When I first started making photographs, optical filters (the ones you put on the front of the lens, as opposed to software filters) were common. You’d screw them to the front of the lens and it was all pretty simple. When I sold most of my 35mm gear to transition to digital, I sold my filters too, told that “you don’t use filters with digital.” What did I know?
Years later I use optical filters a great deal in my digital photography. There are things you can’t do in Lightroom or Photoshop – like replicate the effects of a polarizer, or a full Neutral Density filter. And if the dynamic range is too great, a graduated ND filter helps you get away from multiple exposures and blending layers later in Photoshop. On top of that, for me, the filters allow me to see possibilities. I can put a filter on, see the results, and react creatively, tweaking this, changing that, until I get something new and unexpected. If I did it later in the digital darkroom I’d be a long way from my scene when a change in direction suggested itself. I still make some frames without filtration, in case, later on, it turns out software is the best tool for the job, but I make those frames once I arrive at the image I want, and using optical filters gets me there.
I’m writing this post is because I really wanted it when I was trying to figure out what I needed and how it all worked together. And I get this question a dozen times whenever I teach. So here’s what I use. But first, a disclaimer – this stuff isn’t cheap. If you want to use cheap filters, go for it – but you spend so much on quality lenses, I’m not sure why you’d want to degrade all that quality by putting cheap plastic in front of your lens.
I use the Lee Filter System. It begins with an adapter ring that comes in multiple thread sizes. That goes on your lens. Then the filter holder, a plastic square into which the filters – up to 3 of them, usually – clips on to that. That’s the basic set up. Now you slide filters into that. Unless you want to use a polarizer, then you need to add a large threaded ring to the front of the filter holder, onto which you can screw a large polarizer, enabling you to polarize a scene while also – for example – using a full Neutral Density filter to give you a long exposure, and a graduated ND filter for pulling the sky back. The filters themselves are usually either 4″x6″, made of high quality resin, or sometimes glass.
I simulated this in Lightroom, because all I had was the final filtered image, but the frame to the left is approximately what this scene would have looked like without a 3-stop hard-transition graduated ND filter
This is my kit, the one I have with me on most days when I’m photographing landscapes, are these, and for me they’re all I need (Amazon links. I do this to be helpful but if you don’t like affiliate links, just search for the same items on B&H or Adorama):
And if you have a 77mm thread on your lens, you’ll want this adapter ring, which is specific to wide angle lenses. And here’s a link for an 82mm W/A adapter ring. There are lots of other sizes, I’d recommend getting a couple of these, and cheaper step-down rings for any of the lenses you use less frequently.
I carry it all in a MindShift Filter Hive, which I’ve been using for 6 months now and wish I’d had one years ago. It clips to my belt or tripod and makes keeping it all in one place – and working with multiple filters – so easy. It even holds my filter holder, a lens cloth, and my cable release so everything I need for this kind of landscape work is all in one place.
If you want to go whole hog, here is a link to a complete kit – it might be more than some of you need, but it contains almost everything I use (and then some!), except the polarizer and the ring for the polarizer. It contains the filter holder, a 10-stop ND, 6-stop ND, three hard-transition ND grads, three soft-transition ND grads, and some bits and pieces.
A couple other helpful things:
Hard Transition Grad vs. Soft – I have both. I mostly carry the hard. I just like it better. But when the horizon is really interrupted by trees or mountains, the soft is a little easier to work with. Both is good. I’ll probably dig out my old soft-transition next time I’m out. I just never put it into the filter case.
Other Brands – There are other brands out there. For me, Lee is the sweet spot for quality and price. There’s Singh-Ray, and their quality is off the charts, but they’re pricier than Lee. And there’s Cokin, which I’ve used and will never use again. Unless they’ve stepped up their game, their filters have a (really, really) heavy magenta cast and are poor optical quality.
Colour Cast – Despite the name, Neutral Density filters aren’t always neutral, and you’ll notice a slight magenta cast if you stack them. The more you stack the more cast you get. It’s not (usually) a big deal, I even like that cast sometimes, but it can be alarming if you’re not expecting it. It can be easily removed in Lightroom.
I hope this is helpful. It’s probably still a little overwhelming. I found it confusing. But once I had the pieces – even a few of the basics – I couldn’t believe the difference in my photographs, and the process that got me to those images. Any questions about filters, leave them in the comments of this post and I’ll try to help clear the fog!
Hey, while we’re talking filters, you’ll probably want a tripod. Sure, you could just spend $1200 and buy one with a great ball-head, OR you could put your name in the pot to win one of my faithful Gitzos. It’s in great shape, but a guy can only use so many, so I’m giving one away. More information, and to enter, read this post.