4 Filters every Photographer should have in their Camera Bag

The trend with photographers these days seems to be along the lines of ignoring lighting issues during the shoot and to fix them in Photoshop afterward. It’s certainly possible to do this in most cases, but not always. The best example of an unfixable issue is if the sky is completely blown out compared to the foreground. That light & color information is lost forever.

Luckily there’s a very cheap and easy remedy to this. Today, I’m going to talk about 4 filters that every photographer should have in their camera bag. A filter is simply a small, circular pane of glass that screws onto the lens of your camera, modifying the light in some way before it enters. Let’s take a look.

Neutral Color Filter

A neutral color (NC) filter is exactly as the name sounds… well – neutral! It’s simply a pane of clear optical-grade glass that isn’t supposed to modify the light at all.


Why then would you bother with one? Cheap insurance. Most people use either an NC or a UV filter to protect their lens from damage, dust, and water. Because it doesn’t modify the photo at all, NC filters can be left on the lens at all times. If the filter gets scratched it’s a $30 fix to buy a replacement… a much better alternative than repairing or replacing that $500 lens.

Another advantage of using a neutral color filter are that it cuts down on reflections to some extent, reducing flare and ghosting. Most people just use it as a lens protector, though. The price varies depending on size, but a Nikon 58mm neutral color filter on Amazon, for example, costs about $30.

Circular Polarizing filter

A circular polarizing filter is another must for any photographer shooting outdoor landscapes. This filter polarizes the light, which means that it removes any reflections, reduces haze, and increases color saturation — often used specifically to make blue skies bluer.

The effects of this filter can’t be reproduced in post production (i.e. Photoshop), so it’s really a must-have in your camera bag. It works by filtering out light that is entering the camera at specific angles. You can control the angle of light that is filtered by rotating the polarizing filter itself.

Left: No filter, Right: Circular Polarizing Filter

Left: No filter, Right: Circular Polarizing Filter

There’s a whole lot of theory and guidelines as to how best to achieve maximum polarization, but my advice is to simply look through your camera’s viewfinder and rotate the filter until you get the look you’re after. One side effect of using a circular polarizing filter is that because it will reduce the overall amount of light entering the camera, the exposure may change by 2-3 stops. Not the end of the world, but something to bear in mind.

Circular polarizing filters are among some of the more expensive filters you can buy. A Nikon 67mm circular polarizing filter on Amazon costs about $150, for example.

Neutral Density filter

You can think of a Neutral Density (ND) filter as sunglasses for your camera. The purpose of an ND filter is simply to reduce the amount of light entering the camera evenly across the entire lens. This has the effect of darkening the entire scene.

It seems counterintuitive though, — why wouldn’t you just modify your camera’s settings to underexpose the shot if that’s the look you were going for? The primary reason for using an ND filter is to allow the photographer to use longer shutter speeds that would normally result in an overexposed photo.

The classic example of this is when shooting silky waterfall shots. These types of photos usually require that the shutter is open for several seconds. If shooting in direct sunlight, this would result in a photo that is completely blown-out. An ND filter reduces the overall light entering the camera to eliminate that problem and allow the shutter to stay open for a properly exposed photo.

Example of a Neutral Density filter

Example of a Neutral Density filter

The darkening capability (tint) of an ND filter is measured in f-stops reduction. A 9-stop ND filter, for example, will reduce the amount of light by 9 stops (and remember that each stop corresponds to a halving of light, so that’s quite a reduction). There’s a vast range in quality and prices for ND filters so be sure to shop around. A Hoya 52mm neutral density filter on Amazon currently sells for about $35.

Graduated Neutral Density Filter

A close relative of the Neutral Density filters we talked about above is a variant called a Graduated Neutral Density Filter. These filters work exactly the same way but instead of having an even tiny across the entire surface it has a gradient. Typically they are clear at the bottom and gradually increase to their maximum tint at the top.

Graduated ND filter

Graduated ND filter

These filters are very useful for shooting landscapes on a sunny day. Because of the limitations if DSLR cameras, it’s often impossible to get a proper exposure for both the ground and sky in the same shot. Either the sky will be completely blown-out if metering the ground, or the ground will be completely dark if metering for the sky.

The solution is to use a graduated neutral density filter. You can line up the filter so that the dark half covers the sky and the clear half is over the ground. This compensates for the brightness of the sky and allows you to get a proper exposure in a single shot!

Graduated ND filters are available in a wide range of configurations, light blocking capabilities, and prices. A Hoya 77mm Graduated ND filter on Amazon costs right now about $170.

What other types of filters do you keep in your camera bag? Any that are worthy of addition to this list of must-haves? Let me know in the comments!


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