Photography / Buying Guide

10 Useful Filters for the Digital Age

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Photographers who demand the best from their cameras will appreciate these 10 useful filters for the digital age.

One of the most important and most used filters is the filter that’s always on your lens—the ubiquitous UV-IR Cut Filter. This filter blocks IR and UV radiation and results in photos with improved color separation and accuracy. Brands such as Heliopan and B+W are favored for their optical clarity, front and rear coatings, and brass filter rings that add strength and help prevent jamming. The benefits of a UV filter are easily appreciated and noticed when shooting landscapes on sunny, hazy days. With the filter, colors are more vivid, details more discernible, and contrast greatly increased.

B+W 82mm XS-Pro UV Haze MRC-Nano 010M Filter

Second on the filter hit parade is the estimable, variable neutral density filter. This type of filter is indispensable for shooting at wide f/stops in bright light, creating long exposures for motion blurs, and following the 180° rule when shooting video. The main benefit of using a variable over individual ND filters is space and monetary savings inherent in a single filter that can cover a roughly 2- to 8-stop exposure range. Selecting the desired amount of neutral density is as simple as rotating the filter.

B+W 77mm XS-Pro Digital ND Vario MRC-Nano Filter

Speaking of rotating filters brings us to our third useful filter—the venerable circular polarizer filter. This filter combines the haze- and exposure-reducing benefits of the UV and ND filters, and adds the capability of greatly eliminating reflections and glare. It’s especially useful when photographing reflective surfaces like water, windows, and metal. With the reduction of glare comes an increase in contrast and color saturation. Some polarizer filters feature a warm bias for enhanced earth tones—it’s a matter of artistic preference. Unlike linear polarizers of yore, circular polarizers are required for today’s camera metering functions. 

B+W 77mm XS-Pro Kaesemann High Transmission Circular Polarizer MRC-Nano Filter

I’m sure landscape photographers are growing impatient with me for not mentioning graduated neutral density filters first. Sorry. Anyone who’s ever tried to balance the exposure of a light sky with a dark foreground or the reverse situation as found on a white, sandy beach, will appreciate the usefulness of a filter that transitions from clear to one or more stops of darkening exposure reduction. GNDs are found most often as oversized rectangular filters with lens mounting systems that allow the filter to slide up or down, depending upon where the photographer wants to reduce exposure. But, you can also find round GNDs that function much like a circular polarizer.

LEE Filters Graduated Neutral Density Soft Filter Set 4 x 6"

Aficionados of night photography can confirm the usefulness of packing a cross screen star filter in their camera bags. While they can be gimmicky if applied too often, star filters add a certain amount of pizzazz and cinematic drama to otherwise humdrum photos. These filters are available in variety of flavors, with 2, 4, 6, 8, and more points. The points refer to the number of stars created from specular points of light when aimed at the sun and other bright light sources. Intensity and length of star patterns will vary depending upon the lens aperture chosen. Rotating cross screen star filters allows the photographer to position the direction of the points as desired.

Hoya 77mm 4x Cross Screen Star Effect Glass Filter

Photographers craving a vintage look need look no further than getting a Formatt Hitech Golden Sepia Filter. Of course, in the digital age it’s easy to create a variety of sepia effects during image editing. However, for purists or for photographers who simply want to see the effect as they’re shooting—there’s nothing like the real thing. And it’s not just the end result, but the process and how seeing the effect affects how one goes about shooting. Either way, it’s nice to have a choice. Sepia filters are available in GND versions, and are sometimes used in combination with GNDs to darken one side of the image while warming the opposite side.

Formatt Hitech 77mm Blender Golden Sepia 2 Filter

One style of filter that might not show up on a photographer’s radar is contrast control filters. Contrast filters increase the appearance of shadow detail by introducing a controlled, uniform amount of lens flare similar to single-coated lenses. This reduces the contrast range and helps balance highlight and shadow detail. A byproduct of contrast control filters is a small amount of highlight halation that can be quite appealing and lend a unique signature to image rendering. Contrast control filters are available in round and rectangular configurations and in a variety of strengths.

Tiffen 77mm Ultra Contrast 3 Filter

Another tried and true category of filters made fresh for the digital age are the soft effects and diffusion filters, such as the Formatt Hitech 100 x 100mm Black 0.5 Movie Mist Filter. This filter subtly softens wrinkles and blemishes while only decreasing exposure by half a stop. The result is a decrease in highlight values and a small lowering of overall contrast. Use a Cokin Z-Pro or similar filter holder for mounting. One thing for sure, whichever soft effect and diffusion filter you select—your clients will love the way the filter makes them look. These filters are also useful for making landscapes and other scenes appear more romantic and ethereal.  

Schneider 77mm Hollywood Black Magic 1/4 Filter

For shooters interested in photographing what they can’t see, there’s a wide selection of infrared and UV photography filters. Infrared filters are rated in nanometers for the amount of blocked visible light. Because these filters are so dark, they require very long exposures and the use of a tripod. Landscape, medical, fluorescence, and forensic applications are a few types of photography that frequently employ infrared and UV filters. However, photographers seeking new ways to creatively photograph traditional subject matter often turn to infrared and UV filters as a way to achieve the results they’re after.

Hoya 67mm R72 Infrared Filter

Last, but by no means least, on the list are close-up lens filters. These filters are available in a variety of diopter strengths, with the higher number indicating greater subject magnification. Using close-up lens filters decreases the minimum focus distance between your camera lens and an object. Close-up filters are dual-threaded for stacking to combine magnification strength. It’s easier, less expensive, and requires less storage room to pack a few close-up filters instead of a large macro lens. I hope my fellow photographers will decide to try some of the filters mentioned in this article. Please feel free to suggest some of your favorite filters and how you use them, in the Comments section, below.

Hoya 58mm Multicoated Close-up Lens Set

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Thjese filters work just fine on film cameras too. Just saying. 

Thanks Ron, Doug and Joe for your comments.

There's a school of thought that IR/UV filters are beneficial on longer exposures. And if you're going to use a filter for added front element protection, then going with an IR/UV should have no more adverse affect than a clear filter.

Joe, as for linear polarizers--if they've worked on your cameras, great. However, they're not recommended and others have reported issues with linear polarizers.

By the way--what are a few of your favorite/most used filters and why? 

Thanks!

I have found IR/UV cut filter to be very useful for long exposures in particular. I don't  believe that the filters on the sensor on my camera are a particularly sharp cut and do let a reasonable amount of near ir through and probably uv. Particularly noticable when using  strong neutral density filters and getting a distinct colour cast, they may reduce the amount of visible spectrum passing but have possibly nil effect on IR. Colour cast eliminated with the addition on a good IR/UV cut filter.

Regarding the UV-IR filter, not necessary with digital sensors, which are inherently not very sensitive to UV, unlike film, but very sensitive to IR, which normal film is not, again the reverse. Besides, all digital cameras have a UV-IR blocking filter in front of the sensor, so using a UV or IR filter over the lens is redundancy. Th cmtinued use of UV filters is a hangover from film days, when they really were necessary. 

me too, I use them both on my a57

I have used linear polarizers with digital cameras for years without any problems.

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