You may think that filters are no longer necessary and that you can accomplish everything you need in your photo editing software.
You’d be wrong.
Filters still play a vital role in photography. Controlling the amount and quality of light that reaches your sensor is essential to creating high-quality images. But keep in mind that adding a filter in front of your expensive lens can have negative effects as well. So avoid the cheap filters that camera stores try to bundle in with their cameras. Better to go without one for now and save up for a quality filter.
Here are the ones we recommend…
Circular Polarizing Filter
The circular polarizer is probably the first filter you want to get. This type of filter will help you control reflections and glare off shiny and wet surfaces. It will also let you eliminate the reflections of the top of water and allow you to see (and photograph) whats under the surface more clearly.
Another type of polarizing filter is a “linear polarizer” but don’t get those. They were useful back in the film days but don’t work with digital cameras.
Our Recommendation: Breakthrough Photography X4 CPL
I’m going to be honest here. All of our top recommendations for filters are going to come from Breakthrough Photography (at least until another company can produce something better). We have no affiliation with the company. They just produce great quality glass.
PRO TIP: You don’t need a separate filter for every size lens. Just get all your filters in the 82mm size.
From there you just need a step up ring for any lens that has a filter diameter smaller than 82mm. For example, if you have a lens that takes 77mm filters, you just need to use a 77mm to 82mm step up ring.
Neutral Density Filter (“ND”)
The Neutral Density (“ND”) filter is the best friend of the landscape photographer.
An ND filter blocks a specified amount of light from reaching your lens without affecting the color or sharpness of the image (at least the best ones do). This allows you to shoot at longer shutter speeds (and get all the cool effects that slow shutter speeds provide) even when it’s not dark enough outside.
Portrait photographers will find these useful as well. An ND filter can make it possible to shoot at wide open apertures (and blur your background) even in the brightest of sunny conditions. They can also be helpful if you are using a flash during the day.
Our Recommendation: Breakthrough Photography X4 ND
Just like the CPL above, the Breakthrough Photography ND filter is the best on the market. As an added bonus, it’s not the most expensive. You could pay upwards of $400 for an ND filter and still not get the sharpness and color neutrality of the Breakthrough filters.
Start with the 3-stop and the 6-stop before you go for the 10-stop. You can always stack the 3-stop and 6-stop together if you need more strength. Eventually you’ll want to have a 10-stop as well.
Breakthrough also has a 15-stop which is overkill for 99% of shots, but can let you create some cool long exposure shots even in daylight.
Graduated ND Filter
This filter is similar to an ND filter in that it blocks a specified number of stops of light from reaching your lens. The difference is that it only blocks the light on half the frame. This allows you to darken half the image and not the other half. The typical use case for a graduated ND filter is to darken the sky and not the ground so that you can capture the entire range of brightness is a single shot.
The graduated filter may be one filter that is becoming obsolete as a result of improved post processing. You can accomplish virtually the same thing by taking 2 shots of different exposures (bracketing your shots) and blending them later in Photoshop. This take a little skill with the software but can often lead to better quality results.
Graduated ND filters don’t work too well when your horizon is uneven. Things like trees, mountains, buildings, and just about anything sticking up in front of the sky will get darkened as well. Just about the only time they work perfectly is when your horizon is the ocean or some other large body of water.
Our Recommendation: None…learn to blend images in Photoshop instead
A UV filter does exactly what it sounds like, it blocks UV rays. May people also buy it to “protect” the front of their lens. A UV filter has absolutely zero positive effect on your image quality and the lower quality UV filters can hurt your image quality.
The only time they might be useful is if you are shooting in harsher conditions and want to keep the conditions off your lens. For example, a windy day at the beach where the sand is blowing in your face might be a good time to use a UV filter. However, you can also just use a polarizing filter for those rare instances.
Our Recommendation: None…save your money and get something more useful.
Filter Holder Systems
A filter holder system is a necessary piece of kit IF you are using square filters.
Keep in mind that some lenses have front elements that stick out. For these you will likely need a specialized filter holder system AND larger square filters. These can be very helpful when shooting landscapes and stronger ND filters. The holder easily snaps on and off so you can get your focus and composition while the scene is visible, then snap on the holder with the filter in it and take the photo.
Our Recommendation: Breakthrough Photography X100 Holder
If you’re going to go with the Breakthrough filters, then you might as well get their holder. Actually, as far as holders go, it’s one of the less expensive options out there at $49.00 and it’s every bit as good as any of the options out there.
Variable ND Filters
Variable ND filters are a tempting option for some beginners. You can have one filter and adjust it to varying degress of ND strength. They do this by putting two pieces of glass together on one filter. As you rotate the front one, the glass matches up in some way to block more or less of the light.
The downside to variable ND filters is that by the very nature of how they work, they will negatively affect image quality compared to a standard (single strength) ND filter. They simply aren’t as good. Better to get 1 or 2 standard ND filters to start and pass on the variable.
However, if you want to shoot video, a variable ND filter can be very handy to have. Video shooters use them all the time. The loss in image quality is less of a concern because (1) the image is moving and any sharpness loss is less perceptible, (2) even 4K video is much lower resolution than most dSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, and (3) the ability to adjust the ND strength without removing the filter is extremely valuable to video shooters and outweighs any sharpness concerns.