A Beginner’s Guide to Lens Filters

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  By Igor Letilovic
A Beginner’s Guide to Lens Filters www.sleeklens.com

Ever since photography became easily accessible to almost anyone so did the methods to improve the quality and the look of your photos without the need to change your gear. When thinking of tinkering with your photos the first thing that pops to mind is editing them on your computer using some photo editing software or even with a simple app on your mobile phone. While that kind of editing can very often lead to very dramatic improvements to your images it can also do the opposite if you aren’t skilled enough. There is a more simplistic and back to basics approach and that is by using lens filters. While they aren’t the most mainstream solution or even that exciting at first glance you will soon find out that there’s more to them than it meets the eye and we are here to take you on a journey that could lead you to the places you thought you’d never reach on your photography road trip.

Top 4 Lens Filters to Buy

UV Lens Filter and Skylight Filters

When talking camera lens filters, UV and Skylight filters are the most basic ones. While different, they are both designed to negate the effects produced by haze, moisture and other similar pollutants carried by air while at the same time protecting your front lens element from dust, scratches and other similar factors that could damage your lens.

A UV light filter (also known as haze filters) contain UV coatings that can vary in strength from filter being very clear to have a slightly warm tint, and thus sometimes require a half stop of exposure adjustment. Skylight filters unlike UV filters only come in two strengths and also come with a magenta tint but they don’t have an effect on exposure. Depending on a situation you are shooting in and the colors in your scene you’ll be able to benefit from the change in tonality each of them brings.

These lens filters are the ones that just look like a plain sheet of glass that goes in front of your lens. They are mainly gonna be the circular filters, though they do have the square format filters, gradual filters.

If you want to put a UV filter, a clear filter or a haze filter on the front of your lens, because it’s hardly going to impact your photography, it is basically doing is one specific job, and that is to protect the front of your lens.

Let’s say you drop your camera and it lands lens down, hitting the lens first. Most likely, it’s going to break that front camera filter, the haze filter on there. It is probably going to bust that up instead of your actual lens, so a lot of people don’t use them for the feature whether it’s supposed to be used for because most people don’t notice a big difference, but they do use them for the fact of trying to protect the front glass, the front element of your camera lens.

The best examples of UV and Skylight filters you can find on the market are made by Hoya and Tiffen. Both are very popular among consumers and offer the same basic functionality but the Hoya ones are a little more catered to more advanced and professional users, while the ones Tiffen offers are more well-rounded and budget friendly. One thing you need to have in mind while buying any type of lens filter is to choose the right size that matches the diameter of the front element of your lens, which is measured in millimeters.

Polarizing Filters

One of landscape and outdoor photographer’s best friends are the polarizing filters. They help make your photos come to life by boosting colors, eliminating glare and reducing reflections from surfaces that reflect light. They give you the ability to manually adjust the amount of polarization you need while being able to see the changes in real time, looking through the viewfinder or the screen of your camera. This type of camera lens filter comes in two shapes, linear and circular. Circular filters are designed for being used with autofocus lenses while the linear ones are better suited for use with manual focus lenses.

A lot of the polarizing filters are the circular, so it screws onto the front of your lens, and as you spin the polarizer filter, if you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’ll be able to see that it’s cutting a lot of reflections.

A lot of people actually like to use polarizers for a very bright sunny day, where there’s no clouds in the sky. You connect the polarizing filter onto the camera and it’s going darken the sky a little bit more and reduces the glare. It’s kind of like wearing polarized sunglasses.

So, the next two points when it comes to polarizing filters have nothing to do with photography, however, if I were to go ahead and then put a polarizing filter on the front of my lens and point my camera directly at a computer monitor and start rotating the filter you will see that as you rotate that filter, your computer screen turns completely black. It is not black because of the screensaver or something like that, but because the polarizing filters are cutting out the light that’s coming out of the computer monitor. It’s kind of a cool trick that shows how polarizing filters work. So, if you are photographing the interior of a home and you can’t  turn off the TV or something like that, you can use a polarizing filter while taking photos inside of house and use it to turn  TV screen black.

One of the best circular polarizing filters you can get is the B+W XS-Pro HTC Kaesemann with multi-resistant nano coating. It is made by Schneider optics which should be familiar to many photographers out there and inspire at least some amount of confidence. While linear polarizing filters aren’t as popular as the circular ones there are still some quality ones available like Hoya’s B58PLGB model.

Neutral Density Filters

These filters are primarily made to cut down the amount of light that reaches your lens. A lot of people think this is counterintuitive because you want more light to come in your lens; you want to have as much light as possible because photography is all about light, but there are some situations where they are very helpful.

They are mostly used in very bright light conditions to avoid highlights being clipped by the camera, or scenes where white is the predominant color. They are also used in occasions where you want to shoot with large aperture lenses and a high shutter speed hyst isn’t enough to overcome the amount of light the camera has to handle. The third use case scenario is to achieve very slow shutter speeds in situations where there’s too much light in the scene and were setting a very low ISO value and closing down your lens just isn’t enough. This is mostly to achieve effects like creating foamy water effects and capturing moving clouds in the sky. The strength of ND filters is measured in f-stops that are most commonly broken down to 1/3, 2/3 and full-stop increments.

Neutral density filters are a really great way of showing motion blur when it comes to landscape photography. That’s probably what they are most widely used for—if you ever see those are really, really smooth water situations: a waterfall, a river… something like that. depending on the time of day that it’s shot (like a really bright, sunny day), you can get your shutter speed down low enough to where you can capture the smooth water in a landscape.

Showing motion is one of the most popular reasons neutral density filters are used, but they can also be helpful in other situations.  If you’re going out on a really bright sunny day, and you’re trying to get in a really good exposure where the sky is perfectly blue, and your foreground is also lit up, you are in a really high dynamic situation, on a high dynamic range situation.

Neutral density filters come in two varieties, those with fixed f-stop values and those that are variable and contain a few different ND filters stacked in one filter, which can be rotated to become brighter or darker. While convenient, variable filters usually aren’t as strong as the fixed ones.

One of the most highly regarded ND filters is the Hoya Pro ND 1000. It can reduce light up to 10 stops, but there are also different models available for each stop down to a minimum of two stops. It brings the best color accuracy and preservation out of any filters available today, making it an easy purchase decision for any professional looking for a no compromise fixed ND filter.

If you’re in a market for a high-quality variable filter than the Light Craft Workshop Fader MK II might just be for you. It has the stopping power of two to eight stops and an enhanced design to avoid any soft images at long focal lengths or vignetting with wide-angle lenses. The third honorable mention is the fixed f-stop filter Tiffen IR ND 3.0 with its maximum density of 10 stops and an additional infra-red protection.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

While regular ND filters come with the even amount of density across the filter, a graduated filter is usually clear on one end and gradually become denser before reaching the opposite end of the filter. They are mostly used in situations where there are extreme changes in exposure or they are simply used to darken one part of the frame like for example an overblown sky. You can also get colored variants of graduated filters for even more creative freedom with your pictures.

A landscape photographer will typically use a graduated ND filter if they want to take a landscape photo where the sky is kinda balanced down. The input is that neutral density dark section is at the top, where the sky is, and have it gradually fade down, so you really doing an exposure based on the foreground and the graduated neutral density filter will compensate that by darkening the sky a bit.

Basically, it just helps you get a more balanced photo directly in the camera. You can obviously recover some of that in editing, but this is a way of doing it all in camera, to make it a little bit better and a little bit easier to edit.

When talking quality graduated ND filters the Formatt-Hitech Soft Edge 1.2 surely pops to mind. Hitech filters are well known for being made of high-quality materials and this one is no different. It offers 4 stops of light reduction and comes in three different sizes. Another good filter comes in a form of a complete set of different filters and it’s the Cokin H250 P-Series Gradual ND Kit. This kit includes three Cokin’s most popular filters and these are the 121L, 121S, and 121M models. They are also of high optical quality and reasonably priced as well.

2 Lens Filters to Skip

Warming and Cooling Filters

Now one of the filters that I would probably consider a waste of time, especially if you’re doing a lot of regular photography, is a warming or cooling filter or colored filter. Those filters are basically the kind of the same thing—they are specific color filters; maybe a different type of warm balancer or white balance on the front of your lens, and they don’t really do a whole lot. It basically tries to correct some colors. A lot of them block one type of color from entering the camera.

This could become a UV filter effect as well. This is along the same idea, but UV filters are not really used in normal digital photography. They were used back in the film days. Now, you can drag any photo into Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom and apply color to the whole photo; you can do split toning, you can adjust white balance—you can do all of the stuff without the use of warming or cooling filters.

Close Up Filters

The last basic filter I want to cover, which is a kind of specialty filter, and is a close up filter. These are closer filters, also known as a diopter, that allows you to get really close to a subject to mimic a macro photography lens. So, instead of buying $1,000 macro lens, you can get an $80 close up filter instead.

They do work. They do get you closer to your subject, but a lot of times, depending on the type of filter, they can make it really hard for your camera to focus in on the subject even though you’re getting closer to it. What you are able to get is a more zoomed-in view, and it can make it really hard for your camera to focus in on the subject. The focus will be a bit off and a little bit hazy. It’s not going to be very sharp, so your image will be a little bit blurry, and also depending on the type of image quality that you get, it could just create a really distorted photo.

If you really want to mimic the macro photography kind of look, instead of buying a filter, try buying extension tubes. This is where your lens connects to the macro tube and allows you to move in really, really close a subject t0 get that mimic macro look.

Camera Filters Help You Achieve Different Looks

There are a lot of different lens filters out there, but these are the basics that most photographers look into.

There are actually a lot of specialized filters that we weren’t able to go into in this article—special effects filters that can make your photos look a little dreamy, and star filters to make your bright subject really, really pop out. But those are very small use cases, and  you wouldn’t use those in normal, day-to-day photography. The ones I talked about: the UV, the polarizer, and the neutral densities are the popular filters most photographers buy.

If you haven’t used lens filters before, we hope you found this guide useful. And if you end up buying one or more of these filters, we hope it helps you achieve the photography look you’re going for.

For more ways to make your photos aesthetically pleasing, check out our collection of Adobe Lightroom presets and brushes. We have photo filters for a wide variety of photography specialties, and guarantee you’ll find something to improve your editing workflow.

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Igor Letilovic

An amateur photographer, songwriter, musician, computer and technology geek and an occasional comedian, I'm a little bit of everything. I always aim to pursue things I'm passonate about and try to look on the positive side of things whenever I can. My mission is to wrap my articles in that aura of positive energy and keep a healthy balance between being serious about my work and spicing things up with a little fun now and than. After all, life's a game and there's always a different way to play it.

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