One of the most common questions we get here at Pro Photo Tips is:
“What kind of filter I should buy for ze making of awesome picture?”
There are a million and two photographic filters on the market. Some can help you take better photos and some are designed simply to separate you from your cold hard cash. So here’s my humble opinion about which filters are actually worth getting.
The UV is probably THE most common filter you’ll run across as a photographer, and the one that serves the least purpose. Now there are lots of great things to do with a UV filter. Use it as a coaster, play frisbee with it, turn it into a monocle….but in all honesty I can’t really recommend putting one on your lens. They are less optically pure than your lens glass is, and they serve as one more surface for dust, scratches, and fingerprints to land on.
But what about ze protection???
True, the best reason to put a UV filter on your lens is to protect it, but it’s kind of like wrapping your car in styrofoam to prevent accidents. Is it really going to help? The way I see it is: if you habitually drop your camera onto its lens, or maybe you’re shooting in a howling sand storm, sure toss a UV filter on there. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.
Next we have an actually useful filter, the Polarizer. In fact, a polarizer is pretty much the only filter whose effects you can’t replicate in Photoshop, so it’s a must have for any photographer.
And what a polarizer does is block scattered light, helping to remove haze from your photos, increase color saturation, and deepen the blue of the sky. Polarizers also cut reflections, giving improved depth and color to the plants, rocks, and water in your images.
The solid neutral density is probably the most fun of all the filters because it lets you manipulate time. This filter simply cuts the amount of light entering your camera, and although this has a multitude of applications in different genres, in nature photography it’s used almost exclusively to increase your shutter speed.
This lets you pull off all kinds of great long exposure effects from getting that silky waterfall look to smoothing out cloud movement. And with a strong enough ND, like this 10-stop, you can even do super long exposures in bright daylight, leading to some really surreal and beautiful effects.
My final filter of choice is the Graduated Neutral Density filter. Like the solid ND, it blocks light from your camera, but only in part of the frame, because it fades from dark to clear. This is perfect for when part of your scene is much brighter than another part, like oh, say, a brilliant sunset.
You’ve probably run into this problem a millions times: shoot a gorgeous sunset and either your foreground becomes black, or your sky gets totally blown out. Enter the grad ND filter to darken the sky with respect to the foreground and all of a sudden you’ve got a perfect exposure with beautiful, painterly light.
Now truth be told these filters are becoming less and less necessary as the dynamic range of cameras improves and because you can achieve the same effect by combining exposures in Photoshop. But I still consider them essential anytime I’m dealing with a high dynamic range scene where something’s moving and I need to nail the photo in one exposure.
And that’s it! As far as I’m concerned you don’t need any other filters because they’re either too gimmicky or you can get the effect another way.
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