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How to Choose Your First Filters (and Which Systems to Use)

Looking to purchase your first filters? Here's some advice!

NiSi S5 Filter Holder

During the last week’s I’ve received several questions regarding filters through the CaptureLandscapes newsletter. The most recurring questions are which options do I have and what would be the best to start with. 

Deciding which filter system and filters to start with is certainly not an easy task. I remember how confused I was when acquiring my first filter years ago as well.

Hopefully, this will make it easier to choose your first filters:

The Filter Systems

Before you start deciding on which filters you’re going to choose, you’ll need to choose between square and screw-in filter systems. We’ve written more extensively about them before, for example in our Introduction to Neutral Density Filters, but let’s quickly summarize the options:

Screw-in Filters

The most common option amongst aspiring photographers are the screw-in filters. While there are high-quality (and expensive) brands, it’s more likely that you find an affordable screw-in filter than a square filter.

Since the filters are screwed directly onto the lens, Graduated ND Filters aren’t ideal for this system. Regular ND Filters, Polarizers and other filters, however, work just as well.

Neutral Density Filters Guide

It’s also less likely that you’ll encounter issues such as light leak with this alternative.

Square Filters

A challenge with the screw-in filters is that using multiple filters (stacking) doesn’t work well. Typically, placing more than one filter at the time will result in noticeable vignetting.

That’s where the Square Filter System comes in: instead of screwing it directly on the lens, it’s placed in a filter holder. The filter holder is attached to the lens and typically has two or three slots where you can place different filters. This makes it possible to use both Neutral Density Filters and Graduated ND Filters simultaneously.

My favorite Neutral Density Filter

Square Filters are a considerably larger investment though; in addition to the filters, you need the filter holder and adapters.

Filters That Should be in Your Camera Bag

Choosing which filters to start with is just as big of a task as deciding which system to use. In fact, it’s probably more important as it’s the filters themselves that will have an impact on your images, not the systems.

There are more filters to choose between than what I’ve listed below, but these are the most common for landscape photographers:

Neutral Density Filters

The first option, and arguably the most popular amongst landscape photographers, are Neutral Density (ND) Filters.

These are darkened filters which reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor in a given amount of time, meaning you need to lengthen the shutter speed in order to get a correctly exposed image.

Neutral Density Filters come in several degrees of darkness (Yes, that’s yet another factor to take into consideration.) The most common are 3-Stop, 6-Stop and 10-Stop but there are both brighter and darker versions.

Confused? Read this article for a more in-depth explanation of how Neutral Density Filters work.

Graduated ND Filters

Similar to regular Neutral Density Filters, the Graduated version is also a darkened filter that reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor. However, instead of the entire filter being darkened, only a part of it is.

NiSi Medium Graduated Filter Review

They are used to balance the exposure by darkening the brighter part (typically the sky).

Graduated ND Filters come with several alternatives, including Reverse Graduated ND Filters, Soft- and Hard Edge as well as various degrees of darkness.

Recommended Reading: Introduction to Graduated ND Filters 

CPL Filter

The third common filter amongst landscape photographers is the Circular Polarizer (CPL).

A Circular Polarizer is typically used to increase contrast, remove unwanted glare and reflections from shiny surfaces, and during the daytime.

It’s worth mentioning that most of them darken the image by roughly 1 -1.5 stops, meaning they can be used for Long Exposure Photography purposes as well.

Which System and Filters to Start With

So where do you go from here? How do you choose the combination that best suits you? Let me give you some ideas:

If you’re new to photography I strongly recommend you to start with a screw-in 3-Stop and 6-Stop ND Filter, as well as a Circular Polarizer. You can find affordable versions in pretty much any photography store. Don’t worry too much about the brand at this point, as the main purpose is to try them and see if it’s something you enjoy.

When you’ve been using filters for a while and you’re certain that it’s something you’ll keep doing, I recommend upgrading to a square filter system and choosing a higher quality brand. It is a big investment if you’re on a budget but one well worth making if you can afford it.

Keep in mind that a square filter system also weighs more, so if you’re an avid hiker and weight is of an essence, invest in high-quality screw-in filters instead.

For a complete range of filters, I recommend having a

  • Circular Polarizer
  • Medium Graduated Filter
  • 3-Stop, 6-Stop, and 10-Stop ND Filter

This should be everything you need 99 percent of the time. Depending on what you normally photograph, you could choose a hard edge or soft edge Graduated Filter rather than the Medium Graduated Filter. Personally, I prefer the later and find it to work whenever I need one.

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