It seems that there is always something new coming out to make taking pictures easier or better. Some are amazing leaps forward that can simplify your workflow and others that are just gimmicky waists of money.
After making a few disappointing purchases, a Facebook friend sent me a message asking if there was something I have purchased that stood out and really made a difference in my landscape photography. That is a tough one to answer because everything I use adds something in one way or another to my particular style and how I shoot. But, I can say there was something that immediately improved my images many years ago that I still use today, filters…
And no, I’m not talking about the Instagram or Facebook filters you may be familiar with. There are a lot of different filters that do many different things to change the final look of an image, but the basic way they are all used is the same. Filters are somewhat translucent materials that affect the wavelengths and/or color of light that hits the camera sensor or film. There are color filters that block specific light waves, some are used for special effects causing a foggy look in a scene, and others add another dimension to the image.
For me and my style of landscape photography, there are really just a two that I use on a regular basis. One is a larger category of its own, and I probably use in 75% of my photography, the Neutral Density filter. An “ND” filter reduces or modifies the intensity of all wavelengths and colors of light equally, giving no changes in hue of color. So its similar to potting on sunglasses.
One of my favorite ways to take advantage of this is when shooting landscapes with motion, like water and clouds. Let’s say you are shooting a river scene and would like to soften the white water as it passes over rocks, but your proper exposure calls for a shutter speed of 1/60 second, which wouldn’t give that softness. You can either tighten your aperture, possibly affecting your depth of field and sharpness, Or use a 6 stop ND filter allowing you to have a shutter speed of 1 second and achieving that soft velvety look.
Another type of ND filter is the Graduated ND. These filters transition from clear on one side to the ND tint on the other and are used for balancing an exposure rather than modifying the entire scene. For instance, say you are shooting a sunset and your foreground is somewhat dark because of the fading light, but the sky is bright and filled with highlights due to the angle of the sun on the atmosphere. Normally taking this shot would either cause the sky to be too bright and blown out losing all detail in the clouds, or the foreground would be dark and silhouetted.
By using a 3 stop Graduated ND filter you can adjust the horizon line with the tint line on the filter, allowing you to use a longer shutter speed to capture both the detail in the foreground and properly expose for the sky allowing all the beautiful colors of the sunset to come alive.
The other filter I use most of the time is a circular polarizer. A polarizing filter is often placed in front of the camera lens in order to darken skies, manage reflections, or suppress glare. I have gone through how I use this in an older blog, How Did You Do That?.
Using a filter is pretty simple. There are 2 main types of filters, round screw on filters and square drop-in filters. Which one is best is a decision that I think is up to the photographer and what they prefer. Personally, I use the LeeFilters 100mm drop-in system, for 2 reasons. First, for quality and affordability, I don’t think you can beat the LeeFilters filters. And second, using the drop-in system allows me to have one set of filters that can be used on all my lenses rather than buying a screw-on filter for each of the different millimeter sizes of my lenses.
If you are interested, below is a list of all the filters I use with links.