To answer the question, yes. And no. Let me explain.
Photography itself has a lot of subgroups. Portrait, landscape, food, fashion, sports, street – I could go on. Landscape photography also has subgroups. There’s nature, wildlife, architecture, long exposure, abstract, and many more. It takes different skills to capture different styles, some even requiring special gear. This is where the answer stops being black and white, and turns to grey.
Okay, so what do you mean by “filters”?
It’s not a dumb question. Because there are so many different types of filters – that all do different things – there’s no way to use the term “filters” on its own without being unhelpfully vague. So let’s break down the different types.
Often abbreviated to PL (short for polariser/linear), these will change the way your camera sees polarised light. Light reflected off anything non-metallic is polarised, which will essentially cause gross glare. By using a polariser you can remove glare from your scene – usually on things like water or wet surfaces. You can also use it to make colours pop, e.g. making your sky a more vibrant blue.
A circular polariser is a filter than can be rotated to control the amount of polarisation occurring.
2. Neutral density
Often just called ND filters, these control how much light is hitting your sensor. The best way to describe these is “sunglasses for your lens”. When it comes to photography, we use the term “stop” as a measurement for exposure. ND filters are designed to reduce the light hitting your sensor by a certain number of stops. To put it simply, they will reduce the light in your image and make it darker.
A “variable ND”, much like a circular polariser, can be rotated to control the amount of stops of light that are being blocked.
Usually called grad filters, these are a type of ND filter. However, the density (i.e. how many stops of light it reduces) is not constant across the whole filter. These are used to darken certain areas of your image, usually to darken a bright sky while keeping the foreground exposed.
There are so many different variants of a grad filter, and I’m not just talking about different densities. There are reverse grads, horizon grads, soft/medium/hard grads – all designed to darken certain areas of an image.
Back in the day of film, these would block UV from hitting the film. Nowadays, all digital camera sensors have UV protection, so there is actually no reason to use a UV filter on a modern setup. However, they are still very popular amongst some photographers because they protect your lens from dust, dirt, and scratches by adding that extra layer between your lens and the elements.
These are coloured filters designed to change the colour temperature of your image and correct white balance. They work by changing the balance of light that is hitting your sensor. The use of these filters is quite limited when you take into consideration that most cameras have a white balance function. And don’t forget white balance can be changed later in editing.
There are situations, however, where a coloured filter can save an image. Underwater photographers will use a red filter to reintroduce light on the red spectrum back into the image to avoid a washed out turquoise result. This cannot be done in editing to same effect that a red filter has, without adding noise and degrading overall image quality.
What do you want to capture?
If the answer is everything, then having filters in your camera bag is a good idea. That way, when you go to take that prize-winning snap you’ll have options. The most versatile filters to carry would be a polariser, and a few NDs.
However, as you develop your own style and start to discover what kind of images you want to produce, you will learn what gear you need to achieve that. Personally, the kind of shots that I want to bring home include slow shutter speeds of water in motion, or clouds drifting along. To do this, I need to use ND filters to be in complete control of my settings and the amount of light that hits my sensor. But if you’re more interested in freezing fast moving things like animals or vehicles, you could easily get away with not using any filters.
There’s a time and place.
Recently, I upgraded to a NiSi Filters starter kit, which included a CPL and a few NDs. And the only thing I regret about it is not doing it sooner. I’ve been able to produce my best work using these filters in recent months.
But I haven’t used them for every shot. Why? I simply haven’t needed to. Take the image below as an example – no polariser, no ND filter, just my lens and the scene. Because I knew I wanted black and white, and everything frozen in time, adding a filter wouldn’t have benefited the shot.
Another thing to remember is that a filter won’t instantly make your image perfect. There are still the usual suspects to keep in mind: composition, lighting, time of day, etc. You still have to work hard to get your shot, a filter can’t magically make that happen.
Should I buy cheap filters to see if I like them?
No. Seriously, no. When it comes to filters, you really don’t want to be skimping on quality. Cheap filters will often use low quality glass (or worse, resin), have a noticeable colour cast, or just not work properly. All of which will affect your image quality.
If you’re unsure about whether or not you will benefit from using filters, I suggest 2 things:
- Borrow someone’s filters and try it out, or
- Invest in one versatile filter (such as a polariser) and build your collection slowly (unless you hate it, in which case you can sell it)
Avoid cheap filters like the plague. You’ll want to be spending upwards of $100 per filter, but the more expensive generally means the better quality. Hoya have good polarisers from $50.
Unfortunately, this is one of those “it depends on you” answers. As a general rule, if you can afford to invest in one or two filters, I say do it. It’s incredible how far filters can take your image quality-wise. By using filters correctly, you could turn a bland landscape into a prize-winning shot. Just keep in mind that not every scene needs a filter to be a good shot!