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 Polarizer Better Polarizer

Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo
$440
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
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.


67mm Nikon Filter
$115
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
Seriously, though, this is a very nice little polarizer. For $115, it’s not cheap by any means, but it is the least expensive polarizer that I have found that has great optical quality.

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…

The polarizing filter allows a photographer to reproduce a variety of effects, but there are two commonly-used effects:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

 

Best Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Singh-Ray GradNDF
$160
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
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.

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.

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 only graduated neutral density filter of this type that I can recommend is the Singh Ray Graduated Neutral Density filter.

 

Better Neutral Density Filter BEST Neutral Density Filter

Fader ND Mark II
$160
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
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.


Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo
$440
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
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.

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.

 

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.

  1. Singh Ray (excellent filters that are hand made in Florida)
  2. B+W (I'm told by many other pros that this is a good company, but I have never personally tested their filters)
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

Created by Dustin Olsen

Comments

  1. I am not a pro – just a newcomer (live in India). I’ve a Nikon 5100 DSLR with 18-55 kit lens. Can I buy a Hoya Polarizing filter (52mm) and get reasonably good landscape shots in the Himalayas – around 10,000 ft?

  2. Interesting recommendation, but it seems to me they are heavily biased by USA nationality. Objectivity of this article seems to me clouded. I would says that common problem with any gear is always limited by operator of camera. Since there is so little difference between products apart price. I have been always using Japanese products since they are best. Not best in certain tiny fraction of market. They are best because they are optimal a and most balanced. Subaru Impreza is best car not because it has more power or that or this. But because it is simply genial most balanced design ever made by man. I wonder why most manufacturers of optics products use glass and coatings from HOYA then. Perhaps because they are so rubbish for amateurs 😉 My experience is that Swiss, Japan, Germany, Austria are the only countries which are able to produce consistent quality. I have been using HOYA for DSLR and also film, never had any colour cast. And yes they cost nothing 😀 Ask NIkon where its glass filters come from 😉 I do not see reason why buy expensive filterif there is only marginal difference. Same issue have been observed by memory cards. Transcend rules world for intelligent photographer. It cost half of SandDisk and Kingston. Transcend uses own technology and it last forever 😀 It is only up to you if you want to waste money on useless gear.

    1. Author

      @David – Notice that you started your comment by saying my judgment was clouded with a nationality bias, and then you said that you “always use Japanese products since they are best.” Isn’t THAT a nationality bias?

      The truth is that I have used just about every filter brand on planet earth. The recommendations here are the products I have received the best results from. I have tried Hoya filters that you recommend and, when compared side-by-side with other brands, aren’t even close.

      You said that you have ALWAYS used Hoya filters. So it sounds like you haven’t made the same comparison.

    2. I have to agree that if you’re trying to imply a USA bias here (or any other country for that matter) following that statement with the bit about the Japanese products always being the best is one of the best “shot myself in the foot” snarky comments I’ve seen yet and I’ve seen quite a few of them by now! Then I got the part about the Subaru Impreza and had to wait a few minutes until I stopped laughing to post this reply!

      To Jim-Thanks for producing this EXCELLENT website, as someone fairly new to the world of taking (or attempting at least) to take some great pictures, I’ve learned so much from your site, which besides being chock full of great info, is also very well done from a website design point of view. I’ll certainly be on guard now though for this “USA made bias” issue and you may want to be on guard when crossing the street for a speeding Impreza with an angry looking driver!

  3. I have the nikon 14-24 lens will I run into Any issues with square filters, while hand-holding them? I’m asking, because the distance from the integrated hood and the lens itself is large. I’m concerned that these types of filters will cause internal reflections.

  4. Whats with all the haters? This is free information from an accomplished photographer. I appreciate any and all recommendations on gear and technique. If you don’t agree with something you read, keep it to yourself and don’t take it as an opportunity to provide a “PSA” for everyone. As a beginner of less than a year, this site has given me more knowledge than I ever thought I would have. Thank you Jim for sharing your knowledge! Keep up the great work!

  5. Dear Jim,

    the Lee filter range is again at the shops (Photography shops). I’ve sended some emails to them, and they’ve answered me that their list of requests was very high. But now they are “back in business”. I’ve bought the big stopper from them… In love now ^_^

    Best regards

    (i’m sorry for my grammar errors, but english is not my native language)

  6. i use heliopan for plarizer, hoya and b+w for uv, singh ray for grad nd
    genus eclipse for var nd/ shoot a canon with zeiss lenses. I find that the world we live in makes very good equipment. why stop at one nation

  7. As a serious photographer (in my spare time) I have had the pleasure of trying out various filter makes, expensive and cheap from our club members and the results are marginal across the board to say the least. Unless that is until you start blowing up and cropping your results. For the general photographer I wouldn’t worry about spending big bucks, you’ll only find what you need by starting off at the bottom and working up 🙂 you learn better and faster this way plus upgrading is always a bonus to your ego.

    1. You hit the nail on it’s head…as long as no printing or small size printing (5x7or smaller) occurs it doesn’t matter …god knows ..people manage to screw up pictures with many other “manipulations in camera or in the software so high end filters will not help either.The best “filter” is solid understanding of the basics and it starts with reading the camera manual a couple of times…

  8. Like Max, I started with less expensive the with a Canon SL1 and kit lenses last December and soon found myself wanting the clarity that I was seeing on my son’s 6D and L lenses. By the March or April, I had a 6D with a 24-105 L lens. Later adding a newer Canon 75-300mm USM, a Tamron SP 28-75mm and a new Tamron SP 70-200mm w-VC – Selling the SL1 and the kit lenses.
    When buying filters, I didn’t want to go through the same expensive transition and seeing the son’s Cokin filter rings separate from the glass, opted for the German made B+W. My thoughts were; why would I put a $5-20 piece of glass on a lens that I just paid over a grand ($$$) to get exceptional clarity (especially when enlarging prints). I still have several Tiffen and Canon filters that I will occasionally use until I can afford to replace them, but I can see the difference. This is true when it comes to seeing, or not seeing lens flare, repelling dust and ease of cleaning with the multi coatings. I want a lens filter that I know will not affect my pictures, period The B+W filters aren’t cheap, but reasonable, “in my opinion”. I’ve used most brands (except the Sign Ray) over the years while transitioning from film, to digital point & shoot and I like the new B+W filters. As Information, other that being a customer, I have no association with B+W. Thanks!

  9. I agree very much with you sir although you don’t really have to be very pro to realize the gap between the expensive filters and the cheap ones, but that’s just my opinion.

  10. I have had the glass on a lens saved by a UV filter. I was reaching behind me to put it in the bag and it dropped. (First time in 20 years I’ve dropped a lens../mad.) The lens skittered across the concrete and came to a stop. After picking it up I noticed that the UV Filter was trashed… spider web and everything. Pulled it off and the front lens element was fine, as was the back. Unfortunately the UV filter couldn’t do anything to protect the electronics in the lens, and the aperture was not working anymore. /sigh. Still, better to repair just the electronics than to have to throw in the glass too.

    It’s not common I’ll grant you. But if you are in rough and tumble areas often, or prone to drop things it might be worth the very slight loss of clarity to save your pocket.

    1. Author

      @Brian – Nick is testing them out right now. We’ll see how they do.

  11. I’ve been using Singh-Ray filters for years, and in terms of color neutrality and sharpness they perform very good.

    Recently my car got broken into and I lost lots of lenses, a 5D3 and all my filters.

    I read the most recent ND reviews by the-digital-picture, slrlounge, fstoppers and a few more, also bought Breakthrough filters and they’re better than my Singh-Rays, and a lot less expensive 🙂

    http://breakthrough.photography/product/x3-neutral-density/

  12. Hi Jim, just wondering if you guys have tested any square filter systems and have any recommendations. Thanks for the great info as always.

  13. I recently got the X2 Neutral Density filter, and it’s very very good. It also has some kind of coating that repels dirt and water and dust, very nice.

    Very sharp on my Sony A7R2!

  14. Jim/Nick,
    I listened to the Filter podcast the other day and I was about to pull the trigger on a new polarizing filter. I thought you guys recommended the Tiffen “silver” one. But the article above lists the Nikon. Can you help clarify?

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