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The 5 Best Camera Filters For Digital Photography

In the age of digital photography and Photoshop, which are the best camera filters to have in your kitbag? Having large filter sets opened up many creative options for film photographers in the past, that we can now take for granted.

It is so simple to adjust the colour temperature of an image just by changing the white balance, and more or less anything can be achieved through Photoshop. But...Filters are far from redundant! There are many situations in which the right filter can be a really important feature in putting together a great shot. Indeed, the effects of certain filters cannot be reproduced in post-processing at all.

1. UV Filters

A UV filter is one of the best DSLR camera filters to have in your possession. Ostensibly their purpose is to filter out ultra violet light, without impacting on the exposure of an image.

Ultraviolet light can show up in cameras as a fuzzy haze that saps contrast from a photo and is very noticeable over a long distance. It can be a real nuisance for landscape photographers.

But - this is much more a problem with film, as opposed to DSLR cameras. The electronic image sensor in DSLR's is much less sensitive to the problem of UV light. So what's the point in having a UV filter then…!?

To protect your expensive lens. Unlike most filters, a UV filter does not impact the required exposure, nor does it alter the colours in any way.

So it is a simple protective solution - plenty of cash has been saved through UV DSLR lens filters taking a knock in place of the DSLR lenses themselves!


2. Neutral Density filters

Neutral density filters are amongst the most important to have in your camera filter sets. They bring a lot of creative freedom. Essentially, all they do is reduce the intensity of the light entering the lens. They alter the exposure independently of aperture and shutter speed, without having any effect on colour quality or contrast.

What's the point in that…?

It enables you to select a slower shutter speed (longer exposure) than would normally be possible in bright conditions, even with thesmallest aperture setting on your camera selected.

So, have you ever wanted to take pictures of waterfalls or seascapes where the water is rendered as a smooth and misty surface resulting from a long exposure? A neutral density filter is what you need.

Having the freedom to slow down the shutter speed in brighter situations opens up other possibilities too - such as capturing motion blur to portray speed and action. ND filters also make it easier to use a wide open aperture - resulting in shallow depth of field - in brightly lit areas.

I think these are easily one of the best camera filters for all keen photographers to have in their camera filter sets. I use mine more than any other digital camera lens filter (excepting the UV for protective purposes).


3. Polarizing Filters

These are important for landscape photographers, and whilst their value is especially strong when it comes to film, they certainly have a place in digital photography too.

Basically, polarizing filters help eliminate reflected light that glares off outdoor surfaces such as water and glass. They also darken and saturate colours - making them applicable to both colour and black and white photography.

These are the best camera filters to use for livening up a bright washed out sky and injecting some richer, darker blue. They are also handy to have in your camera filter sets should you want to photograph water without losing its blue surface colour to the burnt out specks of reflected sunlight.

Modern glass buildings can also be shot to good advantage with a polarizing filter.

4. Graduated Colour Filters

Graduated colour filters can, to a fair extent, be replaced by good use of Photoshop. But if you're not yet a post-processing wiz, they are hugely valuable.

A digital camera lens filter of this kind allows you to emphasize the tone and colour of certain parts of a photo. One part of the filter has a certain colour, which either gradually or abruptly changes to clear elsewhere on the filter.

For instance a blue-to-clear graduated colour filter is blue at the top, for deepening blue skies, and clear towards the bottom where it has no effect (alternatively, the other way around and the blue could enhance the colour of water).

You could also find an orange-to-clear one, which is possibly the best DSLR camera filter for enhancing the appearance of sunsets. Or, a sepia tone filter, which brings an old fashioned feel to shots (something that can very easily be done in post-processing too).

The coloured part of these filters can be at the top or bottom, the side, or begin in the middle and fade outwards.


5. Contrast Filters

It can be really tricky to balance the exposure in scenes with a big contrast between harsh highlights and black shadows. You can get hold of a digital camera lens filter to address this problem though...

Low contrast filters cause highlighted areas to flare out and brighten up surrounding shadows. Meanwhile soft contrast filters can be used to actually darken the highlights.

These are both handy to have in your camera filter sets, since even Photoshop cannot be used to rescue all burnt out highlights or dark shadows (at least not without causing significant loss of quality).


2 common problems to be aware of

  1. Sometimes light can be reflected off the inside of filters causing flare which obviously damages the appearance of photographs. This happens with even the best camera filters, so do watch out for it.

  2. Filters have a solid rim, which occasionally - especially when several are stacked up on top of each other - can cause something known as 'vignetting'. This is where black shadows appear at the edges of a photo where the filter(s) has blocked light from entering the lens.

    Take some test shots to be sure this is not occurring before getting stuck into a full photo shoot (we've all had that sinking feeling of getting home to discover the great shots we just took are affected by vignetting!)


2 different types of camera filters

  1. Screw thread filters. These attach directly on to a DSLR lens, and must be of a matching diameter. They can be stacked up on top of each other to give a combined effect.

  2. Square/rectangular filters. These are attached to the lens via a special holder and adapter ring. They do not only work on certain sized DSLR lenses, making them highly flexible and convenient. They can also be stacked up for a combined effect (the order of stacking does not matter).

    The Cokin camera filter system is the most popular of this kind. I use a Cokin camera filter system, and really like the flexibility it brings as well as the ease of use. You should be able to find a Cokin camera filter in all good stores.

So in the end, I definitely think photographers can benefit greatly from a good filter or two. The best camera filters to choose depend on the kind of shots you plan to take.

Those outlined above would be a good collection for most people's camera filter sets. I think that filters are best used in conjunction with Photoshop, rather than as an alternative to it.

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