To the novice photographer taking his or her first landscape photos, it might not be immediately clear why filters for landscape photography are even necessary. Filters’ effects are often subtle and their benefits difficult to see for an amateur eye.
To the seasoned landscape shooter, though, filters are considered almost mandatory.
But what is it about filters that the experts know that the newbies don’t?
That’s what this article sets out to make sense of. By the end, beginning landscape photographers will (hopefully) know what kind of filters are out there and what they do, so that fledgling shooters can go out and start using them effectively.
Quality of Light: The Make-or-Break Factor in Landscape Photos
Part of the experience that separates the beginner from the expert lies in the ability to assess the quality of natural light in the landscape scene.
Amateur photographers often have difficulty telling what ‘good light’ is in a particular scene and don’t have a great sense for how it can be made better.
Honestly, this is something that takes a lot of practice to develop, but it’s also our starting point for talking about filters.
Even the most picturesque landscape can be ruined ruined by bad light. On the other hand, good light has the power to make a run-of-the mill and otherwise boring landscape pop.
The fact is, when shooting landscapes, natural light isn’t always great.
That’s where filters come in.
Whereas studio photographers are used to creating their own artificial lighting magic by using a variety of equipment and patterns, landscape photographers have filters to squeeze the best out of natural light.
Waiting for the light in a family park near Brussels (Belgium).
A small selection of filters, adaptor rings, and holders from my equipment.
The three most commonly used filters for landscape photography are:
graduated neutral density filters (GND)
neutral density filters (ND)
circular polarisers (CPL)
Less common filters are: infrared filters (IR) and light pollution reduction filters (LPR).
Read on to learn all about these different kinds of filters.
I will share some tips on how to use them in the field, present a few useful accessories alongside them, and, when possible, I will tell you how to fake and/or improve the effects of a specific filter in post-processing.
Filters come in two main different formats:
Threaded round filters, which are the most common among amateurs.
Threaded round filters (also called screw-in filters).
Square/rectangular filters used with specific holders, loved by enthusiast and professional landscape photographers.
Rectangular GND filters.
The main advantage in using square/rectangular filters is that the GND filters, a ‘must have’ in landscape photography, are available mostly in this format (although some threaded round GND filters exist, their clear/dark transition is always placed in the middle of the frame).
These also make it easy and cheap to work with lenses having different diameters.
Threaded round filters are less prone to light leaks when doing daytime long exposures and are lighter, which is particularly important if you want attach a filter to a compact camera with retractable lens, such as the Sony RX100 cameras.
Buying Your Filters: The Good Brands
Filters can be made of different materials, from simple glass to resin and optical glass with anti-reflective coating, which are the most expensive and, in theory, those that introduce less colour cast and other artefacts.
I advise against using low-quality filters as they will surely decrease image quality and defeat the purpose of buying expensive, pro-grade, lenses.
On the market you can find countless brands which produce filters, but, generally, brands can be categorised as follows:
Note that not all brands offer both threaded round filters and square/rectangular filters, so do your research to buy what fits best your needs.
A good starter kit for landscape photography can be quite pricey but you’ll likely be using them for life, so if you are an avid landscape photographer consider making the investment, rather than wasting money on cheap filters.
[ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here. —Ed.]
Stacking Multiple Filters Together
Both round and square/rectangular filters can be stacked together in different combination to obtain different effects. For example:
You could stack more ND filters to enable a longer exposure time
You could stack a CPL and a GND filter to remove reflections in water while balancing the exposure across the scene
You could stack multiple GND filters to better balance the exposure across the scene
There are endless combinations but as a rule of thumb, you should only stack high quality filters, so as to minimise unwanted colour casts, banding, flares, and reflections.
Must Have Accessories for Filters
When working with filters there are few essential accessories you should consider having:
Filter accessories: (1) gaffer tape (2) adaptor rings (3) pouch (4) Lensmate filter adaptor for Sony RX100 Mk II (5) blower and brush.
Step up/ step down adaptor rings: These allow you to use a round threaded filter on lens of different diameter.
Holder adaptor rings: These allow you to mount the holder for squared/rectangular filter on different lenses.
Brush, blower and cleaning kits: Filters can get dirt easily when you manipulate them and their case can deposit on them dust and/or particles from the padding material used.
Filter wrench: Sometimes filters and adaptor rings can get stuck in the lens thread and a filter wrench will allow you to easily and safely remove them from your lenses.
Filter pouch: This allows you to have all your filters ready in one place. Filter pouches are available for round and square/rectangular filters.
Filter adaptors for compact cameras: For some high end compact cameras, such as the Sony RX100 line, both official adaptors and generic third-party mounting systems such as magfilter and Lensmate exist to allow you to mount standard threaded round filters, usually 52 mm in diameter.
Black gaffer tape: This helps seal filters and lenses to prevent light leaks during daytime long exposures and more. It does not leave glue on your gear.
Physical Filters vs. Digital Filters
Filters come in the form of editing software and physical filters.
As good filters are expensive and because editing software are getting more and more affordable, flexible, easy to use, and powerful, one could be temped to shoot without filters and apply them digitally afterwards.
The main difference between a physical and a digital filter is that while a real filter manipulates light before it hits the sensor, a digital one manipulates the data recorded by the sensor.
How well the editing can substitute for a real filter will depend on the kind of filter, the image, clipped highlights or blacks (check the histogram after you take your photos), your editing skills, and how you feel toward landscape photography. Purists tend to work to ‘get it right’ in camera.
Note than you should always shoot in RAW format for the best results.
Clear, Skylight and UV Filters
There is a bit of a debate about the merits of these types of filters. They undoubtedly provide protection for front element of your precious lens, but some believe they reduce image quality slightly, while others say that they boost image clarity.
I personally use a UV filter for protection when shooting in the wild.
Skylight filters were used to warm up the colours and are popular among film landscape photographers. Nowadays, provided you shoot in RAW, editing software can do the job of these filters.
Skylight 1A filter (left) and UV multicoated filter (right). Note the warm tone in the Skylight filter.
Check out this video from photographer Phil Steele about the role of these filters in today’s photography:
Graduated Neutral Density Filters
2-stops soft edge (left) and reverse (right) Formatt-Hitech GND filters.
Graduated neutral density filters, GND, are ‘must have’ filters for landscape photography, as they are needed to balance the exposure between a bright sky and a rather dark foreground.
This is a typical situation when shooting landscapes during the so called blue and golden hours.
The image below compares the same scene photographed using my Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk II with no filter (left) and with a 0.6 (2 stop) Soft Edge GND (center). On the right, the behind-the-scenes shot from my iPhone 7.
From left to right, the same scene photographed with Olympus OM-D EM 5 Mk II with no GND filter, with a 0.6 Soft Edge GND and with an iPhone. Below each are the histograms for the unedited image.
The corresponding histograms are shown below each unedited image.
You can see that the iPhone, because of its more limited dynamic range, has completely blown out the sky (see the red warning for clipped highlights).
Without a filter (but with good dynamic range), my Olympus hasn’t completely blown out the highlights and most of the sky could be (barely) recovered.
The more balanced histogram is that of the central one, where the GND filter was used.
Aside from evening up the exposure across the scene, darkening the sky allows for increased exposure time, which helps saturate the colours in the image.
The dawn over the Blue Lake, with the Matterhorn, a famous peak in the Alps mountain range, visible in the background. A 2 stop GND was used. Photo credit: Alessandro Torri.
GND filters are available most commonly in rectangular format, come in different strength and have different ‘darkening patterns’ to match all possible situations:
Soft and hard edges: in these filters the bottom part is clear while the upper one increasingly darkens from the centre to the edge of the filter. The central transition between the two areas is gradual in soft edge filter and more sudden in the hard edge filters. It is a general purpose filter used to balance sky and ground.
Reverse filters: in these filters the bottom part is clear, the upper is dark but it brightens up moving from the centre of the filter toward the upper edge. This particular filter is useful when the sun is quite low above the horizon (or just below), which is therefore brighter than the sky above.
Horizon filters: in these filters the darker part if placed at the centre of the filter and it fades towards the bottom and upper edges of the filter. The filter is used when the sun is at the horizon.
A less trivial use of GND filters is when doing nocturnal cityscapes and star trails above the city. In this case the filters are used ‘upside down’ to balance the bright city with the darker sky above.
Star trails over Brussels’s city center. A 2-stop soft edge GND and a 2-stops reverse GND were stacked and used upside down to reduce the luminosity of the city and enable recording of a decent number of trails.
In the Field
Usually, landscape photographers plan their shot and you should have plenty of time to setup your gear so to capture at its best that magical light you were after.
Observe the scene to determine where the brightest part is, so to chose the proper kind of GND and, by comparing a spot light reading for the foreground and with that for the sky, you will have a clue on how strong your GND need to be to balance the sky and the foreground.
Slide the filter up and down in the holder slot to place the clear/dark transition in the right position to best balance the brightness of the scene. You can rotate the holder on the lens if you have not a flat horizon or dark/bright transition in the scene.
The Digital GND Filter
Owners of the Sony RX100 Mark 3/4/5 high-end pocketable cameras may be happy to know Sony has released an app in the PlayMemories store which allows you to use an in camera GND filter.
For the rest of us, we can reproduce the effect of a GND filter in two ways, provided you have not clipped your histogram: do selective adjustment in your editing software or shoot for HDR.
Lightroom has a selective adjustment tool called graduated filter and it works exactly as a GND filter. In the image below I used the filter on a white background to show you how it is possible to simulate all the different patterns you can have in the real filters.
Simulated GND filters. From left to right: soft edge (1 wide adjustment filter), hard edge (1 narrow adjustment filter), revers (3 adjustment filters) and horizon (4 adjustment filters).
Digital filters are more flexible than real one as you can manipulate the filter in more ways than just reducing the brightness (you can also reduce highlight, boost contrast, fix white balance for the sky, etc.) and it make easier to deal with a complex horizon, with trees, mountains or other dark features stepping above the horizon, into the bright sky area.
Shooting For HDR
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, a technique used to extend your camera’s dynamic range by combining different photos of the same scene taken at different exposures (e.g. at -2Ev, 0 EV, and +2 EV).
This allows to get separated good exposures of different areas in the image and then specific software is used to create the final image.
3 images taken at -2 EV, 0 EV, and +2 EV have been combined in Lightroom CC into the final HDR image.
Beware that it is easy to overdo an HDR image and for this reason HDR technique is somewhat controversial among purists, as way too many bad HDR images have flood the internet.
Also, beware at moving objects, as they can create ‘ghosts’ in the final image (some softwares have a de-ghost function that could help).
Finally, it be sure your camera is steadily mounted on a rock solid tripod, to avoid camera shaking and unintentional movements.
Neutral density (ND) filters are used to cut down the amount of light hitting your sensor in a given amount of time, thus allowing you to take longer exposures even in daylight.
The difference with GND filters is that the ND does not balance areas of different brightness, but affect them in the same way, e.g. a difference of 4 stops between sky and ground will not be changed by ND filters.
They come both in square/rectangular and round threaded formats and in different strength, from 1 to 10 stops. Manufacturers such has Hoya, B+W etc often indicate the strength of their filters as 0.3 (1 stop), 0.6 (2 stops), 0.9 (3 stops), 3 (10 stops), up to 6 (20 stops).
In landscape photography, they are mostly used to smooth moving water (rivers, waves, and waterfalls) and clouds. In bright situations, they are used to shoot at wider aperture for composition reasons (shallow depth of field).
The Bayon waterfall (Belgium). A 10 stop ND filter was used to achieve a 20-second exposure time in daylight, to blur the water.
If you are at a touristy spot, a strong ND filter can help you clear the scene of moving tourists.
ND filters are often stacked together to achieve the desired strength: stacking a 0.3 ND filter with a 0.9 one will result in a 4-stop light reduction.
In the Field
Be careful when doing daytime long exposures with square and rectangular filters, as those may be more susceptible to light leak than threaded round filters. Sealing the gaps with black gaffer tape can help dealing with the problem.
With a non-sealed square ND filter, long exposures in daytime can be ruined by light leak, resulting in the central spot in this image.
A sturdy tripod is needed to do this kind of long exposures, as you want to avoid any camera movement. Also, these filters will darken your view so it best to compose and manually focus before install the filters (be gentle so not to move the camera or change the lens focus).
Use the mirror lock up function (if you have) and trigger the shutter remotely or use a 2 second self timer.
This technique consists in stacking multiple images in Photoshop as layers and average them. It is easy to select all the layers, convert them in a smart object and then Layers -> Smart Object -> Stack Mode -> Average (you can also try Median).
The movement of the Milky Way. This is the result of stacking, and averaging, 10 30-second-long exposures, giving a total exposure time of 5 minutes.
Use as many exposures you need to reach the desired long exposure time: if you wish to do get a 1-minute long exposure, stack 60 exposures, each 1-second long.
Obviously this technique works well if the single exposures are at least several seconds long, else the number or images to stack will be huge.
The Motion Blur Filter
The motion blur filter works well with waterfalls.
Comparison between the original image (right) and the simulated long exposure (left).
This method consists in few steps:
Load your photo in Photoshop.
Duplicate the level and apply the blur in the direction of the falling water.
Tune the filter strength and the opacity to the level until you are happy with the effect. A mild Gaussian blur can also help make the effect more realistic.
Use a mask to reveal the original image except for the waterfall.
Create more layers and masks if the water flows in different directions.
Level and mask used to create the final image of the waterfall shown above.
Circular Polariser Filters
Cockin circular polariser filter (CPL).
In landscape photography circular polariser filters (CPL) are often used to eliminate the reflection of the sky from shallow water, making it transparent. Even if the effect is subtle, it really improves the photo.
Here the CPL has been used remove reflections from the shallow water in the foreground, making it more transparent. Photo credit: Alessandro Torri.
CPLs helpfully reduce reflections and glare from snow, glass, wet foliage, and roads.
They also help to saturate the blue and green colours typical of the clear sky and foliage.
The view from my balcony after heavy rain: the polariser (bottom image) has completely eliminated the glare from the roof on the bottom left and improved the foliage on the right.
CPL filters work by blocking light with specific polarisation to reach your sensor. (If you are interested in the physics behind this, you can refer to this article on Wikipedia to learn more about light polarisation.)
To illustrate the effect of this filter on reflections in water, I put some water in a pan and photographed it with and without the polariser. The difference is quite dramatic.
The effect of using a polariser on shallow water (bottom).
Finally, while circular polariser filters are round only, some square/rectangular holders such as the Nisi V5 Pro holder, can also accommodate a CPL.
How to Use a Polariser in the Field
Place the camera on a tripod, mount the CPL and rotate it until you see the reflections are mostly gone from the water or until the colour of the sky and foliage improves.
You may need to move also the camera a bit in order to maximise the effect of the CPL filter.
Beware of using a CPL filter on ultra wide-angle lenses, as the darkening effect on the blue of the sky will not be homogeneous due to the physical principles behind the how CPL filters work.
As CPL filters usually reduce the exposure by about 2 stops, they can be used to replace a 0.6 ND filters.
The Digital CPL Filter
There is no real digital version of a CPL filter, particularly if you are using it to eliminate reflections.
It is one of those filters that have no real digital counterpart. Sometimes, as shown in this post on the Adorama Learning Center, you can digitally get quite close to the darkening and saturating effect a polariser has on blue sky.
As IR photography is best done during the central hours of the day, with the sun high up and harsh, hard light, it’s possible to keep shooting landscapes all day long and not limit yourself to the golden to the blue hours.
Finally, because we do not see the world with infrared light, infrared landscape photos have a big ‘wow factor’ and capture the attention of the viewer.
False colour infrared landscape. The usual hallmark of IR landscapes are white foliage and grass.
Using an Infrared Filter in the Field
Use a sturdy tripod, place the filter on your lens and then manually focus the scene, as the camera autofocus could be thrown off by IR light.
Your light meter will not be as accurate as in visible light, so it is best do some bracketing and take few photos at different exposure values.
I recommend using a camera that has live view to accurately compose and focus.
The Digital IR Filter
Lightroom comes with an infrared presets, which will convert to black and white your photo taken with visible light and play with the settings to fake the infrared effects.
However, it’s not great and it doesn’t come close to what you get from using a real IR filter.
These two different photos of the same pond illustrate the results of applying the IR preset to a normal photo (above) compared with a photo taken with a real IR filter (below).
Light Pollution Reduction Filters
The last type of landscape photography filter to know is the light pollution reduction filter. These are used in night photography to reduce the light pollution from street lights and other man-made light sources.
A Hoya red intensifier. This is a neodymium filter intended to boost red colours in autumn foliage, useful also in reducing man-made light pollution in the night sky.
Milky Way over a van. Sony RX100 Mk II with Skywatcher LPR neodymium filter.
Interference filters such as the Astronomik CLS filters, are more effective but more expensive and cannot be used on anything shorter than 70 mm as at wider focal lengths severe banding will ruin your photos (one exception could be the Astronomik clip filter system made for Canon camera bodies, which sits in between the rear element of the lens and the sensor).
Note that how effective those filters are will depend on the kind of light pollution you have around, as they suppress only light of particular wave lengths.
If you are interested in nocturnal landscape photography, I have covered this topic in great detail in this article.
Digital LPR filters
It’s possible to reduce the ‘evil orange sky’ glow and decrease colour casts and luminosity gradients across your image through careful and somewhat complicated editing, but there is no real digital replacement for a good LPR filter.
Comparison between RAW and edited shot with and without LRP filter.
LPR filters are essential for deep sky astrophotography in light polluted areas, as shown in the image below.
Trying to photograph the Andromeda galaxy under a heavily polluted sky without and with a LPR filter. Unedited single RAW images.
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