. On long focal lengths (e.g. 100mm), a standard filter will be enough.
Also known as the circular polarizing filter or in the photographic jargon as a “pola” or CPL. This filter is the one I consider to be the most useful for landscape photography in particular. I personally use this polarizing filter for my telephoto lens, and this one on my trans-standard lens, and my wide-angle lens. Note that I use them with a filter holder and a wide-angle adapter ring. What is the purpose of this filter? In essence they;
- Enhance and saturate the colours of your scene by increasing the contrasts (this is called polarization),
- Remove glare (sometimes called an anti-reflection filter), especially on water, glass surfaces, foliage (for macro photography) or eyes (portrait),
- Removes atmospheric haze or fog (clearly visible in airplanes or mountains by rotating the ring),
- Aid long exposures (slight loss of brightness).
Be aware, however, that this filter also has some inconveniences:
- Loss of brightness / Slight darkening (requires use of a faster shutter speed),
- It is almost impossible to use it with a lens hood mounted on your DSLR,
- The polarizer is almost useless in “contre-jour” (against the light),
- For short focal lengths (wide angle/Ultra wide angle), some complications may appear: such as vignetting and variation of brightness on the photo. So be careful with the framing in relation to the light source of your scene.
As for the choice of this type of filter, remember that there are two types of polarizing filters (screw and linear), and that circular polarizing filters (CPL) are the most common. In regards to size, there are some for all diameters. The larger the diameter of the CPL, the more expensive they will be. Also be careful to choose between Slim and normal depending on your focal length.
The most famous brands for CPL filters are Hoya, Cokin, B+W or Heliopan. Note that the polarizing filter can be combined with an ND or graduated neutral density (GND) filter. Its use is generally relatively easy and it will allow you to take better pictures.
Here are my top four recommendations. Be careful to choose the right diameter for your lens!
Known as the Neutral Density Filter (ND), this is the second most important camera lens filter in my opinion. Today it never leaves my camera bag. These are more or less opaque (black) filters, which essentially reduce the amount of light that reaches your digital camera. It is mainly used to:
- Take a long exposure when the light is strong (full day) on the sea, waterfalls, stars, carousels, etc. Without a filter, it’s impossible in broad daylight,
- Keep a shallow depth of field (limit overexposure due to loss of light),
- Make things or people disappear in movement (thanks to very long exposures).
On the other hand, this filter has some disadvantages to be aware of:
- Use of a tripod is necessary as, the slow shutter speed is too low for hand-held photography, and the related accessories,
- Depending on the opacity of the filter, you will no longer see anything in the viewfinder and the composition will have to be done first. Some filters allow enough light to go through, but you will have to be careful with the motion blur, as the speed is sometimes very limited,
- The process is trickier because very often, focusing is impossible with the camera’s autofocus system (this depends on the “darkness” of the filter),
- The white balance may be altered with the use of this type of filter (colorimetry sometimes turns blue, purple, sepia…). You will have to get used to image processing on photographic software (Photoshop/Lightroom/Photofilter type, etc.).
Below are some valuable recommendations for ND filters. They are available either in circular form (e. g. Hoya, B+W) or in square form (Lee, Nisi), to be adapted to a filter holder. I own both types personally.
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Screw filter||B+W||Sunset/Sunrise||B+W 1.8 ND||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Screw filter||Hoya||Sunset/Sunrise||Hoya Pro ND 64||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Square filter||Lee||Sunset/Sunrise||Lee filter Little Stopper||Amazon|
|Filter holder||-||Lee||For ND square filter||Lee foundation Kit||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Screw filter||Hoya||Daylight / Very long exposure||ND1000||Amazon|
|Neutral Density Filter (ND)||Square filter||Lee||Daylight / Very long exposure||ND1000||Amazon|
The choice of the ND filter will essentially have to be made based on the type of picture you want to take, or the time of day you will use the filter. These impact the density of the filter, the type of filter (screw or on filter holder), and the brand (Lee, B+W, Nisi or Hoya are famous for example).
The ND filter is more complex than using a polarizing filter, and you will need practice and expertise before it can be fully mastered. You should also be aware that there are variable ND filters. Today, for all my long exposures I use Lee’s ND Big Stopper filter (or Little Stopper), which I place on my filter holder, through an adaptor ring.
This is one of the last filters that I usually mention, especially for nature and landscape photography. Some would say that you can partially reproduce its effects with photo editing software. That’s partly true, but I’d rather spend more time behind my lens than behind my computer, wouldn’t you? I have written a complete article on GND filters. These filters, known in photography as GND, from the English “Graduated Neutral Density”, can be assimilated to the ND filters presented above. However, they have the particularity of being more or less opaque, only on a part of the filter. Why? Let me explain in two words.
This type of filter is almost always a rectangular shape. The benefit of using this type of filter is based on the fact that, very often, in landscape photography, you have a significant difference in brightness between the sky and your foreground. The aim is thus to place the dark side of the filter on the part most exposed to light ie the sky, to darken it This means that when you shoot, the camera can take a more uniform picture in terms of exposure. It will thus be more balanced, and you won’t end up with a white sky.
Even if camera’s sensors have greatly evolved during these past years, they are often not efficient enough to handle this kind of light difference. In practice, you will not be able to reproduce what you see with the human eye. You will very often have a burnt blue sky (white) or a dark foreground. This is the main purpose of this filter.
The choice will be essentially based on the filter opacity, there is often from 1 to 4 stops available, allowing you to choose the type of filter according to your situation. You will then have to choose the type of transition between the opaque and transparent areas. As a general rule, there are hard, medium, soft, and reverse transitions. Everything is explained in detail in the dedicated article. Just remember that the Reverse is specific to sunset.
The article mentioned above (special GND filter) will go into much more detail about the choices, but here are some good quality references, both on GND filters, filter holders, and the adapter ring!
|Filter holder||Lee||Foundation Kit||Required to set up your GND||Amazon|
|Adapter ring||Lee||Wide angle ring 77mm||To be screwed on the lens - The GND is installed on top of it||Amazon|
|GND Filter||Lee||Lee Reverse GND 1.2||For Sunset||Amazon|
|GND Filter||Nisi||Nisi GND8 0,9 (3 stops) Soft Edge||Ideal for landscape photography||Amazon|
|GND Filter||Lee||Lee GND16 (4 stops)||Perfect for seascapes||Amazon|
|GND Filter||Lee||Kit 3 filtre GND 0,3 / 0,6, 0,9||Depends on the light||Amazon|
Their use requires a filter holder system, which can be used both on tripods and handheld. For a long exposure, this filter can be used with a polarizing filter and/or an ND filter. Of course, you can use them alone.
I recommend, as many professionals do, to use quality GND filters from recognized brands, such as Lee and Nisi filters.From here, we come into the filters, which are “accessories”. So, I won’t spend too long on this.
The UV filter is only used to block the UV rays that reach your lens. These can also be used as neutral filters to protect your optics in case of a fall. Today, not many people buy these filters, even though they know that the lenses are mainly treated against UV rays. That’s it! That’s it!
A few brief words about a type of filter. Some people still use filters for Black and White. Examples include infrared, red, orange, yellow or green filters. These filters allow you to obtain very different effects than with a normal filter. For example, the red filter is known to absorb blue and green colours, and increases the red dominance.
That’s the end of this broad article on camera lens filters. I hope you have learned something and I invite you to click on the links in the article to find out more detailed information about the different filters I have described. I remain convinced of the value of using filters rather than playing with the layers, cursors, photo effects, and alterations that are found in advanced image processing software. If you want to further read, I invite you to check out our detailed article on the new NISI V7 100mm filter holder system.
From your perspective, what is the most essential camera lens filter for you then? Have you ever used one of these filters? The polarizing, ND and GND never leave my camera bag. If you are new to photography or you don’t know yet which DSLR to use, I advise you to read my article on how to choose your DSLR? Who knows, he could be useful.