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Camera Filters: Your Essential Guide to Filters in Photography

What camera filters should you get? What camera filters do you need? And what effects do polarizing filters, graduated neutral density filters, and neutral density filters actually have in real life?

It’s a lot of questions, but every single one is critical.

Polaroid Optics 40.5mm 3-Piece Filter Kit Set [UV,CPL, Neutral Density] includes...

You see, camera filters can make a huge difference to your photos. A well-chosen filter is often the difference between a stunning shot and an absolute dud. 

But actually understanding the different types of filters out there, and when to use them, can be ridiculously confusing.

That’s where this guide comes in handy. 

I’m going to give you a rundown of every key type of camera filter. 

So by the time you’re done, you know the exact filters you need for amazing photos.

Let’s dive right in.

Key Camera Filters: The Big Three (Plus One)

There are literally dozens of camera filters on the market today.

But most of them are pretty irrelevant for digital photographers. 

For instance, some filters – such as warming and cooling filters – are designed to give your image a particular color cast.

But with today’s post-processing programs, there’s no need to bother with filters; you can make an identical adjustment in Lightroom with a single click of the mouse. 

That said, there are three major filters that every photographer should be familiar with.

And, depending on the type of photography you do, some (or all) of these filters should go into your bag. 

Here’s the list of the three essential camera filters for modern photographers:

There’s also one other type of filter, the graduated neutral density filter, that’s optional. As I explain later in this article, GND filters can be useful for particular types of photography, but their effects can be replicated (with great success) in post-processing.

Note that each of these filters has a very distinct effect, and whether they work for you will depend heavily on the type of subjects you shoot and your shooting style. 

If you’re a landscape photographer, you’ll one-hundred percent need a polarizing filter. 

But if you’re a portrait photographer?

It’s a lot less essential (and often pretty pointless).

In other words:

Make sure to learn what polarizers you need – and what polarizers you don’t. That way, you’ll have the best-possible kit without spending more than necessary. 

Polarizing Filters

Polaroid Optics 40.5mm 3-Piece Filter Kit Set [UV,CPL, Neutral Density] includes...

Polarizing filters are wildly popular among landscape photographers, and here’s why:

They reduce glare, reflections, and haze. 

In the process, they make your photos look colorful, saturated, and just all-around great.

In fact, plenty of landscape photographers argue that you should never leave home without a polarizer. That’s how important they are.

A polarizer is especially critical if you plan to shoot images with water, because it’ll dramatically cut down on distracting reflections.

And polarizers enhance skies, too; pop a polarizer on the front of your lens, and the sky will suddenly become the deepest blue.

You can also use polarizers to photograph through windows, because they cut down on reflections.

(This is a trick that some street photographers and portrait photographers use to come up with some very cool, through-the-window type shots.)

Now, a polarizer does come with some drawbacks. For one, modern polarizers reduce the light transmitted through your lens. So you’ll need to lengthen your shutter speed (or raise your ISO or widen your aperture) to compensate for a loss of light. 

And polarizers don’t act on a scene evenly; they polarize areas 90 degrees from the sun most strongly, so you’ll sometimes end up with inconsistent polarization, especially in the sky (this is often most noticeable with wide-angle lenses).  

Also, a good polarizer can be expensive. 

But for landscape photographers, architectural photographers, and cityscape photographers – who often deal with light reflecting off water and light reflecting off windows, respectively – a polarizer is a must.

Neutral Density Filters

Neutral density filters simply make your lens darker.

(For this reason, ND filters are sometimes described as lens sunglasses.)

K&F Concept 82mm Fader ND Filter Neutral Density Variable Filter ND2 to ND32 for...

But why would you want to darken your lens? Doesn’t this just make it harder to capture great shots?

Not exactly. 

You see, a neutral density filter blocks light from hitting the camera sensor, which gives you the freedom to open up certain camera settings. 

For instance, in normal circumstances you can’t shoot below 1/30s at ISO 100 and f/16, even if it’s pretty cloudy.

But what if you want to use a long shutter speed to create silky waterfalls? Or streaking clouds? 

That’s where a neutral density filter comes in handy.

With an ND filter, you can lengthen your shutter speed to achieve the exact look you’re after – even in bright light. 

Landscape photographers use neutral density filters all the time, especially when shooting water or dramatic skies. 

Portrait photographers also use ND filters, because in bright light it’s tough to widen your aperture down to, say, f/1.8 without causing serious overexposure. 

And portrait photographers love shooting at f/1.8 (and wider) thanks to the beautiful background bokeh it offers. 

So they put an ND filter over the lens, which blocks light and allows them to shoot at whatever aperture they please. 

Make sense?

Note that ND filters come with different numbers of “stops” built-in (where “stops” correspond to “levels of darkness”).

A 3-stop ND filter lets you increase your shutter speed or widen your aperture by three stops of light, whereas a 10-stop ND filter is far stronger, and gives you ten stops to work with.

Neutral density filters are very useful – but they can also be frustrating to work with. They darken the lens, which can make focusing tough (especially if you’re using, say, a 10-stop ND filter).

So you often have to focus manually in advance, then screw on the ND filter, before taking your shot. 

However…

If you’re a landscape photographer after beautiful water motion…

Or you’re an architectural photographer after beautiful cloud streaks…

Or you’re a portrait photographer after a shallow depth of field effect (in bright light)…

Then a neutral density camera filter can’t be beat!

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Clear (and UV) Filters

B + W 77mm UV Protection Filter (010) for Camera Lens - Xtra Slim Mount (XS-PRO), MRC...

Clear camera filters are controversial in certain photography circles. 

They’re essentially just glass that goes in front of your lens, that doesn’t actually do anything – except for protecting your lens from bumps, water, dirt, and scratches.

(Some photographers use UV filters as clear filters, because UV filters don’t affect images taken on digital cameras.)

So why is the use of protective filters so debated by photographers?

Well, the anti-filter crowd claims that clear filters just aren’t worth it. Every bit of glass you put in front of the lens degrades optical quality slightly, so by putting a $100 filter in front of a $1000 lens, you compromise on sharpness (or so the argument goes). Many anti-filter folks also question whether a filter will truly protect your lens in most situations. 

The pro-filter crowd disagrees, claiming that: 

  1. Clear filters, assuming you’ve purchased from reputable manufacturers, don’t degrade the optical quality to any perceptible degree
  2. A filter over a front lens element protects it from scratches, as well as dust, dirt, and water stains that are more safely cleaned off of a replaceable filter.

And I have to admit:

I am very pro-filter. 

I’ve used a filter on pretty much every one of my lenses since I started photography over a decade ago, and I’ve never noticed a drop in optical quality. Some lenses do seem a bit more prone to flare with filters, but this only really presents itself when shooting into the sun or toward bright streetlights at night, so it shouldn’t be a problem for most photographers. 

And a filter really does provide me with peace of mind when I’m taking a lens out in rougher conditions. Some of my filters have sustained scratches or water stains – and I’m glad it was my filter, not my lens, that took the hit. 

So I highly recommend you use clear filters, assuming you’re willing to pay for decent quality products.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

ICE 100mm x 150mm Soft Grad ND8 Square Filter Neutral Density 3 Stop Optical Glass ND...

Graduated neutral density filters are designed to darken only part of the image – generally the top half, though you can purchase reverse graduated neutral density filters that are darkest toward the middle and get lighter as you move upward. 

These are used when you’re photographing scenes that have strong differences in brightness (also known as a high dynamic range).

For instance, if you’re photographing a sunset, the foreground is often dark while the sky is very bright. 

And this will cause your camera to either blow out the sky or underexpose the foreground unless you take certain steps to compensate. 

If you slide a GND filter in front of the lens, you can darken the sky while keeping the foreground well-exposed. 

And you can end up with a stunning image overall.

Note that there are actually two broad types of graduated neutral density filters:

Hard grads and soft grads. 

Hard graduated neutral density filters have a very rapid transition. They move from dark to light over a short distance, as shown in the photo below:

LEE Filters 100mm Graduated 0.9 Neutral Density Hard Edge ND (3-stop)

Whereas soft graduated neutral density filters transition from dark to light more slowly, like this:

LUŽID Soft Grad ND 100mm x 150mm ND8 MC Filter Multi-Coated Optical Glass Luzid ND 8...

If you do get GND filters, I’d recommend you purchase both types, because each is useful for certain situations. Hard GND filters are great for shooting scenes with flat horizons, such as a sunset over a snowy plain, or a sunrise over the ocean. And soft GND filters are great for shooting scenes with more complex horizons, such as a sunrise over a mountain range or a sunset over a tree-filled field.

Now, earlier in this article, I said that GND filters are optional.

And here’s why:

You can actually achieve the same type of effect using high dynamic range imaging techniques. This involves taking several images at different exposures, then blending them together during post-processing. 

HDR techniques are great, but they can be tough to use; if the scene is windy or your subject is moving, you’ll struggle to blend together several shots for a well-exposed image. 

In most cases, assuming you have the post-processing know-how, these issues can be overcome. But it can take a lot of effort, not to mention time, which is why some photographers prefer to work with GND filters in the field.

On the other hand, GND filters are expensive, and you’ll often want to have at least a few (with different gradient amounts, as well as some hard-edged and some soft-edged options). Plus, GND filters struggle in certain situations – such as if you’re photographing a scene where the brightest light is small or in an unusual spot (e.g., a forest scene with the sun poking through trees).

And in situations like that, you might prefer to work with HDR processing techniques.

In the end, it’s up to you whether you purchase GND filters. They’re not necessary, but they can be helpful, depending on your shooting style and the type of photos you take. 

So think about it!

Buying Filters: Some Quick Advice

Now that you know about the key camera filters on the market, you’re probably tempted to rush out and buy the cheapest filters you can find.

(At least, that’s what it was like for me when I first started photography…)

But filters vary wildly in quality, and most of the cheapest filters are, well, cheap

Their effects will be uneven. They’ll come with color casts or vignettes. They’ll get jammed onto the front of your lens. And they’ll degrade your overall setup with hazy optics. 

That’s why you should always research filters carefully before buying. Don’t go cheap; instead, purchase the best that you can afford. 

Because while good filters are relatively expensive, if you like the effect they offer, then it’s worth it to pay for quality.

Camera Filters: Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about the essential camera filters – and you should know which filters are right for your photography.

Remember:

Polarizing filters are best for landscape photographers, architectural photographers, and cityscape photographers. 

Neutral density filters are best for landscape photographers, architectural photographers, and portrait photographers who shoot in bright light. 

Graduated neutral density filters are best for landscape photographers and cityscape photographers. 

And clear filters are best for pretty much everyone, but especially those who are rough on their gear or shoot in tough environments.

Got it? 

Then go purchase your filters!

And enjoy the result.

What filters do I need for my camera?

That depends on the type of photography you do! Landscape and architecture photographers will appreciate polarizers, because they mitigate glare and deepen colors. Neutral density filters are also useful for landscape photography and architectural photography – they’ll help you create a beautiful long-exposure effect – as well as portrait photography (because they allow you to widen the aperture in bright light). Clear filters are great for pretty much anyone, and graduated neutral density filters are landscape only.

Are camera filters worth it?

Definitely, assuming they fit with the type of photography you do. A circular polarizer, for instance, is an invaluable tool when shooting water and other reflective surfaces. And a neutral density filter will make you a much more versatile photographer. Finally, clear filters will protect your lens from being damaged.

Should I use a clear filter on my camera lens?

I recommend it. A clear filter will prevent damage to the front of your lens, such as scratches, dust spots, and smudges. And as long as you pay for a good-quality filter, you shouldn’t see any loss of sharpness.

Do professional photographers use filters?

Yes, plenty of professional photographers use clear filters on their lenses. And basically every pro landscape shooter works with a polarizer and some neutral density filters.

Which is better: UV filters or polarizing filters?

That depends on what you want to do! UV filters are great for protecting the front of your lens, though they don’t really do much else. Polarizing filters reduce glare and reflections, which is helpful when shooting water, glistening fall foliage, etc.

Author

  • Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.


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2 thoughts on “Camera Filters: Your Essential Guide to Filters in Photography”

  1. Nice guide, although I have a reason for not poo-pooing UV or skylight filters…. keeping your lens glass scratch-free helps keep the value of the lens if you’re selling them to upgrade to new glass or somesuch.

  2. Another reason for having a clear or UV protection filter is to protect the coatings on your expensive lens from scratches and the effects of multiple cleanings, which over time degrade the coatings. I also disagree that if you bump your camera hard enough to damage the filter your lens won’t survive either. I once borrowed an expensive lens from a friend. It came without a filter. I put a good B+W on before returning the lens. About a week later, my friend called to thank me for the filter. He bumped something hard enough to damage the filter, but suffered no damage to his expensive lens.

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