Recently, I’ve received a lot of emails all asking the same question - “What’s the best landscape photography filters to start with?” These emails aren’t the brand or make of filters, but which types of filters should people buy initially. In this article I want to set out my thoughts about what would make the best landscape photography filters and a good starter kit. If after reading this you still have questions, please feel free to contact me.
Before looking at the filters you can buy, we need to discuss the filter holder. At the most basic level, there are two types of filter, screw in and square/slot-in. Personally, I’m not a fan of screw-in filters for landscape photography. I feel that the square filter types are the most flexible and easiest to use. If you use screw in filters, if you try to use a graduated filter you will find yourself recomposing the scene (if that’s possible) to position the graduated area on the horizon. By contrast, square filters allow you to position the filter without needing to move the camera.
If you decide on using a square slot-in filter system, you’ll need a filter holder you can attach to the front of your lens, to slot the filters into. Filter holders are attached to the lens using filter/adapter rings. The filter ring needs to be sized to match the diameter of your lens, for example if your lens has a 58 mm diameter you need a 58 mm filter ring. If the filter ring is the wrong size for your lens you will need to buy a stepper ring. These can be purchased very cheaply from the likes of Amazon and eBay.
The Polarising Filter
The first filter you should consider as essential for landscape photography is a polarising filter. Most new landscape photographers think of the polariser being used to enhance blue skies. Whilst it can do this, it’s much more useful for reducing glare. Glare can be a problem in contrasty situations and when the landscape is wet. You can also have a problem with glare on the surface of water, even if it’s just a thin film of water. By using a polariser, you can rotate the filter to reduce this glare, creating a much more pleasing and saturated image as shown below.
The Neutral Density Graduated Filter
The next essential filter is the Neutral Density Graduate or ND Grad. These are used to darken light areas in a scene, such as the sky. This helps to balance the exposure across the scene as the ground is usually darker by a few stops. When you use a ND Grad the sky will typically appear more colourful and saturated, whilst shadow areas in the ground become lighter and reveal more detail.
The ND Grad filter can usually be purchased as either a soft or a hard graduate, depending which make of filter you are using. This describes the area of transition between the dark and clear area of the filter. I would recommend having both a hard and the soft graduate in your basic filter kit.
The soft graduate is best used where the horizon in the scene isn’t flat. For example, you may have a mountain rising above the horizon and into the sky. The soft graduate will help blend this much better than the hard graduate. This also makes them more forgiving than the hard graduate if you don’t align them properly. The hard graduate is best use where the horizon is flat, allowing the graduate and the horizon to be aligned precisely.
ND Grads come in different strengths depending on the level of light they restrict (measured in stops). A two-stop reduction is a 0.6 graduate, a three-stop reduction is a 0.9 graduate and a four-stop reduction is a 1.2 graduate. A good starting point for a basic kit is a three-stop soft graduate and a two-stop hard graduate. If you can only afford one of these filters the hard graduate is likely to be the most useful but recognising it will have limitations.
The Neutral Density Filter
The third filter to consider essential for a basic landscape photography filter kit is a neutral density filter, or ND filter. The ND filter is dark across its entire surface and is used to restrict the amount of light reaching the camera sensor.
These filters come in different strengths depending on how many stops of light they remove. Which strength is best for you will depend on the type of photography you want to do. If you are doing long exposure photography during the day, you will most likely need a ten-stop filter. If though you just want to produce a slightly longer shutter speed than may otherwise be possible, a three-stop filter may be better. Remember also that a polarising filter will remove around two to three stops of light. If you pair this with a three-stop neutral density filter you will be reducing the light reaching the sensor by around six stops. This can often be enough to show some movement in a landscape scene during the day.
To summarise, a good basic landscape filter kit should include a polarising filter, a soft and hard graduated filter, and a neutral density filter. This will provide significant flexibility and good results when used in the landscape.
Expanding Your Landscape Photography Filter Kit
Assuming you already have a basic filter kit in place, you may want to extend this to cover other situations you might encounter. Typically, this will involve adding filters of different strength to your kit rather than buying different type of filter.
For the ND Grad filters, I would personally rank the filter strengths in the following order, number 1 being the most frequently used/ueful:
- 6 (two-stop) hard
- 9 (three-stop) soft
- 9 (three-stop) hard
- 2 (four-stop) hard
- 2 (four-stop) soft
For the ND filters, I would rank the filter strengths in the following order:
This is though much more dependent on the type of photography you want to shoot and the effects you want to introduce. It’s also important to recognise that you might not need one of each of these filters. You should only buy the filters you think you will need and it may be a better use of your money to buy more specialised filters which we discuss next.
The Kase Wolverine Filter Kits
As a side note, I wanted to highlight that the Kase Wolverine Entry Level Kit is quite similar the recommendations above. And because it’s a kit, it represents excellent value when compared to buying individual filters. By supplementing the Entry Level kit with a 0.6 hard ND Grad you would achieve a very flexible landscape photography filter kit for a wide variety of situations.
Alternatively, if you shoot a lot at sunset or sunrise, the Kase Wolverine High End Kit may work better. The kit includes the same components as the Entry Level kit but with the addition of a 0.9 Reverse ND Grad. And because the Wolverine filters are shatterproof/scratchproof glass, they produce excellent results, even shooting towards the sun.
In addition to the three broad types of filter discussed, you may benefit from supplementing your kit with more specialised filters. A good example of this is the Reverse Neutral Density Graduated filter or Reverse ND Grad. These filters are like ND Grads but the area of the filter just above the horizon is stronger than the area higher up the filter.
These filters are typically used at sunrise and sunset where the sun is very near to the horizon. They can produce spectacular results but are limited to the times when you are shooting with the sun near to the horizon. At the same time a standard ND Grad would work fine.
Another example of a more specialist filter is the central graduate where the dark area appears as a central band across an otherwise clear filter. The times when you will need to use such filter are likely to be very limited in comparison to the filter mentioned previously.
If you are considering purchasing filters for landscape photography I would share the following advice:
- Buy quality filters. They may be much more expensive initially, but they will be easier to use and give better results. For a long time I used Lee filters, but now use and sell Kase Wolverine glass filters because of their quality and design features.
- Use the slot in type filters rather than the screw in design. They are much more flexible for landscape photography work.
- Start with a limited number of filters. When you find your photography is being hampered because you are missing a filter, that’s when you should supplement your kit.
- If you’re unsure about any aspect of filter use, ask for advice from someone who uses the filters.
If you still have questions after reading this article, please feel free to contact me using the contact page on Lenscraft.