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The Basic Guide To Understanding Lens Filters

UV lens filter pointed to the flower inside grass

Have you ever been out photographing in the outdoors when another photographer turns up and starts screwing random filters onto their lenses, or slipping semi-transparent squares in front? UV filters, polarizing filters, neutral density filters, graduated ND filters, etc. What do all these filters do? How do you use them? And most frustratingly of all, "How come my photos don't look like that?"

Why using filters?

Filters help minimize glare and reflections, enhance colors, reduce the light coming into the lens, and more. Each lens filter serves a specific purpose, as each one is built to deliver a specific effect that can help enhance the final look of an image.

Neutral Density filters is widely used to capture long exposure photographs at day time

-To protect your lens

The most affordable types of lens filters are those that are clear and simply used for protection. These are great for protecting the front lens element during normal shooting situations, as the clear glass does not affect your images in any way. Protective lens filters eliminate the possibility of scratches, cracks, and dust accumulating on the surface of your lens.

-To correct or enhance colors

There are certain types of photography filters that can alter or boost the colors in your images. Some have the ability to correct the color temperature of a scene, while others can enhance color and contrast for a more vibrant image.

-To get an accurate exposure

When working with particularly difficult lighting conditions, filters are a great option for achieving even and accurate exposure across your entire image. They do this by blocking some of the light that enters the lens (in varying degrees). These are particularly helpful when shooting outdoors during the daytime, particularly when using fast shutter speeds may not be enough to avoid overexposure.

Person holding a yellow color filter at hand

Filter Types

-Square filters vs. Screw-on filters

Compared to screw on filters, the square filter consists of three parts. The filter, the filter holder, and the adapter ring. This means more things to look after and you can't use the filter system if you lose even one part of the kit. Square filters do not seal the front of the lens tight like a screw-on filter.

Circular filters, on the other hand, are a totally separate category. They're also called screw-on filters because unlike a square filter (which uses a filter holder), circular filters simply screw onto the end of the lens and onto each other.

-Polarizing filters

This type of filter will enhance an image in ways that cannot be achieved by any other method. As it's name suggests, a polarizer is a special type of filter that has the ability to block polarized (i.e. reflected) light - often seen as “glare”.

-Neutral Density (ND) filters

Unlike the polarizing filter which changes the way the image looks; ND filters aim to remain 'neutral' and simply reduce the overall amount of light coming through the lens. Like dark sunglasses for a camera, by reducing the amount of light coming through the lens, ND filters allow the photographer to purposefully compensate by slowing the shutter speed down and achieving motion blur effects, even in situations of bright light. When elements in the scene are moving, such as a waterfall, waves, clouds, or even people, a range of creative possibilities are opened up. For these-long exposure compositions, it is highly recommended to use a shutter remote control such as MIOPS´s options to guarantee a razor-sharp image.

a person holding a lens filter on his hand at night time

-Graduated ND Filters

“ND Grads”, as they are sometimes referred to, are ND filters that provide a gradually changing ND gradient across the glass plate i.e. a darker ND number at the top changing to clear glass at the bottom. They are always square or rectangular and therefore require a “square-system” mount. In today's world of digital post-processing, ND grads are far less common, but shouldn't be entirely overlooked.

-Color correcting filters

Color correcting filters, also known as cooling and warming, color conversion, or color compensating filters, are used to correct and/or enhance the color of your scene. Warming and cooling filters are great for correcting indoor lighting and making your scene look gloomier or sunnier while other colored filters are great for bringing out certain hues in a scene.

-Close-Up filters

Close-up filters (also known as macro filters or diopters) are used to enable macro photography without having to use a dedicated macro lens. Many photographers resort to purchasing these small pieces of glass than invest in more costly macro lenses, especially when they don’t necessarily have to take close-up shots all the time.

-Special effects filters

Special effects filters serve different purposes in improving your images. Perhaps the most popular type of special effects filters is the starburst filter, which effortlessly adds a noticeable twinkle to image highlights and light sources such as street lamps and Christmas lights.

Colorful Lens filters placed on top of each other

Related Article: Using ND Filter in Long Exposure Photography

About The Author Manuel Delgado:

Manuel Delgado is an award-winning photographer with a specialization in travel and documentary photography. He writes for Contrastly and is a Mentor for NGO Photographers Alliance, having led workshops in Africa with a focus on ethical and humanitarian photography. His work has been exhibited in Europe and the Americas.

Driven by an innate curiosity for his surroundings, Manuel´s process is mainly focused on capturing people in their natural environment; translating through his lens the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. Depicting people from diverse backgrounds, his work is united by a shared aesthetic that serves to tell each individual’s story. Manuel is currently living in Düsseldorf, Germany. 

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