Written 14 years ago by Mark Evans

Filters are one of the more useful items in a photographers bag of tricks. Although, not only useful, they also give a photographer that creative edge when attempting something original. There is a vast array of filters to fit any lens, and of course almost any purpose, but only a few stand out as must haves for most photographers.

Filters generally come in two different forms; screw-on types that will simply attach to the thread on the front of your lens and filter holder types that require a ‘holder’ to be attached to the lens, while the filter is a rectangular piece of plastic or glass that slides into the holder.

Many photographers’ first filter will be a screw on type ‘UV’ or ‘Skylight’ filter. These filters not only cut down haze in outdoor scenes, but more importantly protect the front element of the lens, so not surprisingly, most photographers opt to leave this filter on pretty much permanently.

Another extremely useful screw-on type filter is the Polariser. More popular with landscape photographers, but very handy in anyones kit, the polariser cuts down reflections off water, windows etc and deepens colours, including the all important sky. The polarisation effect can be adjusted by turning the front element of the filter, and the transformation of a scene in front of your eyes can be quite remarkable; skies turn from pale to deep blue, foliage comes alive with greeness, and water starts to look like water again. Being a landscape photographer, I don’t leave home without one.

Screw on polariser Cokin filter holder Cokin ND Filter

A screw on type filter, a Cokin filter holder, and a Cokin filter

Screw-in filters are all well and good, except that there is a definite limit to the number you can stack onto the front of your lens. Depending on the focal length of your lens, you may only be able to get two filters on your lens before you get some serious vignetting going on, and this is where the filter holder type excels.

Essentially, once you’ve got your filter holder attached to your lens, you can slide in as many filters as it can take. That’s not to say that you’re going to actually go out and stack a bunch of filters on your lens, but at some stage it may be necessary. For example, when I go and shoot landscapes, I usually have a screw on polariser, with a filter holder on top of that, then depending on the brightness of the sky, one or two ND Grads. (read on to find out about ND Grads), and depending on the scene and light etc, there is a possibility of having a normal ND filter in there too.

Neutral Density (ND) filters are another handy one to have in your bag. Whether they’re the screw in type or the filter holder type they work in exactly the same way; being a neutral grey, they reduce the amount of light getting to your lens without altering colour. They usually come in three different strengths that reduce the amount of light by, 1 stop, 2 stops and 3 stops respectively and can be noted in different ways; 0.3, 0.6, 0.9, 1x, 2x, 3x and also ND2, ND4, ND6. You can also get stronger ones as well that block more light. These types of filters can be extremely useful in different situations where the light is too bright to make long exposures. For example, if you wanted to blur the water from a waterfall on a sunny day, you may need a longer shutter speed. However, if you did extend the shutter speed without the use of an ND filter, you may find that your image is overexposed.

Screw on 2 stop ND filter

Screw on 2 stop ND filter

An almost essential part of any landscape photographers kit is the Graduated Neutral Density Filter (ND Grad). These are similar to the ND filter, except that only half of the filter is grey, and the other half is completely clear. They come in two different types, soft and hard. One having a soft graduation (from clear to grey) and the other, you guessed it, a hard, more pronounced graduation. These are used in landscape scenes where there is a brighter part (usually the sky), that needs balancing with a darker part (usually the foreground). They work in the same way as an ND filter, reducing the amount of light over the darker part, while letting all light through the clear part. If the correct one is used, it will result in a nicely balanced exposure across the image.

It is also important to note that ND Grads do come as filter holder types, as well as the screw in type, although the screw-in type is a bit limited in having the graduation in the middle, which pretty much means you would have to shoot all your landscapes with the horizon in the middle!

Hitec ND Grad (soft)

Hitec ND Grad (soft)

Popular makes of screw-in type filters and filter holder type filters include: Cokin, Hoya, Hitec, Singh-Ray, Lee and B&W. Good filter holders to start with are: Cokin (cheaper), and Lee (more expensive).

In my experience of ND Grads, I would have to say, the best value for money is the Hitec filters, they’re reasonably priced and are neutral grey. Find out here why www.cashcrazy.co.uk Cokin ND Grads do not seem to be neutral, I think they’re described as a ‘Graduated Grey’ rather than ‘Neutral Density’, which produces a slight colour cast, and indeed are fine if you’re starting out, but not so good if you’re getting serious. As for Lee, Singh-Ray and B&W; I have heard really good things about these filters, but have not used them due to their cost. But if you think it will be beneficial for your photography business, you can loan at loanovao.co.uk to have enough money to purchase it. Angie is one of loanovao’s customer and her comment is here: “Excellent Customer Service, the staff were very helpful and polite”

On the filter market today there are absolutely hundreds of different filters that do different jobs, and look to extend the creativity of the photographer, these include (but are not limited to): Coloured filters (including warmup filters that give your pictures that warmer look), coloured graduated, filters that make stars out of any points of light and a whole host of gimmicky ones too. Its probably best to check these out for yourself and decide if they’re for you.

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Jared  13 years ago

Thank you so much for this article. Cleared the fog regarding this topic. :)

Matt  13 years ago

Where do you think is a good place to buy filters?

Mark Evans  13 years ago

Hi Matt, from my experience, high street stores tend to be a bit expensive, so I would go for sites like Adorama, B&H or even ebay is a good bet.

Verneitta  13 years ago

Thank you so much for clearing up the filter thing for me.

Alan Kuan  13 years ago

Hi Mark,
Thank you for your article on filters. I’m new and I’m absolutely clueless before this. Can I put a ND Grad on top of a circular polarizer filter?

Mark Evans  13 years ago

Hi Alan, yes you can put an ND Grad on top of a polarizer, quite a few landscape photographers do this to reduce reflections while keeping the sky from burning out.

Dee  13 years ago

My additional favourite ‘Effect Filter’ from Hoya is the Intensifier filter. Contrast the reds, browns and oranges. Minimise the amount of time doing it on Photoshop.Heard is great for sunset but I haven’t snap one yet… =X

I too have the diffuser and softener filters as well… I haven’t master using it on the right stuffs yet.

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