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Four Must Have Filters for Outdoor Photography

July 25, 2012 by Marie Joabar

With the popularity of today’s high end image editing software programs, the need for many traditional filters has been virtually eliminated. Programs like Adobe Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, Aperture and others include tools or offer plug-ins that can create specific filter effects easily without the need for extra equipment. However, there are a four filters you shouldn’t go without regardless of the capabilities of software.

  • The UV - Ultra Violet filter
  • The Circular Polarizer
  • The ND - Neutral Density filter
  • The Graduated or Split ND filter

These filters will not only help you get better images, some of them can save your lens from dirt, scratches, even protect against impact.

A UV (ultra violet) filter serves a dual purpose;

  • It protects the lens by preventing dirt, dust, and scratches from reaching the front of the lens. Most lenses have special coatings and the best way to preserve lens quality is to keep the front element untouched.
  • The other benefit to a UV filter is that when shooting outdoors, the UV light is filtered out. This is great for landscape photography as distance usually causes a haze effect from UV light.

Clear protective filters, like Skylight filters, will provide protection from scratches and such but will not filter out UV light. Protect each of your lenses with a UV filter and leave it on regardless of whether you are shooting indoors or out. The only time you should take it off is when you are using a different filter as it’s best not to stack your filters.
With Polarizer (right), you can see into the water. Photos by Claire Gardiner
Another ‘must have’ filter is a Circular Polarizer- think of it as sunglasses for your lens. Polarizing filters have two major advantages;

  • When shooting outdoors, a polarizer will add depth and contrast to the sky, making the clouds pop out in more detail, and add saturation in the reds greens and blues. This is a great effect for landscapes, cityscapes, or beach photos.
  • The second benefit is that it removes reflections from non-metallic surfaces such as glass, windows or water.

copyright Marie Joabar

A couple of tips when using the Polarizer in landscape scenes;

  • Polarization of the sky is maximum at 90 degrees from the sun so to see the effects of the filter, put your shoulder to the sun and aim your camera straight ahead. Turn the outer ring of the filter until you see the effects of more defined clouds, richer saturation and the reduced glare or reflection on water or glass.
  • Wide ange lenses cover a large expanse of sky and when using this type of lens with a polarizer, the effect is not even. The image will show the sky in part of the scene darker and more saturated (more polarized) than the rest as this image shows.

Copyright Marie Joabar 2010
Use a Neutral Density filter when shooting on a bright day and you need a long exposure time or need to use a wide open aperture for selective focus. As mentioned in Tips for Photographing Waterfalls blog post, these are great when you want to render the water in the falls as a silky flow. To capture this effect, a very long shutter speed such as 1 or 2 seconds is needed but in daylight the result would be over exposure (even with the aperture closed to its smallest opening there is still too much light coming in). NDs allow you to capture a properly exposed image under these conditions.

ND filters come in different degrees of darkness (density) measured in stops, 1 stop, 2 stops etc. and can even be stacked if you need to reduce the light further. Also available are Variable ND filters, by turning the outer ring of a Variable ND, you can adjust the amount of darkness, from 2 to 8 stops eliminating the need to carry separate filters of varying density. Check out the Fader brand.

Another version of the ND filter is the Graduated or Split ND filter for times when there is a dramatic difference between the brightness in the sky and the darker shadow area of the landscape below. The filter is divided in two, one half graduating from light to dark grey, and the other half clear. The division is either hard edged or soft edge.

Without (left) and with (right) Split ND filter

  • A “hard” edge filter changes abruptly, good when the difference in light and dark in a scene is clearly defined such as a horizon.
  • A “soft” edge is feathered, best for when the change between light and dark in a scene is gradual and less defined.

Cokin makes a great system for graduated ND filters. It uses a filter holder that attaches to your lens, you simply slide the filter into the holder and look through your viewfinder lining up the division in the filter with the division of light and dark in the scene. For more information on this type of holder and the filters, visit their website,

With all the filters, the better the quality, the better the image. If you have a $1000 lens and you put a $19 filter on it, you have substantially reduced the quality of that lens. Don’t skimp on the glass - there is a reason one filter costs $179 while a similar one runs $29. The quality of the glass and the coatings are important and will make a difference. Single or multi layer coatings improve contrast and help transmit light to the sensor in a straighter path preventing flare and other lens aberrations.

As with any product, some brands are better than others. German based Schneider Optics makes B+W filters which offer the highest quality filters on the market. Some camera manufacturers make their own filters and the quality is very good, Canon and Nikon in particular. Hoya is another great brand, and Tiffen rounds out the list. There are other generic brands but look to these brands as a better option.

If you have lenses with different filter sizes you can avoid having to purchase a separate filter for each lens by purchasing the filter to fit on your largest lens then using step up rings for the rest. For example, if the filter size of one lens is 72mm and the other lens is a 62, buy the filter to fit the 72mm lens, then buy a 62 to 72 step-up ring so you can use the same filter on the smaller lens. (The exception is UV filters, you should have one for each lens for protection.) To determine your lens’ filter size, look on the inside of the lens cap, it should be listed there.

Despite the technology in today’s cameras, they cannot always reproduce the full range in tone and varying amounts of light. That’s where filters come in, adjusting for our camera’s short fall and allowing us to capture what our eyes can see but our cameras are incapable of.