Welcome to my guide on photography lens filters.
Where I will introduce some useful filters (physical ones that is) that I think every photographer should have. Also, I will go through some of the fantastic cheap lens filters that I have used before.
Add some spice to your photography without burning a hole in the wallet. Why not?
But to make this guide more “newbie friendly”, I have to include some explanations on basic things about lens filters. So if you are already an advanced photo ninja, you might want to skip over a few sections below.
Disclaimer : To better illustrate the effects of the filters, this post contains a few Photoshopped with-and-without photos. It is definitely not because I am too lazy to go out and shoot with all the filters. 😆
Disclosure : Affiliate links in this guide! Read my full disclosure message… if you are bored.
A) WHAT THE HECK ARE LENS FILTERS?
Let’s start off with something very beginner – what the heck is a lens filter and what do they do? The easiest way for me to explain is to ask a question.
Why do people wear glasses?
Sunglasses? Tinted lens? For the very obvious reason to correct their vision, or maybe the sun is just way too bright.
The same goes for lens filters, which are lens attachments with all sorts of effects. That can be a simple dark filter to block out some light, UV filter to block out UV lights, to funky filters that adds a color cast, to filters that create light streaks.
B) WHY USE PHYSICAL LENS FILTERS?
I know, there is Photoshop and Lightroom these days. All you need is press a single button to apply a filter. So why buy a physical filter? Photoshop can do all kinds of magic, right?
As much as I love Photoshop, you need to understand that there is a limit with applications. Physical lens and filters cannot be easily replaced.
|💡 The idea is to get good glass, so you have better image quality to work with. Not to get crappy glass and fix them in Photoshop. Good filters will add characteristics to your photo, not take away.|
C) THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF FILTER
Filters come in a few different shapes and sizes. But they are mainly circular, square and rectangular… I shall leave out the few odd balls here.
C1) CIRCULAR SCREW-ON FILTERS
The common lens filters are circular in shape, and you screw them onto the front of your lens. But before you buy any filter, do check if your lens has a front screw thread. A few odd lenses in this world do not have screw threads for you to attach a lens filter. Also take note of the diameter of your lens – which is generally marked on the front side of your lens.
|💡 You do not want to buy a filter that is smaller than the diameter of your lens! Get larger diameter lens filters where possible. I usually buy 77mm or 82mm filters, which should fit nicely onto most lenses. I.E. A 52mm filter will not fit a 82mm lens, but a 82mm filter will fit almost every lens out there with a step-up ring.|
|💡 You can attach multiple filters to a lens by screwing them on top of each other, or what we love to call “filter stacking”. But avoid stacking too many filters, as that will cause vignetting and a loss in optical quality.|
C2) SQUARE OR RECTANGLE FILTERS
These are huge pieces of filters, which is probably going to cost more than the circular ones. But given their size, you don’t have to worry about it not fitting onto the larger lens.
Square and rectangle filters generally comes with an attachment ring and filter holder. The attachment ring is screwed onto the lens, the filter holder is attached onto the attachment ring, then the filters are slot into the holder… or you can totally just hand hold the filter in front of the lens. Doh.
D) THE TOOLS
D1) Step-up rings [Get from eBay]
Before I touch on the actual filters, I shall introduce the simplest best thing a photographer can get. Step-up rings. What do they do? Let’s say you have a 67mm lens and 77mm filter. To fit that filter onto the lens, all you have to do is to fit a 67mm to 77mm ring to the lens, and you can now attach a 77mm filter to the lens.
|💡 Don’t bother to get these rings one-by-one, they are dirt cheap and just yourself a whole set to save yourself from future pain. As I mostly buy 77mm filters, I have a set of 77mm step-up rings (52mm to 77mm, 62mm to 77mm, 67mm to 77mm, etc…).|
|💡 There are many choices on eBay, but look for those metal ones. They last much longer than the plastic ones.|
D2) Filter wrench [Get from eBay]
How do we unstuck 2 stuck filters? Some like to use brute force with a pair of pliers, some geeks put them into the freezer, and a few others just give up. I say please don’t. Try out the filter wrench first, it will probably cost only 2 dollars.
E) THE ESSENTIALS
E1) Clear filter [Tianya – Get from eBay]
The clear filter? They do absolutely nothing.
Yep, photographers buy these to protect their lens. Scratch the cheap filter, not the lens. Clear filters might be dirt cheap, but since they literally do nothing, they are not very among photographers either.
What is more popular are UV filters. They are still very affordable, they protect the lens, and they get rid of irritating blue tints. See below.
E2) UV filter [Hoya – Get from eBay] [B+W – Get from ebay]
Now, there are all sorts of filters out there in this world, and I shall begin with a filter that I think every photographer should have. Introducing, the UV filter, and you need one for every lens you own.
On the first look, this filter seems like it does absolutely nothing, and is nothing but a piece of clear glass. So why the heck do you need a piece of glass? They are usually “permanently attached” to protect the lens from sand, dirt, water, and scratches. Yep, scratch the cheap filter and not the lens itself. Plus, they do block out the UV lights, and remove that bluish tint from your photos.
Most of my UV filters are from Hoya. They are very well priced and have very decent optics. If you want something better and pricier, I will recommend the PRO series by B+W… but reserve that for the best of your lenses collection.
E3) Circular Polarizer (CPL) [YongNuo – Get from eBay] [Hoya – Get from eBay]
A staple to many photographers. Circular Polarizers make the skies look bluer, and it reduces reflections. Very useful in any case. But do note that this filter usually do not come with a front filter thread, and you cannot stack on top of it.
CPL filters are generally slightly pricier, since it is a stack of 2 pieces of glass. But the best value-for-money that I have used is from Yongnuo. I later upgraded to the old reliable Hoya. Note that Hoya has a different range for CPL filters. The “normal”, “PRO” and very expensive “HD” filters. Go for the PRO filters if you have a little more to spare, if not, the normal CPL will do the job.
F) FOR THE LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHERS
F1) Neutral Density (ND) Filter [Zomei – Get from eBay] [Haida – Get from eBay]
A staple for many landscape photographers, and very useful in controlling exposures. Ever noticed that the skies are blown out in your photos sometimes? That’s because the sky is way too bright with the sun, and that’s where ND filters come in handy.
ND filters are darker pieces of glass (or plastic), and you can think of them as sunglasses. Simply put on the sunglasses, and magic happens – the clouds are back in, and you get a nice landscape photo.
ND filters come in both circular and rectangular pieces… and the rectangular pieces are rather confusing. Apart from the “regular” ND filter, there is a soft graduated ND (GND) filter, hard GND, and also a reverse ND filter. A picture speaks a thousand words.
So if you are considering ND filters, I will recommend the Zomei ND filter set as a good start for beginners. They may seem expensive, but if you consider that it is a whole set of filters, they are actually very affordable. If you are looking for something better, go for Haida… or Lee Filters.
F2) Infra Red (IR) Filter [Zomei – Get from eBay] [Hoya – Get from eBay]
Welcome to the world of the unseen. The IR filter blocks off all visible light, and allows only infrared to pass… not an easy filter to use, since you can hardly see anything with it attached. But the photos that it produces are hauntingly surreal and beautiful.
I am currently using a Hoya R72, and I regretted buying it. The Hoya is expensive, and later found a cheap alternative from Zomei… it is at 1/4 the price of Hoya, and it works just as great.
G) THE MACRO WORLD
G1) Macro filters [Andoer – Get from eBay]
I am not a fan of macro, nor these macro filters. In layman terms, these filters are just magnifying glass. If you are serious about macro, go get a good macro lens and extension tubes. It really makes a lot of difference. But these macro filters are actually cheap, and use these as your first step into macro.
G2) Macro Extension Tubes [Get from eBay]
Extension tubes are not lens filters. But these are much better options than putting on pieces of magnifying glass on top of glass…
H) SPICING THINGS UP
H1) Color filters set [Get from eBay]
As a newbie, I loved colored filters… or just cheap pieces of colored plastics. Which then, I realized I can just change colors in Photoshop. So why? Well, these color filters are still useful if you want to add a little bit of orange warmth back to a grey sky, or maybe add some red to a dramatic portrait.
H2) Star filter [Get from eBay]
These are bling. Really bling. It creates that “star burst” effect, and is a great addition for those Christmas and idol type portraits. Grab one of these “generic brand star filter” for a few bucks, and it just works.
H3) Bokeh filter [Get from eBay]
whores lovers, this is your toy. Turn that bokeh ball of yours into heart shape, star shape, or whatever. Good fun for a weekend project.
WHICH IS THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL?
Here we come to the end of this very long list. So if you are a beginner photographer, which ones to get first?
The UV filter. One for every lens that you have, and leave it on permanently. Seriously.
Also as a landscape / portrait photographer, I have to mention that circular polarizers and ND filters are my most used filters. But for you, it’s really up to your personal interest.
Whichever one you get, have fun, and the filter will serve you well.