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Filters and Photography

Filters can add special effects or abilities to your camera lens. Understanding how filters work will give you an extra arsenal of equipment to create that magical shot you’ve been looking for.

Most lenses have the ability to add filters, primarily by screwing them on in front of the lens while some lenses require the filters to be attached at the rear end of the lens. Filters are used for several different reasons: increasing contrast, changing the exposure, capturing invisible light or minimizing reflections are just a few to name.

The use of filters has gone downhill in this age of digital photography. These days it’s simply easier to make these changes in post-production instead of using a filter during the photo shoot.

While that might be true, there are still some things we can’t change in post-production, and filters can become a necessity.

UV Filters

UV Filters

UV stands for Ultraviolet, which is light that is invisible to the human eye. UV filters were used to cut down on haziness, such as in mountains and around coastal areas, but the digital sensor isn’t as sensitive to this as 35mm film was. However the UV filters are still around, mainly because these filters are used for lens protection.

Having a UV filter attached to the lens at all times makes the lens more protected from scratches, dust, weather and accidentally dropping the lens. There are debates among photographers about the use of UV filters; some argue that they visually affect the outcome of the photograph while others argue that they don’t affect it and that the filter is a great insurance.

I personally always have a UV filter screwed onto every single one of my lenses, and I’ve had one of my lenses saved thanks to the attached filter. However, if you are going to use a UV filter, don’t buy the cheapest one you can find. If you have a good lens, buy something like a high-end B+W filter.

ND Filters

ND Filters

ND filters, or Neutral Density filters, are a great way to take control over exposure time. These filters are used to reduce the amount of light that reaches the sensor, which makes it possible for the photographer to use a larger aperture for a longer period of time then what would be normal under given circumstances.

An example of this would be the ability to photograph a waterfall with a slow shutter speed during a bright day. Without a ND filter most lenses would not be able to use an aperture small enough for long exposures but with an ND filter attached the photographer can mix and match just how he wants it.

Graduated ND Filters

These filters have the same principle as the regular ND filters but with one important distinction, they do not have the ND effect on the whole glass. The ND effect is gradual and is perfect if you want to have the sky darkened but not the foreground for example. These filters have their limits, such as the gradual transition is a straight line, which might not always be the case with nature… oh, and they are also rather expensive. Most of these filters are rectangular and uses a special holder to place them in.

Polarizing Filters

Polarizing Filters

These polarizing filters have many uses, and are one of my favorite filters to use. Most of them are circular, often called Pol-Cir or CPL filters, and you change the level of polarization by rotating the outer layer of the filter. The polarizer filter affects the photographs in such a way that cannot be reproduced in post-production, which makes it a very useful tool even today.

What it does is reduces reflections on non-metallic surfaces, such as water and glass. Removing reflections can be very useful in both urban and wild life situations and have the ability to totally alter the outcome of the photograph.

How a Polarizer Filter Works

Another effect the polarizing filter has is that it increases contrast and color saturation while at the same time reducing haze. This effect can clearly be seen in skies, in which the sky can be darkened and more colorful but keeping the clouds white.

A quick word of advice though is that a polarizing filter will, depending on brand and quality, not let 100% light through — which will affect the exposure. With most brands you will loose one full-stop.

Macro Filters

Macro Filters

Macro filters, close-up filters or diopters, are not ordinary filters — they are more like an extra lens you place in front of another lens. This makes close-ups possible even with normal or telephoto lenses, although the result is often not true 1:1 macro. Several filters can be stacked on top of each other to intensify the effect.

I personally would recommend people look into getting an extension tube instead. Extension tubes change the closest possible focus length, without affecting the image quality as badly as macro filters do. The best option is obviously a true macro lens, but an extension tube is much cheaper and might be a good first step into the world of macro photography, and the extension tube can be used together with a macro lens to enhance the magnification.

Macro filters have many drawbacks such as softening up the image considerably, and these filters often produce lacking quality. Use with caution.

Color Filters

Color filters are rarely used anymore; they were primarily used for black & white photography to manipulate the contrast. An example is using a yellow, orange or red filter, which will increase the contrast between skies and clouds, making the clouds really stand out. These days the effects can quite easily be reproduced digitally with the help of levels and channels.

IR Filters

IR Filters

IR stands for Infrared, and these wavelengths are on the opposite side of the light spectrum from UV. To photograph in IR you need a filter that only lets through IR light, however there are some problems with modern cameras. The sensor is constructed to not record IR light, and unless you want to permanently modify your camera (or purchase specially designed cameras such as Canon’s 20Da) there are some restrictions. This technique is so unique and odd that I will dedicate an entire article about IR photography later on instead of writing how it all works in this one.

Got a stuck filter?

Filters can get stuck fairly easy sometimes, and a stuck filter can render a lens completely useless in some situations. Circular polarizing filters tend to get stuck more often due to the fact that half the filter rotates on its own which can make it difficult to take it off. I’ve found that the best solution to remove stuck filters is to use a filter wrench, which applies the pressure evenly around the filter and thus can make even the most stuck filter come off in a few seconds.
Filter wrenches come in two sizes, one for filter sizes up to 58mm and another for larger sizes. If you use filters this is definitely a piece of equipment that should be in your camera bag, they take no space and can really save your day!

47 Comments

  1. Add point Subtract point
    Top Rated Cameras (-4 Points) December 17, 2010 at 4:11 am

    Wow this is such a very helpful post! I recently bought a Nikon D5000 and the kit lens that comes along with doesn’t have a uv filter included. I am thinking of buying one and I am not sure what to get. Do I have to get a circular & linear polarizers too? how about warming and cooling filters? Not sure what to get first…

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    الفيسبوك (1 Point) September 22, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    i used to use all this thank you

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    Nikki Vandiver (1 Point) September 16, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Thank you for the visual examples that you provided! I also felt your explanation were thorough and nicely put in lamens terms making it easy to comprehend!

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    Thanks for the info on the filters, it simplified things and gave me a few possible options that I wasn’t aware of.

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    Anthony (2 Points) August 7, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Very easy-to-understand guide. Thanks.

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  6. Add point Subtract point

    brilliant; simple and concise. thanks a lot

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  7. Add point Subtract point

    Great explanation on how all the different filters work. Very simple and easy to understand, thanks for sharing!

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  8. Add point Subtract point
    Isaac H (1 Point) March 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Very useful information. Thanks!

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    เพลงสากลใหม่ (3 Points) February 3, 2010 at 4:05 am

    great tutorial . Thanks527

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  10. Add point Subtract point
    โหลดเพลงฟรี (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    great tutorial . Thanks520

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    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 12:09 am

    great tutorial . Thanks515

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    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุดเดือนนี้ (1 Point) January 30, 2010 at 7:58 am

    great tutorial . Thanks

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    I still love using filters in my digital SLR. I know it can almost all be done with photoshop. But I do photography for fun and it is fun to get that great shot or pull off a filter combination under just the right conditions to create a work of art. It is okay to use photoshop as well. I just enjoy playing with filters and my camera to accomplish that.

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  14. Add point Subtract point

    I still love using filters in my digital SLR. I know it can almost all be done with photoshop. But I do photography for fun and it is fun to get that great shot or pull off a filter combination under just the right conditions to create a work of art. It is okay to use photoshop as well. I just enjoy playing with filters and my camera to accomplish that.

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  15. Add point Subtract point

    I’m new in digital photography. If I want to shoot the subject in black and white, is there a filter for that? something that would disregard the color and give a black and white result? or I will just have to edit the photo to give a monochrome effect?

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      Your camera should have a black and white setting to take the photos. set your camera on Black and White and shoot the photos, you can also add a yellow, orange, red or green filter to provide some interesting effects and more contrast to your photos. As stated above, a RED filter will really make clouds stand out in a blue sky on black and white settings.

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    Excellent article. I’ve bought several photographic books on photography but fail to get a good comprehension. This was straight to the point and put in laymans terms. Thanks

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  17. Add point Subtract point

    The article was great exactly really helped me as a new photographer exactly how manipulate lenses to take photos and an idea about what lenses i need to buy in order to trial all my ideas out. Thank you

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  18. Add point Subtract point

    i need GND and ND filter for my super wide lenses
    anyone knows where i can buy at indonesia??

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  19. Add point Subtract point
    fotofriend (2 Points) July 29, 2009 at 6:10 am

    The polarizing filter does a lot of job but it is also expensive. However sometimes PS can’t help you out as good as such a filter.

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    Daneira (0 Points) July 5, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Very informative article. I’m still new in photography and wishes that I could create good outdoor wedding photography. Any suggestions which filter might work well?

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  21. Add point Subtract point
    Bhupal (1 Point) June 24, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Great Article regarding filters, Thanks

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  22. Add point Subtract point
    michael noel (1 Point) April 15, 2009 at 8:58 am

    am a complete amatuer in photography but i think i have a good eye for nice shots.its an art i wish to express professionally and maybe with this page i will become a pro.
    what should i know?what should i buy?and what should i do ?mykeolah@yahoo.com

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  23. Add point Subtract point
    nimrah123 (1 Point) December 7, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    i always wondered about the use of filters…now i know…thankyou

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    jonathan (1 Point) August 28, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Question for Fredick; Any advantages to using traditional filters for B&W vs the in camera modes? With my Canon DSLR I have options for gradations in Yellow/Green/Red/Orange.

    As for the cheap filters…Unfortunately I bought a cheap Polarizer & It is very infererior.. I Loose about 2 stops of light & my phtographs have a strange grain like look to it. . My Sunpack filter could not cut it… I can’t detect differences with my cheap UV filters..I’m not saying there is no difference. I consider myself an advanced amateur & i may have missed a few details in my observations.

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  25. Add point Subtract point
    Peter Kovak (1 Point) August 16, 2008 at 5:43 am

    Only one thing: be aware of cheap filters! Avoid them as much as you can! I use both ND and CP as well as UV and IR (hoya R72) and I know (now) how important is to have good filters: B&W, Singhray, Hoya, even Tiffen or Marumi, but no Opteka, no Cozo and no other unknown names!

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    Tyler Pugh (1 Point) June 30, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    This is all very helpful. I had a lot of B&W experience from 30 years ago, and I am just learning SLR digital now. This was a great help on the use of filters.

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    Jana (1 Point) June 8, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Thank you! At leats now I understand the use of real filters rather then post-processing ones :)
    And I agree to the point to have at least one filter on at all times (like the UV one), cause one filter lke that on saved the lense of the camera of my friend when it fell ;)

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  28. Add point Subtract point

    @Iceberg, oh sorry, I thought I had talked about vignetting in the article. I’ve explained it in another article that isn’t up yet, got it mixed up. Anyway, it’s when the amount of light isn’t equally distributed on the sensor, leaving the edges darkened (this is often easily fixed by stopping down the lens — smaller aperture). Check Flickr for images tagged vignetting and you should get a clear idea of the effect.

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    Iceberg (1 Point) May 24, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Hey Fredrik, what is “vignetting?”

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    liam (1 Point) May 21, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Wow, I’m really convinced by your tutorials to get a camera. Just got to save up for a bit and I might just get one. Seriously cool work, well done.

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      What is your budget? Sony’s are kind of cheap and a good way to enter into photography if you are new…. I am using a sony a700.. a pro photographer friend of mine, uses a nikon, tried my 700 recently and was fairly impressed… come on my friend,, once you start taking photos, you cant stop

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    Thanks for the comments!

    @BowlOfPixels — without a doubt. They give you so much more control and it’s a great tool and a technique that can’t be fixed in Photoshop. Right now I only have one ND filter (3 stops) due to the fact that I’m hoping to move to a 77mm filter size soon (for my wide-angle, which is where the NDs are most frequently used).
    It’s also great to mix both ND and PL-CIR if needed. Stacking filters can lead to vignetting though.

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    BowlOfPixels (1 Point) May 21, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Great article, will help alot of those that are new to photographers. I’d just like to add that i suggest you buy more than one nd filter, experiment with different concentrations etc. Usually one is not enough! Not for me anyway xD

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  33. Add point Subtract point
    Blue Buffalo (1 Point) May 21, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Good detail on this filter article! This helped me understand photography filters much better.

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  34. Add point Subtract point
    Phil Jones CEO SWPP & BPPA (1 Point) May 21, 2008 at 3:35 am

    Handly article on filters

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    Cpt. Crayon (1 Point) May 20, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Hey, great article. This is one area of photography I yet to dig into very deeply.

    I second the tip to have a filter on every lens. I recently had an accident with one of my lenses and narrowly avoided having to replace a $400 lens simply because I used a $25 filter.

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