While the value of certain camera accessories can be debated depending on your shooting style, the value of a camera filter is indispensable. And we’re not talking about those Instagram presets or other software filters that you throw onto your photos after the fact.
We’re talking about real camera filters, the physical ones, that dedicated photographers and videographers use to capture high quality content with a stamp of individualism. When using a camera filter for its intended purpose, you’ll notice vast improvements on an exposure when compared to the same exposure taken without a filter, so let’s take a look at some of the more common camera filters found today and what you can use them for.
Common Camera Filters
Arguably, the most common type of camera lens filter is the UV, or ultraviolet filter, followed by circular and linear polarizing filters, neutral density and gradient neutral density filters, and a plethora of special use filters that fix or alter color casts or add effects like stars around lights, create double exposures, soften focus or add fog or film-like effects.
Square or Circular, and What Size?
Filters come in different shapes and sizes, from square, rectangular, to circular. Square and rectangular filters require matte boxes or similar type system to mount the filter in front of a camera lens. Circular filters are often used when out in the field, and the most common size for full frame digital cameras is 77mm.
A lot of photographers will buy a 77mm camera filter and a set of step up or step down rings that allow them to use the same filter on different sized cameras. Not all camera filters are created equal, so make sure to pick a filter that is made of quality materials (and that has a good warranty).
The effects of specialty use filters, which span back to the days of film, can now be mimicked (or done better) by editing software. But the ways in which UV, polarizing and neutral density filters help to reduce haze and highlights, add saturation and polarization, and reduce shutter speed to smoothen video or long exposure photos are much harder to emulate using editing software, and so in the digital world, UV, polarizing, and neutral density filters are still common among many types of photographers and videographers alike. For these reasons, these main types of camera filters are still indispensable tools for photographers and videographers who want to take their content to the next level.
Since most digital cameras have built in UV and haze filters, photographers and videographers primarily use a UV filter for a layer of protection between the environment and an expensive lens. Using a UV filter in this way is a smart idea, especially if you’ve invested in a nice lens or two.
There’s two main types of polarizing filters, linear and circular. Despite their names, both types are usually circularly shaped, threading onto the front of the camera lens like a UV filter.
Linear polarizers are traditional in the sense that they are designed to be used with manual focus cameras, when autofocus wasn’t yet a thing. Since most digital cameras have auto as well as manual focus systems, the more commonly used polarizer today is the circular type.
Circular polarizing filters (CP) feature an outer bezel independent from the threaded filter frame that allows the polarizing effect of the filter to be circularly adjusted to the minimum or maximum point of polarization. At the max polarization angle, a polarizing filter reduces most direct reflections from water and other wet or reflective surfaces like foliage, snow, rocks or desert sand. The result is a clearer image with enhanced color saturation and definition. Use a polarizer on a cloudy day and you’ll notice that it has the effect of making the clouds pop, adding contrast and depth to a flat sky.
ND filters help reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor by a certain number of stops depending on the strength of the filter. Common ND filters include ND4, ND8, ND16 and ND32 strengths for filming in bright light to create smoother video.
For long exposure photography, there are darker, high intensity ND filters like the ND1000 that will reduce shutter speed by 10 stops or more. Large-stop ND filters can be used to take stunning time lapses of sunsets and sunrises, or create silky smooth motion blur in super bright scenes. Such filters are not usually used for video, as they are too dark to properly expose a video scene.
These filters combine a polarized lens with a neutral density coating to achieve smooth video or photos at slower shutter speeds. Aerial cinematographers shooting at the beach or in other bright and reflective scenes often use these hybrid ND/PL filters instead of regular polarizing or neutral density filters, achieving both the ND (slower shutter speed) and polarizing (less glare) effect in one filter.
For more on ND/PL filters, check out our short read dedicated to them.
Gradient Neutral Density
Gradient, or graduated ND’s, have a hard or soft transition from the top of the filter to the bottom to help balance the brighter sky with the darker foreground in landscapes. In most landscape scenes, the sky is about 2 to 3 stops brighter than the ground, so if you expose for the sky, the ground is underexposed. Gradient filters will help balance the exposure above and below the horizon, allowing more information to be pulled out of the scene to provide a better overall composition.
Hard transition gradient filters have a distinct transition line in the middle of the lens, for balancing the exposure between the sky and the ground. These are useful when you’re shooting a scene with a clear horizon, meaning there aren’t any mountains, trees or buildings obstructing the horizon line.
Soft transition gradient ND filters, on the other hand, can be used in a variety of scenes where the horizon line isn’t distinct or is cluttered, and for this reason are more commonly used than hard edge gradient ND filters.
Reverse transition (R-GND)
There’s also a special case reverse gradient ND filter, that comes in both soft and hard transitions. Reverse gradient filters are clear at the bottom and dark in the middle, with a gradual transition back to clear again at the top. These are useful for sunsets and sunrises, where a standard graduated ND will darken the sky too much at the top of the frame, resulting in an uneven exposure. Because of their different use cases, many landscape photographers and videographers keep a hard transition gradient ND, soft transition gradient ND, and at least one soft reverse transition GND in their kit.
For those who want to step up their photo or video taking skills, camera filters are indispensable tools for that process. Filters can turn a bad image into a useable one, or better yet, a good image into a great one, filtering light in ways that post processing filters cannot achieve. Using the right camera filter for the right conditions does take some practice, and we hope this brief overview will help guide you in right direction. When you do get the hang of using different filters, the effects they’ll have on your photos and videos will be well worth it. The more comfortable you become using camera filters, the more you’ll capture correctly exposed content in-camera that needs little to no editing, so that you can get back out in the field and onto the next shoot.