When I started using photographic filters for landscape photography the available filters on the market were few and their quality was questionable. Some (those that at that time were considered the best) were such a niche that you had to stay on the waiting list for up to 6 months to have them, something that now sounds like a tale from the Middle Ages.
Years pass, their use becomes widespread and thus the supply expands, to such an extent that those who approach the world of filters today have the opposite problem: too many types of filters to choose from. That’s why I have decided to write this article, so as to exactly share which filters I mainly use when I am in the field, without any mysteries or secrets.
As you will see, even when it comes to filters my approach is always the same: few but good.
In fact, taking into consideration both the quality of the filter and the type, I think that it is counterproductive to have too many filters when you are in the field, as you will spend more time choosing which filter to use than refining and taking the shot.
Now it’s time to cut the cackle, so let’s just peer into my backpack and see what hides within!
Types of Filters
Since this is a practical guide I will try to avoid repeating the long explanation concerning the various types of filters. However, a few mentions will be inevitable. In case you have any doubts, I suggest that you have a look HERE.
Now I shall confine myself to only defining which types of filters I use to then analyze them one by one and analyze the situations in which I use them.
I use the following filter families:
I don’t use any UV filters as they are of no use other than protecting the front lens. However, since I already use other filters, the front lens will be protected by those other filters. Remember that no matter how good a filter is in terms of quality, it makes no sense to mount a filter that is of no use, first of all because it could reduce the quality of the shot and then because it could introduce vignetting.
As to the filter family, I use slot-in filters. Screw-on filters are excellent and by now you can find them of the same quality as slot-in filters, but they have two significant limitations:
- There are no GND filters
- It is absolutely not recommended (and sometimes impossible) that you use more than one simultaneously
As to the materials, nowadays there are no excuses: optical glass. Forget resin, beware of fake optical glass (not all glass filters are of optical glass, and not all those declared to be optical glass are actually optical glass) and favor only coatings that are useful for real. Yes to hydrophobic and anti-IR coatings, while anti-drop coatings make no sense (and are actually counterproductive in terms of quality).
Well, after this overview, it’s time to go into details.
I want to make an important preliminary remark that should be predictable but it won’t do any harm anyway: in this article you will not find absolute truths, the suggested filters are just the ones I use.
As we already know, GND filters (or graduated neutral density filters) are those filters with a rectangular shape, half transparent and half dark with a precise type of transition, and available in various densities so as to enable us to balance the exposure or, in other words, to compensate for the limitations of the dynamic range of our camera in a natural way, without having to subsequently blend multiple shots, and thus obtaining a result that, in my opinion, is qualitatively superior.
In my bag you will find only three filters. Let’s have a look at them together and see why I chose them.
GND Hard 0.9 (3 stop)
Maybe it is because you never forget your first love, maybe it’s because I’m a seascape photographer, however, the 3-stop GND Hard filter is certainly the GND filter I use the most. As for the transition (Hard), this filter is perfect for landscapes (marine and non-marine) where the horizon line coincides with the line of light.
Bear in mind that even if it’s called Hard there’s actually a slight transition, so, if you have promontories that, in the distance, slightly stick out of the horizon, you can definitely use this filter.
In this photo the 3-stop GND Hard 0.9 by NiSi placed with the transition on the horizon line enabled me to expose the foreground, avoiding overexposing that marvelous sky in front of me. The choice of the 3-stop density is connected with the fact that, according to my personal experience, it is perfect to take shots at sunrise and sunset, especially when the light comes from one side.
GND Medium 1.2 (4 stop)
Recently introduced, this particular combination of transition (Medium) and density (4-stop) is giving me great delight (if you would like an in-depth analysis of the Medium transition you may have a look HERE).
Thanks to its particular transition, it is perfect to handle all those compositions wherein promontories or artifacts (such as lighthouses) stick out from the line of light (which, once again, as they are seascape shots, will almost always be the horizon line). But don’t limit yourself to thinking about the sea: the Medium transition is perfectly suitable for hilly and mountain sceneries!
In this shot the GND Medium 1.2 by NiSi enabled me to perfectly balance the exposure on the mountains lying in front of me without introducing discontinuity.
The choice of the 1.2 density (equal to 4 stops) is connected with the fact that such density is measured in the upper part of the filter before the transition, and therefore near the central area of the filter, where its effect is actually needed, the density will be lower and not too far from those 3 stops of the Hard version, but this time with a softer transition.
In short, the GND Medium is really a factotum that you will definitely want to have in your photographic kit.
GND Soft 0.6 (2 stop)
If in 90% of situations I take shots with the first two mentioned filters, sometimes the situation calls for an extra help. In fact, sometimes light conditions are so intense and particular that the sky requires more than 3 stops of compensation, and the reflection of such light on the sea requires balancing, like in this shot.
In that situation, a 4-stop Medium was not enough against the light of the sky, and therefore I added a 2-stop Nisi Soft to it: soft enough not to interfere on the darker area of the scene but intense enough to be effective against the reflections. In that way I compensated for the excess of exposure of the reflection on the sea, thus making it possible for my sensor to capture the information of the whole scene with a single exposure.
Well yes, I love long exposures and you know it very well. When I started taking shots there were only two gradations: 3-stop and 10-stop (and by the way, for the 10-stop you had to stay on the waiting list for 3 to 6 months). With the passing of time and the spreading of this shooting technique, fortunately, by popular demand, the 6-stop density was introduced, given that in many situations 3 stops were not enough and 10 stops were too much. So the famous triad became widespread: 3, 6 and 10 stops, which many people still own and they deem it perfect for handling every shooting situation.
I, too, have used only the triad for a long time, but since quality filters with many other gradations became available on the market (nowadays you can find ND filters from 1 to 20 stops!) I was enabled to begin to experiment, and thus I came to my new triad. Let’s discover it together.
ND8 (3 Stop)
This filter is perfect for extending exposure times when we are shortly after the sunset or when it starts to dawn. In short, it’s the last ND we use at sunset and the first at sunrise. It is often underestimated because of its low density, and I deem it essential to obtain shots like this one.
In fact, this image was taken before sunrise, when only high clouds appeared colored, with ISO 100, f/11 and two minutes of exposure. The goal of that shot was to reach about two minutes of exposure, so as to allow the clouds to leave trails and to let the very rough sea appear so smoky that it would look like a sheet of ice.
Without my 3-stop NiSi ND8 filter, the resulting shutter speed would have been 15 seconds, not enough to obtain the desired effect. In order to reach two minutes I should have changed the aperture to f/22 and so I would have just introduced diffraction, without reaching the desired exposure time anyway. The use of a higher density filter would have caused the exposure time to increase too much, thus losing definition in the clouds. In a nutshell: the 3-stop ND filter is really a must-have to include in your backpack for light conditions like these.
ND64 (6 stop)
The 6-stop ND filter is doubtlessly the ND that I use the most. It may seem incredible, but it appeared on the market only in 2014 after years and years of requests from photographers who were asking for an ND filter that would be less dense than the 10-stop.
In fact, although the 10-stop ND was excellent in conditions of intense light, it was hardly used at sunset or sunrise unless resorting to compromises that weren’t really acceptable in terms of ISO and aperture.
A 6-stop ND64 filter is, in my opinion, perfect for taking shots in that time interval that goes from half an hour before sunset to sunset and from sunrise to half an hour after the sunrise (under optimal light conditions).
Thanks to its 6-stop density, within the above-mentioned time frames I am able to use it with shutter speeds between one and three minutes without having to adapt aperture and ISO too much.
In the above photo my Nisi ND64 6 stop enabled me to reach a 2 minute exposure at the exact moment when the sun was rising, allowing me to have the barely-lit clouds creep without losing their consistency like it would have happened with a higher density filter, ISO and aperture being equal (and we always try not to change them, so as not to introduce noise or diffraction).
If I had to choose only one from among all ND filters, I would choose the 6-stop ND64.
ND256 (8 stop)
If the first two ND filters we have talked about were already part of the famous triad (3, 6 and 10 stops), the 8-stop ND256 filter is doubtlessly something new.
In order to understand why my choice fell upon it, you should first ask yourselves why everyone thinks of the 10-stop ND1000 when we talk about Long Exposures.
We could get lost through myths and legends, but coming to the point, the most likely answer is that someone before you used the legendary Big Stopper, the Lee filter with (about) 10 stops, and going on using it (also because it was one of the few options available) they made it popular.
Even though this filter is now ancient history considering its quality and how it was made, at that time it was the last word in technology, so much so that you had to be on a waiting list to buy it. However, the 10-stop density was due to the photographic evolution of those who designed and created it, that means a photographic trend which considered long exposures as something to be done almost exclusively during the central daytime hours. All other manufacturers, as often happen, just decided to copy, and so here we are in a world full of 10-stop ND1000s.
However, you know, we landscape photographers love to take shots at sunrise and sunset, time periods wherein, to use that filter, we had to raise the aperture too much (thus losing depth of field) and raising the ISO too much (therefore increasing noise, in particular with long exposure times and taking into consideration the sensors of that time).
Thanks to an 8-stop filter we are able to always handle situations of intense light (maybe more suitable for the warm sun approaching the sunset rather than the midday sun) but without having to compromise ISO and aperture values once the light begins (for example) to decrease. Based on my personal experience, the 4 stops of difference between an ND64 and an ND1000 are too many to handle the light with continuity and without compromises. Being only 2 stops away from the filter I use the most (ND64) I am certain that with one or the other I am able to handle any light conditions, with the ISO and aperture values that I really want to use to maximize the quality of the shot.
For example, in this shot I used the NiSi ND256 because, even though the light was really intense, I was able to obtain a 2 minute shutter speed with ISO100 and f/11. If I had used an ND1000 instead, I should have had to find the 2 stops of difference somewhere else, for example by changing the settings to ISO200 and f/8 (not optimal), ISO400 and f/11 (madness) or ISO100 and f/5.6 (blasphemy).
In short, if you are going to buy an ND1000, think it over, and if you already have the famous triad, think it over even more, considering whether it would be a better idea to recover those two stops with a filter rather than with a qualitative compromise in taking the shot.
If among all filters (ND and GND included) I could really only choose one, then I would surely choose the Polarizer.
For those who lost the previous episodes, the polarizer is a filter that enables you to remove reflections from non-metallic surfaces, naturally saturating the elements of the scene. As you can imagine, in a seascape it can really make a difference, considering the large expanses of water that are normally portrayed, but also a mountain photographer should definitely not underestimate this filter, considering the results that it would yield in the colors of the vegetation and in the definition of the clouds.
As we can see from the above image, thanks to the polarizer filter I am able to reveal the seabeds that are close to the coast, often characterized by rocks close to the surface and seabeds with bright colors. But careful! A polarizer filter has to be used with cautiousness and awareness, for example by avoiding polarizing rainbows, knowing that its effect in terms of effectiveness will vary according to the angle of incidence of light and that its effect will not be uniform over the whole scene that we will have framed (all things that are apparently complicated but they’re actually simple to apply when explained in the right way).
I have chosen to use the NiSi Landscape Polarizer (of which you can find a review HERE).
This specific choice is based on the fact that quality-wise it is excellent and I can mount it on my NiSi filter holder together with other three filters (for example GND 3H, GND 2S and ND64, which can happen, as we have seen above) with no vignetting up to 16mm Full Frame equivalent.
That’s a very good deal!
Summing it up, at the present time you can find in my bag:
Seven filters, not one thousand. And I can assure you that with these seven filters you can take all the shots you can see in my gallery (HERE). Of course, you have to make a little investment if you want quality results, just like you did for your camera or your lens.
In conclusion, shooting with photo filters is a choice that can be due to various reasons, including the one that I personally deem the most important among all: spending more time in Nature than the time you spend in front of a screen doing post-production, even at the cost of coming back home empty-handed but with the desire to get back in the field and try again as soon as possible!
Would you like to delve into the subject of photographic filters? Write to me or have a look at my Classes!