Friday, December 7, 2012

An Idiot's Guide to Camera Filters

Misty morning in the Camargue
No, this isn't a guide FOR idiots; it's a guide BY an idiot. A couple of people have been asking me for advice on filters, so here it is. And that's all it is. MY advice based on personal experience this year. If my experience can help someone else, especially BEFORE you decide to spend all that money on buying a filter set, I'm happy to share.

You just want to know what to put on your list for Santa?

1. A Lee filter mount for your camera. Why Lee? Because there's a reason it's so expensive - it's well-made. This matters to me because I'm the sort of photographer who once reversed the car over my full camera bag. I only smashed a couple of cheap screw-on filters - the Nikon camera and lenses took the hit and lived to shoot another day (another two years actually, so far). Now you know why I'm sticking with Nikon. Oh, and my husband does not know about this particular test of my gear - please don't tell him.

2.  A 0.9  (-3 stops) soft graduated N.D. filter.

3. A Circular Polariser.

You've been very very good this year?

4. A Big Stopper     -10 stops Neutral Density filter

Be warned! Santa could have to go on a waiting list for your Lees as they're more popular than a Doc McStuffins 'time for your check-up' doll.

And get this great guide to shooting landscapes here 

Want to know more about the choices you make? Read on!

If you have any questions or comments after reading this, please post and I'll reply.

You want to improve your landscape photos? 

This was my aim, when I went on a joint shoot with nine other photographers in June. One of them was a very talented young photographer, Chris Hepburn,  who specialises in landscapes. Take a look at his portfolio! I was very keen to learn from him, which meant getting up at 3am to get to our chosen location before dawn. A few of us all took shots of the same place, at the same time, and then looked at the shots Chris had taken. Even allowing for his technical and artistic expertise in his specialism, there was no doubt that using filters gave Chris a range of possibilities that I didn't have without them.

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, Camargue

You're wondering whether filters are worth the money?

FILTERS can be physical accessories or various Photoshop layers that modify an image. Some photographers have told me that Photoshop filters do everything they want, so they don't need physical filters. If that's your view, stop reading. You've got what you want.

If you don't want to spend the time attaching stuff and setting up your tripod, get some screw-on filters and stop reading now.

Filters, especially Lees, COST A LOT, so I had no intention of buying anything that merely replicated what I could do in Photoshop. So I ruled out all the prettifiers; coloured filters, fancy patterns, stars etc

I read books and sought advice from the pros. One problem is that if you look for a book on filters, you usually get 90% of it about Photoshop filters. I found this one helpful. The very fact that it's not recent means that it's dealing with the basics - filtering light - and gives examples shot with physical filters. link
This is what I decided filters could do for me that Photoshop couldn't:-


1. balance exposure for an extremely wide dynamic range (very bright and very dark both present), in one shot; for instance, the sky is usually bright and the land is dark, so to expose correctly for both, you need several shots at different exposures (bracketing), a right pain if clouds are moving. With a gradient filter, you can darken just the sky area. With more than one filter you can adjust more areas. It will always be fairly clumsy but it give you better raw material in to work with, in one image.

2. allow a slower shutter speed, by darkening the scene, so you can turn water milky, make speeding cars into blurs and create light trails.

3. remove glare/reflection and polarise light, resulting in more dramatic colours.

You can see where my filter choice comes from now, can't you?

1. The graduated ND filter. If you mainly shoot landscapes with a hard horizon (like sea/sky shots), choose the hard filter. If you love wide angle, the received opinion is that soft is better with a wide angle lens. If you shoot scenes with murky divide lines between light and dark, choose soft.  0.6 or 0.9? Personal preference but I have a 0.6 hard grad ND and a 0.9 soft grad ND and it's the latter that's on my lens all the time for a landscape shoot.

Here are two shots, one taken in  Life Before Lee; the other in LAL, with the 0.9 soft grad N.D. and with Photoshop processing too - it's allowed! But if the raw material isn't there (e.g. sky) you have nothing to work on. Incidentally, taken in much the same weather conditions. Obviously I went for a wider shot the second time but from the same very dangerous place on a narrow bridge with my tripod and my knees shaking every time a lorry wooshed past me.

Camares in the Causses region of France, without filter

Camares in the Causses region of France, with filter

2. The Big Stopper lets you get that shutter speed right down for the milky water shots so popular now. I want one! But I might have to get a screw-on for one of my lenses because my precious wide-angle, the Nikon 14mm-24mm, has reduced my options on the mount, unless I buy two sets... and Santa says I have not been THAT good. More later about the practical side of mounts and Nikon.

3. The circular polariser does what it says. It should be on the outside of your stack of filters if you're using more than one. Photoshop plug-in Color Efex offers a good polarising filter and I believe Lightroom does too, but you'll get more mileage from Photoshop polarisers if you start with better raw material.


I love my Nikon 14mm-24mm. Many say it is the best lens ever made. I love it. I love the drama of shooting wide. But everyone knows this is an ugly baby with a big, bulbous impossible-to-fit-filter-to-it end. Lee did it. They made a bulky, awkward contraption with extra large square glass filters just to fit my beautiful baby. So I bought it. No-one puts Baby in a corner when there's a landscape to shoot. Maybe I'm crazy but love cannot be denied so I based my Lee decisions round my impossible, lovable wide-angle.

I also bought the adaptor, and two adaptor rings, so that I can use the same over-large filters with the two other lenses I use for landscape; my 14-24mm f2.8, 50mm f1.8, 70-200mm f2.8, all Nikon

I got the 0.6 hard grad N.D as part of the kit. I bought a 0.9 soft grad N.D. and this is THE one for me. I also bought a 0.9 N.D. (i.e. all over darkening) but if I could have a Big Stopper I wouldn't bother with this. I have a screw-on Circular Polariser and (OK we're all suckers :) a fun star filter that cost me next to nothing  - it's just FUN)

I think I might ask Santa for a B&W  -10 screw-on filter seeing as Lee CAN'T make a Big Stopper for the huge wide angle mount, nor a polariser.

So I've sacrificed a fair bit to use filters on my wide angle. If I was rich, I'd probably just buy the two mounts, but I'm not. Like most of us, I can figure out ways of blu-tacking filters on top of filters. Unlike most of you, who have some manual dexterity, I no sooner had the Lee system screwed together and fixed on my lens than I turned the filter too much, the wrong way and the whole set-up came apart, fell on a rock and scratched the 0.6 hard grad N.D. I suppose it could have landed in the waterfall instead.

Anything that screws on, screws off! Watch which way you turn your filters!

This is what my wide angle does for me. Did I mention that I love it?

Dawn on Camargue marsh - catching the wind

However, if I'm going to take landscape shooting seriously, filters are the last consideration after putting the basics into place.

BASICS of landscape shooting before 'adding on' filters

Get your field guide here if you didn't pick it up earlier, and make cheat sheets from the excellent tips for each landscape type so you can take it with you and use it! There's advice on shooting the coast; woodland scenes; mountain tops; and rural areas.

My advice
1. Choose your place. Get to know your place as much as you can. If it's local, you can check it out at different times/seasons. If it's not, and it's a famous place, you can look at other people's images before you shoot - not to copy but to have pictures in your mind, ideas on 'what works', or on what's been done a zillion times, so you can have a take of your own. If you prefer to be without prejudice, fine. I sometimes do one, sometimes the other, and I'm just a beginner.

2. Find the spirit of the place. Of course it's subjective, but I personally don't relate to vivid, sunny, extreme HDR processed images of Venice. A friend who's been to Venice many times showed me his latest shots, so excited that 'November is the time for Venice!' Blues, mists, moody, ethereal - yes, that's Venice for me too. 

3. Shoot at dawn or dusk, during the 'blue hour'. If you choose a different time, CHOOSE it because of what the light does then. If you shoot at that time just because that's when you're there, don't expect pro quality shots.

4. Match lens and composition. A wide-angle needs foreground interest; a long lens compresses those layers of mountains and tree-lines. A stitched panorama captures the scope of a fifty-mile canyon. What do you want to shoot?

5. Use a tripod. Use a slow shutter speed.

6. NOW decide what a filter can to improve the shot!

the highest perched syncline in Europe - Valley of Saou, France


  1. Thanks for that, Jean. Great article and just at the right time for me as I'm facing the same dilemma. I thought I was all set to go with B+W cir pol and B+W 10-stop ND, then get a LEE holder and a couple of grad ND filters to go with that. I think a screw on cir pol would be more practical in any kind of regular use, but I've just seen a Youtube vid that says you can't access the screw in polariser to rotate it with the Lee mount attached. I suppose you could set up first and then add the Lee mount. Have you used your screw in cir pol with the Lee mount? Is it practical? Or better if going Lee to go Lee all the way perhaps?

  2. Very good question! Yes, there are some tough choices. You can't screw-on a polariser then screw on the Lee filter-holder. You could attach the Lee holder to the screw-on filter by taping it onto the polarizer but it would be a real Heath Robinson and the polariser would be in the wrong place - should be on the outside. Knowing my luck, it would all fall off and smash.

    If you're serious about getting top quality landscapes, I'd go for the Lee polariser. I think the best landscape shots are those you plan and stake out. However, if you care more about catching the moment with a screw-on, get the B & W (actually I have a Hoya pro), do without the polariser when you're using your Lees and use a Photoshop polariser filter on those shots.

    Even if you have the money to buy absolutely every option - you can't carry the whole lot, so you still have to make choices! I sometimes keep the screw-on polariser on the 70-200mm and the filter system on one of the other lenses so I can quickly switch between when the light is just right. Hope that makes sense!

  3. Thanks Jean. My Canon 5D3 has built in HDR. Do you know whether bracketing can compensate for overly bright areas in a shot such as skies and even things out in much the same way that a grad ND does? I'm just wondering whether I need the grad ND option at the moment at least, which would make my buying decision more straightforward. I just don't want to buy a bunch of expensive filters and find later on that I wished I'd gone another route. If HDR can deal with exposure imbalances, I'm thinking I could just pop a polariser or ND filter on to get longer exposures and the bracketing would even out the exposure. Or does a grad ND just give you something else that the setup I'm talking about can't?

  4. Try it and see before you spend any money! The problem with 'inbuilt' anything is that it's making the choices for you. Inbuilt bracketing/HDR will come up with a certain 'look' and you'll either like it or you won't. It might be different from one shot to the next. Sure, your camera will come up with something good - it's a great camera, by all I've read - but do you want it choosing for you? It might be that the answer is yes, in which case you're right - don't waste the money. I always spend a long time choosing gear, and thena long time learning how to use it! But my aim is to have more and more control over how my images look.

  5. A photographer friend has difficulty posting directly, Steve, but thought this might answer your question

  6. Thanks Jean and friend. :o) That's the other option I'm considering. Just get a Lee system with polariser, grad ND and Big Stopper, or as you have, Jean. Screw in polariser and ND and Lee for the grad. I like the idea of the compactness of B+W screw in filters and just need to decide if I'm ever going to need to use grad ND - which is the thing that's complicating my decision. As you said, I think I need to get out there and try a few things.