OK, lets spend some money!  Camera gear is expensive enough, but if bought well and treated well it should have some resale value.  Filters are a different story.  There are way too many different versions in gobs of different formats.  A small to medium camera store can’t carry them all, and would be smart to wonder when they will sell one if they buy it used.  I believe if you are not careful the filters will $20 or $50 dollar you to death.  That being said a filter used properly will enhance your photo and stretch your ability.

Filters come in lots of forms.  They come in gels, resins, glass, rolls, drop ins, special effects, grads, reverse grads, variable densities, multiple sizes & umpteen different colors to name a few.  They can be mounted in rings, proprietary systems, or cut from a roll and sandwiched between some cardboard.  You can stack them or use them individually. Do you get the idea?  You may never have enough filters, but it is possible, even likely you will never be able to afford them all either.

If you want to see all the things you can’t afford or may never even use try downloading the brochures from Cokin, Lee, B+W, Hoya, Tiffen and others.  Beyond this it becomes imperative to realize what you actually need and what you would merely like to have.

If you are making movies or videos then look out.  The number of filters you might need could get out of hand and become endless.  If you are doing portraits your need may lessen somewhat.  As a landscape photographer I have narrowed it down to only a few, but it is an expensive few.  My graduated split neutral density filters alone total a pretty penny, and I still need a few more.

The first thing I’ve done is limit the sizes of screw in ring filters I need.  I’ll grant you the sizes are the largest (therefore the most expensive) because of the faster lenses I currently favor, but at least there is now a limit.  Currently the sizes I use are 72mm, 77mm, & 82mm.  When it comes to flat filters I am going exclusively 100x100mm for non graduated filters and 100x150mm for graduated filters.  The 150 side allows you some latitude in moving the graduated part of the filter across your field of view.

Whenever I shoot I always use either a Skylight 1A filter or a UV Haze filter on each of my lenses.  I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other.  The 1A will add a very small amount of warmth to the photo.  The UV will improve the contrast ever so slightly.

The over riding reason for the basic filter is for lens protection.  When I drop lenses they always land on the front rim.  I think it must be Murphy’s Law.  Or the heaviest part of the lens falls first, or expensive glass is attracted by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Junk science may explain it all, but I do know that when I drop a lens it always seems to hit the ground on the front rim.  I would rather break a $50 piece of glass than an expensive lens.  The effects of skylight or UV filters on transparency film or digital pixels are minimal so using these filters is potentially more beneficial than not.  If I fail to mention filtration about a photo then you can assume it is either a skylight or a UV.  Sometimes when my camera is firmly mounted on a tripod I will remove all filtration.

For some situations I will use polarizing filters and happily so. Polarizers will cost you a stop or more, but if handled properly they will give you improved contrast and color saturation.  While the polarizer effects the light you capture, its capability is also effected by the light of the scene.  The polarizer will tend to give its best when pointing 90 degrees away from the sun. Don’t let that stop you from using it elsewhere, just remember the 90 degree thing.

Also, it is generally best to use a polarizer on focal lengths of 35mm and longer.  Wide lenses smaller than 35 mm cover a lot more angle of view.  At some point in that wide angle view the effect of the polarizer begins to lessen.  If you are shooting something with sky, for instance, you will see a deeper blue sky where the filter has its greatest polarization, and a drop off of that blue as the distance from the greatest polarization increases.

On very rare occasion I used to use an 81A or 81B warming filter, but on digital cameras I have perhaps become lazy by changing the color cast on the body or in the computer.  Changing the color balance in the computer over a very wide range is a useful tool, but frankly, it is bad photographic methodology.  I am using this as a trade off to save weight and expense.  The best thing to do is to shoot the finest possible photograph with the tools you have in the field, then make the fewest changes possible on your computer.

I use split neutral density filters as required, and I find these are extremely important tools to have available.  For colorful sunrises and sunsets a graduated split neutral density filter or two of them stacked can be absolute necessity. These can be used in two basic forms, gray and colored.

This photo is shot into the sun with a 3 stop soft edge split neutral density filter and a 2 stop reverse grad filter mounted in front of the camera lens by a Lee Filter holder.      (click on photo to enlarge)

Either type of split neutral density filter is most often used at sunrise or sunset to balance a lighter area and a darker area, but they have application elsewhere in photography.  When shooting a sunrise or sunset the sky is often considerably brighter than the foreground.  A 2, 3, or 4 stop soft or hard edge split neutral density filter will darken a bright part of the frame so the entire photograph can be normally exposed.  The split is positioned along the horizon and is not seen in the photograph as the color of the filter should blend with the rest of the scene.

Gray filters are used when you want the true colors of the scene to appear in your photo.  Half of the filter is colored gray.  They have a hard edge, meaning the gray goes to clear abruptly, or a soft edge meaning the gray goes to clear gradually.  I find 2 & 3 stop filters of both styles are a necessary part of my kit.  They can be stacked to get a total of 5 stops.  A 4 stop filter is next on my list.  If I stack 2 filters I can get a 7 stop variance that way.

Colored filters are used when you want to change the color of the sky.  For instance Coffee filters (actually the color of coffee with cream) often appear in photographs or movies. The real sky does not have a coffee color, but it can make a very effective image.  Lots of other colors exist to entice you.

Other split neutral density filters can add color across most or all of the photo.  A sunset filter works this way. Depending on the manufacturer it is colored red orange to yellow over most or all of its length.  Personally I don’t favor sunset filters.  I believe they give the photo an artificial color hue.


Enhancing Filters

For a while I used enhancing filters, but I have avoided them since 2003.  Occasionally they render very useful and remarkable colors, but more often will give strange color shifts.  They often fool the meter by 1/2 stop or more.  Because of this bracketing becomes a defensive behavior with enhancing filters.  Most interesting is that the enhancing filter is perhaps the most controversial in a photographer’s bag.

I was at a workshop in 2003 hosted by two very famous photographers.  Each of the photographs they showed to the class was technically perfect and compositionally wonderful.  They were 8s, 9s, & 10s.  At the workshop each of the students got to show some of their work.  I showed a few of my photographs, some of which are reproduced here.  Most got good reviews.  One caught flak.  I was asked if I had used an enhancing filter.  The answer was yes.  One of the workshop photographers did not approve of enhancing filters because he believed they distort the light and fool the viewer.

This leads me into technical photo arguments, which I do not propose to answer here except by my personal actions.  The workshop leader/ photographer mentioned is well known in landscape and still life.  He has published books, and is an expert in Photoshop.  He knows all the tricks.  He can blend two photographs to make one.  He can extend color range, make masks, fill in blown out portions of film, apply gradients, play with layers, etc., etc.  But he wouldn’t accept enhancing filters.  Everything else seemed to be OK, but enhancers were out of the question.

I have already stated it is preferable to make the best photo you can in the camera before using the computer.  I also feel that for a landscape photographer there should exist a point of truth in each photo.  Thus I try, not always successfully, to use the least amount of computer change or enhancement.  I can’t tell you where this point of truth is because it often boils down to a trade off with art, and that too is what many of us try to do.

But some things are certain and some are compromise.  Whether electronic or manual, digital or film, reality is changed when you shoot a photo.  A photo is often an excellent imitator of reality, but it is not reality.  Furthermore, as time passes our memory of an event fades, but our opinion of the event seems to become more and more firm in our minds.

How does this relate to photography?  It means that as a photographer the light we capture is changed to deceive the viewer and ourselves whether we try to make a deception or not.

That should be very controversial, but it is true.  No matter how we try we are only reproducing a moment in time using the tools and skills we have available.

Let me pick on black and white photography.  I love B&W.  It is considered classic, high art, dramatic, serious, you name it.   Many photographers change from color to B&W as their skills increase.  I am one of them.  If I can render an image in B&W successfully I often prefer it over its original color image.

Yet black & white is pure artifice.   It is artifice because very few things in nature exist in black & white.  Most things exist in color.

It is also artifice because it is recorded with man made devices such as Cameras, film, digital files, etc.  These devices can render a scene very accurately, but not quite perfectly at least not perfectly in regards to our memory of an event.  As I said in the Philosophy opener, the simplest snapshot is a managed slice of time with a particular point of view, all orchestrated by the photographer.

I had another instructor in a different workshop.  He had a totally different philosophy on filters.  He didn’t use them at all.  He didn’t like filters, any filter, and never used them.  He had a very good reason for this.  He was an excellent Ilfachrome printer.  In the darkroom if he wanted more yellow he added yellow pigment.  There was no reason for him to use filters. In the lab he would blend any color he wanted.

I know of other famous photographers who use the enhancing filter and successfully so.  It is part of their bag of tricks.  I even met one fellow, a fellow workshop attendee, who bought 3 different brands of enhancers, went to one place and shot the same photo with each filter to compare results.

What is right is really up to the individual photographer.  There are a few photographs in this book with enhancing filters.  They are mentioned as such in case anyone has a thing about this.  Below I show an enhanced and a non enhanced view of the same scene.  I suggest you look at these.

After all these years the important parts of my field kit has boiled down to camera, lens, skylight or UV filter, circular polarizer, hard and soft edge split neutral density filter, tripod, flash, 18% gray card, 1% spot meter, and remote shutter release.  Oh yes, and something I almost never use, but carry just in case, an enhancing filter.

Why is the enhancer picked on?  My unnamed instructor was right.  For me, at least, I have decided it distorts reality too much, and distorts it more so than other tools used in the field.

Otherwise, the answer about enhancing filters is up to you.




San Xavier del Bac, AZ.  Left with the enhancing filter, right with no enhancing filter.  Both photos shot near noon off the same roll of film.  This is an example where use of the enhancing filter may be a preferable choice.

The Grand Canyon, AZ. looking west in the late afternoon from Pt. Sublime, shot with an enhancing filter.  This examples renders an artificial color.)

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