The Wonderful World of Filters

Polarizer comparison I, Briho [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Before and after a polarizer filter by Briho
If you’ve been in photography a long time, you remember when cameras used film.  In the early days cameras lacked the sophisticated computer control they have today.  A really good camera might have an internal light meter, auto-exposure was a process in its infancy.  Under varying light conditions, such as moving from outdoors to indoor fluorescent lighting, you would need to compensate by adding a filter that corrected for the different spectrum of light.  Any good photographer had a packet of such filters in a small pouch in their vest.

Another filter we used to use in the old days was called a Soft Focus.  That filter deliberately cut down the clarity of the lens in a controlled manner.  Most often it was employed when photographing women as it diminished minor blemishes and imperfections while still preserving the image of the person. 

Today computers in your camera and digital imaging have taken the guesswork out of varying lighting conditions.  Even inexpensive cameras will automatically read the color temperature of the incoming light and either correct automatically or trigger the flash, sometimes both.  Automatic White Balance (AWB).  No filters necessary.

As digital imaging became more popular, so did programs on your computer to manipulate those images.  Sky too light?  No problem, select the sky and darken it.  You can even change the color if you desire, add a gradient, a third moon, add new people to the photograph or take out someone you don’t like.  Soft focus has been replaced by air brushing, cloning tools and precision Gaussian blur, yielding a much more natural looking final product.

In the time of digital imaging, the image that comes out of the camera is only the beginning of the creative process.  As a consequence there is an entire generation of photographers growing up in the digital world unaware of the joys of filters.

As I mentioned above, most are unnecessary in modern digital photography, but there are still a few even digital photographers employing the best computer controlled imaging devices on the market should still have in their vest.

Skylight/UV Haze – The lens saver.  Here in Florida a UV Haze filter is a must with all the humidity and dust in the air.  A UV filter counteracts the slight bluish cast that can arise from hazy days and sharpens distant details.  But mainly it’s there for protection.  Keeping dust and dirt away from the precision optical coatings on your camera lens and protecting it from impact.
There isn’t anyone who has been shooting pictures for any length of time who doesn’t have a crushed skylight or UV haze filter in their collection, that otherwise would have been the broken optics of their lens.  A skylight filter is the cheapest insurance you can buy for a good lens.

Polarizer filters – A polarizer does basically the same thing for your camera that polarized sunglasses do for your eyes: Cut down the reflected light from non-metallic surfaces like water and glass, it can also change the color saturation in certain situations.  It’s normally a round filter that rotates so you can adjust how much reflected light enters the lens.  If you’re going to be doing a lot of shooting around water, a polarizer is not optional.

Neutral Density (ND) filters – As I discussed in my previous article on bokeh, ND filters can be handy in situations when you want to use the widest aperture (the lowest f-stop) your lens has available.  In a future article about shooting video with your DSLR camera, we’ll talk more about ND filters and why you need them.

Star Effect filter – With this filter any pinpoint of light is turned into a six pointed star burst.  I believe the effect from a star burst filter looks better than what can be achieved in post-processing in Photoshop.  It’s a great effect for portraits and cityscapes.

Browse your favorite camera accessory web site and take a look through the filter section, you’ll be surprised what you can find.  When we get to the section on video, this will be a more than optional for many shooting situations.

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