Recommended Filters for Landscape Photography
Filters are a landscape photographer’s best friend. Unlike portrait photography, macro, or most other types of photography that rarely require filters to be used, most pro landscape photographers own many many filters. Filters allow landscape photographers to control light levels and achieve effects otherwise impossible.
Before spending a load of money on filters, you should be aware that many physical filters can be avoided by simply creating the identical effect on the computer. For example, I’ve written before about taking a dark picture and a correct exposure, then blending the dark photo over the area that is overexposed using Photoshop. While I often use this technique in my own landscape photography, I find that I usually like to get it right in the camera so that I can make sure I have the photo before leaving.
Best Polarizers (And if you even need one)
Having said that, there are some filters that Photoshop simply can’t reproduce, such as neutral density filters and some effects of polarization. More on that below.
The polarizing filter allows a photographer to reproduce a variety of effects, but there are two commonly-used effects:
- Polarizing filters are used to darken the blue in the sky and brighten the clouds to improve contrast. This effect can be reproduced easily in Photoshop or Lightroom by using the HSL tool to darken the luminance of the blue channel. In fact, this method is superior to the polarizing filter because it will work no matter what direction the photo was taken. A polarizing filter won’t work always because it has maximum polarization in 90 degree angles to the sun (more on that here and also here).
- Polarizing filters are also used to remove reflections and glare from vegetation and water. This effect is NOT possible to achieve in Photoshop, so it’s a prime example of where the physical filter is a good choice.
Because of number 2 above, the polarizer is an essential tool in the landscape photographer’s tool chest.
Nikon Polarizer. Wait! Don’t skip this paragraph just because you shoot Canon. Filter threads are the same no matter what brand you shoot. I know Canon makes a polarizer as well, but I haven’t tested that one head-to-head against the Nikon, so I can only recommend the Nikon polarizer here. Also, we all know that Nikon is superior…. Seriously, though, this is a very nice little polarizer. For $150, it’s not cheap by any means, but it is the least expensive polarizer that I have found that has great optical quality. Buy it on B&H Photo here, or check it out on Amazon.
I would love to recommend the Lee polarizer, but it seems that the company has run into trouble of some sort. All the retailers I buy from show them as being out of stock for the last 6 months. Did Lee filters go out of business?
Your other option is the B+W polarizer, which is a great filter from what I’m told (I haven’t personally tested this one), but it’s more expensive than the Nikon filter and I don’t have any gripes at all about the Nikon, so I’m not really sure what else they could be offering…
Best Polarizing Filter
Singh Ray Vari-N-Duo. This filter is a variable graduated neutral density filter and a polarizer mixed into one. Singh Ray obviously makes a standalone polarizer, but the Vari-N-Duo is highly recommended by many many pro landscape photographers. It’s a winner. Unfortunately, it costs around $450. Ouch.
Best Graduated Neutral Density Filter
A graduated neutral density filter is a clear filter on the bottom, that has a shaded darker top. This is used to darken down the sky in a photo while leaving the foreground untouched and it’s a useful tool for getting the exposure right for landscape photographers who face tricky light situations.
I will save you $100 on this purchase if you listen to my advice here. First of all, remember that the effect of the graduated neutral density filter is easily reproduced in Photoshop. But if you like to get it right in camera so you know you have the shot before leaving, then a graduated neutral density filter is perfect for landscape photographers. I don’t think I’ve ever met a pro landscape photographer who doesn’t use them regularly.
The way I’m going to save you money is by recommending that you NOT waste your money on screw-on graduated neutral density filters. Why? Well, let’s think it through. Suppose you’re shooting at the beach and the sky is bright. You screw on the graduated neutral density filter. That means the end of the darker neutral density part of the filter ends right in the middle of the frame. But what if you want to change your composition to put the skyline on the top third of the frame? Doesn’t work. Then suppose you want to put the skyline on the bottom third line of the frame? Again, doesn’t work.
The screw-on graduated neutral density filters are entirely useless. What you’ll want is a large rectangular graduated neutral density filter that you can hold up in front of the lens to match right where the sky meets the horizon. It’s much more flexible.
The only graduated neutral density filter of this type that I can recommend is the Singh Ray Graduated Neutral Density filter. Most photographers will be happy with the 100x150mm size, but if you own a really really wide angle lens or shoot full frame, then you’d be better to buy the 150x150mm. Not only is Singh Ray one of the only companies that still makes these filters, they are also the best.
Best Neutral Density Filters
Neutral density filters are darkened pieces of glass that screw on to the front of the lens and dramatically darken the scene. This allows landscape photographers to use long exposures in otherwise bright locations. For example, if you’re shooting a waterfall during the day, you might not be able to get a long enough exposure to get the water to look silky, but with a neutral density filter, you can get the longer shutter speed without overexposing the photo.
Better Neutral Density Filter
The Fader ND filter is very popular for DSLR videographers, but it works just as well for still photographers. It’s inexpensive and does the job. I like this filter because it is variable so that you can twist it and cut out between 2 and 8 stops of light. That’s a high end feature for a very low-cost neutral density filter. Without the variable neutral density filters, you have to buy a whole kit of neutral density filters of various gradations. Buy it on Amazon.com or check it out on B&H Photo.
Best Neutral Density Filter
Singh Ray Vari-N-Duo. This filter is a variable graduated neutral density filter and a polarizer mixed into one. Singh Ray obviously makes a standalone neutral density filter, but the Vari-N-Duo is highly recommended by many many pro landscape photographers. It’s a winner. Unfortunately, it costs around $450. Ouch.
Best UV Filters
Oh yeah… there isn’t a good one UV filters really are a pain. They are clear glass filters intended to protect the front element of the lens from getting scratched, but they are mostly unnecessary. In fact, they are usually made of fragile glass that is more likely to break of pressure is applied, which would REALLY scratch your front element! For this reason, I just use my lens hood to protect the lens and I never have a problem.
However, there are times that I like to use a UV filter. For example, when I shoot waterfalls or near the ocean, water drops can get on the lens and leave water spots that you have to constantly clean off during the shoot. I like to use a UV filter for this situation because it means I can take it off half-way through the shoot and have a clean lens underneath. To me, that benefit in that one situation is better than the very minor drawback of a little color cast.
What’s the difference between the cheap filters and the expensive ones?
Like most things in life (and photography), you really do get what you pay for. I’ve never seen a cheapo filter that competes with the expensive filters. I’m sorry to say that since I know you’re not made out of money and there are at least a dozen other things in your Amazon wishlist. But, it’s the truth. I try and recommend as many inexpensive products as possible, but I certainly don’t want you wasting your money on junk.
The most common complaint with cheap filters is that they give a color cast to the photo. This is especially true with graduated neutral density filters as well as polarizers and neutral density filters and UV filters. Oh yeah… I guess that’s about all filters. Inexpensive filters are not made consistently with good color, so it will often give a strange hue to the photo (see an example of that here). I often hear photographers complain that using a neutral density filter gives the photo a brown color cast, and then I immediately know they are using a cheap filter.
Aside from the color cast, cheap filters can reduce the sharpness and contrast in the image because they are usually made of cheap plastic that is not optimized for optical perfection like your lens. This can also result in a lot of lens flare.
The last complaint most photographers have with cheap filters is that they have inconsistencies–sometimes one side of the filter will be darker than the other.
What are the best brands of filters?
In my personal opinion, here are the best brands of filters from best (1) to the more average.
- Singh Ray (excellent filters that are hand made in Florida)
- B+W (I’m told by many other pros that this is a good company, but I have never personally tested their filters)
- Lee (I would totally recommend their stuff on this list as it is good quality and inexpensive, but they have been out of stock everywhere for the last 6 months. Not sure if they are going out of business or what the deal is).
- Hoya and Tiffen (They are very inexpensive and may be a good option if you aren’t a pro and don’t mind a slight color cast in your photos. I haven’t done any head-to-head tests to see if one is better than the other and the prices are about identical)
What size of filter do I need for my lens?
There are two types of filters. Some filters are made in square pieces of glass that you simply hold up in front of your lens (they make special filter holders, but I think they are annoying. I just use my hand and hold it in front of the lens). If you’re buying a square filter, I recommend getting the largest size available because it will keep your fingers out of the shot. Also, if you buy a really wide angle lens some day, it will work for that as well without showing the corners of the filter.
The other type of filter screws on to the front of the lens. For this type of filter, you’ll just have to look at the front of your lens and see where it has the filter size. It will be a number like 72mm, 77mm, 58mm, etc. If you think you’ll be using the filter on more than one lens, then the general wisdom is to buy the filter in the largest size lens you own and then use step down rings to fit it to your smaller lenses. For my personal taste, this is annoying! I just buy the filter for my wide-angle lens.
Also, be aware that some lenses just won’t work with filters at all (or at least not easily). For example, many fisheye lenses, the Nikon 14-24mm lens, and others stick out too far from the end of the lens, so putting on a filter is impossible. Check your lens before buying, but unless your lens is amazingly incredibly wide, it will work just fine.