Photography / Buying Guide

A Guide to Filters for Lenses

         

My lens came with a lens cap, so why do I need a filter?

If you ask most consumer-camera owners why they keep a filter on their lens, a majority will most likely reply, “For protection.” Although filters do, in fact, protect the surface of your lens against dust, moisture and the occasional thumb print, the primary function of lens filters is really to improve the image quality of the pictures you take—depending on the filter you’re using and how you use it—in a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

Are there a few basic filters or do I need to buy many filters?

The most basic filters are ultra-violet reducing filters (UV), Skylight filters and protection filters, which depending on the manufacturer are either glass filters with basic anti-reflective coatings, or in some cases, merely plainclothes UV filters, which isn’t dishonest. To keep the front element of your lens clean and safe, any of the above will suffice, but if you’re looking to protect your lens and improve the image quality of your stills and video, you’re going to want to purchase a UV or Skylight filter.

Without UV haze filter (L); with UV haze filter (R)

UV filters, also referred to as Haze filters, are designed to cut through the effects of atmospheric haze, moisture and other forms of airborne pollutants, each of which contributes to image degradation. UV/Haze filters are available in varying strengths. If you plan on photographing near large bodies of open water, at higher altitudes, in snow or other conditions that magnify the intensity of ambient ultra-violet light, you should definitely consider a stronger level of UV filtration (UV-410, UV-415, UV-420, UV-Haze 2A, UV-Haze 2B, UV-Haze 2C and UV-Haze 2E). Depending on the strength of the UV coatings, UV filters appear clear, or in the case of heavier UV coatings, have a warm, amber-like appearance and require anywhere from zero to about a half stop of exposure compensation.

An alternative to UV/Haze filters are Skylight filters, which are available in a choice of two strengths—Skylight 1A and Skylight 1B. Unlike UV/Haze filters, which have a warm amber appearance, Skylight filters have a magenta tint that is preferable when photographing skin tones or using color slide film, which depending on the film stock often has a blue bias that is typically counterbalanced by the magenta tint of Skylight filters.

Regardless of their strength, skylight filters do not have any effect on the camera exposure, are equal to UV filters in terms of cutting through atmospheric haze and protect your lens against dust, moisture and fingerprints that can all be damaging to lens coatings if not removed in a timely manner.

I’ve found 52mm UV filters for as little as $9.95 and as much as $29.95. What’s the difference and why should one UV filter cost two or three times more than another?

Even though one UV filter might appear indistinguishable from another UV filter costing two or three times as much, the differences between them can be considerable, beginning with the quality of the glass used in the manufacturing process. Though one would suspect there’s little difference between one piece of glass and another, make no mistake about it—there’s glass and there’s glass, and the differences can make a difference in the quality of your images.

The primary criteria of good glass versus so-so glass are the chemical composition of the glass, how it was made and even where it was made. These are followed by the thickness of the glass (the thinner, the better) and the coatings used to minimize flare and maintain optimal color and contrast levels. Although the differences between an inexpensive filter and a pricier filter may not be all that apparent when photographing with a kit zoom lens, they become increasingly obvious when used with costlier, higher-performance lenses.

In the case of color and Polarizing filters, which typically consist of a thin layer of color film (or Polarizing material) sandwiched between two layers of glass, the film is usually bonded to the glass layers in pricier filters. This eliminates air surfaces and other irregularities that can negatively affect the optical purity of the filter when compared to less expensive filters designed to perform the same functions.

The other difference between entry-level filters and the pricier versions has to do with the retaining rings, which in the case of cheaper filters are invariably made of aluminum (a relatively soft metal) that are subject to denting and jamming if they're not screwed on straight. Conversely, the retaining rings used on pricier filters are most always made of brass and as such are less likely to get jammed onto your lens or dent when they strike hard surfaces.

The bottom line is if you go the extra mile (and expense) by purchasing a better lens, you shouldn’t compromise the results of your investments by saving a few dollars on the filter.

What are Kaeseman filters and why are they priced noticeably higher than regular filters?

Kaeseman filters, which are invariably Polarizing filters, are manufactured with more weatherproofing seals than non-Kaeseman filters. They are worthy investments if your photographic interests include traveling to and working in damp, extreme climates.

Aside from UV/Haze and Skylight filters, what other types of filters should I consider for everyday picture-taking?

If you photograph landscapes—or any outdoor scenics for that matter—you should certainly have a Polarizing filter handy at all times. Polarizing filters are best known for making clouds seemingly pop out from darkened blue skies, saturating colors and eliminating glare and reflections from the surfaces of water, glass and other polished surfaces.

Without polarizing filter (L); with polarizing filter (R)

Polarizing filters are mounted in a secondary ring that you manually rotate while viewing your subject through the viewfinder until you dial in the desired level of Polarization. The downside of Polarizing filters is that you lose about three stops of light in the process of optimizing the image, but the results cannot be mimicked using Photoshop plug-ins or other forms of post-capture voodoo.

Polarizing filters are also available combined with additional filtration such as warming filtration (81A, 81C, 81EF, 85, 85B), Enhancing and Intensifying, Skylight, UV/Haze and a measure of diffusion.

Polarizing filters are available in two formats: linear and circular. Though they look and perform identically, circular Polarizing filters are designed specifically for use with autofocus lenses while linear are best used with manual-focus lenses. Circular Polarizers, on the other hand, can be used with AF or MF optics with equal results.

What are Neutral Density filters and how would I use them?

Neutral density (ND) filters are essentially gray-toned filters designed to absorb calibrated degrees of light as it passes through the lens. Most commonly broken down in 1/3, 2/3 and full-stop increments, ND filters are more recently also available as variable-density filters that you can infinitely adjust by rotating the filter on its mount as you would a Polarizing filter.

There are many applications for ND filters. Chief among them is their ability to allow you to shoot at wider f-stops under bright lighting conditions. ND filters are used extensively by filmmakers and videographers as tools that allow them better exposure control due to the limited shutter-speed options afforded by the cinema and video process.

ND filters also make it possible to blur the movement of pedestrian traffic and flowing water under bright lighting conditions by allowing you to drop your shutter speeds while maintaining full control of how much or how little depth of field you desire, based on the amount of ND filtration you place in front of the lens.

What’s the difference between Neutral Density and Graduated Neutral Density Filters?

Neutral density filters are even, edge to edge, in their degree of density while graduated neutral density filters are typically clear on one end and slowly build up density toward the opposite side of the filter. Graduated ND filters are most commonly used to even out scenes containing extreme exposure variations on opposite sides of the frame.

Without graduated neutral density filter (L); with graduated neutral density filter (R)

Examples of these types of scenarios include landscapes in which the top of a mountain is bathed in sunlight, while the valley below lies in shade; and multi-story atriums where the primary source of illumination is an overhead skylight from which the light gradually falls off as it approaches the lower levels. Graduated filters can also be used in evenly lit areas to darken the sky or foreground for stylistic reasons.

In addition to neutral graduated filters, colored grad filters are also available, and are useful for adding a touch of subliminal color into a scene while darkening the foreground or background.

Should I consider warming and cooling filters?

While warming (adding yellow to the scene) and cooling (adding blue to the scene) can be applied to an image file post capture in Photoshop or other image-editing software, there are still those—including film shooters, who prefer to filter the lens at the time the exposure is made.

Most photographers warm or cool their images for aesthetic or mood reasons. A bit of warming is often desired for portraits, or when photographing at midday during the summer months when the sun's light can be bluer and harsh. Warming can also be effective when taking pictures on overcast or rainy days.

Conversely, cooling filters can be used to correct color in images in which the color temperature is too warm to suit your intentions. Warming filters include all 81 and 85-series filters, and cooling filters include all 80 and 82-series filters.

When using cooling, warming and other color filters with digital cameras, it’s important to set the White Balance to a setting close to the ambient color temperature, i.e. Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, Fluorescent, etc., and avoid Auto WB, which will intuitively try to correct, according to its own parameters, the mood and tone you’re trying to establish. Auto WB may not render results that are in agreement with your personal vision.

I’ve heard landscape photographers talk about Enhancing and Intensifying filters. What makes them so special?

Enhancing  and Intensifying filters are modified to cut some of the orange portion of the color spectrum, which results in higher saturation levels in reds and cleaner, less muddy interpretation of earth tones. They are especially popular for photographing fall foliage and landscapes.

I’ve seen photographers using red, green, yellow, and other color filters. Aside from making everything look red, green, yellow, etc, when should I consider using color filters?

While color filters do make everything look red, yellow, green or whatever color you might place in front of the lens, their most common use is for black-and-white photography.

When shooting black and white, the color of the filter being used blocks that color from reaching the film (or sensor) surface, which depending on the filter color and subject matter, can drastically change its tonal qualities. As an example, shooting through a yellow filter better delineates clouds against blue skies. Orange filters further darken blue skies and make the clouds pop more, and red filters darken blue skies even more and make the clouds pop out most dramatically.

Green filters on the other hand, are effective at improving skin tones in black-and-white portraits.

What are color-correction filters used for?

Color-correction filters, also called cc filters, consist of cyan, magenta, yellow, red, green and blue filters. Each of these is available in 10% increments and is used for modifying or correcting the color balance of mismatched or irregular light sources. The need for cc filters is not as great in these digital days as it was in the time of film. Nevertheless, they are still used by many photographers who would rather correct their images at the time of capture.

Without warming filter (L); with warming filter (R)

As with warming, cooling and other color filters, it’s advisable to avoid the Auto WB setting on your digital camera when using cc filters and instead choose daylight, overcast, tungsten, fluorescent or whatever setting is closest to the ambient lighting conditions under which you’re working.

Are there filters other than the glass screw-on types?

Aside from the glass screw-on filters most photo enthusiasts and pros depend on, there are also polyester, gelatin and resin filters, which are used for both creative as well as technical applications. Usually square or rectangular in form, these filters are most commonly used with filter holders or matte boxes that fit in front of the lens via screw-in or friction mount filter holder adapters. The filters are dropped into place in slots that keep the filters flat and parallel to the front lens surface in order to maintain optimal image quality.

Are polyester, gelatin or resin filters better than glass filters?

It depends on what you mean by "better." If you mean sharper, some of these filters, especially the thinner resin and gelatin filters—depending on the brand and material—are optically purer than glass. They are also lighter to transport, and if you plan on purchasing an entire series of filters, these alternatives will be less expensive than a comparable set of glass filters.

These alternative filters are also handy if you have lenses with differing filter threads. All you need is a single set of step-down rings, starting with the largest thread down to the smallest size, to go along with the filter holder. (These same step-down rings can also be used with screw-in glass filters if you are using lenses with differing filter thread sizes—there’s no need to purchase multiple sets of filters.)

The downside however is that non-glass filters are easily damaged and in the case of gel filters, near impossible to clean when smudged by an errant fingerprint. So if you do go this route, be extra careful when handling them and by all means invest in a box of disposable plastic or cotton gloves.

What are slim filters?

Slim filters have narrow profiles and sometimes lack threads on the forward side of the filter ring. Slim filters, which are available in almost every filter size, are designed for use with lenses featuring angles of view wider than about 74°, or the equivalent of a 28mm lens. By utilizing a thinner retaining ring, the filter is less likely to vignette the corners of the frame. Depending on the make and model, many kit zooms require thin or slim-mount filters.

What other types of filters are there?

There are many types of creative and technical filters available for pros and serious enthusiasts alike. Included among them are filters that produce prism and star-like patterns, filters for close-ups, diffusion, infrared imaging, as well as contrast control. Their creative applications are up to you!


The Takeaway

  • UV / Haze and Skylight filters protect the surface of your lens against scratches, dust, moisture and fingerprints, which in the long term can harm the lens coatings. UV / Haze and Skylight filters also minimize atmospheric haze, which results in better overall image quality. Protective filters also keep dust, moisture and fingerprints at bay, but are not as effective in cutting through atmospheric haze.
     
  • The difference between an inexpensive filter and a pricier one has to do with the quality of the glass (the costlier filter most likely contains optically purer and thinner glass), the quality of the anti-reflective and color coatings and retaining ring (better filters have brass rings instead of aluminum).
     
  • Polarizing filters reduce or eliminate distracting reflections from the surface of glass, water and other polished surfaces, darken skies, make clouds pop from their surroundings and saturate color by reducing stray ambient glare.
     
  • Polarizing filters are also available combined with warming filters, enhancing filters and diffusion filters. Weather-resistant Kaeseman Polarizers are also available for use in extreme, damp climates.
     
  • Neutral density (ND)filters block varying degrees of light from striking the imaging sensor (or film) in order to shoot at wider apertures under bright lighting conditions, blur moving objects in the frame regardless of ambient light levels and allow for better exposure control when shooting video or film.
     
  • ND and Color Graduated filters darken or tint the top or bottom (or left and right) portion of the frame while leaving the opposite side untouched. They are useful for equalizing exposures of scenes containing extreme lighting variables on opposing sides of the frame, as well as adding an element of drama to an otherwise good, but not great, image.
     
  • Enhancing and Intensifying filters are useful for intensifying the color-saturation levels of reds and other earth tones, making them desirable for landscape and foliage photography.
     
  • CC filters allow you to incrementally adjust the color levels of your cyan, magenta, yellow, red, green and blue channels.
     
  • Though most photographers rely on conventional glass screw-in filters, lens filters are also available as square and rectangular filters made out of polyester, gelatin and resin. These filters, some of which are optically purer than glass filters, require holders and extra levels of care when handled.
     
  • If you plan on using one filter on several lenses, you should purchase a slim or thin version to better ensure it won’t vignette the corners of the frame when used on a wide-angle lens.

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Discussion 21

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What does a CPL lens filter do? Thanks.   Dr. Thakur

CPL stands for "Circular Polarizer" filter which is the type of polarizer required by autofocus cameras and lenses.  Polarizing filters reduce or eliminate distracting reflections from the surface of glass, water and other polished surfaces, darken skies, make clouds pop from their surroundings and saturate color by reducing stray ambient glare.

Very informative B & H... What is the difference of ND 2 ND 4 ND 8 and what it does filtering lights?

I would respectfully disagree with the photographer who tested his glass with steel balls. Over the years I have dropped a camera or two and they always seem to land on the pavement on the edge of the end of the lens. With a UV filter in place they have landed (and broken) the filter! Simple solution-- unscrew the filter and put on a new one. Very very much less expensive. When I think clarity may be an issue, I'll take the filter off with the lens cap when ready to shoot. Yes, filters DO protect my lenses and save a bundle!!

Hi, I have a question regarding ND filters.  I recently purchased a Sony CX330 camcorder to make some personal videos, stuff for YouTube, etc. I am surprised at the excellent picture quality for such an inexpensive camera. I also bought some filters, UV, polarizer, and an ND8 to jazz things up a little. Mysteriously, when I use the ND8, the color balance shifts noticeably to the red side. I have the color balance function on the camera set to AUTO, so it should correct for minor differences, but this is a quite apparent red shift, which I can't really correct by using other color settings (like interior or tungsten).  What would make the color shift like this when using a Neutral Density filter?  I thought "neutral" was the whole point.  Thanks for the help, and if you could, please send a copy of your answer to my email address, bushfilm@gmail.com, so I'll be sure to get it.  Really appreciate the help.

C Bush

Great information. Question taking photos through a blue tinted glass window is there a filter to compensate

If you're shooting with a film camera, this is would be a situation where the light/color cast is cooled by the tinting, and use of a warmer toned filter would help.  The 81-85 series filters discussed in this article could be useful for that, (trial and error would be the method in this isntance since you likely dont have a color temperature rating for the window).  You could apply the same filters for digital, however...

For digital SLR work, the better approach I would recommend is doing a custom white balance with the white balance card on the other side of the window you're shooting through.  This would allow the camera's sensor to be trained on what is  "white" in the composition and as a result, the color scheme as shot through the window would be corrected for.  Its quick and accurate as opposed to taking test shot after test shot using the color balance filters.

I am using a canon sx40 which has the ability to use filters. When taking photos on a moving vehicle that has blue windows the photos come out blue. Which filter if any will correct this problem?

In this instance, refer to my suggestion about the custom white balance with the camera. There is no need to purchase a filter to correct this situation since it can be corrected in-camera.  Further, you can also easily correct the bluish cast using just about any photo editing software, even the free ones available online.  However if you were going to purchase a filter to correct, you would need a warming filter.  Which specific one you would need would be more of a trial and error until you find the right balance for your car window (which is another reason I recommend the custom white balance approach). 

In order to use filter on the SX40, you must first purchase (if you don't have one already) the Canon FA-DC67a filter adapter which will then allow 67mm sized filters to be mounted onto the camera.  See the links below for the filter adapter from Canon (both a Canon version and 3rd party version to choose from) and below that will be a recommended 81a color conversion filter to fit with the adapter:

http://bhpho.to/1t6sxnV

http://bhpho.to/1p5x2rm

So I currently own a 35mm film camera, and with it plenty of filters.

I am in the market for a new digital camera, but want to make sure that I purchase one that I can use those same filters on.

What do I need to look for in the specifications of the camera to makes sure that the lens has the proper threads of the right size to allow me to put those filtes on?

You'd need to regard each of your filters and take note of their filter sizes.  When looking at cameras, regard the lenses offered with it or available for it and check the filter thread size listed in the specifications.  You may find shopping for a camera or lens based soley on your current filter kit limiting or excluding other viable camera options.  If you could send us an email to askbh@bhphoto.com, and indicate what model camera, and specific lenses you have (and most importantly what specific filter sizes you have) we can then advise if the filter sizes are more commonly used sizes and what your camera/lens options would then be. Also please indicate any other particular camera features or types of photography you wish to use a new camera for, so that we may focus our recommendations to you.

Thank you I want to learn only

Hi, great article.

I have a specific question regarding the possibilities of colour filters. I am currently involved in a project to record various orthopaedic surgeries. The problem I have encountered so far is that the red tones captured by the camera are intensely red (occasionally verging on a vivid purple), and is produced by the intense surgical spotlights on the red of the blood. I need to block out some of the red tones without completely distorting whites/yellows. Is this possible with colour filters?

Kind regards

I often use colored filters when photographing on B&W film. My question though is whether I need to use a UV filter AND the colored filter. In other words, will a colored filter (yellow, orange, red, etc) also block UV light, making the UV filter unnecessary? I prefer not to stack filters because of the additional risk of lens flare/reflections.

In your guide to color filters with B/W film. The following statement may need clarification. ["When shooting black and white, the color of the filter being used blocks that color from reaching the film"].
The 'color' of the filter passes more of that 'color' to the lens and film and reduces the amount of light (outside the filter's spectral range) from reaching the lens and film. So, with a deep yellow or orange filter, photographing a sky with clouds renders the sky darker in the final print because the film was slightly underexposed to 'light blue'.
I may be getting it wrong, please review before posting.
thanks,

thank you for a very informative article.

Another excellent and to the point article. It covers the basics without bias. Thanks for sharing your knowledge so openly and precisely.

These B&H informative articles are superb. I would like to see an in depth analysis on whether it's really necessary to use a UV filter for protection. I abandoned using them for this purpose 20 years ago and never damaged a front element to my knowledge. However, having just bought my first ever Canon L Series lens, paranoia has got the better of me and I have stuck a Hoya Pro 1 filter on the front of it. Have I done this superb lens a disservice?? I really don't know. I must admit that having a filter on the lens does give me the confidence to use the camera without taking the lens cap off and on in between each and every shot.

I sell homeowners insurance in NJ besides others insurance, If you are not a professional photographer you can schdule your photo gear on your homeowners or renters policy (the same as you would jewerly) all risk coverage (minus exclusions like intention acts), it even insures against scratching or breaking a lens or filter for $18 per $1,000 coverage.  I am an amateur photographer and have all my photo gear (about $9,000 for $162 per year) schduled to cover it against theft, scratching, breakage, water damage, if I loose it etc.  I checked with my insurance company with each of the listed incidents and they are all covered and they will pay up to the scheduled value with no deductible to be replaced with like kind and quality, they will even allow you to upgrade your replacement and you pay the difference.  Check with your insurance carrier to see how they would cover your gear as an amateur or professional to see how they would insure it and at what cost.

i agree after getting many a photo ruined due to ghosting on my 50mm 1.8 i realized it was b/c of the uv filter, i no longer use uv filters on my glass

Sadly, the article fails to mention that the use of a filter can cause reflections between it and the low-pass filter built into the sensor assembly.  This was not a problem in the film days, but is a serious problem with digital sensors.  In many cases it makes no difference, but I've run across many cases where professional lenses had dismal performance until I removed the "protective" clear filter.  After much testing, I no longer use any filter in from of my lens unless I have a spicific need.

As far as impact protection, I'd say there is almost zero benefit.  I performed steel ball impact tests on several filters and an older lens.  All the filters broke at a force that did not even leave a mark on the lens.  The amount of force it took to mark the lens was well beyond what it took to break the filters.

In a nutshell - use filters for creative reasons, but NOT for "protection".

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