Filters are an important part of a photographer’s toolbox as they allow you to achieve creative effects and overcome certain limitations within a camera. I’ll be honest and say: if you’re a landscape photographer, you need filters.
Deciding what to use and purchase, however, is not an easy task. Not only is there a wide range of filters (half of which you’ll never need), but there are also a variety of systems to choose from.
Keep reading, and I will introduce you to both the systems and the different filters and give you specific advice on what landscape photographers actually need:
The Filter Systems
Before deciding which filters you need, you’ll need to take a step back and select a filter system. The two main options are square/drop-in and circular/screw-in. I’ve written more extensively about these before in our Introduction to Neutral Density Filters, but let’s take a quick look at what they are:
Note: There are other filter systems, too, but these two are, by far, the most used.
Screw-in (Circular) Filters
Circular filters are the most common option. Especially amongst beginning photographers. These filters tend to be on the more affordable side, and they take up a lot less space than the square filters. The lower price tag is also part of the reason why you can find them in most electronic shops (unlike square filters, which tend to only be in camera stores)
Screw-in filters are, as the name indicates, screwed directly onto the front of your lens. This means that you need to either get multiple filters or a filter adapter. The filters have a specific radius that matches the radius of specific lenses (i.e., 67mm, 72mm, 77mm)
An advantage of screw-in filters is that you’re less likely to encounter light leak issues. This is something that’s more common in the square system, as not all brands have perfectly sealed filter holders.
It’s important to note that there are some filters that aren’t ideal with circular systems. Graduated Neutral Density Filters are the main ones. More on this later.
Drop-in (Square) Filters
Square filters are less used amongst the general population but are more popular amongst serious landscape photographers. There are multiple reasons for this, but let’s first look at what this system looks like:
As you can see, the square filter system is larger and more complicated than the screw-in filters. To use them, you need to attach a filter holder which the filters are dropped into (don’t worry – you can buy complete filter sets that include a holder)
One of the main advantages of a square system is that you can use multiple filters at the same time. 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 a Neutral Density Filter, Graduated Neutral Density Filter, and a Circular Polarizer simultaneously.
Stacking circular filters doesn’t work quite that well. Stacking two or more filters will, in most cases, result in serious vignetting.
What Filter System Should You Use?
So, the million-dollar question is; Should you use a circular or square filter system?
The answer might not be as simple as you’d hoped for. There’s no one correct system. It all comes down to your specific needs. Here are a few factors that will help you decide:
- How important are weight and size? For hikers or others who value light gear, circular filters are the best fit. These take next to no space and can easily fit into most pockets. Square systems are bigger and tend to be packed in pouches (one for the filters and one for the holder)
- What is your budget? A full set of filters is a considerable expense, especially if you’re looking for high-quality products. Both systems have cheap and expensive models, but circular systems have more affordable options. If you’re on a budget, that is where you should look.
- How invested are you in your filters? While it makes sense to start with some cheap filters to see if it’s something you’ll actually use, I recommend spending the extra money to buy something of quality. I’ve used my set of NiSi filters since 2016, and they still appear brand new.
- Will you use multiple filters at once? This is perhaps one of the most important questions when it comes to the use of filters. The square system is superior if you plan to use more than one filter at a time. With filter holders such as the NiSi V7, you can easily stack a circular polarizer, neutral density filter, and graduated neutral density filter without any signs of vignetting. Even at wide focal lengths such as 14mm.
To sum it up:
Circular filters are more economical and considerably lighter to carry than a set of square filters. Their big downside is that you can’t stack multiple filters without getting vignetting.
If you’ve never owned a filter before and you’re not sure if it’s something you’ll be using a lot, I recommend starting with a circular system. The square system is recommended for those who are happy to invest in something that they’ll put to use for the next several years.
The Most Important Filters for Landscape Photographers
Now that we know more about the systems, it’s time to look at the filters themselves. There’s a much wider range of filters than there are filter systems, so this is when it gets a little trickier. Especially since different types of filters have different options themselves. Yikes!
Luckily, it’s not quite as confusing as it first appears. In reality, most of the filters aren’t that important. Below we take a closer look at the filters that actually matter for landscape photographers.
Neutral Density Filters
Neutral Density filters, also known as ND Filters, are arguably the most important for landscape photographers. These are darkened filters that reduce the amount of light passing through the lens. Less light reaching the sensor means that you need to lengthen the shutter speed in order to get a correctly exposed image.
This is known as long exposure photography and is a popular technique that blurs movement in a photo.
Neutral Density filters come in several strengths. The darker the filter is, the longer you can extend the exposure time. The cheapest and brightest filters have next to no effect, while the darker ones enable you to use shutter speeds of several minutes.
The 3-Stop, 6-Stop, and 10-Stop filters are most popular, 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
A Graduated Neutral Density filter is similar to regular Neutral Density filters but its purpose is to darken only parts of the image. This is something landscape photographers do in order to balance the exposure.
While the dynamic range of modern cameras are drastically improving, it’s not uncommon to encounter scenarios where the contrast between sky and land is too great to capture in one shot.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to Graduated ND Filters
These filters are not ideal as circular filters as you’re not able to adjust where the transition from darkened to transparent is. In other words, it’s far more limiting than what it is as a square filter. Graduated Neutral Density filters, also known as GNDs, come in various shapes and sizes. The most notable differences is how hard the transition is and how dark the darkened areas are.
Circular Polarizer Filter
The third, and final, filter that landscape photographers should have in their backpack is the Circular Polarizer. This is a filter mainly used to increase contrast and to remove unwanted glare or reflections from shiny surfaces.
As the name indicates, the Circular Polarizer needs to be in a circular system. However, most filter holders have an integrated part for this filter too, allowing you to use it along with square filters.
What About UV Filters?
Now, some of you might have heard about UV filters and wonder why I haven’t included them as one of the three essential filters. Quite simply, it’s because they’re not.
UV filters have no impact on your photographs and are mainly (perhaps unknowingly amongst some) used to protect the glass of your lens. It’s better to scratch a $10 filter than $2000 lens. Personally, I haven’t used one in well over a decade and I know very few who do. Unlike the three previously mentioned filters, this is not one you need to worry about.
Which System and Filters Should You Invest In?
Now that you know about both the filter systems and the filters themselves, the big question is where do you begin? What system should you purchase? Which filters do you need?
While this depends on your goals and needs, I’ve summed up some general thoughts below:
Circular filters are great for beginning photographers who are just starting to explore the possibilities these tools offer. It’s a smaller investment and they are perfect for learning. Advanced photographers who value saving weight will also appreciate the size of these filters but in their case, I suggest going for the more professional (and expensive) models.
Square filters are ideal for photographers who know filters play an important role in their work and who want to use multiple filters at the same time. Keep in mind that the sets are bulkier and not as easy to pack for long hikes, etc.
When it comes to the filters themselves, I recommend purchasing a
- Circular Polarizer
- 3-Stop (ND8), 6-Stop (ND64), and 10-Stop (ND1000) ND Filter
- Medium Graduated Neutral Density Filter
This should be everything you need for landscape photography. Graduated Neutral Density filters are less essential than the others as it’s possible to achieve similar results by capturing multiple exposures and blending them in Photoshop.
Recommended Filters and Brands
While all the information above should help you make an educated decision when you’re purchasing your next filters, I know many of you prefer specific recommendations. Through the past decade, I’ve had the opportunity to try a wide range of filters, so below are some that I can wholeheartedly recommend to both beginning and advanced photographers.
|Circular Polarizers||Circular ND Filters||Square ND Filters||Graduated ND Filters|
|NiSi True Color Pro Nano CPL||B+W 3-Stop ND Filter||NiSi 3-Stop ND Filter||NiSi Medium Graduated ND|
|Gobe Circular Polarizer Filter||B+W 6-Stop ND Filter||NiSi 6-Stop ND Filter||Haida Soft Graduated ND|
|Haida NanoPro CPL Filter||B+W 10-Stop ND Filter||NiSi 10-Stop ND Filter||K&F Concept Graduated ND|
Filters are an essential part of your toolkit. They allow you to achieve creative effects and overcome camera limitations. However, with so many filter types and systems to choose from, deciding what to purchase can be overwhelming.
There are two main filter systems to choose from: circular/screw-in and square/drop-in. Circular filters are the most common and affordable option, while square filters are popular among serious landscape photographers because they allow you to use multiple filters simultaneously. The system you choose depends on your specific needs, budget, and preference for carrying weight and size.
For landscape photography, the most important filters are Neutral Density Filters, Graduated Neutral Density Filters, and Circular Polarizers. ND filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera, allowing you to use longer shutter speeds for creative effects. Graduated ND filters help balance exposure in high-contrast scenes, while circular polarizers reduce glare and improve color saturation.
In conclusion, filters are essential for landscape photographers, and the system and filters you choose depend on your specific needs and budget. By investing in high-quality products, you can achieve creative effects and overcome camera limitations.
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