Pro Guide To Filters
Photography week|September 30, 2021
The key to great images isn’t just in the editing process. Lens filters can help you manage exposure, colour and sharpness for superior images in-camera

It’s easy to forget the role that hardware filters have played in the development of photography as we know it today. Before it was possible to easily blend exposures, either in the darkroom or using software at the computer, it was critical to be able to control the amount of light entering the camera at the moment of image capture.

As soon as we take our camera out of the studio and into the field, the issue of uneven brightness throughout the landscape starts to take effect. The intensity of light coming from the sky is almost always going to be greater than the reflected light from foreground elements, and this means that the top half of the frame is usually going to be exposed more than the bottom half.

This is where the use of some type of filtration becomes important. By applying a material in front of the lens, which differentially permits the passage of light, we can restore the balance of exposure that our eyes are able to detect. This vastly increases the potential variety of image styles we can explore, by imparting control over exposure, independent of camera settings.

Of course, in the age of digital photography we can now shoot multiple separate exposures and blend these quickly and easily, either in-camera or with software. It could therefore be argued that using a physical sheet of glass or perspex in front of the lens is a somewhat rudimentary approach, akin to using an abacus instead of a digital calculator.

However, while there are definite advantages to software filtration, there are many filter effects that simply cannot be recreated in Photoshop, the DXO Nik Collection or any other similar software application.

There are a confusing array of filter options on the market, which can make choosing the right ones for your photography a challenge. So, let’s explore the plethora of types to identify those which are truly essential.


Use filters to manage exposure differences and for creative exposure effects

The use of filtration to hold back exposure has been a common practice amongst professional photographers for many years. On reflection, the idea to create filters such as neutral density grads is far cleverer than it is often given credit for, perhaps because the concept is so straightforward. This simplicity can be a source of misconception, however, and many photographers who are unfamiliar with their usage can make mistakes when selecting filters.

There are so many types and variations of the humble ND filter that identifying which make and model is the best fit for a specific image can feel like a minefield. Just what is the difference between a fixed and variable ND? Why would you select a hard grad over a soft grad? And what on earth is the difference between a 0.9ND and an ND8?

Even when you’ve selected your filter, there can be some uncertainty about how this affects your camera work, and how the camera will react to the addition of a translucent material in front of the lens.

In some cases, no adjustment to the photographer’s workflow is needed, and shooting can continue as normal. But in other situations, with stronger filters, significant adaptation to metering and even composition can be necessary for the best results.

Even if you’re an experienced photographer, it can be easy to overlook the role of hardware filters in exposure control, and therefore lack experience in applying them in a variety of settings. Here, we’ll look at how you can refine your ND filter workflow, and how to understand the way these filters control light transmittance.


Understand the costs and benefits of different ND types

Variable ND filters are incredibly useful when you don’t know which densities you’ll need, and don’t want to carry four or five separate strengths. By rotating the filter you can choose a stepless density range of often around two to eight stops. However, using maximum densities in combination with wide focal lengths can introduce artefacts, commonly a dark cross-shape across the frame. A good practice is to carry a 0.9ND, a 0.3ND and a variable ND, so that if you can manage with a single filter you’re able to, but you also have a variable model at your disposal, for intermediate densities.


Landscape photographer Wayne Bradbury on his favourite filters, and why he uses them

My favourite and most commonly used filters are by far my graduated neutral density filters. While most people deal with extreme dynamic range by blending multiple exposures, I still stubbornly try to capture my images in a single shot most of the time.

To me, this saves a lot of processing time and disc space, considering the 50-megapixel raw files from my Canon 5DS R take up over 50MB each. I also shoot with a 6cm x 17cm panoramic film kit, and multiple exposures can get expensive when using film, not to mention the extra scanning time.

The downside to ND grads is that objects just above the horizon will be darkened, but it’s easy enough to lighten these areas in post. My next-favourite filter is the circular polariser, and I occasionally use NDs to lengthen exposures too.



Make sure you’re correctly selecting and aligning your grad filters


Before sliding your filters into place, work handheld to find the ideal composition for your image. Decide where the optimal level for your horizon line is, as this may affect your choice of filter gradient and density.


Take a meter reading from the brightest areas of the scene and from the midtone regions to identify how far apart these are tonally. This allows you to choose a filter strength to hold back the sky and reveal foreground detail.

3 ARRANGE FILTERS (STRONGEST FIRST) Place your strongest filters closest to the lens, as this will act as your baseline filter. In many cases, one will be all you need, but if you want to add more filters, any additional filtration increases should be subtle and controlled.


Move the grads in the holder until the transition just touches the horizon (hard grad) or overlaps it by around a centimetre (soft grad). If using multiple filters, avoid the transition of each filter aligning too much, to prevent an overly sudden gradient change.


Rotate the filter holder to align the gradient with the terrain of the scene you’re shooting. If you have a sloping clifftop for example, angling the grad will prevent obvious darkening of areas of the land. You can also use this technique to compensate for uneven polarisation.


Use filters to adjust or enhance the chromatic balance of a scene

One of the first things we learn as digital photographers is that shooting with the camera in raw mode is the first step to professional colour control. Unlike a JPEG file, a raw file is uncompressed, and so contains much more digital information.

This provides scope for better colour adjustment in photo-editing software, enabling you to change the white balance after the shoot is over. While many photographers choose to leave colour control to the post-processing stage, just like exposure, not all effects can be simulated at the computer.

The most well-known filter, which falls squarely into this category, is the polarising filter. It’s seen by many landscape photographers as an essential addition to any professional’s kitbag, because the optical effect it applies is unobtainable using any other method. Since the characteristic saturation of blue skies and removal of reflections that the polariser provides is achieved using physical modification of the ambient light, no post-processing tool can reproduce the result.

Hardware filters can have other, lesser-explored functions too. The polariser works by using a microscopic mesh to prevent the passage of light waves vibrating in a selected direction. Rotating the filter in one direction cuts out polarised light from reflective surfaces, while turning it the other way can actually seem to enhance the visibility of reflections. This is an illusion – no filter can increase light transmittance – but this effect is useful when shooting reflections in bodies of water or glass-covered buildings.

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