Filters cover a wide variety of uses. In the old days of film, filters were used to create effects that would enhance or change the way the film was exposed right in the camera. There were a whole host of filters available for many effects. Today, most of these effects can be created right in your camera, or on in your photo editing software. In fact the software usually refers to these effects as applying a filter. This makes, by and large, the purchase of filters unnecessary.
With a few notable exceptions.
There are really only two filters you must have when starting out. Then as you learn your craft and increase your skill, you can add a couple more. More than that, for the most part are not necessary.
Below is the first filter you must buy immediately (really, if you don’t have this one run out to the store, or log on to Amazon and purchase it immediately after you finish this post).
UV Haze Filter
This is really not much more than a clear piece of glass. Determine what size you need (see below) buy one for your lens, clean the lens, then screw it on and NEVER take it off. If you have more than one lens, buy one for each leans. This is the most important filter you can purchase. It protects your lens from dirt, scratches and damage if the camera is dropped lens down in the dirt. Better to damage a $10.00 filter than a lens that may cost a several hundred dollars to replace.
The other good thing is that the filter protects the delicate coating of your lens from wearing off through repeated cleanings. Make sure the lens is clean before you put the filter on, then from that day forward you only need to clean the filter –not the lens. All lenses are coated with a non-glare coating that makes for clear, sharp images. More expensive lenses have better coatings. Repeated cleanings can wear this coating off. Filters also have coatings. Repeated cleanings can also wear the coating off. You may notice eventually a brighter, hazy area in the center of your image –a sign the coating is worn off. Honestly, it has never happened to me. But, better to have the coating wear off of a $10 UV filter than a $600 zoom lens.
Circular Polarizing Filter
This filter is the second most important filter to buy. If you enjoy taking landscapes this is a good addition to your camera bag. You screw it on right over the UV filter.
Polarizing Filter Used. It work best if you have a nice blue sky and if there are white puffy clouds and you are standing at right angles to the sun, but it will have some effect no matter where you stand. Frame your shot and slowly turn the rotating front part of the filter until you see the blue sky turn a nice deep blue. As you continue to rotate the filter you will see the sky begin to lighten again. Turn the filter until the sky is the shade you like, then take your shot.
The photograph leading this Post was taken with a Circular Polarizing filter. The shot at the left is the same shot, without the filter. See the difference?
Polarizing Filters are also great for reducing reflection in glass, or if your subject is wearing glasses, as well as glare on the surface of water.
One thing to be aware of: If you wear polarized sunglasses, that will mess with your view of the shot through the viewfinder when using a polarizing filter. If you wear glasses like me, and have a pair of subscription sunglasses, bring your regular glasses to use when using your polarizing filter.
Determining the Right Size
Yes, size matters. You need to be sure to buying the right size filter (or step ring and new lens cap) for your lens. Look for this symbol on the barrel of the Lens; it will tell you what filter size to get for that particular lens.
If you have more than one lens, buy your circular polarizing filter (and other special effects filters) to fit the largest lens in your camera bag. Then for your other lenses buy a step down ring to screw on your other lenses that will adapt to the larger filter. If you leave the step-ring on permanently, you will also need to buy new lens caps to fit the step ring. It’s a trade-off between convenience and the cost of the step ring and lens caps. Still a much less expensive method than buying polarizing filters for each different lens size.
The cost of various filters can have a huge range in pricing from $5.00 to $150.00. Just because it costs more does not mean it’s a better filter. Buy from a good name brand such as Tiffin or Hoya. These are the two top manufactures. If you are a Canon or Nikon owner, they also make their own brand of filters –at a significant mark-up. I usually recommend buying accessories that have an electro-mechanical component from the manufacture of your camera because they are designed and manufactured with your specific camera in mind. Not so with filters. Filters are just coated pieces of glass and it doesn’t really have any interaction with your camera’s electro-mechanical components. What does matter with the filter is the quality of the glass and coatings. A name brand such as the ones I mentioned above have a great reputation for manufacturing high quality filters. And their pricing is reasonable.
There are many other types of filters you can buy –but if you are a relatively new photographer, hold off on that temptation. First master your camera, lean the basics, and then branch out of you want. Below, though is a brief description of some other filters:
Star burst (or cross-screen): This filter has slight lines etched into the glass to produce a star burst effect on points of light. A good use for this would be Christmas tree lights, lamp post lights, the sun reflecting on water –you get the idea.
Neutral density Filters: These are like sunglasses for your camera. They reduce the amount of light entering the lens without affecting the color. These filters come in various darkness strengths and can be stacked to reduce more and more light. The best application for then is when you are in a brightly light situation and want to use an extremely long shutter speed (review my posts on exposure if this is not clear to you).
Graduated Density Filters: Like the neutral density filter it reduces the amount of light entering into the camera, however only half the filter is dark (the top part or the bottom part depending on how you use it). They may be used when the sky is very bright and the bottom part of the picture is dark. The filter will assist in blocking out some of the light from the brightly light part, so your shot is not underexposed for the dimly light part. The drawback is that since the coating is only on half the filter, your horizon line will always need to be right down the middle of the shot (Remember the Rule of Thirds?). You may need to crop the shot in post-production if you want to change it to conform to the Rule.
Close-up Filters: These filters are like eyeglasses for your camera. If you like taking close-ups of flowers, bugs or other interesting objects, you can put these on the front of your lens and get that “macro” shot. They are certainly cheaper than buying a macro lens. However, they are also less effective and can cause significant loss of detail and sharpness. If you get into macro photography, better to save up some money and buy a macro lens.
Check out my Ron’s Recommendations Page for UV Filters and Polarizing Filters.