Best Filters for Landscape Photography
by Sarah Ehlen
When you start getting into landscape photography you quickly find out that there is no shortage of gizmos and gadgets marketed to photographers in this field. For the most part, these things are not necessary to create stunning landscape photos, and I personally prefer to keep the amount of equipment I haul around to a minimum. However, filters are an exception to this, and I usually carry at least one or two in my camera bag.
Here is a rundown of the filters that are most useful for the landscape photographer:
If you were only going to buy one filter for landscape photography, I would make it a polarizer. Polarizing filters are awesome because they cut glare and help colors pop. They work great on anything reflective such as water, rocks, and leaves. You can also use them to darken blue skies.
For comparison, check out these examples below, taken during a beautiful fall day in Glacier National Park. The images on the left were taken without a polarizer, and the shots on the right were taken with a polarizer. What a difference it makes in the color and detail! A polarizer is definitely your best friend when it comes to photographing fall foliage and wet rocks.
Polarizing filters are meant to screw onto the front of your lens, so be sure to get one that fits the diameter of your particular lens. Look for the filter thread size which is usually printed right on the lens barrel. For example, if you see ø77 printed on your lens, you’ll need a 77mm filter.
Once the filter is attached to your lens, you should be able to see the polarizing effect as you look through your camera and slowly rotate the outer ring. It might take a bit of practice to get the hang of it.
Here are some more tips for using a polarizing filter:
- Pay attention to your angle in relation to the sun. The polarizing effect will be most pronounced when you’re at a 90 degree angle to the sun. If the sun is directly in front of or behind you, there won’t be much effect.
- Be sure not to over polarize blue skies. If your skies start to look too dark, you may want to back off the effect by rotating the ring a bit.
- A polarizing filter will darken your image, so you may need to use a tripod if you’re dealing with slow shutter speeds to let in more light to brighten the image.
Neutral Density Filters:
If you like long exposure photography, you’ll find neutral density filters incredibly helpful. I love using them to slow down the movement of waves, streams, or waterfalls.
These filters are like adding dark sunglasses in front of your lens. By darkening down the scene, you are able to use longer shutter speeds to creatively blur motion without letting in too much light.
The images below, taken during a stormy evening in Glacier National Park, show the difference a neutral density filter can make. For the image on the left I was not using a neutral density filter, and the slowest shutter speed I could get was around ½ a second. Using a neutral density filter for the photo on the right gave me a 20 second shutter speed. This was long enough to smooth the choppy waves and give the image a silky, ethereal look.
Neutral density filters come in varying levels of darkness. The photo above was created with a 5 stop neutral density filter. (Meaning it cuts 5 stops of light.) I generally find three, four, and five stop neutral density filters to be the most versatile for landscape photography.
That said, I also enjoy experimenting with my 10 stop neutral density filter for times when I want to work with very long shutter speeds. Keep in mind that anytime you’re working with long shutter speeds, you’ll definitely need a tripod to stabilize your camera.
Note that it is also possible to purchase a variable neutral density filter which allows you to dial in varying levels of darkness as needed, rather than purchasing separate filters at each density level.
Split Neutral Density Filters:
A common challenge with landscape photography is dealing with very bright skies and dark foregrounds in the same scene. Split neutral density filters were designed to solve this problem.
These filters are half clear and half dark, which is why they are called "split". If you position the dark part of the filter over the bright sky in your scene, you’ll be able to balance the brightness and create a properly exposed image in a single shot.
Split neutral density filters work especially well when you’re dealing with straight horizon lines such as coastal scenes like the photo below, taken in Maine.
*Note that if you already know how to photograph for HDR (High Dynamic Range), you may not find a split neutral density filter necessary as you can achieve the same effect with editing software.
To Sum It Up:
Learning about filters can be a little overwhelming at first, but I think the best advice for the landscape photographer is to start with a circular polarizer and then add in other filters only as needed.
When used correctly, filters can help you create the best images possible in the field while also opening up a world of fun, creative possibilities.