The Complete Guide to Camera Lens Filters

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One thing that will almost instantly make you a better photographer is to learn how to use filters. Just adding one filter to your lens can make all of the difference between a good photo and a great photo and can allow you to shoot a scene in ways that would otherwise be totally impossible to shoot or would require massive amounts of post production in a program such as Photoshop to make it come out well. Suffice to say that I feel like using a filter is a big part of getting a great and professional photograph and something that no camera bag should be without. That being said I am sure there are many questions that will need to be answered to help you understand them and so without further waiting of time, let’s get into filters 101 and help you understand this sometimes mystic area of photography.

Why is a Filter such a Great Thing?

Well, for one thing you can take even a poor quality camera and make it get great results simply by adding on a filter. It’s true. A good filter used correctly will make a bad camera good and a good camera great. It will have a big and immediately stunning effect on your photos and it can be more important even in some cases than the quality of the lens. This is particularly true if you do a lot of day shooting where the actual speed of the lens is not a huge factor in the quality of the final result.

You are going to find filters useful and even a necessity for film cameras, digital cameras, black and white and color shooting. Even if you always enhance your work in Photoshop to make them better you are still going to want to get the benefit a good filter is going to give you.

Aside from the need for a circular polarizing filter to help balance colors and saturation of some of the color in your outdoor shots, not to mention helping with reflections and the Neutral Density filter to help with a plethora of ills that can happen when you shoot bright out door shots. Many folks still use a warming filter on the camera. This is known as an 81A and the reason that you might want to use one of these bad boys is to help make skin tones literally look grand. It cam make an otherwise pale subject look like they have been in the tanning so without making it look too fake. So that means almost any people pictures can benefit from the addition of this filter.

Especially with the digital cameras this is great. Digital can be a very unforgiving and harsh media, especially in people photos and if you can warm up the tone just a little you will get a much better digital shot. You can actually get one that is closer to what a film camera might give you and still maintain the sharpness and the ease of use and relative price savings that are inherent with digital photography. It literally gives you the best of both worlds.

Even landscapes need help being captured. How many times have you shot a photo and then looked at it on the computer only to realize that it truly looks nothing like the original scene? That is due largely to the fact that the human eye sees things differently than you are going to capture that scene on any type of media. At least without the help of filters that will help your camera “see” the image more like the human eye so that you get a true visual representation of the scene that you saw there before you that made you want to snap the photo.

So, unless you are looking to capture a dull and lifeless image that looks unnatural and bears little to no resemblance to the actual scene, you will need to take a little time to get better acquainted with the basic filters and how they can make your shots pop off the page with vibrant color and detail that might otherwise be lost.

Some folks don’t like the idea of adding anything to a photo. They think it is unnatural. The thing is that you need to consider photography what it is. It is a form of art. And as an art form you can take creative liberties to make the photo fit your imagination or your vision of what is supposed to be. In other words you have the license to make the image fit you rather than the other way around.

Sometimes you will want to enhance a photo; you might need to add some color or some transparency in an image that would not otherwise be there without a little helping hand from the filter of choice. Some times you might want to alter reality and change colors or textures though the use or even the overuse of various filters. This can get you everything from a natural look to a very surreal artsy looking shot that almost looks contrived. Both uses of the filter are legitimate and both uses are quite acceptable, remember this is an art form and not pure documentation.

Sometimes a badly lit scene can be rescued from oblivion by the judicious use of the correct filter for the occasion. You can tame down an overly bright area with washed out details and highlights or you can actually bring more details out in an otherwise flatly colored shot.

With all of this being said, if the light is right, the angle of the sun is good and you are at the right place at just the precise time. You can get a great shot without the need or aid that you will get from the filters. This happens a few times a year so for the rest of the time you can resolve yourself to being able to resort to the use of filters to correct all of the evils that exist in the world from a photographic aspect at least.

You might also be surprised what kind of a vibrant image you can get by over accentuating the colors of a scene. A green and blue scene can be made to look so great by the addition of more of one of those colors via a filter. There will come a time where that is over kill and you should be able to recognize that but if you love a colorful landscape scene that literally reaches out and grabs you, try adding color with a filter. Or if you are really good with your color charts, you can figure out the exact color to add to make everything from colors to details literally jump right off of the image and into your face.

If you want to see how difficult it is to reproduce a great shot. Find one on the internet that is full of color on your screen and then hit the print button on your keyboard. I will almost bet you that the results that spit out of your ink jet are going to be very much different from what you see on your screen. That is why we need to think ahead to the ultimate use for the shot and try and filter it accordingly.

Digital Cameras and Filters 101

Two filters that you will need regardless of the format you choose film or digital you still need to add an ND or Neutral Density filter and some form or polarizer, preferably the Circular variety. That is because no matter what you do in a post productions program such as Photoshop you will not be able to completely replicate the effects of these filters.

You truly need to try and capture the best image that you can, the one that is closest to reality or your vision of reality when you click the shutter. That is because even if the issue –whatever it is – can be corrected in a program like Photoshop, you will likely end up doing some damage to the image which may end up being visible. It might be digital noise or some other form but there will more than likely be left over things that will affect the quality. If there are no other options then that is one thing, but if you can correct it before shooting that is always the best answer.

Most of the filters used for converting color temperature can usually be bypassed and not even considered because your camera will let you over ride more of this with the on camera white balance control. So color temperature issues become a non issue and a thing of the past. That is great because using these types of filters generally cause you to lose at least one stop on your exposure.

You can even bypass using warming filters if you want but most true photographers still use an 81A filter to add some warmth to the cold and harshness that are common place when shooting with digital cameras.

Shooting Black and White images with a digital camera

The true “traditionalists” will tell you that the only way to effectively get a black and white shot is to actually capture the image in black and white when you trip the shutter.

I however am torn with that one. If I were, for example, going to capture a landscape shot in the tradition pf Ansel Adams then I would likely go at it from that perspective and shoot it in black and white where I could truly emulate his work and style.

I have mentioned that using Photoshop to fix you photos should be a last resort. I use this as the exception. The majority of the shots that I shoot are in glorious color. I can then go into Photoshop and convert it into black and white. This works here because you are subtracting things as when you convert to black and white rather than adding them and so you don’t end up with all of the digital rubbish on the final image that you do if you are converting color images.

The main advantages here are that you are in complete control when using Photoshop and you can try different combinations of filter effects that would be hard to do if shooting live where you might lose the light by the time you found the right combination of filters to give you what you are after or what you see in your mind’s eye.

Not only that but you still have a copy of the image in color which is like getting a second image so that you can play around with the color version and see if you can do any unusual magic to the color image. It really opens up your available options when you do it this way. But remember, unlike trying to edit the color print where you are adding things to the image which can get grainy, you are subtracting things that really tend to smooth out the shot and give it character and class.

Also, keep in mind that you can forget the temptation to add the color correction filter to the lens before shooting because you are going to be doing all of that in the computer which some what negates the need to fall back on old tricks. Many experienced photographers might have trouble adjusting to this initially.

Another thing that you can do in Photoshop which you can not do with your filters that screw on the lens is you can break the photo into various layers and apply affects to each layer so that you can create the perfect composite image.

Like I say, using Photoshop is the one time where I completely advocate using software to fix the image after it is shot and knowing that is what you are going to do. Otherwise do your best to match the filters needed to the shot you are after and get it as close to perfect before you shoot. That is hat photography is all about.

Keep in mind as well that even if you shoot in black and white on your camera, you will actually still be shooting in color and then the camera is going to convert that color image into black and white before it commits it to the media card so why not just capture it in color and manipulate it at the studio on your computer where you can be comfortable and have total control over the final outcome?

Shooting Color images with a digital camera

As mentioned above an 81A warming filter is something that I highly suggest using to make your images seem more realistic and more analog. It allows you to hang on to the crisp image of digital and gives it the warm qualities of the old film so you can get a bit of the best of both worlds in a fairly easy manner.

You can certainly go to other warming style filters if the light where you are shooting is cooler than normal. An 85C is not at all out of the question if you want to convert the coolness of some lighting situations into a warmer look. This is especially helpful if you are shooting the human body or models because they certainly do not look good in blue unless they are dressed as a Smurf or you are doing some macabre scenes.

Another instance where a color filter can be useful is if you happen to be shooting a subject under a nice green tree. Sometimes that is a great look but more often than not the green tends to be over bearing. That is a great time to break out a filter like the Tiffen 812 which will add a bit of Magenta into the scene and helps to block out a little of the extra green leafy look

As we discussed a polarizer should be a part of any camera bag. It is much like carrying a few band aides if you have children. You won’t need it often but when you do it can truly save the day and take a picture from blah and mundane to sparkles and popping. If you over use it then it is going to look bad and if you try and use it where it is not designed you will end up with a sinister image but for the most part they do well at what they are designed for and you should make sure that you always have one in the bag when you leave the house.

Another filter that can be very helpful if you shoot a lot in the business world is the FL-W or FL-D florescent conversion filters. The problem with that type of lighting is that it tends to make everything look very green. Again this is great if you are shooting Frankenstein but sot so much on a live red blooded human being. Another use for this filter that people over look is adding it hen shooting a sunset which may be leaning towards a gray image and turning it into a stunning violet purple which looks good.

One other filter that is a must have in your bag if you do a lot of impromptu shooting in doors is what is known as an 80A filter. It is very deep blue and will help to tame the deep orange tint that can come from shooting under average home lighting.

Again, most of these filter effects can be handled by your camera through adjusting the white balance. So if you want to save yourself some time and money, it is worth learning how you operate the AWB or white balance section of your Digital SLR.

You can also look into a blue and yellow polarizer if you do a lot of outdoor shots. It can improve otherwise terrible lighting situations outside and cuts down on the reflections that are in the sky or may be cast off of some of the stone surfaces that you might run across in normal shooting.

So exactly how do you use filters correctly?

Fortunately most of the filters that you put in front of the lens will show you in the viewfinder exactly what is going to happen to the final print. You don’t have to wait to get the film back or to get back to the computer and upload the images to see if you captured the effect that you were after.

While you can read article after article that will describe what the effect of any given filter will be on the end result of your image. The best way is still via trial and error. I found one local camera shop here where I am which will allow me to rent pieces of gear at a fairly competitive rate to see if it is something that I will actually be happy with. This is a windfall for me because I can try out any piece of gear or accessory for a mere pittance of the full retail and try it out in real world situations so I can see what they do using my camera which I am familiar with. It also allows me to get some rather cost prohibitive gear for use for one time things. Like a four thousand dollar lenses which I only will need to use a couple times in my life. Does it make sense to tie that capitol up in a purchase or spend a couple hundred for the rental for the two times I will use it? That is a no brains required question.

Remember that certain filter, such as the circular polarizer for example, screw on to the lens and then you turn the outer wing to change the effect of the lens on the image. SO if you put a filter on and are not getting it to do anything, there is a good chance that you have put on a filter that requires you to actually do something to it in order to see the end results.

If you happen to be working with a graduated style filter, then you will no doubt notice that the effect is going to vary depending on which way it is on the lens. In other words if you have a graduated tobacco filter for example and you put it on the lens and things just don’t look right, then you will need to try to rotate it 180 degrees so the heavy tobacco color is to the top and it should totally transform the scene that you are looking at.

For the most part you should avoid putting a polarizing filter on any wide angle lens. Actually you should avoid it like a sick child with strep throat. This type of filter is just not designed to be used on a wide angle lens. The final result is going to more than likely be close to hideous. That is because the color of the sky will vary lot depending on the relative position of the lens to the sky and the sun. You might well end up with one portion of the sky looking dark and ominous and the other ends looking normal to freakish. Unless you are looking for that look I would avoid the temptation. However, if you can get hold of a filter give it a try. You will then have a visual reference and someday might need that exact look! Also if you have an inordinately thick filter, as many of the polarizer’s are, you can actually end up losing some corners to a phenomenon called a vignette.

Lenses and Filter sizes

The more you get in to the art of photography, the more likely it is that you will end up with several lenses. When that happens you are faced with the dilemma of buying filters for your lenses. If you use a lot of lenses with varying sizes that can be both a pain in the butt and the wallet because good filters are not cheap to purchase.

Now, you can either spend a ton of money buying a filter of each type for each lens that you own or you can do what professionals do and purchase filters that will screw on to the largest diameter lens that you have. You then go to your camera store and purchase step up rings for your other lenses.

Step up rings, in case you are not familiar with them, are little rings that look like a filter with no glass. It screws into you smaller lens and then the inside is larger and will allow the larger sized filter to physically screw into the adaptor ring. Thereby the same filter can be used by each and every lens that you have in your collection. The one caveat here is that most people will put a UV Haze filter on ever lens that they own. This filter is clear and causes no problems. It reduces the Ultra Violet rays getting to your sensor so that the image is enhanced and it also protects your lens from dust, finger prints and cracks from getting banged in to something inadvertently. It is more or less an insurance policy for your lens.

These rings typically cost under $20.00 US per ring and that is a real cost saver considering the cost of outfitting each of your lenses with the various filters.

But won’t a filter diminish my photo’s sharpness?

The only conceivable way that this could happen is if you are using garbage filters that came out of a candy machine. The manufacturing process today is so good that even a no name brand is capable of making a filter whose glass or plastic is superior to what was made years ago. So the opposite is actually true and there is really no way that a decent filter is going to harm the image in any way.

The myth here is generated by the fact that some of the filters cause you to have a loss of light which means longer exposure times and that can indeed give you some blurring due to camera shake or subject movement. You step down to get a slower shutter speed so that the photo will be able to be shot and when you do so it is inevitable that you will lose some quality. But if you are in a low light situation and have to do the same settings without a filter, you still run the risk of blur and shake. Does that make it the fault of the camera? No it does not. So you can put this thought or theory to rest.

As long as you invest in a good quality filter (always a good idea because you are dealing with photographing things that may never happen again) and you take the time to know your camera and know how to set it and which filters to use for which job. There is no way that a filter is going to degrade the quality of your shot. If you use the wrong filter at the wrong time then you run the risk of problems but that is the only issue.

So what do you recommend to get familiar with filters?

As I have said time and time again. Before you can start learning all of the accessories that you want for your camera, you need to know how to use your camera to its fullest potential. If you are not sure of how to make your camera do things like setting the white balance effectively for the situation or to recognize the color temperature of a lighting situation, then you are starting out at a handicap and will reach for a filter out of habit.
While a filter will not degrade a photo, it can certainly mask issues if you are using them unnecessarily because you don’t fully understand the tools of your trade or hobby or art form.

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