To reduce the glare and make the rainbow pop, a polarising filter is the best option and one that Verity likes to use most of the time. Olympus E-M5 Mark II, 40-150mm, 1/60sec at f/14, ISO 200. Credit: Verity Milligan
When it comes to knowing what filters to have in your kit bag we’ve identified the key three: a Neutral Density graduated (ND Grad), Neutral Density (ND), and polariser filter. Most professional landscape photographers use these filters at various times for many reasons, from trying to achieve a longer exposure time to reducing the glare from a reflective surface. Different filters have alternative functions and there are so many of them on the market that sometimes it can feel overwhelming to know which ones to buy. However if you stick with the key three you’ll get great results whatever the circumstances.
Landscape and professional photographer Verity Milligan uses the key three for her landscape and architectural work. ‘I have LEE’s new 100 filter system (which is at the pricier end of the scales), but previously I’ve used both Kase and Benro filters, which are all good.’
A Neutral Density Graduated (ND Grad) filter is like an ND filter but with a gradual blend from dark on the top to clear at the bottom. The top part masks over the sky meaning the exposure time between the sky and land are reading closer exposure values. Verity says, ‘I use graduated filters when I want to expose for the foreground and keep the correct exposure in the sky. They can be useful when shooting at the beginning or end of the day when the light is low and it can be difficult to maintain good exposure in the foreground and the sky. They can also be very useful if I’m shooting in gloomy/stormy conditions.’ She continues, ‘The advantages to using a grad is the freedom it can give you to shoot in bright conditions and the control over the exposure. Sure, you can replicate it to a certain degree in post, but really this isn’t ideal.’
In terms of disadvantages, Verity advises that you should be careful regarding what situations you deploy them in. ‘For example’, she continues, ‘if you’re shooting a mountain range with an uneven horizon, you can inadvertently end up darkening the mountain peaks and unbalancing the overall exposure.’
Graduated filters come in various strengths and in a soft or hard blend. As you can imagine the soft is more gradual whereas the hard is less so. Which one to choose to use is your decision, as some prefer soft whereas others prefer hard. Verity for the most part opts for soft grads rather than hard because they are a little more forgiving if you’re shooting landscape images. ‘However,’ she says, ‘hard grads can be very useful and effective if you had a defined horizon, for instance if you’re shooting a seascape.’
Finally, when asked if she ever stacks them she replies, ‘I tend not to because it can mean that the sky is almost too dark and ends up looking surreal.’
The distinctive exterior of the Selfridges building in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre shot with a Neutral Density filter to create this particularly moody and atmospheric image. Credit: Verity Milligan
A Neutral Density (ND filter) comes in various strengths (these are measured in stops). For those who want a versatile option, variable ND filters can alter their strength by spinning – however generally the quality is not so good. Verity says, ‘For me, an ND filter is useful when I want to show movement in an image. This is particularly useful when I’m shooting architecture and I want to make the imagery more stylised. It’s also very useful when shooting seascapes. In terms of the advantages they definitely help to give an image form. It can be difficult to tell a narrative through a single image, so a sense of movement can be very useful. However, ND filters can be tricky. First, you can find yourself guessing at the time, especially if it’s over five minutes. I advise getting yourself an app to help you calculate the proper timings. Second, there are a few things that can go wrong, such as light leaks through the viewfinder, which can ruin a long exposure.’
Verity achieved this pinkish-purple, ethereal image of Lake District’s Derwentwater by using a polariser. Credit: Verity Milligan
Finally the polariser is Verity’s favourite and the one she opts for most of the time. ‘For me, a polariser is an essential piece of kit for a landscape photographer. The LEE polariser I use has the advantage of warming up the image, but it also makes the colours pop. It can also be extremely useful for pulling out reflections from bodies of water and reducing reflections if I’m photographing a building.’ Like with the ND and ND Grads, there are advantages and disadvantages to using them, which Verity discusses. ‘Using a polarising filter ensures you have more control of the landscape in front of you, and opens up the possibility of exploring the scene in a different way. However, they can also be difficult to control. If your polariser is in the wrong position you could end up with the sky looking rather strange, and if you’re using one that is attached to a filter holder it creates a small space between the lens and filter which can increase the risk of lens flare if you’re shooting into the light.’
When it comes to investing in a filter there are two main systems worth picking from. You can either opt for a circular filter, which screws onto the end of your lens, or a square filter, which slots down a filter holder attached to the front. Most professionals use the holder system, as it can be more versatile and easier to stack filters on top of each other, but they tend to be more expensive (although higher quality). To attach the holder onto your lens you’ll need an adapter ring, which threads onto your lens and then fits to the holder. You’ll need to buy the correct size adapter ring for each of your lenses. The lens thread size is measured in mm, for example 58mm, 67mm, 77mm and 82mm are all common sizes.
The second system is a circular screw filter that threads straight onto your lens. Again you’ll need to buy the filter in the correct thread size for your lens. You can also purchase step-up and step-down rings if you have multiple lenses with different thread sizes and want to attach the same filter. We recommend you purchase the filter that fits the largest thread size of your lenses,and use step-down rings to fit accordingly. If you step-up, you run the risk of seeing the edge of the filter in the field of view.
If you find that you need a longer exposure time than your ND filter is capable of, you can stack them together. Verity advises, ‘If I want to have an extremely long exposure and there is a lot of light then I will stack ND filters (usually a 6-stop and a 10-stop), but this can lead to long exposure times and I’m not the most patient of photographers!’ However it’s not just ND filters you can stack together – you can also mix them up, as Verity explains: ‘I’m much more likely to stack an ND grad with other filters such as a graduated and a polariser, that both have a specific purpose when I’m capturing an image.’
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