There’s a saying that no camera beats the human eye in quality, and it’s true - how many times have you tried to get a good picture of something, only to have it fail miserably? When it comes down to it, most cameras – even your expensive DSLR – can’t come close to capturing the dynamic range of colors our eyes can naturally pick up. Sweeping landscapes are notoriously difficult to nail, but a variety of accessories help get you a little closer to the perfection we're all looking for. Fortunately, if you know how to use them, there are several filters that can easily improve the overall quality of landscape photography.
Before we go into these types, it’s worth mentioning that when it comes to quality, using a filter can be a much better option than editing your photos digitally at home. Besides the importance of being able to capture as much of reality in frame, without editing, there are certain elements that just can’t be reproduced in post-production. Unless you’re the type who loves to spend hours photoshopping and touching up, filters are almost always a better option.
Square (also called slot-in filters) tend to be a little more expensive than screw-in filters, but they offer plenty of benefits that make them worth considering. Many filters don’t have a vignetting side effect – a darkening around the edges that some screw-ins have. They’re also much quicker to use and replace when you’re out and about, and are compatible with different sizes of lenses.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to look at actual types of filters:
Polarizers are some of the most popular filters on the market. The specifics are a bit complex – it removes certain light frequencies of the spectrum – but its effects on your pictures are immense; ultimately, it removes glare from surfaces, saturates colors (without looking grainy), and reduces haze. It’s important to keep in mind that circular polarizers rotate, which enables you to manually control the level and direction of reflections you want to eliminate.
Photographers often use circular polarizers to eliminate reflections in glass or mirrors, but their most important use in landscape photography is for water reflections and the contrast of clouds in the sky.
These filters adjust the color temperature of your photos to a more natural level. This gives a slight orange tint to the photo, which is important in certain types of lighting. Specifically, if the weather is overcast, your photos may have a cold, bland tint to them. The warming filter aims to negate this, and add vibrance to your work. And before you ask, this same effect can be achieved in post-production as well. However, it’s more authentic when done with a filter, and the end result is more notable as well. They're available in a range of intensities, from very light Warm 81A (which converts from 5500K to 5300K) to an intense Orange 85B (which converts from 5500K to 3200K).
If you’ve experimented with long-exposure photography (and if you haven’t, you’re missing out), neutral density (ND) filters are a must. Their main goal is to reduce the amount of light that passes through the lens. This allows you to shoot at wide apertures without overexposing and blowing out your highlights. Wondered how people get those long-exposure waterfall shots? A long exposure on a tripod, with an ND filter to reduce the amount of light coming into the lens.
The graduated neutral density filter, which is only sold in square form, is simple enough to start: it’s more or less an ND filter and a pane of glass. However, while the ND filter aims to remove the same amount of light throughout the whole picture, the GND filter darkens what’s overexposed in a picture, such as the sky, to lighten what’s darker. This can balance your picture and bring out all the right details in a way that only an in-camera filter can do. This way, you can retain the details of the bright sky as well as keeping the details of the darker ground.
We’ve talked about several different types of filters, but they can all be categorized into two types: the round screw-on type, or the square slot-in filters. These, of course, refer to the way the filters are attached to the lenses – one is screwed in to the thread on the front of the lens; the other requires an adapter and a holder to be used. The benefits of square filters is that, unlike round filters, you don't need a different sized filter for each different lens you have...you can just use a holder and adjust for each lens.
So there you have it! If you’re looking to take your photography to the next step, one of these filters may be for you.