The Essential Camera Lens Filters for Mastering Photography

Whether you’re a beginner photographer or seasoned pro, having a set of go-to camera lens filters can vastly expand your creative possibilities. Filters offer the ability to refine and enhance your images directly in-camera before post-processing. They allow you to better control the light entering your lens and enable special effects not achievable through camera settings alone.

In this post, we’ll be recommending the top 5 camera lens filters that every photographer should seriously consider having in their gear bag. We’ll also provide tips on how to choose the right filters for your needs and style of photography. By the end, you’ll understand the capabilities of each essential filter and have a good grasp on creating your own personalized filter kit.

The Top 5 Camera Lens Filters Every Photographer Should Have

These 5 filters represent accessories that serve practical, versatile purposes in a range of shooting scenarios. While additional, more niche filters exist, these 5 constitute the most useful options for most photographers.

1. Polarizing Filter

Of all the filters you can buy, a polarizing filter is arguably the most versatile and indispensable. Polarizing filters reduce unwanted reflections and glare by filtering out light that becomes scattered and polarized at certain angles. This allows you to cut through haze to capture clearer shots and deeply saturate the colors of blue skies.

Polarizers are particularly useful when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight. They can help darken skies, manage reflections on water or glass, and suppress the bluish casts caused by atmospheric haze. You can also boost color saturation in foliage and flowers when using a polarizing filter.

When shooting with a polarizing filter, you’ll want to rotate it to adjust the polarization effect. Dialing in just the right angle will maximize the darkening of the sky or cutting of reflections based on the direction of the sun. Use care when composing, as the intensity of the effect may not be uniform across the entire frame.

The caveat is that since a polarizer filters out light, it can reduce your exposure latitude. Using one effectively means making adjustments to shutter speed or aperture to compensate. But the payoff is photos with punchier colors, clearer details, and less distracting glare.

For most photographers, we recommend having a circular polarizing filter with a diameter that can be adapted for use across your range of lenses. Look for brands like Tiffen, Hoya, and B+W that offer high-quality polarizing filters.

2. Neutral Density Filter

Neutral density (ND) filters serve an entirely different purpose than polarizers. Rather than affect polarization or color, ND filters reduce the amount of light reaching your camera sensor evenly across the color spectrum. This allows you to use slower shutter speeds in bright lighting, enabling long exposure photography techniques.

The most classic applications of ND filters are capturing dreamy, cotton-candy water motion effects on streams, waterfalls, and ocean waves. Similarly, using an ND filter helps record the captivating movement of clouds streaming across the sky.

Outside of motion blur effects, ND filters provide the advantage of allowing you to shoot at wider apertures in full daylight. This allows for more creative control over depth of field in your outdoor photography.

ND filters come in different densities to control the amount of light reduction. Measurements like ND4, ND8, and ND64 relate to the number of stops less light that will reach the sensor. Lower density ND filters are handy in moderately bright conditions, while heavier ND filters work best in full sunlight.

When shopping for ND filters, beware of potential vignetting that can occur when using them with ultra wide angle lenses. Look for brands that indicate compatibility across focal lengths. Variable ND filters that allow you to dial in different densities offer added flexibility.

3. UV Filter

In addition to creative effects, UV filters provide a practical protective purpose. Leaving a UV filter on vulnerable front lens elements helps guard them against dust, moisture, fingerprints, and accidental impact.

UV filters live up to their name by blocking ultraviolet light from reaching the lens. This helps correct outdoor images from having a cold, hazy blue cast. However, modern lenses already include UV-blocking coatings, so the main advantage of these filters today remains their durable protection capabilities.

Using UV filters comes at the cost of slightly degrading image quality in some cases. Lower quality filters can impart a veiling effect, reduce contrast, and increase flare when shooting into light sources. Research quality options that maximize clarity and apply multi-coating to reduce flare and ghosting.

Checking for vignetting and maintaining the filter glass through regular cleaning is advised. But as a general practice, leaving a UV filter on lenses heading into rough shooting conditions can save grief down the line.

4. Graduated ND Filter

Another specialized filter incredibly useful for outdoor photographers is the graduated neutral density (GND) filter. This filter gradually transitions between dark and clear, allowing you to selectively reduce the brightness of localized areas in a scene.

The most common application is darkening skies in landscape photos to balance exposure between an extremely bright sky and a comparatively darker foreground subject. Positioning the gradient line at the horizon prevents having to heavily compromise between bright skies blowing out or underexposed landscapes.

GND filters come in different transition patterns, but a soft-edged gradient is generally most flattering and natural-looking for landscapes. A hard-edged gradient can work for scenes with discrete, straight boundaries like the horizon over the ocean.

Use care positioning the gradient – eyeball the transition line, adjust as needed, then recompose your shot. To smoothly incorporate GND filters in your shooting workflow, look for filter holders that allow you to slide in filters and position them with precision.

5. Special Effect Filters

While not everyday essentials, special effect filters open up creative possibilities through experimentation. These include filters that create starburst effects around bright lights, soft focus looks, infrared color shifts, and tints like black and white or orange and teal.

Some special effect filters like soft focus can now be more convincingly achieved through digital post-processing. But for in-camera capture of unique looks, these filters add an analog charm and spontaneity to image-making. Special effect filters tend to have niche uses, so view them as advanced accessories to purchase further down the line.

The world of additional special effect filters like prisms, flares, bokeh patterns, and frames/borders is huge. Look for versatile starter packs that offer a sampling of different filter looks to get your feet wet. Then invest in individual filters once you’ve identified effects you enjoy using.

How to Choose the Right Lens Filters for Your Needs

Now that you have a grasp on the capabilities of essential lens filters, here are some guidelines for choosing the right options for your kit:

  • Take stock of the subjects and shooting scenarios you encounter on a regular basis. Prioritize filters that serve practical purposes you’ll frequently use like a polarizer for cutting glare and ND filters for long exposures.
  • Beyond creative effects, start with a simple UV filter for basic everyday lens protection, especially for lenses used in rugged outdoor conditions.
  • For landscape and outdoor photography, a graduated ND filter is incredibly useful for balancing exposure between skies and the foreground.
  • Special effect filters tend to have niche uses – build up to these later on once you have mastery of the core creative filters.
  • Research the filter diameters required for your existing lenses, along with any you plan to acquire. Buying circular filters that can adapt across your lineup saves money.
  • Within each filter type, look for high-quality, well-reviewed options from reputable brands known for optics. Avoid going cheap on these important accessories.
  • Consider kits that combine filters, like a polarizer and ND filter mounted together. This allows you to stack/rotate them quickly for convenience.
  • Start with one filter, learn how and when to use it effectively, then add to your collection over time. Gradually build skills with each new accessory.

Frequently Asked Questions About Camera Lens Filters

Here are answers to some common beginner questions on camera lens filters:

Do lens filters degrade image quality?

It depends on the quality and type of the filters. Any additional glass in front of the lens has the potential to slightly reduce sharpness and contrast. Cheap, low-quality filters often have the most negative impact. High-end filters are created with coatings and optics to minimize image degradation.

Should I buy filters from the same brand as my lens?

Not necessarily – reputable third-party companies like Hoya and Tiffen make excellent filters. However, some lenses have proprietary coatings that may only be fully optimized with filters of the same brand. Do your research to check for potential incompatibilities.

What do the numbers mean on an ND filter?

The value like ND8 refers to how many stops less light will pass through – ND8 cuts exposure by three stops. Lower numbers are lighter ND filters suitable for slight bright conditions. Heavy ND 64 filters block nearly all light, perfect for long exposures in full daylight.

When would I use a clear/UV filter?

Leave clear or UV filters on any lens you want to protect from dust, moisture, and accidental impact, especially for outdoor photography and challenging shooting conditions. They can be kept on lenses at all times for peace of mind.

How do I clean lens filters properly?

Use a microfiber cloth and lens cleaning solution designed specifically for lens filters and optics. Avoid wiping the filter dry, which can scratch the glass. Always handle the filter carefully and clean gently in a non-abrasive manner.

What size filter do I need for my lens?

Check your lens for its filter thread diameter, usually denoted in mm like 72mm or 82mm. Filter sizes are standardized, so buying this exact mm size will ensure filters fit your lenses properly.

Why are some lens filters so expensive?

Quality optics and durable, rugged construction come at a price. Made in Germany B+W XS-Pro filters run $80-$200 each, but are built to withstand heavy use and deliver pristine clarity. With proper care, high-end filters last for decades.

What is a variable ND filter?

Variable ND filters allow you to manually dial in your desired density/stops of light reduction. This gives flexibility to adjust between different effects without changing filters. Quality varies though – cheaper ones can impart color casts.

How do I use a graduated ND filter?

Position the darker portion of the gradient over areas of the scene needing light reduction, like the sky. The transition line should follow the horizon or boundary. Adjust until the effect looks natural. Use a filter holder for easy sliding.

What special effect filters are best for beginners?

Starter kits that provide sample starburst, soft focus, infrared, tint, and vignette filters offer creativity. Have fun with black and white and sepia filters or colored ones like orange and teal. Avoid overly niche filters at first.

Conclusion

A set of quality lens filters is like getting a bag of specialty lenses tailored for different shooting needs. As you master various techniques like long exposures and graduated skies, your trusty filters will enable stunning visuals unattainable with your camera alone.

The 5 filters we recommend to start with are polarizers, neutral densities, UV filters, graduated NDs, and special effects. Build up to these essentials one at a time, learning how to leverage them for creative advantage. Additional accessories like lens hoods and filter holders are also wise investments to prevent flare, ghosting, and enable easy filter use while shooting.

With high-end construction and care, lens filters can serve your photography for many years. So research and purchase the right options for your style of shooting, practice to build skills, and let your top filters unlock new realms of image creativity!

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