Landscape Photography: Using Filters

As a landscape photographer, one who would rather spend more time behind the camera and less time behind the keyboard, getting it right in camera at the time of capture is extremely important to me. What’s one easy way you can achieve this? Filters.

Here is a list of the landscape photography filters I use along with a few tips, tricks, dos and don’ts to help you get the perfect shot with minimal editing.

While many of the traditional filters used by landscape photographers today can be duplicated with image editing software, one in particular, the circular polarizer, can not.

Even with those that can, the effects are often not as natural looking as they would be if a filter was on the front of the lens when the picture was made.

The biggest reason I use filters rather than rely on software is sheer laziness. I like to keep my post processing time per image to 10 minutes or less, 5 minutes or less is even better. Using filters at the time of capture means there is one less thing I have to potentially correct for while in the computer, therefore speeding up my work flow.

When I go out on a shoot there are three types of filters I bring with me all the time, a circular polarizer, a few graduated neutral density filters(GND’s), and a 4-stop straight neutral density filter. I don’t use them all for every shot, sometimes I use one or more in combination with each other. Sometimes I don’t use any at all, but I have them with me just in case.

My most used lens filters.

Here is a list of the filters I use along with a few tips, tricks, dos and don’ts that I’ve picked up along the way.

Sunglasses for your camera lens.

Starting with my most used is the circular polarizer. The primary benefit of the circular polarizer is its ability to control glare and reflections on wet and shiny surfaces, just like sunglasses do for your eyes. It’s this effect that make it my most used filter and also makes it the one filter that can’t be duplicated in photo editing software.  I’m sure most of you have seen those sunglass displays with the picture of the watery nature scene that, when you put on the sunglasses you can now see a fish in the water, that’s what a circular polarizing filter can do for you.

If I’m shooting moving water of any kind, my CPL is on my lens. Its ability to cut through the glare and reflections on the waters surface allows me to capture the stream bed below, showing detail that would otherwise be lost. The effects are also adjustable too, so you can dial in the amount you want. The filter is adjusted by rotating the outer ring of the filter to the desired effect.

Below are two images of the same scene. In the first I’ve adjusted the filter so there is no effect, and in the second I’ve adjusted it to achieve the fullest effect.

Water scene without polarizer effect.

Without polarizer

Water scene with polarizer.

With polarizer

Notice how the reflection of the sky and green from the surrounding trees is greatly  reduced, and how the stones under the water are much more visible in the second, polarized photo.

Polarizer tips

1- Buy the best filter you can afford. Cheap filters can add a color cast to your photo that you will then have to correct for during post processing. Expect to spend between $80 and $150 or so for a decent circular polarizer.

2-  Don’t forget to adjust the filter. This is not a “set it and forget it” filter. The greatest effect of a CPL is at 90° to the sun, (or other light source), with almost zero effect looking straight towards or straight away from the sun, so once you’ve set up your shot and adjusted the filter, you’ll need to readjust it if you’ve moved your camera to try another composition, since your angle to the light source has also changed.

I’ve had to reshoot many photos because I forget this simple step.

3 – Buy a filter for you lens with the largest diameter filter threads you own.  Since good circular polarizers aren’t cheap, I recommend buying one good one that fits your largest diameter lens, then buy step down rings so you can use the same filter on all of your lenses. For example, my Canon 17-40 has 77mm filter threads, my Canon 70-200 has 67mm threads. A $20 step-down ring was a lot nicer that buying a $150 filter for each lens.

4 – Don’t use your CPL on a very wide angle lens while photographing a wide scenic landscape. One effect of the CPL is that it does a great job of darkening the sky. However, as I mention above, the effects of the filter are greatest at 90° to the light source, lessoning as that angle decreases. As in the photo below, using your polarizer while photographing a wide landscape will result in uneven polarization. As a result, the sky can be darker on one end of the photo(below photo), gradually getting lighter across the frame. Or, you could have a much darker sky in the center of the frame that gets lighter towards the right and left of the photo. Neither is desirable, both will take a ton of post processing work to try to correct.

Uneven polarization on a wide scene.

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Balancing the light and the dark with GNDs.

Graduated Neutral Density filters, commonly referred to as GND’s are rectangular filters that are clear on one end and dark on the other. These filters are used to balance the exposures when you have a foreground that is much darker than the sky, a very common occurrence when photographing landscapes during the early and late “golden hours” around sunrise and sunset.

Graduated Neutral Density filters come in two types, hard edge and soft edge. And they also come in varying darkness levels, measured in stops of light. The hard or soft describes the transition between the dark and light areas of the filter, with the soft edge (see first photo) having a more gradual transition.

Sunrise sky and the darker foreground mountains.

Which lens do I use when?

The soft edge GND is best used when photographing scenes without a clearly defined horizon, such as this mountain sunrise above. In this case I used a three-stop, soft edge GND that allowed me to darken the sky and capture much more detail in the mountains in the foreground. Without the use of the filter I would have had two choices, get a good exposure on the sky, leaving the mountains as dark silhouettes or shooting multiple exposures, one with a correct sky exposure and one for a good foreground, and then blending them in Photoshop. Remember when I said I was lazy when it comes to post processing? I chose the filter and goth the exposure I wanted in one shot.

Hard edge GND’s are best used when there is a clear horizon, such as this seascape.

dark foreground rocks and the bright pink sky along the ocean

Some GND tips.

1- To decide which stop, or darkness level filter you need you can set your camera to spot meter, then meter off of the dark foreground, then meter the bright sky and calculate the difference between the two. Or you can simple reach for the the 3-stop filter, which is what I do. I’m usually photographing early or late enough in the day when there is the most exposure difference between foreground and sky, so I now I’ll need my darkest filter to balance the two.

2- Here again, buy the best you can afford.

3- Stay away from the screw on type graduated neutral density filters. Unless of course you intend to place the horizon through the center of the frame in every photo you make. A composition no-no!

4- You can either use a filter holder, which consists of a metal ring that screws to the front of your lens, and a plastic or metal adaptor that fits to the ring that the filters slide into. Or you can carefully hand hold them in front of the lens.

5- The filters are meant to be adjusted, that’s why they’re rectangular, so you can slide them up and down in the holder depending on where your horizon is.

6- GND’s are very easily replicated with image editing tools like Adobe Lightroom, which means you can save money by using software, at the expense of time having to use software to correct the photo after the fact.

Slowing things down with neutral density filters.

Straight neutral density filters, or ND’s, come in varying degrees of darkness, again measured in stops of light, unlike graduated neutral density filters though, ND’s are the same darkness level throughout the filter. ND’s can be found with as little as one stop of light reducing darkness to as much as 10. They are also available as slide in filters, just light their graduated cousins, or screw on filters. To give even more flexibility, there are also adjustable screw on types that have a range from 2 to 8 stops of light reduction. The latter can be quite expensive, as in good ones can cost over $300.

Neutral density tips

I use my ND filters in two ways.

1- When I want to get a really silky smooth, ghostly appearance to incoming surf on the seacoast, an ND filter allows me to get really long exposures that turn the surf into smoke.

Long exposure surf.
2- The second way I use ND filters is to capture wind blown clouds with really long exposures, as in this photo from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.

Long exposure windswept clouds

ND filter tips.

I really only have two.

1- Buy good ones. “Now where have I heard that before?”

2- get creative with them. Long exposures can be really fun to create as you never know what you’ll get until the exposure’s over.

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