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Why You Still Need (3 Must Have) Filters for your DSLR

Which Filters your need for your DSLR lens

There are many different types of filters recurrently used by pro photographers. These would include neutral density filters, circular polarizers, warming filters and so on.

Filters allow a photographer to shape light, give a specific color cast and generally add those creative touches to their photographs in-camera, which would otherwise take several minutes on a computer. Filters have been one of the more popular photography accessories for landscape photographers for years.

Ein Steg by David Schiersner
Ein Steg by David Schiersner

The top 2 filters you should use with your digital camera

When we begin our photographic journey, we look for inspiration from people who we can imitate. We obviously look to pro photographers, their work and their gear. We try to imitate what they carry without knowing why they use it. Just because I saw photographer ‘A’ carry a D4 doesn’t mean I also need that.

Ok, that is a great piece of gear and is highly sought after, but if you don’t know how to use it, it does not make sense. Being a beginner a D3100 would just suffice and allow you to master the basics of exposure which is what you need.

So which filter do I need for my DSLR camera?

The same thing applies to filters. Not knowing why a photographer is using a specific filter will only make me a copycat.

So the first rule of buying filters (and that goes for every other photography gear as well) is to know whether you need that piece of gear. The second thing is knowing when and how to use it.

In this article, we shall look at a few filters, their uses and why you should consider investing in at least a couple minutes to take your photography to the next level.

Related Post: How to Get Into Photography

1. The Light Killer: Neutral density filters

Neutral density filters, or ND filters as they are more popularly referred to, basically help you to block light. Now, you would think what good would that do? Stopping light opens a plethora of opportunities when it comes to landscape photography mostly to do with slowing down the shutter to capture motion or to create motion blur. You could use the process to shoot street scenes or studio portraits and anything in between. ND filters can help you in more ways than you can ever imagine.

landscape photography essential tool - graduated neutral density filte by Kain Kalju
landscape photography essential tool – graduated neutral density filter by Kain Kalju

A typical use of the ND filters inside a studio would be when you need to sync with a flash. The maximum sync speed on Nikon cameras is 1/250 of a second. The same on Canon cameras is only 1/200 of a second.

If you need to use a really wide aperture for producing a shallow depth of field for your creative photography, your shutter speed will automatically become faster. But you cannot sync with the flash at anything above 1/250 of a second. The solution is in using an ND filter. An ND filter will allow you to cut out light while you use a big aperture combined with low shutter speed and flash. So, essentially, the filter allows you to retain the depth of field while not overexposing the scene.

Capture Blur with an ND Filter

Another very common use of the ND filter is when you want to capture blur in your landscape images. Whether it is to capture the movement of water or cloud ND filters are irreplaceable.

It is always difficult to capture movement in a still image and most photographers attempt at blurring elements to give that hint of a movement. The technique is in using a smaller aperture and a longer shutter speed. The longer shutter speed captures the blur of the water/cloud. But the problem usually with using long shutter speeds outdoors is that you risk blowing your images.

You can’t shoot with a really small aperture either because then you run the risk of inducing lens diffraction. Lens diffraction will affect image sharpness. ND filters are the solution. With ND filters you can use a reasonably small aperture such as f/8 and use a really long exposure (depending on the light stopping the power of the filter) to capture the effect that you want.

Remove People from your Photos with ND Filter

One more use of ND filters can be when you want to create motion blur in your street photos or completely obscure the traffic so that it may seem like a scene from a post-apocalyptic city, completely devoid of people. For travel photography, this is a great way to completely eliminate people from scenes where usually it is a very difficult thing to capture a ‘clean’ image.

2. The Reflection Killer: Circular Polarizers

Photo Credit: ufoncz

Some say the circular polarizer is the landscape photographer’s best friend. Those who say this never leave home without one. Though it sounds like the tagline of MasterCard the fact is circular polarizers are the difference between average landscape snaps and the really great ones.

C-PLs only allow light moving in a particular orientation to pass through. As a result, you get those really saturated colors because glares and reflections are suppressed. Blue sky becomes really dramatic blue, green grass, and foliage pops. You can see through water and reflections on the windows.

Most people who complain that the circular polarizer doesn’t do enough for them are probably not using these the right way. If you are shooting into the sun or if the sun is behind you, the polarizer will not have much effect on the image. Only when the sun is coming from the side, ideally at a 90 ° angle to the subject is the polarizer going to really make an impact.

I have discussed in detail the correct use of polarizers elsewhere on this website but will add one more word about them here. Polarizers will reduce the amount of light getting through to the sensor. Each time you mount a polarizer onto your lens, ensure that you re-meter to correctly expose for the image.

Polarizing filters are not always necessary to use. Let’s say you are shooting on a clear blue at a high altitude. Using a polarizer can actually overcook things. The results that you will get will appear over the top and unrealistic. I was recently on a road trip in Sikkim and shot at an altitude of 3800 meters. At that altitude and even without polarizers the results were more than satisfactory.

3. The useless filter: UV filters

It is often recommended that UV filters are a must-have. They protect the front element of the lens as well as help you to get the right color saturation. Both are incorrect at least for all practical reasons. The reason is if you are going to bump your lens so hard that the filter actually breaks, your lens is not going to withstand the impact either.

Ok you may argue that it is a protection from minor scratches. But minor scratches will not impact the optical quality of a lens that much. On the downside, you add another piece of glass/resin and a block of air, which is going to pull down some of its optical performance anyways.

Another reason some people state is UV filters do tend to safeguard against the harsh UV light. Well, digital sensors are immune to UV light anyways. Even film, for some time, now is unaffected by UV light.

So which are the two filters that you think you absolutely need?


  • Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. He loves to test and review new photography gear. He has been writing about cameras and lenses for over 10 years now. You can consider him as your "master guide" here at PhotoWorkout.

2 thoughts on “Why You Still Need (3 Must Have) Filters for your DSLR”

  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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