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Today's e-tip:

Landscape Filters:
Everything you need to know

Landscape Filters:
Everything you need to know

Filters attach to the front of your lens. They typically attach to DSLR camera lenses, but often, point-and-shoot cameras can also use them. They modify the light that enters your lens and is seen by the sensor.

This eTip is all about the filters you should consider when shooting landscape images - and when you should use them.
  • Sometimes, you need a filter; sometimes you don't.
  • Sometimes you should use a filter; sometimes you shouldn't.
Shot with a graduated ND filter to help "bring out" the clouds.
Filters can improve some pictures, but can also hurt some images. So, it's important to understand what they do.

Some filters "add" something that wasn't in the original scene (e.g., star filters, colored filters, etc.). We're not going to cover those. This eTip will just cover filters that you may want to consider for improving your images.

Most of what we'll be talking about in this eTip applies to "landscape" photography. There are only a few filters you need to consider, but there are some things you need to know about them as well.

Filters and Your Camera
Filters can be fitted to most cameras.

DSLR lenses almost always have a thread on the front of them that accepts a certain-size filter. Some lenses will indicate the filter size somewhere on the lens, but some won't. If they do, it may look something like these - the top one indicates the lens takes a 72mm filter; the bottom a 58mm filter.
Filter Size indicator

Point-and-shoot cameras may or may not accept filters. Many, such as the Canon SX series do, but require an inexpensive adapter, such as this one:  Filter Adapter for Canon SX Cameras. Consult your camera manual to determine if your point-and-shoot camera can accept filters.

What filters do
Filters filter the light entering your lens. They typically remove something, usually light. They affect how your camera's sensor "sees" the scene you're photographing. Your camera's lens and sensor can't "see" the way your eyes (and brain) see, thus, we normally use filters to change the way our cameras see a scene, so the resulting image looks more like what we actually saw.

If you use a program like Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, etc., you probably know that there are tools built into these programs that can try to emulate certain filters, but, they do just that - they "try" to emulate. It's just not the same, however, as using the real thing when you take the picture.

Most filters reduce the amount of light reaching your camera's sensor. Under "normal" circumstances, this is a bad thing. Reduced light means a slower shutter speed, and a slow shutter speed can mean blurred images. But, sometimes the effect the filter has on the image is so significant, that it's worth the reduction in light.

A Little History
In the old days (before digital photography), film came 2 ways: balanced for daylight or balanced for tungsten light. We are no longer saddled with that choice, as our modern digital cameras can handle any "color" of light (see our eTip on the color of light here). Today, we use the "White Balance" option on our cameras to match the color of the light (see our eTip on White Balance here).

With film, you had to rely on "Color Compensating" filters for different light color. On a cloudy day with daylight-film, you had to use a "warming" filter, so your images didn't have a blue-tint to them. When shooting under fluorescent lights, you'd need to use an "FLD" filter, so your images didn't come out with a green cast.

Today, we can just adjust the white balance setting before we take the picture (note: White balance only affects JPEG images - you don't have to set the White Balance in the camera when shooting RAW images, as that adjustment is made in post-processing). Today, color-compensating filters are no longer needed.

When shooting with black and white film, you would use colored filters to modify how the film recorded scenes. For example, to darken a blue sky, you could use a yellow filter. A red filter could turn a blue sky black. You could achieve some startling effects using filters with black and white film. You can do the same thing using post-processing software today. Just take a color image and turn it into black and white with Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, etc. by "dialing-in" the amount of red, yellow, or whatever color you desire (see our eTip on Black & White here). So, color filters are no longer needed with digital photography.

Digital photography has simplified our life by eliminating the need for color-compensating and color filters.

The "Trifecta" of Filters
Luckily, there are only 3 important filters you need to consider:
  • Polarizer
  • Neutral Density
  • Graduated Neutral Density
Note: There are other filters you could consider (warming, fog, color graduated, UV, etc.), but the above filters are the most useful.

The Polarizer
The Polarizing filter can do magical things, just the way polarized sunglasses makes the outdoors look better in bright sunlight. The polarizing filter can help darken skies, reduce reflections from non-metallic surfaces (e.g., water, glass, particles in the sky, etc.) and enhance colors. It can truly do magical things to improve your images.

The polarizing filter has two rings - you attach one to your lens and you then turn the outer ring to obtain the desired effect.

The sets of images to the right all show the same image taken with a polarizer filter (on the left) and without a filter (on the right). The difference can be remarkable.

You do NOT want to use a polarizer all of the time. It significantly reduces the amount of light reaching your sensor, thus, it can cause slower shutter speeds, potentially blurring your images.

You don't want to use a polarizer when taking sunrise or sunset pictures, as the great color you see in these scenes is caused by reflection of particles in the atmosphere. A polarizer can reduce these reflections, thus reduce the color your camera sees.

Polarizing filters are best used on sunny days, and only when you want to darken a sky or cut reflection.

Read our eTip all about the polarizer filter here: The Polarizing Filter.
The Polarizer
The Polarizing filter is designed to fit DSLR cameras, but can be used on point-and-shoot cameras. You just have to first view the scene thru the filter and turn it to determine when the scene looks best, and then just hold it over your point-and-shoot camera lens when you take the picture.

The Polarizer

The Polarizer

The Polarizer

The Polarizer
All of the above show pairs of images - the left was
taken with a circular polarizer filter and the right without a filter.

The Neutral Density Filter
The neutral density filter (not the "graduated" neutral density filter) is a filter that reduces the amount of light reaching your camera's sensor. It may seem counter-intuitive to REDUCE the amount of light reaching the sensor, but there is a specific reason why you'd want to do this: to BLUR things!

If you're like most of us, you probably end up with too-many blurred images, so why in the world would you want to blur anything? Well, there are two reasons:
  • Waterfalls (the main reason); and
  • blurring motion - cars, people, bicycles, etc. - while keeping the background sharp.

You've probably seen pictures of waterfalls where the water looks really soft. Well, when shooting a waterfall, you have two choices:

  • You can shoot it with a fast shutter speed, which will "freeze" the water, showing all of the water droplets frozen in time; or
  • You can shoot it with a very slow shutter speed, where the water will travel a distance during the exposure, thus blurring it, while keeping everything else in the image sharp (the camera must be stabilized - tripod, bean bag, etc.).
Neutral Density Filter

Waterfalls look best when shot with a very slow shutter speed - anywhere from 1/4 second to 10 seconds. Of course, your camera needs to be stabilized to do this (e.g., tripod, beanbag, etc.). ND filters come in different "strengths" - reducing the exposure from 2 to 10 f-stops.

Blurred water isn't necessarily natural looking, but it's more like how we actually see the water. Our eyes don't see the individual droplets as the water falls, as it does in an image taken with a fast shutter speed. Plus, blurred water just looks so soft and inviting.

 Neutral Density Filter   Neutral Density Filter
2.5 second exposure                      1/2 second exposure
(both of the above images were taken using a bean bag)
 Neutral Density Filter

The Neutral Density Filters dirty little secrets...

One of the Neutral Density filter's secrets is: They're not neutral! I've tried LOTS of different ND filters, and they all change an image's color. Generally, the more dense, the more then change the color. a 10-stop ND filter can DRASTICALLY change color - so much so, that the image can be totally unusable. I find that a 3 or 4-stop ND filter is workable, but anything denser than that, can be a problem. This isn't restricted to "cheap" filters - the $300 filters do the same thing. They ALL advertise that they are neutral, but they aren't!

Although all digital cameras come with an infrared filter in front of the sensor, some infrared always gets thru. Infrared affects the image as the exposure time increases. So, with long exposures caused by using a ND filter, images can be affected greatly by IR light and tend to have a red tint. Here's an example of an image with very un-natural color when a 10-stop ND filter was used (the exposure was 30 seconds at f7.1, ISO 200):
 Neutral Density Filter

A new variety of ND filter is starting to become popular - they're typically identified with the letters IRND (Infra-Red ND). These filters claim to filter out IR light. They tend to be very expensive, and we haven't tested them yet.

Another secret is that there are at least 4 ways of stating how dense a ND filter is. Here's a chart of the most common ways, depending on the filters manufacturer:

Method 1Method 2
(optical density)
Method 3Method 4# of f-stops
ND 101ND 0.3ND22X1
ND 102ND 0.6ND44X2
ND 103ND 0.9ND88X3
ND 104ND 1.2ND1616X4
ND 105ND 1.5ND3232X5
ND 106ND 1.8ND6464X6
ND 107ND 2.1ND128128X7
ND 108ND 2.4ND256256X8
ND 109ND 2.7ND512512X9
ND 110ND 3.0ND1024
(or ND1000)
(or 1000X)

The Graduated Neutral Density (ND) Filter
The graduated neutral density filter is the most important filter in the landscape photographer's bag. It allows you to photograph a high-contrast scene as your eyes see it, as your camera is incapable of doing this without help.

Landscape scenes where the sky is much brighter than the foreground (think sunsets) are virtually impossible to photograph well without the help of a graduated ND filter.  Graduated ND filters come in 2 styles: round and square. The round type limits you to having the horizon line in the center of the image - something the rule-of-thirds argues against. The square version resolves this problem by allowing you to place the horizon line anywhere in the frame. Just position the filter so the darker portion covers the brighter sky. This will allow more detail to be captured in both the foreground and sky. See our eTip on this filter here: Shooting Sunsets (with a graduated ND filter) eTip

Graduated ND filter

A round and rectangular Graduated ND filter.

Here are examples of shooting without and with a graduated ND filter:

Without a Graduated ND filter

With a Graduated ND filter
Example of an image shot without a filter (above) and
with a gradulated ND filter (below). The filter provides
more foreground and background definition.
Notice the following in the image taken with the gradulated ND filter:
•how the sky is darker blue;
•How the clouds stand out more;
•the intensified colors of the sunset;
•the lighter tone of the beach
•the lighter tone of the foreground

See our eTip on taking sunset pictures here: How to take Great Sunrise or Sunset Pictures

How to buy filters
Here's a tip that will both save and cost you money - hopefully it will save you money, but it will definitely produce better images!

If you own more than one lens, chances are each lens takes a different filter size. Go online to your favorite camera store and buy an inexpensive step-up ring for each lens. These shouldn't cost more than about $3 or $4 each. It should step-up your filter size from whatever your lens takes to 77mm. By doing this, you only need to buy one filter size for ALL of your lenses - 77mm. This will save you money. See our eTip here on Filter strategies.

Now for the part that will COST you money! I'm going to guess that if you own any filters, you bought inexpensive filters (e.g. under $50). If you did, they're probably significantly reducing the quality of your images.  Unfortunately, the only filters that don't significantly reduce image quality are high-quality "Multi-coated" filters. In the 77mm size, these will generally run between $80 and $140 each. But, if you are going to use filters, these are the only ones to buy. (Note: Cheap filters are one of the highest profit items a camera store has. They generally cost a few dollars for the store to purchase and are sold anywhere from $10 to $50!).

Multi-coated filters

Above is a picture of a multi-coated filter on the left and a non-multi-coated filter on the right. As you can see, without the proper anti-reflective coatings on a filter, there is a lot of light reflected. These reflections can reduce the color, contrast and sharpness of your images. So, if you're buying a filter, I strongly suggest you consider a multi-coated filter. There are many manufacturers of high-quality filters. Some of these include B&W, Heliopan, Hoya, Singh-Ray, Tiffen, etc. Here is a sample of some multi-coated filters: Multi-coated filters.

The "Protection" filter
You may disagree with my thoughts on this (it's a very controversial subject), but, save your money on those clear filters that "protect" your lens (1A, UV, etc.). As I indicated above, unless you spent over $80 for it, it's hurting your images. Plus, I don't feel that it protects your lens at all, but that's just my opinion. (see our eTip on this here: Rethinking the "Protection" filter)

Whenever I mention this I always get emails from photographers indicating a situation where the "protection" filter saved their lens, but, in most cases, I don't believe the lens would have been damaged. Putting a piece of glass 2 inches in front of your lens so it's exposed, is just an accident waiting to happen.

I've had some serious accidents with lenses, the worst was about 6 years ago when a 300mm/f4 lens was mounted on a Nikon D3 body - both very heavy. I didn't have any filter on the lens and the camera was mounted on a tripod. The tripod tipped over and hit squarely on the front of the 300mm lens. The area where the filter mounts was severely damaged, but no damage occured to the lens. I had the lens repaired, and still use it today.

I have rarely seen a "protection" filter on a lens that wasn't dirty as well. These tend to get much dirtier than a lens ever will, so they generally degrade your images even more.

But, if you insist on a "protection" filter, then I recommend you use a multi-coated filter - and you keep it clean.

If there is one problem with filters, it is that they get dirty very easily. I'm not sure why, but, they get much dirtier than lenses. I don't use a protection filter on any of my lenses, and my lenses stay pretty clean. But, when I use a filter, I have to clean it every time I use it, even though I'm very careful handling and storing it.

I highly recommend that you clean your filters (and lenses) regularly with ROR (available to US customers here: ROR).

In Summary...

Filters can dramatically improve your image when used properly. But, know when to use them and don't overuse them. There is no filter that should be used for EVERY shot. Although filters can improve images, they can also do the opposite (such as using a polarizer for a sunset).

Use high-quality filters and keep them clean. High quality filters cost more, but, your images will thank you for it (if they could :).

Happy shooting!

Related products to help you take better pictures:

ProDot Shutter Button Upgrade - Black
The ProDot Shutter Button Upgrade We find the ProDot to be one of the best, and least expensive, accessories we own..

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