Photographic Filters for You

I have taken you into the realm of fixing your photos that suck. Suggested you to ‘f’ the rule of thirds. Even told you that HDR is not for me. Now it is time to discuss my favorite photographic filters. We will look at what I use in the field to balance exposure in my photos. Discover how I use the polarizer to cut down on reflections. Even talk about why I feel a UV filter is less important.

On my photo adventures, we get many questions about using neutral density filters. There are dozens of options and types of these filters available. We are going to start our discussion with the three basic categories of Neutral Density filters. Circular Neutral Density filters, Variable Neutral Density filters, and Graduated Neutral Density filters. We will also discuss some of the subsets within these categories. And finally mention the manufacturers I feel are the best.

But first, let’s discuss some terms that we will use over and over.

Stop of Light

“In photography, stops are a unit used to quantify ratios of light or exposure, with each added stop meaning a factor of two, and each subtracted stop meaning a factor of one-half.” ~ sourced from Wikipedia

Neutral Density (ND) Photographic Filters

A photographic filter which allows light to be stopped or removed from its density, but has no effect on the color, hence the term “neutral” in its title.

Screw-on Photographic Filters

A filter which is mated to your lens via the threads found on the end of the lens.

Optical Glass vs. Resin Photographic Filters

Optical glass, is glass with little to no imperfections. It won’t distort the light which passes through it. This glass is primarily used on more expensive filters.

Resin filters are a more economical way to fabricate filters. While there may be more aberrations involved in a resin filter, they typically won’t degrade your photographs. The material will scratch much easier though.

Neutral Density Filter

Neutral density filters are close cousins of the graduated filters. They are made from the same glass (or resin) material. Their only differences are size and filter coverage. These filters are designed to lengthen exposures, allowing you to soften water for example or blur moving clouds. In general, it is a filter that allows you to be creative with your subject matter. The neutral density filter can make moving subjects appear flowing and dreamy during midday light.

You can find these filters in two basic formats. There is a version that screws directly on to your lens (Circular Filter), and one that fits into rectangular filter holder. This type of photographic filter is also manufactured by a number of companies, but we are partial to Breakthrough Photography’s X4 Neutral Density.

These photographic filters comes in 3, 6, 10, and 15-Stop increments. The more stops of light the neutral density filter removes, the longer the exposure you can achieve with it in brighter lighting conditions.

photographic filters - neutral density usage by jay goodrich


Variable Neutral Density Filters

Similar in style to a screw-on circular neutral density filter, the variable neutral density filter adds unique functionality to the design. Much like a circular polarizer, you can rotate the outer bezel of the filter to effectively dial in just enough light stopping power to provide the exact exposure you desire. This photographic filter is found in the 3 – 8 stop range and occasionally as much as 10-stops. You are given significant creative control over your image while only carrying one piece of hardware in your bag.

While I used to carry these photographic filters with me, I have found that I would always turn the filter to its max adjustment. I never used the 1 through 7-stop adjustment variations available. It was always all or nothing. Consequently, now I just carry a single 6 or 10-stop filter from Breakthrough Photography. It saves weight in my bag and gives me the ability to slow any exposure in midday light. Like the icebergs on beach from Iceland above. I took this photo at high-noon.

photographic filters - graduated neutral density usage by jay goodrich


Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Graduated neutral density filters have only half of the glass coated with a darkening material. The graduated neutral density filter allows you to even out exposure in-camera.

When shooting a landscape photo, the sky portion of the composition is typically one to three stops brighter than the foreground elements of the photo. By holding the graduated filter to the front of your lens with the dark line at or just below the horizon. You can even out the exposure of your photo so that your foreground and sky elements are closer together in their exposure value. Depending on your choices, you will find these filters with two edge definitions. The hard-edged version has a more abrupt edge between the light and dark sections of the filter. The soft-edged version has an almost invisible edge change.

You can use a filter holder to keep these filters in place for longer exposures. I prefer to hand-hold mine over the edge of my lens.

Don’t ever purchase a screw-on graduated filter. You need the ability to slide the filter up and down to align the darker portion properly with the horizon within your composition. The horizon of your composition can only be placed dead center when using a screw-on graduated filter. This is because the division between the light and dark portion runs directly through the middle of the filter. Remember a dead center horizon rarely works for a dynamic composition.

I will typically use a 3-stop, hard-edge Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density Filter for these applications. Breakthrough Photography is now making these filters in glass! I already feel that their neutral density and polarizing filters are the best on the market.

Reverse Gradient Filters & Strip Filters

You will find reverse gradient filters, and strip filters as a subset of graduated neutral density filters. The neutral density coating lessens as it gets closer to the top of a reverse grad filter. This feature allows the top most part of your composition to remain brighter. Very useful for when the sun is right at the horizon.

A Strip Filter has a strip of color across the center of the filter. We use these photographic filters for bright sunsets or other photos where you only need a narrow, central band of bright light filtered.


I am not sure how circular polarizer’s work in some situations. Most photographers agree that they take reflections off of shiny objects such as leaves and water on an overcast day. Additionally, you can use these photographic filters to darken skies, lessen haze, and generally punch the color in your photos.

When you use circular polarizers specifically to darken skies, you will get the best results when the sun is 90 degrees to the direction of your camera lens. In other words, when the sun is directly to the right or left side of where the camera lens is pointed. The closer the sun is to being in line with your camera, the less useful this filter becomes. I have found that you do need to be careful when using these filters under some situations. You can overly darken your skies, giving your photos an unrealistic look that can distract from the scene itself.

As you read above, my primary use for this filter is to remove reflections from shiny subjects. Check out the two photos below. Notice how the colors pop a bit more in the polarized photo. The details of the kelp are extremely vivid when the overcast sky is removed. Individual elements now stand out, and you can see all the detail found in the tide pool. Also take a look at the starfish, all its detail and contrast is visible. The scene comes alive with vivid color. Lightroom was uses to process these photos with exactly the same settings.


photographic filters - unpolarized example by jay goodrich


photographic filters - polarized example by jay goodrich

You can use a polarizer to remove the “sheen” seen on leaves. Your polarizer can also enhance the detail in the veining and structure of a wet or shiny leaf. You can better highlight your subject by dialing in just the right amount of polarization.

There is a polarizer on every lens in my bag when we are in the field. While this is a more expensive option, it saves time when switching lenses. I am using the X4 CPL polarizers again from Breakthrough photography.

The polarizer has one more added effect of allowing me to lengthen exposure times by a stop or two. Slowing down water or giving clouds a slight blur can enhance your photos if you don’t own a neutral density filter too.


Here is a simple answer.


There are a bunch of different perspectives on this matter however.

Why would you put a $30 piece of glass on the front of your $1,500 lens? You’re an adult, you should be able to take care of your toys. Not drop that expensive photo gear, not scratch the front elements of your lenses, and most of all, remember to put your lens cap back on when you put the lens back in your bag! I often forget all of this. Most of my lenses have chipped powder coating and miscellaneous scratches on them. This is ok if you are going to take the Hunter S. Thompson approach to life:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

I don’t recommend this practice if you are going to try and sell your equipment in the future though. I work my gear almost to failure. They are tools no different than a painter’s brush or carpenter’s hammer. When done, replace with a new one.

For every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The best (and pretty much only) purpose I have used UV filters for is to create a dreamy, Lens Baby effect with a photo. I achieve this by smearing Vaseline (or other petroleum product) on the front side of the glass of this inexpensive filter. Think out-of-focus flowers and blurry surroundings for example. So it becomes a cheap creative tool!

FINAL Photographic Filters

Filters are another tool in your bag to help you achieve the look you desire for your photographs. I use them as a way to enhance my photos. I have learned many lessons in the field. Consistently asking myself, “I wonder what will happen if I do this?” For most of us, taking a dozen photos doesn’t cost a thing as we’re only talking about zero’s and one’s in a file on your computer. Try new things with these and other filters. We never really touched on using colored filters (everything from greens to reds to peachy oranges and beyond). As well as beauty filters for softening skin, all of which can help your creative vision.

Style & Vision

In Nature Photography


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2 Responses

  1. Many professionals (I am not a professional, but I agree) would respond that it is preferable to risk ruining a $30 piece of glass rather than a $1,500 lens. (None of my consumer-grade lenses are that expensive, but the principle still applies.) Those situations may include exposure to salt spray from the ocean or aerosolized silicates at thermally active areas such as Yellowstone National Park. Otherwise, yeah, it is just another layer of glass.

    1. I have seen salt and silicates ruin my polarizers, but the coatings on good glass are typically harder than both of these and just require a simple damp rag to remove.

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