9 Types of Lens Filters – They Are Still Relevant!

INTRODUCTION
FILTERS, THE PHOTOGRAPHY SEASONING

In this beginner’s tutorial, we will be walking through the various different types of photography lens filters – Not the funky ones that are applied using software applications, but real actual physical lens filters. Yep, the modern software filters may be very capable of adding all kinds of effects, but there are just some things that can only be achieved with real glass.

Physical lens filters are still very relevant and there is a whole list of physical lens filters that photographers should know – What they are used for, why they are better, and why they matter. Read on to find out!

ⓘ Disclaimer: This guide includes some extremely Photoshopped example photos to illustrate the effects of the filters. It is definitely not because I am too lazy to go out and shoot with all the filters. 😆

 

NAVIGATION
TABLE OF CONTENTS

Section A
All About Filters

Section B
The Essentials

Section C
For Landscapers

Section D
The Macro World

Section E
Spicing Things Up

Section F
The Tools

Extra
Summary & Links

Closing
The Best Filter?

 

 

SECTION A
ALL ABOUT FILTERS

What the heck are lens filters and what do they do? The easiest way for me to explain lens filters is to ask a question – Why do people wear glasses? Sunglasses? Tinted lens? For the very obvious reason to correct their vision, or maybe the sun is just way too bright.

The same goes for lens filters, which are lens attachments with all sorts of effects. That can be a simple dark filter to block out some light, UV filter to block out UV lights, funky filters that add a color cast, or filters that create light streaks.

 

WHY USE PHYSICAL LENS FILTERS?

I know, there is Photoshop, Lightroom, and all kinds of mobile apps these days. All we need is to press a few buttons to apply all kinds of filters with all kinds of effects. So why buy a physical filter? Isn’t the software filter already sufficient? Nope. As much as I love Photoshop, you need to understand that there is a limit to digital filters.

There was once when I was shooting landscape, and a “professional photographer” came along. The question he shot at me, was why am I still using a physical filter. Applying a filter in Lightroom has the “same effect”, and it is easier, right? I pretty much wanted to slap that guy in the face.

Well you see, I had something else in mind. I needed a long exposure of 5 seconds to get a “cloud rush effect”. It was broad daylight, and not even shooting at f/22 will get me to that kind of slow shutter speed. The solution I had was to use a piece of dark glass called ND filter (something like sunglasses) to limit the amount of light, so I can shoot at 5 seconds without over-exposing.

There you go. Digital filters are not equivalent to the physical ones, and it is not just ND filters – It is totally impossible to do infra-red photography using only digital filters. Physical filters are still very relevant and useful.

 

THE DIFFERENT SHAPES OF FILTERS

Filters typically come in different sizes, and 3 shapes – circular, square and rectangular. They all work, but what’s the difference? Well, square and rectangular pieces are generally larger, and they fit onto more lenses without any issues.

 

 

CIRCULAR SCREW-ON FILTERS

A circular screw-on clear filter

The common Joe lens filters are circular in shape, and we screw them onto the front of the lens. But before buying a circular filter, do check:

  • If the lens has a front screw thread. A few odd lenses in this world do not have screw threads to attach a lens filter.
  • Take note of the diameter of the lens – which is generally marked on the front side of the lens.
  • You do not want to buy a filter that is smaller than the diameter of your lens!
Take note of the diameter of your lens before buying a filter!

Generally, we will want to get a filter that has the same diameter as the lens, or even larger where possible. Personally, I will usually get 77mm or 82mm filters, which should fit nicely onto most lenses. Think of it this way – A 52mm filter will not fit an 82mm lens, but an 82mm filter will fit almost every lens out there with a step-up ring.

 

SQUARE OR RECTANGULAR FILTERS

A square neutral density filter set

These are huge pieces of filters, which is probably going to cost more than the circular ones. But given their size, we don’t have to worry about it not fitting onto the larger lenses. Square and rectangle filters generally come with an attachment ring and filter holder.

The attachment ring is screwed onto the lens, the filter holder is attached to the attachment ring, then the filters are slot into the holder… Or the alternative way is to totally just handhold the filter in front of the lens. Doh.

 

FILTER STACKING

Horray and yes, we can attach multiple filters to a lens by screwing them on top of each other. This is what we call “filter stacking”. But avoid stacking too many filters, as that will cause vignetting and a loss in optical quality. Also, note that not all lenses can be “stacked”. Circular polarizers, for example, don’t have front screw threads.

The dark corners are called vignette. This is a badly Photoshopped photo to illustrate that.

 

SECTION B
THE ESSENTIALS

These are the pure basic filters that I think every photographer should have. These filters will come in very handy no matter what you are trying to shoot.

 

1) CLEAR FILTER


The clear filter is a piece of… clear glass or plastic, and it does absolutely nothing optically. Yep, it’s the only purpose is to protect the lens. Scratch the cheap filter, not the lens. Not many photographers actually like to use clear filters, since they do nothing. A better alternative will be the Ultra-Violet filter.

Just get a cheap one from eBay if you want – [Link]. Note that most Chinese sellers are selling cheap $2 clear filters as “UV filters”. But in fact, they do not have any coating to block out UV. Just know that you are buying a piece of clear plastic with $2.

 

2) ULTRA-VIOLET FILTER (UV)


Filters out unwanted UV lights that causes blue tints, and protects the lens. This is a common filter and a better choice than a clear filter. Some people think that UV filters have no effect what-so-ever. But a good UV filter does remove that bluish tint from extreme UV lights.

As above, avoid getting those unbranded $2 UV filters on eBay – most are actually clear filters without any coating. Just spend $10 on a good old [Hoya], or if you have money to burn – a [B+W].

 

3) CIRCULAR POLARIZER (CPL)


Makes the skies bluer, reduces reflections, reduces glare, and good CPL filters will boost the contrast as well. But please do take extra care while using it, as CPL filters do block out some light and you will have to adjust your camera settings accordingly.

CPL filters normally do not have front filter threads, and they have a rather thick profile. So forget about filter stacking with CPL. Get a cheap and good [YongNuo] or good old [Hoya]. If you have spare cash, I will recommend the better PRO range from [Hoya] – it DOES make a difference.

 

 

SECTION C
FOR THE LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHERS

If you are into landscape photography as I am, you are going to need a different set of filters. These are the filters that have stuck with me since I began my landscape journey.

 

4) NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTER (ND)


Neutral density filters are the fancy way of saying “sunglasses”. It is a piece of dark glass that blocks out the light. This is extremely useful for lowering the shutter speed in daylight, long exposures, getting that silky smooth water, and allowing shallow depth of field when it is too bright.

There are a few types of ND filters. The “regular” one being an entire dark piece, and graduated ND filters being half dark and half clear. The reason for using graduated ND filters is such that you can cover only the sky (or horizon), to bring back a balanced photo. Also, there are different “grades” of ND filters – 1 stops ND, 2 stops ND, 3 stops ND, 10 stops ND, etc… That basically means “the more stops, the darker it is”.

There are many brands out there offering ND filters, even circular ones. My advice is to go for the rectangular ones – you will not regret getting those. Just spend a little money on a set of [Zomei ND filters], if you want quality, get a slightly more expensive [Haida].

 

5) INFRA-RED FILTER (IR)

Blocks out visible lights, allowing only IR lights into the camera. This is used to create those white trees surreal photos. One very bad thing with this filter is that it will only work when there is strong IR light… Which is under strong daylight.

IR filters are very difficult to use… avoid this especially if you are just starting out with photography. Once you slap the IR filter on, all you can see is a sea of red to the naked eye. IR photos also need a lot of editing, but well worth the effort as it produces beautiful surreal photos.

Get a cheap and good [Zomei] if you just want to try IR photography out. If you are a little more serious, get a [Hoya R72].

 

 

SECTION D
THE MACRO WORLD

I am not a fan of macro, and it is just one of those things I cannot get right somehow. But if macro photography is your thing, these are the things you might want to check out.

 

6) MACRO FILTER

The simplest way to explain this filter is – magnifying glass. It does magnify things a fair bit, but not really that useful nor will it beat the macro lenses. I am not a fan of macro, but neither am I a fan of macro filters. These are basically cheap magnifying glasses. If you are into macro, go get something more… professional.

There are many cheap unbranded magnifying glasses, but get one from [Andoer], these are decent.

 

6A) MACRO EXTENSION TUBES

Not a filter and I don’t do much macro photography. So don’t burn me. But I do think extension tubes are better as they don’t have glass elements – They modify the focal length, and usually, have better optical quality than cheap filters.

There are plenty of options when it comes to extension tubes. I have not played with them enough, but here are some of the cheaper options can mess up the auto-focus – Try getting a [Meike]. They make decently good extension tubes.

 

SECTION E
SPICING THINGS UP

Now for a section on filters that are… rather funky. These are effects filters that you may find interesting, or otherwise, totally useless. Well, I am sure there are many places where you can put these to good use.

 

7) COLOR FILTERS

Adds funky color tints to your photo. Kind of useful if you know what you are doing – Add warmth, cool, or colors to an otherwise bland scene. As a newbie, I loved colored filters… or just cheap pieces of colored plastics. Which then, I realized I can just change colors in Photoshop.

So why? Well, these color filters are still useful if you want to add a little bit of orange warmth back to a grey sky, or maybe add some red to a dramatic portrait. There are plenty of cheap unbranded ones on eBay – and they are good enough.

 

 

8) STAR FILTER

Starburst effect. Adds bling to your shots. The “starburst” effect is a great addition for those Christmas and idol type portraits. Well, just get the generic ones will do.

 

9) BOKEH FILTER

Create shapes from bokeh balls. Next level bokeh. Ain’t my thing… but it’s heck a lot of fun playing with the bokeh balls. You can actually cut out patterns on paper to make bokeh filters. But if you are lazy, just get a pack of them on eBay.

 

SECTION F
THE TOOLS

For the last section, I shall introduce the simplest tools a photographer can get. If you use filters, there will definitely be times where things get stuck and what not. So having just a few simple things around will make your life a lot easier.

 

STEP-UP / STEP-DOWN RINGS

The filter is too big to fit on the lens? Use a step-up ring. There is no rocket science behind this… just use these adapters to fit the filter onto a different sized lens. There are plenty of cheap unbranded ones on eBay, but try to go for the metal ones. They are much more rugged.

 

FILTER WRENCH

Kind of Captain Obvious – These are used to remove stuck filters. There are quite a few variations for the filter wrench. I just got a simple 2 piece plastic, and they work like a charm. An unbranded cheap one on eBay is good enough.

 

 

EXTRA
USEFUL BITS

That’s all for this guide, and here is a small section on some extras and links that may be useful to you.

 

THE SUMMARY

Filter TypeUsage
Clear FilterProtects the lens from dirt and scratches.
Ultra-violet FilterBlocks out UV lights and prevents blue tints.
Circular PolarizerIt makes the sky look bluer, reduces glare, improves contrast.
Neutral Density FilterBlocks out some light like sunglasses. Allows long exposures during the day, using a larger aperture.
Infra-red FilterBlocks out all visible light, allowing only IR lights to pass. Produces surreal looking photos.
Macro FilterSimply magnifies.
Color FilterAdds funky colors to your photo. Good for adding warmth, cool, or any colors to a “dry” scene.
Star FilterStarburst effect.
Bokeh FilterAll kind of bokeh shapes.

 

LINKS & REFERENCES

 

CLOSING
WHICH IS THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL?

We have come to the end of this long list of filters, and if you have just picked up photography, which filters should you get first? I will personally recommend getting the UV filter, and one for every lens that you have. These filters are not really that expensive and you can leave it on permanently to protect the lens – A clean lens produces better photos, and it is much easier to sell a lens that is in good condition.

Also as a landscape/portrait photographer, I have to mention that circular polarizers and ND filters are my most used filters. Be it a blue sky, nice punchy contrasty image, silky waterfalls, they do their magic every time. Lastly, I have to give the “honorable mention” to the filter wrenches. They have gotten me out of the stuck filters situation many times, and just the best $2 I have ever spent.

But for you, it is really up to your personal interest. Whichever filter you get, have fun, and it will serve you well. Happy shooting!

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