You’d be forgiven for thinking that photographic filters are redundant. After all, with powerful image processing programs, you can recreate most of the effects they offer on your computer, so there’s no real need to carry the extra bits of kit around on a shoot. In reality, however, that’s not entirely true. Firstly, because there’s the adage that you should always attempt to get things right ‘in camera’, which includes any filtration, and secondly, because there are some filter effects that are really tricky to recreate in post production. We’ve come up with this list of five filters that we feel should find a place in your gadget bag – and explain why. Depending on what you prefer to shoot, you may not need all of these, but this collection does mean that you will have all bases covered.
A highly versatile filter, the polarizer has two key uses; it boosts colours and reduces reflections on surfaces including water or glass. Polarizers such as those made by Hoya and Rodenstock are effectively two pieces of polarising material in one filter. Once the filter is attached to your lens, the front part of the filter is turned to create the polarized effect. Typically used outdoors, you’ll get maximum polarization if you’re shooting at a 90° angle to the sun – the easiest way to check this is to make your thumb and forefinger into an L shape, point one at the sun and the other will point in the direction of maximum polarization. Polarizers do reduce the light going into your camera, typically by around two to three stops, so you need to keep an eye on the shutter speed to make sure you don’t introduce camera shake, but other than that they’re relatively simple to use.
Variable neutral density
Much like a polarizer, the effect of a neutral density filter is very difficult to recreate on a computer, so it’s best if you have one in your gadget bag. Neutral density (ND) filters cut down the amount of light entering your camera and they’re invaluable if you want to take more control over your shutter speed or aperture. In bright conditions, for example, it can be very difficult to get a shutter speed slow enough to blur moving water or use a wide aperture to make a subject stand out from its background. But by adding an ND filter, you can cut down light without changing colours. You can buy both single and vari strength ND filters. We’d recommend a variable neutral density filter purely because it gives you more versatility. A variable ND is also very useful if you shoot video. In these instances you’re often limited by a maximum shutter speed around 1/50sec, so using a variable ND will help you get wider apertures for a more cinematic look.
10-stop neutral density
Want to shoot really long exposures in broad daylight? Then a 10 stop (or even stronger) neutral density filter is the ideal choice. They’re very often used by landscape photographers who shoot at the coast or are capturing images with lots of sky. In both cases, using a 10 stop neutral density filter will mean the exposure will run into many minutes, so water and cloud is rendered as a mist. It works really well in conjunction with black & white. Naturally, using a filter of this strength has its challenges.The filter itself is almost black, so you’ll have to compose and focus your shot without the filter in place. You’ll then need to take a meter reading (again without the filter) and calculate what the 10 stop difference will be. With such long exposures, a solid tripod and a remote release are also recommended. But it’s all worth the effort when you see the amazing results that are possible!
Enter to spooky world of infrared photography when you buy an IR R-72 filter. This opaque filter only lets light of a certain wavelength through to your camera’s sensor and the best thing is it’s light that the human eye can’t normally see. So, attaching the filter opens up a hidden world. Infrared light is at its most prominent on sunny days and it looks most effective on foliage and landscapes, but these filters can also be used to produce weird looking portraits in which people look ghost-like! This filter works best with black & white images and won’t be to everyone’s liking, but if you want to give you shots a very different look and feel, we’d strongly recommend one.
While it’s true that this clear filter has minimal effect on your images, aside from cutting down haze on bright, sunny days, we still consider a UV to be essential because of the protection they offer. Attach one to the front of every lens you own and the front element is immediately protected from scratches and damage. Should the filter get scratched, it’s far cheaper to buy a new filter than a new lens. Similarly, a UV filter will provide further insurance should you ever drop or knock your lens. It’s nor guaranteed to avoid damage, but if your lens is dropped, the UV filter could absorb the majority of the impact rather than the lens itself. Again, a filter is far less expensive to replace. As you’re buying a UV primarily for protection, don’t feel that you can cut corners in terms of cost – buy one from a reputable company such as Hoya, B+W or Kenko.