Photography can be an expensive hobby, with equipment improvement really making a hole in your wallet. What if I told you there was an inexpensive piece of equipment, which can greatly improve your work! You’d want to know what that is right? Well, step forward the humble camera filter.
Although in truth, there are some camera filter systems that are quite pricey, you can also get ones that are a great value. So let’s take a closer look at what camera filters are all about.
What is a camera filter?
In the age of smart phone filters, it’s worth explaining what the term “filter” used to mean in photography. A filter is something that attaches to the front of your camera lens and is used to alter or adjust the light coming into the camera in some way.
Filters come in two different shapes
- Circular Filters – These filters screw directly onto the front of your lens. You’ll need to buy a filter of the same diameter of the front of your lens (look at the back of your lens cap for the correct size). It is also possible to buy step-up or step-down rings that will allow you to attach your filter to camera lenses of different diameters.
- Square Filters – These sometimes come as a rectangular filter, and always as part of a system that allows you to attach them to the front of your lens. There is typically a bracket, which itself attaches to a round ring, that you will screw onto the front of your lens. Systems like this make stacking filters easier and are better for graduated filters.
There are in fact many different filters which you can use, and not all of them are going to be mentioned here. Many people like to use a UV filter to protect the glass on the front of their lens. This is a functional use, and this article seeks to look at the creative use of lens filters.
A few notable omissions to this list are the starburst filters, and the softeners/diffusers used in portrait photography. With all this covered, let’s take a look at the five best camera filters that you can use to enhance your photos.
#1 – Circular Polarizing Filter
The circular polarizer is a great filter, it’s a must-have in your bag. Its primary use is for landscape photography, though it can be useful for outdoor portrait scenes as well. This filter works by only allowing polarized light into the camera, that means light traveling from one direction. This has several effects on your photo.
- Reflections – A circular polarizing filter can enhance or remove reflections from a scene, depending on what you desire. As you rotate the filter, you will see the reflection either increase or decrease.
- Saturation – This filter can also add more saturation to your photo, giving it more impact with the viewer. You can adjust how much by rotating the filter.
- Clouds – Related to the increase in saturation, is the enhancement of clouds. On days where there is a mixture of sky and cloud, this is especially effective.
#2 – Neutral Density Filter
Neutral density filters are ones that block the light in varying amounts depending on the strength of the filter. The strength ranges from the ND2 to ND1000, weakest to strongest respectively. These filters are mainly used for either portrait work, or landscape work with the stronger filters used in landscape photography.
The darkness these filters add is referred to as a stop, and a stop means one exposure value (1EV). That means an ND2, which is a 1 stop filter, darkens the photo by -EV1. The ND1000 filter is referred to as a 10-stop camera filter.
- Portrait filters – ND2, ND4, and ND8 filters can broadly be described as portrait filters. They are used with prime lenses when there is too much light for that lens to be used with a large aperture. Their other function, when using a strobe (flash), is to block enough light so you can use the flash at the camera’s regular sync speed (without the need for high-speed sync HSS).
- Landscape filters – While there are times you might want to use some of the weaker ND filters for landscape photography, typically you’ll be using an ND110 or ND1000 for landscape photography. This allows you to make dramatic long exposure photos during the day, ideal for moving water or clouds.
- Solar eclipse – Should you be lucky enough to witness a solar eclipse, you’ll want to use the 16-stop ND100000 filter (a special solar filter).
#3 – Graduated Neutral Density Filter
These filters are the domain of landscape photographers. Graduated Neutral Density filters come in two types, hard and soft. They’re used to make the sky darker, so it balances out the exposure of the image in relation to the foreground.
Purist photographers who like to create their photos from a single image, and avoid techniques like HDR or digital blending like to use these filters. Even those who like to blend their images will use them, as it makes post-processing easier later on.
If you’re looking to buy one you should look at the square variety, as this gives you the ability to adjust where the horizon line is. Let’s look at the types you could use.
- Hard – This means there is a sharp line between the dark and light areas of the filter. They are more difficult to use but create nice results when applied correctly.
- Soft – Soft graduated filters have a more graduated transition from dark to light. Easier to use, and better when the horizon line isn’t sharp if it contains buildings or trees.
- Strength – As with the regular ND filters these vary with strength. You can get ND2, ND4 and ND8 graduated filters.
Note – The quality of the ND filters will be better the more you spend. Cheaper varieties may introduce a color cast to your image and are therefore not entirely neutral. If you have the money to spend, the Lee filter system is highly recommended.
Read these dPS reviews for more on these filters:
- Comparison – HDR Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography
- Review of the Vü Professional Filter System
- Review of the Wine Country Camera Filter Holder System
- How to Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography
#4 – Graduated Filter
Progressing on we now look at the Graduated Filter. These are used to enhance the color in the sky. They work just like the graduated ND filters but instead add color. This type of filter will often be used to make a sunset sky even more dramatic, by making the sky orange, or perhaps rose red.
Other options for graduated filters are adding sepia to the top half of your photo. Even more experimental is adding one color to the bottom of the image, and another color to the top by using two of these filters together. This is a great camera filter to be creative with, but you need to apply it to the right place.
Those wishing to try their hand at this type of photography with a filter should look at this excellent guide.
#5 – Infrared filter
Do you want to create a dreamscape from your photos, with foliage that looks like it’s from a snowstorm? Then you’ll need to learn how to make infrared photos.
One of the most accessible ways to do this is by using a filter. When you buy a filter like this it will appear black, that’s because the human eye can’t see the infrared spectrum of light. A popular filter for infrared photography is Hoya’s R72. Even with a filter, you’ll need a camera that will perform with this filter attached, and some cameras are better at this than others.
Most manufacturers will block infrared light from reaching the sensor to some extent, the stronger that block is the less effective this filter will be. Should you choose to use this kind of filter on a non-converted camera expect your exposure times to range from 30 seconds up to 4 minutes, depending on your ISO and aperture settings.
Read more: My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography
What camera filters do you use?
There are lots of methods you can add creativity to your photography, a good camera filter is one of those ways. In this article, you’ve seen five of the best filters available to add that little extra to your image.
Have you used any of these filters? Is there another filter that you use in your photography, that can add more creativity? Those who take black and white photos will no doubt point to the effects that red, orange and yellow filters can add to this genre. As always we’d love to see examples of your photos in the comments section, together with hearing about your experience using filters.
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