The only Photography Filters you need to carry

Before Photoshop and digital photography, filters were imperative to achieving a balanced exposure and other creative effects. Photography filters were creatively and technically used for decades to achieve results that could not be duplicated by any other means. For example, ND filters for long exposures or to tame bright light, polarizers to reduce glare and reflections, skylight filters, UV filters, colored filters… you name it.

But so many of these photography filters have been tossed aside for post-processing tools. Rightfully so, in most cases. In my opinion, there are only a few photography filters vital to modern day landscape photography. These are the ones I never leave home without!

In this article, I illustrate specific situations where I would choose these filters, situations when I wouldn’t, and images where I would and wouldn’t at the same time! Confused yet? Hang in there! But let me first break down the types of filters that exist.

Types of Photography Filters

I personally leave a 62mm thread-on CPL (circular polarizer/linear) lens on my longest lens. I use a 100mm drop-in system for all of my lenses, except for my Ultra Wide (Nikkor 14-24). For this lens, I must use a 150mm drop-in system due to its extreme field of view. Some lenses, like the Canon 11-24 and other extreme wide-angle lenses require an even larger 180mm drop-in system.

  • Thread-on lens – These lenses work well when used singularly on a non-wide angle lens. They have been around for forever but have a few shortcomings. For example, a situation when you’d like to use a CPL and a thread-on graduated filter. You will likely want to rate your polarizer, but then the grad wouldn’t be horizontal; or, when stacking them, you induce vignetting.
  • Drop-in – These filters are the most common and versatile. With modern systems, you can use a CPL and grad filter at the same time without issue. The drop-ins are very versatile. You can use an over-sized set for all of your lenses, rather than needing specific thread sizes for each lens.

The Photography Filters I Don’t Leave Home Without

I typically carry a 100mm set for my non-wide lenses and a 150mm set for wide lenses. This is particularly important when speaking in terms of polarization, the coverage of wide angle lenses, and their convex nature. Polarization can be spotty on wide angle, bulbous lenses and using a 150mm polarizer on lenses longer than 24mm could cause poor polarization over the field of view. Therefore, I prefer not to use the oversized polarizer on non-wide lenses, although it works in a pinch if you are trying to save weight or money.

The following filters are the ones I never leave home without (ranked in order of importance). My list can be broken down into only four filters and most of the time, it’s only the first three. With modern post-processing technology, I strongly feel that there are no other “vital” filters.

Here is my list:

  • Circular Polarizer, Photography Filter

    Circular Polarizer, Photography Filter

  • Three-stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density Photography Filter or "soft grad"

    Three-stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density Photography Filter or “soft grad”

  • Six-Stop & Three-stop Neutral Density Photography Filters

    Six-Stop & Three-stop Neutral Density Photography Filters

Circular Polarizer

The Circular polarizer can be used in so many ways and should be an integral part of everyone’s kit.

A CPL allows light to only enter in one direction. Typically, light waves can be rather messy which results in glare. Glare if reflected and refracted light which shines in every direction. A polarizer neatens these light waves, knocking down the amount of reflected and refracted light.

The following are some examples of when I would use a CPL:

  • Capturing Waterfalls – To reduce glare on rocks, foliage, and water. This results in richer colors and enhanced contrast.
  • Cityscapes – To reduce reflections
  • Photographing through windows or water – To reduce reflections
  • This image entitled <em>Mordor</em>, is a panorama where I used a circular polarizer to reduce glare, and enhance the vibrant fall colors.

    This image entitled Mordor, is a panorama where I used a circular polarizer to reduce glare, and enhance the vibrant fall colors.

  • Example of a panoramic scene captured with a circular polarizer and a 3-stop soft GND photography filter.

    This image entitled Atlantis is another example of a panoramic scene captured with a CPL, as well as a 3 stop Soft Grad.

  • A prime example of the use of a CPL photography filters

    This image entitled Lothlórien after the enchanted forest of Tolkiens Lord of the Rings Saga, is a prime example of the use of a CPL.

Soft Graduated ND Filters 

Soft Graduated ND Filters are used to balance exposures, tame bright light, and reduce the dynamic range. They are typically taller than they are wide and have a gradient from the established density (darkness) to clear. The idea is to situate the gradation over the transition of light to dark in your frame.

The following are some examples of when I would use a Soft Grad:

  • Capturing a sunrise or sunset from high atop a canyon when I am shooting towards or perpendicular to the sun.
  • Example of landscape photo that required a 3-stop soft grad photography filter.

    This image entitled By a Thread required a 3-stop soft grad, as the dynamic clouds were constantly changing as was the light. Underexposing slightly allowed me to capture the huge dynamic range in one shot!

  • A fantastic example of when to use a Soft Grad Photography Filter.

    This image entitled Inferno was one of themes notable sunsets of 2018 and a fantastic example of when to use a Soft Grad. A 3-stop was barely enough to contain the data in this scene! Adding a second grad would’ve crated a noticeable transition throughout the scene that would’ve been very challenging to correct.

Neutral Density Filters 

Neutral density (ND) filters are used to “trick” your camera into thinking the scene is darker than reality, allowing you to lengthen exposures for creative purposes.

ND filters are useful when the scene is too bright to allow you (at your lowest native ISO) to achieve the long shutter effect you want. Because of this, NDs come in many densities, although only a few are necessary. The density is based on your shutter speed preferences and the effect you’re striving for.

The following are some examples of when I would use an ND filter:

  • Capturing a waterfall during day time. A three-stop ND photography filter and CPL gives me about a 1/4 second shutter speed… which is perfect.
  • To capture extremely long exposures for fine art black and white images.
  • An example of when I used ONLY an ND photographic filter.

    A rare example of when I used ONLY an ND filter. A polarizer would have eliminated the rainbow from my camera view, filtering out the refracted light from the rainbow.

  • An example of 6-stop photographic filter to capture clouds motion.

    On this moody morning, I watched the clouds form and fall over the mountains. I used a 6-stop here to allow me a 90-second exposure.

  • Landscape photo created using ONLY an ND photographic filter.

    This image was created using ONLY an ND filter, not because it was a good example of, but because seconds before I had lost my 150mm polarizer to the rushing rapids between my feet. A 3-stop ND filter still allowed me to capture the soft movement of the waterfall without the “need” of a CPL, although I would’ve preferred a CPL so that the reflection was not as intense.

Don’t forget that this assessment is based purely on my own opinion and experience. There are other notable photographers that may share different ideas or might be extremely comfortable in combining exposures where a grad filter could have been useful. These are the tools that I use frequently to create my work; I carry them everywhere I go.

I hope that this breakdown helps you identify what filters are useful and vital in YOUR workflow!

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About Author Joshua Snow

My Name is Joshua Snow, I am a Fine Art landscape and Night Photographer born in the Appalachian Mountains but raised in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate NY. In 2012 I had reached a weight of over 400lbs and during my journey of weight loss I discovered Photography and re-discovered the creativity that I had locked away while pursuing a career in Mechanical Engineering in the Aerospace field. Fast-forward to 2016 and a life-changing trip to Moab, my girlfriend and I decided we would do whatever it took to live here so that I could pursue my dreams of creating art, traveling the southwest and educating on photography. After a month, we had found a house, jobs and a sustainable future! Now I lead Photography workshops full time, all over the southwest, and here in Moab. My passions are creating art, traveling and teaching. I like to show people how connecting with a landscape can help make you a better photographer just by being there! On my workshops I help you see composition, pre- visualize a scene all the way through to the finished image, post processing from basics to advanced Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, basic through advanced camera and capture techniques and a whole lot more. I specialize in advanced capture and processing techniques that can help elevate a photo to a work of art, that encompasses your vision, and creativity, but welcome photographers of all skill levels!