5 Tips For Filters In Landscape Photography

There’s something invigorating about pulling out a pouch full of filters and beginning to think about how they can further your creativity in an image. Sure, they can be heavy, breakable and a hassle at times to put on, but I absolutely love photographing with them. I remember how when I was shooting film, I would pull out a soft grad and gracefully slide it in front of my lens with excitement about how that photo is going to be “that much better.” Of course, now you can replicate some filters in post-processing, but I truly feel that they still have a place out in the field, and I continue to use them on almost every shoot. For me, I carry Benro USA filters in my bag. Feel free to use the code MEZEULSAVE20 for 20% off any Benro gear. Here are some of my best tips for why and how to keep the tradition of filters alive and in creative use for your images.


Neutral Density Filters

Neutral density filters are probably my absolute favorite filters to use for landscape photography. These filters come in a variety of stops from three all the way up to 32. I personally keep a six and 10-stop in my bag. So what’s the goodness that comes with these filters? Well, they are used to cut out substantial amounts of light in order to achieve a desired effect. For instance, if you’d like to photograph a waterfall in the middle of the day. You will not be able to create that silky smooth effect in the water because there is just too much ambient light. Utilizing a neutral density filter will cut out “X” amount of light and allow you to achieve slower shutter speeds. Another huge advantage of these filters is to be able to create motion in the clouds. Unless you are shooting right before sunrise or after sunset, it’s difficult to achieve long exposures for creating motion in your clouds. A neutral density filter saves the day here. I personally enjoy using my 10-stop filter for this effect and shooting two-to-three minute long exposures.

Now there are a few things you should keep in mind as you prepare to create your image. First off, you are about to put an extremely dark object in front of your lens which will impede your ability to focus, compose and meter.

Composition & Focusing:

  • Before you put your filter on, make sure you have perfected your composition. You also want to make sure you have nailed your focus. Once that filter goes on, you will lose visibility through your viewfinder of LCD.

    • Side note: In some instances, you can have your filter on and utilize your Live View. This all depends on how many stops your filter is and just how bright it is in your scene. Make sure your exposure preview is turned ON and then lower your ISO as low as it can go. This can sometimes give you enough detail to see your composition if needed. Make sure to change your settings back to the proper settings before shooting.

Metering:

  • So with your neutral density filter on, metering pretty much goes out the window. Your meter doesn’t quite understand what it is you are trying to achieve with the filter on. So how do you know which settings you should have for your filter on? It’s quite simple actually. First you want to get your frame properly exposed without the filter on. Then, you can utilize the PhotoPills exposure pill. This will allow you to plug in what your original settings were and how many stops your filter is, and just like that, BOOM, it gives you the correct settings.

A Benro 6-stop neutral density filter was utilized in this scene here to help smooth out the water. There was a bit of wind which was impacting the reflection, so by utilizing a long exposure, the water smoothed out revealing more details in the reflection. - Lofoten Islands, Norway

A Benro 6-stop neutral density filter was utilized in this scene here to help smooth out the water. There was a bit of wind which was impacting the reflection, so by utilizing a long exposure, the water smoothed out revealing more details in the reflection. - Lofoten Islands, Norway

A Benro 10-stop neutral density filter was used here to help create motion in the clouds above the scene. This was about a 90-second long exposure. The long exposure also allowed for a clearer view into the puddle. Lofoten Islands, Norway

A Benro 10-stop neutral density filter was used here to help create motion in the clouds above the scene. This was about a 90-second long exposure. The long exposure also allowed for a clearer view into the puddle. Lofoten Islands, Norway


Circular Polarizer

Definitely a “must have” filter for any landscape photographer in my opinion. A circular polarizer has three great benefits for my imagery. The first is it helps reduce the majority of any glares and reflections that I may be dealing with in a shot. For example, if I am photographing a running stream with rocks that have water splashed on them, that water is going to create a glare. Utilizing a circular polarizer will allow you to minimize or completely remove that glare. This works the same for reflections in water or windows. The second benefit is increasing contrast for black-and-white images. And finally, the third is the enhancing of color in rainbows. Next time you are photographing a rainbow, throw a polarizer on and turn it to the point in which the rainbow disappears. At that point, go back to just before and your rainbow will have max polarization and color.

 A few things that you need to be aware of when you use a polarizer:

  • The best angle to use a polarizer is when shooting 90º from the sun. When shooting into the sunset (i.e. sunset or sunrise), the angle is not correct, and the sky won’t be polarized. The filter can actually introduce lens flares when shooting directly into the sun as well.

A circular polarizer was used here to help with contrast in the clouds but more importantly to help bring out saturation in the colors of the rainbow. - Wichita Falls, Texas

A circular polarizer was used here to help with contrast in the clouds but more importantly to help bring out saturation in the colors of the rainbow. - Wichita Falls, Texas


Grad Filter

These filters used to be a popular choice for me to pull out of my bag, but now, not so much. I do still use them in specific situations. Here’s why. Graduated filters are a filter that has a darker side that transitions in either a soft or hard gradient to clear. These filters are best used to balance out having a scene that has a darker area and a brighter area. For example, shooting a scene with a fiery sunset and then a pier as your foreground. The problem though with grads is that you must have a completely flat horizon to line up the transition area upon. If you have, say, a mountain peak sticking up and you are trying to darken the sky, you’re also going to darken the mountain. The best scenario for grads is shooting outward toward the ocean or perhaps in a desert landscape. Also, once you shoot with a grad, you cannot undo or fix the graduation in post. So what do I do now? Now, I have transitioned over to bracketing and using those brackets for luminosity masking in post. This is a much more efficient method for my workflow. I still do use grads for specific scenes, but I find myself bracketing and masking more so than not.

A Benro .6 soft grad filter was placed just above the mountains and horizon for this image. This helped balance out the intense light in the sky with the soft glow of the sand dunes. - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

A Benro .6 soft grad filter was placed just above the mountains and horizon for this image. This helped balance out the intense light in the sky with the soft glow of the sand dunes. - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico


Square vs Circular

I get asked all the time, why are your filters square? When putting together your filter system, you have two options, circular or square. Circular filters simply screw on to the lens’s front element thread. You can stack them on top of one another and they are quite inexpensive. Square filters require a filter holder to first be mounted on your lens and then you slide the filters into the individual slots on the holder. I find that square filters are much more photographer friendly. Let’s chat about why. First off, with circular filters, they have the tendency to introduce a vignette. They also limit you to where you can position the transition area for grads. On circular filters, the transition line is right smack dab in the middle of the filter, which means your horizon must be composed right in the middle of the frame. With square filters, the transition zone is also in the middle of the filter, but square filters, grads are actually more of a rectangle. This gives you the ability to slide it up or down and position the transition area most anywhere within the frame. Another issue I find with circular filters is that they can get cross threaded on your lens (check out my next tip!) and result in a major headache.

Circular polarizer + Benro .6 soft grad filter. Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

Circular polarizer + Benro .6 soft grad filter. Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia


Stuck Filters

If you happen to find yourself in the predicament of having a filter cross threaded on your lens, don’t fear, it is possible to get off. This requires a bit of preparedness. There is a tool called a “lens wrench” and it should be found in every photogs bag. This wrench simply wraps around the filter and allows you to get a good grip with a lot of torque onto the filter. At this point, you simply twist and with some luck, the filter unscrews off. You will need to purchase a lens wrench for each size filter you have. If you find yourself out and about without a wrench, you can try wrapping the cord of your cable release or say, iPhone cable, around the filter and giving it a good twist!