There are a lot of questions revolving around camera lens filters. Do you really need one? What do filters do, exactly? Why do some photographers only use filters to protect their lenses? Why are they offered for such a wide range of prices? Taking a look at the wide variety of filters available can be overwhelming, but once you understand what purpose they serve you’ll be better equipped to make your own purchasing decisions.
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What are the Most Basic Filters?
You can buy a basic protection filter, which is a clear pane of glass that you simply screw onto the front of your camera lens. If you accidentally touch or scrape your lens, you’re actually only touching or scratching the filter – which is much easier and cheaper to replace. If you’re not interested in improving the quality of your images through filters, this would be the filter for you. Two other common types of filters are UV filters and skylight filters.
- A UV filter is used to get rid of haze in your image. Have you ever taken a photograph that seemed too washed out? Using a UV filter can reduce this problem. These types of filters are available in varying intensities. At a lower intensity, the filter may appear as a clear pane of glass. At a higher intensity, the filter may appear almost amber-colored, and require an exposure compensation. This means that when you take a photograph with a high intensity UV filter, you’ll need to adjust your exposure approximately half a stop by adjusting either the shutter speed or aperture.
- A skylight filter also helps to reduce the negative effect of haze in your images. Unlike a UV filter, the skylight filter only comes in two different intensities. Regardless of which one you choose, you won’t have to adjust your exposure at all to account for it. Skylight filters have a slightly magenta hue, which helps reduce tones that are too cool. This is helpful when photographing subjects such as people who are flattered by a warmer toned photograph.
Why Are the Prices so Different?
So you’re looking for a basic UV filter, and you find one offered for $10 and one offered for $30. Are you really missing out on a better quality filter if you purchase the $10 version? Unfortunately, the answer is probably ‘yes’. Think about the price differences between camera lenses. While there are many factors that play into the final cost of a lens, the quality of the glass is a huge component. Better glass = better images, there’s no doubt about it. The same goes for filters. Better glass = better images = more expensive. The quality of the glass is a combination of how it’s made, the coatings used, and the thickness of the glass itself. If you’re using an inexpensive kit lens, the quality of your filter won’t matter as much. If you’re using a low-quality glass lens, using a high-quality glass filter won’t improve the quality of your image. Yet if you’re using expensive, high-quality lenses, you’ll want to purchase a higher quality filter. In most cases, more expensive filters are made with more durable outer rings, which means they’ll be less subject to denting and scratching when you screw them on and off.
What Other Filters are Available?
Depending on the type of photography you prefer, there are a handful of filters that you should always have on hand.
- A polarizing filter is especially helpful for landscape photographers. How many times have you tried to successfully expose a landscape shot, yet the sky was too blown out or the grass was too dark? Getting proper exposure throughout the entire image can be incredibly difficult without the use of post-production software. A polarizing filter assists in darkening the sky so that your entire image can be properly exposed. It makes clouds pop, blue skies appear bluer, and also helps reduce the negative effects of reflections or glare on particular surfaces (such as water or glass). You’ll need to adjust about three stops in order to have a properly exposed image, so these types of filters can be a nuisance in low light.
- A neutral density filter is (in my opinion) one of the most fun filters you can own – especially if you’re interested in landscape photography. Have you ever seen a photograph of a stream in which the water looked so soft and smooth you could barely believe it was a real image? Odds are this was due to the use of a neutral density filter. What these filters do is reduce the amount of light that hits your lens, allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds and wider apertures in the middle of a bright and sunny afternoon. In order to blur the movement of water, you’d need to shoot at a very slow shutter speed. In the middle of the afternoon, the amount of light this slow of a shutter speed would let in would drastically over-expose the image. By using a neutral density filter, you can keep your shutter open longer while maintaining a perfect exposure. These types of filters are also helpful when you want to shoot wide open without over-exposing your image (such as in the case of a portrait), or if you want to blur the movement of traffic or a sporting event in the middle of the day. Neutral density filters are also available as graduated filters, which can be used to help even out exposure in images that would require drastically different exposures in different areas of the image.
Using Color Filters
Although you can reduce the amount of warm or cool tones in an image in a photo editing software such as Photoshop, some photographers prefer to do all of this in camera. You may want to use a warm or cool filter to alter the mood of your image – such as using a warm filter for a happy, comforting scene or a cool filter for a dramatic, solemn scene. When using these types of filters, it’s important not to shoot on automatic white balance, as the filter may confuse the camera. Instead, you should set your white balance to whatever the ambient light is (tungsten for indoor photographs, shade for images taken in the shade, etc).
- Warming filters can be used to reduce the amount of cooler tones in an image, which are less than ideal for portraits. They can also help warm up landscapes when conditions are overcast or rainy.
- Cooling filters are typically used when you want to reduce the amount of warmer tones in an image, such as when you want to create a more dramatic, moody landscape.
What about more dramatic color filters such as blue, green, and yellow? While using these filters will create an extreme color-cast on your images, they are most typically used in black and white photography. Using a red filter will greatly increase the contrast of your image, an orange filter will help create an evenly toned image, a yellow filter will increase contrast in skies, a blue filter will darken most colors and reduce contrast in your image, and a green filter will help even out skin tones in portrait photography.
Do I Really Need to Use Filters?
While you may think that spending extra money on a filter won’t affect your photographs enough to be worth it, filters are especially helpful for those who don’t want to spend as much time perfecting their image in post-processing programs. The more perfect your image straight out of the camera, the less time you’ll need to spend adjusting it afterwards.
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