Filters and Filter Sytems for Stills Photography The what and why of stills photography filters

In the video above, professional photographer, Karl Taylor takes a look at different filter types, what they are used for, as well as recommends several systems he has been working with and why.

You might be tempted to think that in the age of image manipulation and digital editing you no longer need filters, especially for stills shooting. Well, while it might be true that you can do a lot more in post than you could back in the film days (and certainly much, much more easily), what Taylor explains in this video is that filters still have a place in modern digital photography both in the studio and outdoors.

The different types of lens filters

There are quite a few types of filters that can benefit a photographer and help achieve a specific effect or look. Taylor mentions five of them:

  1. Polarizing filter – this type of filter helps to cut reflections (from glass/water, etc.) or enhance the contrast in the skies. There are both linear and circular versions (the circular are more popular and they do not interfere with AF systems).
  2. Neutral density filters (ND) – these filters are similar to sunglasses and they cut down the light to a specific degree. There are also variable Neutral density filters (VND) which are easier to use as you can choose the exact amount of light reduction although these come at a cost degraded image quality in many cases (as well as an X pattern near the maximum reduction limit). Some ND filters are so powerful that they can let you shoot long exposure during the daytime resulting in some really interesting and surreal images (you can also eliminate people moving in a crowded place with this method).
  3. Graduated neutral density filters (GND) – this is another subcategory of ND filters with different levels of graduation in color. You can use GND for landscape photography to reduce the brightness of the skies and bring it down to that of the rest of the image and solve the limitations of dynamic range.
  4. UV filters – while those used to have a role in the film days today they are basically another name for clear filters which many people use to protect the front element of their lens (Taylor is not a fan although we actually use protective filters on all of our lenses).
  5. Color filters – those were also used extensively back in the film days. Today they are far less common although Taylor suggests that some can be used for black and white shooting (for example a red filter can cut down blue light making skies look more dramatic).

Filter sizes and filter systems

There are two types of “systems” for attaching a filter to your camera. If you are using circular filters then you need the right size of filter for your lens. If you are going to work with more than one lens choose a filter that will fit your largest (relevant) lens and go with that and buy step-up rings for all your other lenses.

The other system uses either square or rectangular filters and those are connected to your lens via a special drop-in filter unit that connects to the lens just like a circular filter. These drop-in filters are larger (typically more expensive) but if you are using GND you will need this type of system and they are easy to put in and stack than circular filters (although with some new magnetic filter systems – this might not be true anymore – see here, but also here).

When should you use filters?

This of course depends on the filter but in general terms, filters can be very useful for shooting landscapes, water, architecture, and even outdoor portraits (to remove reflections, enhance colors, reduce light across the frame, or just in certain parts.

Taylor explains that he mostly uses ND, GND, and polarizers for landscapes, He also sometimes uses ND/GND for portraits outdoors but for product, photography polarizers are the most useful (with ND here and there).

This video and article covered stills uses for filters. Video and film have other uses (and a few other options for filters as well) although the basic principles apply to both.

You can check out more of Karl Taylor’s video we posted in the past here on LensVid. You can find all of our gear guides on our special sub-channel.

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