Camera Lens Filter Guide

The white balance feature employed by digital cameras negates most color added by external filters attached to your lens. However, there are several types of filters that still work and should be included in your camera bag.

lens filter guide

“Golden Sunrise Redrock National Preserve” by nathan mccreery

UV Filters

It’s true that most lenses have excellent UV coatings, so putting a UV filter on your lens is a bit redundant. Yet, these ‘clear’ lenses can still provide protection from things that scratch like, dirt, sea water, branches. etc. It’s much cheaper to replace a $20 filter than it is to repair or replace the front element of your lens. Some may argue that you shouldn’t put a cheap filter on an expensive lens, but the quality of the filters these days is good, and the protection a filter provides far outweighs any loss of quality.

Polarizing Filters

Circular polarizing filters are designed to cut highlights and specular highlights. They also turn your sky blue and can make white puffy clouds really stand out. By turning the outside of the filter, you can adjust how much polarization you want. To maintain a natural looking image, you should only use the lower (least) half. If you use too much, your the sky will be too blue and the contrast too high, leaving you with a distorted looking image. Play around with the filter to see which setting work best for you.

These filters work very well on water as they remove most of the specular highlights and enable you to see into the water instead of just the surface. These filters work best on sunny days and are most effective used at a 90 degree angle to the sun. Regardless of what the salesman in the camera shop says, unless you have reflections, polarizing filters are not effective on cloudy days.

polarizer filter example

“Yosemite” by Tom Gibson

Keep in mind that using a polarizer will reduce the amount of light through your lens by .75 – 2 stops depending on how much you use. In order to avoid any potential metering errors, make sure to get a circular (not linear) polarizer for your DSLR. You cannot replicate the effects of a circular polarizer in Photoshop. It is possible to simulate some of the effects, but for cutting highlights, use a polarizer. Many pros consider this filter to be an essential part of their kit and never leave home without one.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Graduated neutral density filters are clear on one half and slightly darker on the other. By aligning the darker half with a light sky, you can balance the contrast in an image enabling you to meter more effectively. These are usually rectangular and require a filter holding system that screws onto the front of your lens. These filters come in different densities or ‘stops’ (darkness) and are usually graduated, meaning there is a smooth transition from one end to the other. This ensures the filter is not visible in your shot. These work particularly well for landscape images with a dark foreground and light sky.

Neutral Density Filters

These are similar to a graduated filter, but they’re consistently dark from one end to the other. They do not add or affect the color, but intentionally darken your image. If you are shooting a river scenic on a bright day, there may be too much light for you to slow down the image enough to blur the water. Using a neutral density filter will darken your image enough for you to use a shutter speed slow enough to blur the rushing water. These filters usually come in 2 or 3 stop varieties.

neutral density filter example

“How Deep” by Tony Taffinder

A Few Notes About Filters

  1. Most of these filters can be replicated in retouching programs like Photoshop, though the techniques can be advanced and time consuming. For simple warming or cooling filters, simply add a “Photo Filter” layer and choose the color temperature you want. To replicate the graduated neutral density filter you must shoot the image twice. Expose once for the foreground or darker part of the image, and then for the second shot, expose correctly for the light part of the image. Then combine the two images in Photoshop. This works best for still images, since it is very difficult to blend images that do not match up exactly. Keep in mind that extensive adjustments in Photoshop can degrade the quality of your image.
  2. When purchasing any round filter for your lenses, the size of the front element should be marked on or near the front of the lens. The size is usually given in mm.
  3. The adage, “You get what you pay for,” holds true when buying filers. The moderate and more expensive filters will be of much higher quality. When buying filters, look for coated or super-coated filters. For round filters, Tiffin and Hoya make good filters at reasonable prices. B+W and Heliopan are excellent but a bit more expensive. For square or rectangle filters (NDG or ND Filters) Singh-Ray, Hi-Tech, and Lee all make very high quality filters. These filters also require a holder, so make sure that the filters you buy fit your holder (e.g. square filter in a holder designed for a rectangle). Conkin makes popular holders.
lens filters photography

“Cape Lookout Dusk” by Thomas Matthew Way

Though many filters can be replicated in Photoshop, several should still be in your bag. Have them ready, learn to use them, and you can bring your images to the next level.

About the Author
Colin McNulty has worked as a Natural History Guide and Professional Photographer for over 18 years. He now operates an Adventure Travel site where he offers natural history expeditions to remote destinations around the world. For more information on photography and exciting destinations, visit

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2 responses to “Camera Lens Filter Guide”

  1. Alana says:

    Thanks for this summary. I’m about to embark on my filter journey!

  2. Ylinkal says:

    Lens filters are transparent or translucent glass or gelatin elements that attach to the front of a lens. They protect the camera lens, alter the characteristics of light passing through the lens or add special effects and colors to an image. They come in two types — screw-in filters and slot-in filters.

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