You’ve picked up your camera, and you’re familiar with its settings. You may have even bought some fancy lenses for it. You have a great editing software program that you know how to use inside and out.
You’ve practiced with everything, and you’re very confident in your photographic abilities. You’re ready to take your photography to the next level.
The answer is rather simple – it’s time to practice with lens filters.
But what are lens filters? What are they used for? Are there different kinds? And where can you buy them?
We’re sure you’ve got questions, and we most certainly have answers.
Lens Filters Part 1 – What You Need to Know
There are many kinds of lens filters on the market today. They come in many shapes and sizes. Each serves a different function.
Before you dive headfirst into a purchase, it’s important to know the basics about what they are, the various types, and how they’ll affect your photos.
The first part of our guide will help you understand exactly what lens filters are, the main shape types they come in, and what primary purposes they serve.
1. What Lens Filters Are and What They Do
The definition of a lens filter, as written by Atilla Kun of Exposure Guide, is “a transparent or translucent glass or gelatin elements that attach to the front of a lens.”
Essentially, lens filters function for your camera much like sunglasses do for your eyes. They provide protection and improve sight in bright conditions. They can also be problematic if used incorrectly, just like how sunglasses limit your vision in darker conditions.
The primary uses for lens filters are protection for your lenses, to alter light that enters your camera, enhance colors, reduce reflections and glares, and add various special effects.
There is no universal lens filter that does it all, unfortunately. Because of this, it can become rather expensive to purchase the various types if you want to cover all of your bases. It’s a good idea to decide which functions and effects you’d like to have right away so you can space out your purchases based on usefulness and need.
Also, keep in mind that your lenses come in different sizes, and so do your lens filters. You’ll want to make sure your sizes are all compatible before purchase.
2. The Shapes of Lens Filters
There are 4 main shapes that lens filters come in – screw-on, square, rectangular, and drop-in.
Screw-on, also called circular, are the most common lens filters. These attach directly to your lens. They come in various thicknesses, some of which add vignettes to your photos. The most common types of this lens shape are UV, polarizers, Neutral Density (ND), and color filters.
Square filters are your next most popular shape, particularly among landscape photographers. These need a filter holder attachment for your lens, so be aware that you’ll need to purchase one of those when you buy a square filter if you don’t have one already.
The third shape is rectangular, another one very popular with landscape photographers. These also require a lens filter holder. They come in various sizes. The most common type is the Graduated Neutral Density filter.
Finally, you have the drop-in lens filter. These are primarily used in telephoto lenses and only come in clear and polarizing types.
For a more detailed look at lens filters, their main purposes, and their shapes, Adorama offers a great beginner’s guide to lens filters online.
Lens Filters Part 2 – Filters and Functions
Now that you know the different shapes a lens filter can come in, you’re ready for a part 2 of our guide – lens filter function types.
Lens filters come in a wide variety of types. Each type has one primary function. We’ve already mentioned some of these function types in our section about lens filter shapes – UV, Neutral Density, and polarizers to name a few.
As we said, there is no universal, Swiss Army Knife of lens filters. But this part of our guide will help you identify the biggest function types of filters. Armed with this knowledge, you can save yourself some money by determining which functions serve you photography needs the most.
We’ll even include one or two filters we recommend for initial purchase. We tried to keep them inexpensive – under $200. Professional grade equipment, including something as seemingly small as a lens filter, can get extremely costly. We don’t want you to break your bank trying to get what you need.
But wait, before we move on to the function types, there is one more thing to keep in mind – filter factor. Filter factor is just a term to remind you that certain filter types will require you to adjust the exposure settings on your camera for the best results.
Familiarity with the exposure triangle and the 3 main settings associated with it is critical to knowing when filter factor may come into play. If you need a refresher, we recommend Mark Wallace’s video on Adorama TV.
3. Ultra Violet (UV)
UV lens filters are clear filters that block out UV rays from the sun that can alter the way your photos turn out. You don’t need to adjust your exposure settings with this filter.
You’ll primarily use this filter to reduce the haziness that can overtake your photos shot in bright daylight conditions. They’re also ideal for any type of photography, making them an obvious choice to purchase first for any photographer.
We have two UV filters for you to take a peek at. The first is the inexpensive Tiffen 52mm UV Protection Filter. Listed on Amazon for just $7, this lens filter comes in a large variety of sizes. It is also rated very highly with over 5,000 customer reviews and has made it onto some professional best filters lists.
Our second choice is also under $10 on Amazon with thousands of reviews and a very positive rating – the AmazonBasics UV Protection Lens Filter.
These fit our sunglass analogy very well. Polarizing lens filters saturate the colors within an image and reduce glares and reflections. You use it by rotating it while looking into your camera’s viewfinder or live view. Once you’ve locked onto the perfect image, you can take your photo.
Polarizing lens filters are best used for landscape images.
For our polarizing filter recommendations, we’ll start with a familiar name – the Tiffen 77mm Circular Polarizer. Positively reviewed by over 1000 customers on Amazon, you can purchase one confidently for $32. You also have several size options to choose from.
Our second choice for polarizing lens purchase is rather expensive – $135 on Amazon. The Nikon 77mm Wide Circular Polarizer II Filter carries the weight of a very well-known and trusted professional photography product powerhouse.
5. Natural Density (ND)
Natural density, or ND, lens filters look like one side of sunglasses with their darker colors. Like polarizers, these are ideal for landscape photography, especially when it comes to moving bodies of water like waterfalls and rivers. They also work well for flash photography and street photography.
ND filters reduce the amount and intensity of light that enters your camera’s lens and sensor without impacting the color of your image. They also create the ideal blur for moving water while still maintaining a sharp focus on the stationary objects around the water.
Our first purchase recommendation for ND filters is the B&W 77mm ND 3.0-1000x MRC 110m Lens Filter. This highly rated lens filter comes in at $100 on Amazon.
If the B&W filter is a bit out of your price range, take a look at the Firecrest ND 77mm 1.2 Filter. It’s just under $64 on Amazon, but no less positively reviewed. It also has some size variety options available as well.
6. Graduated Neutral Density (GND)
GND lens filters are mostly used for landscape photographers due to their vertical transitions from darkened to clear coloration. This creates an optimal balance between the sky and the ground in landscape photographs, especially those taking place just before sunset and after sunrise.
There are 3 subtypes of GND lens filters – hard-edge, soft-edge, and reverse.
Hard-edge GND filters have a hard transition from a neutral grey half to the clear center.
Soft-edge GND filters, which are the most commonly used of the bunch, have a smooth dark to clear gradient.
And finally, the reverse GND filters are specialty lens filters designed to shoot sunrises and sunsets. They go from dark to darker on top with a completely clear lower half.
We have one suggestion for GND lens filter purchase – the Neewer Complete ND Filter Kit. Don’t be deceived by the name – this kit comes with both ND and GND filters, so it’s a one-stop shot if you’re a landscape photographer. It’s only $21 on Amazon with overall good reviews, making it quite the bargain.
7. Color Filters
Color filters have a few other names, the most common of them being warming/cooling. Color filters enhance the colors in the scenes you capture. They can also correct them. These are ideal for all sorts of photography.
We should note that some professionals find them to be obsolete with the white balance settings in modern digital cameras as well as the editing capabilities of photo editing software programs.
If you’d still like to give color filters a try, we advise looking into the Neewer 58mm Complete Full Color Lens Set. This 9 piece set should fulfill all of your color filter needs. It’s Amazon’s choice with positive receptions and the low price of $26.
8. Close Up
Close Up lens filters are for exactly what their name implies – taking close-ups and zoomed-in shots. Also called macros or diopters, they allow for better focus while zoomed in. Close Up filters are basically like magnifying glasses for your camera.
They’re also good for still life photographs.
If these sound like something you want to experiment with, we agree with Amazon’s choice for purchase – the 58mm Close-Up Filter set. It comes with 4 different diopters for only $12, but still have overall positive reviews.
9. Special Effects Filters
There are actually numerous special effects filters out there, each one focused on a particular effect. The two most popular special effect filters out there are star effect and soft focus.
Star effect adds a starburst effect over light sources, especially in nighttime photographs. You can purchase star effect lens filters that create 4, 6, or 8 pointed starbursts.
We found the Neewer 58mm Rotated Star Filter Set ideal for those seeking this awesome lighting trick. Available on Amazon for $14, it comes with all 3 point amounts. You can also buy the set in various sizes.
Soft focus lens filters slightly reduce the sharpness of a photograph for a relaxed, dreamy feel.
Another special effects lens filter set to look into comes from the well-known brand Polaroid. The Polaroid Optics 52mm 3 Piece Filter Kit is listed on Amazon for only $13 and comes in a variety of sizes. You get 3 different special effects filters in this kit – soft focus, warming, and a 4 point star effect filter.
Major Guide for Buying Lens Filters
We know we’ve thrown a lot of information your way. But no proper lens filter guide would be complete without the facts we’ve provided.
You see, we don’t just want to toss random purchase options at you – we want you to be able to go out there and confidently buy your own lens filters.
As such, we have a few more tips for you before you start buying.
You do not have to buy all of your lens filters online. If you have more questions or just want to verify you’re getting exactly what you need, you can always venture into brick and mortar stores. Chances are if they sell digital cameras, they’ll sell lenses and lens filters.
Also, keep in mind that not all lens filters will fit every camera lens. Some brands are not compatible with others. You have to make sure that not only the sizes match up, but that the brands of camera, lens, and lens filters will all work.
Luckily, a lot of major camera brands will make their own lenses and lens filters. Check out their websites for accessories.
But be advised – some brands will make you pay more to buy directly from them. To avoid spending too much, we recommend looking at other websites like Amazon and comparing prices. A quick Google search may also help you compare price listings for the same lens filter across many different websites.
Some of the top brands to look into are Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and Canon.
We also can’t stress enough how important it is to know the functions of lens filters before buying them. Higher end filters are going to be very expensive, so if you’re on a budget, pace yourself on purchasing the different kinds.
Also, pay attention to what materials they’re made of and overall durability. Check customer reviews – they’ll give you a better idea on the actual quality of the lens filters you’re looking to purchase. You don’t want to find out the hard way while in the middle of a photo shoot that the bargain-priced lens filter you bought online was as durable as an unprotected iPhone screen.
And finally, practice with your lens filters often. As with learning any new camera trick or feature, your skills are best honed through a ton of practice. Don’t jump right into a professional photo shoot with a lens you’ve never used before.
Final Thoughts and Additional Resources
We’ve given you quite a few additional resources and tips already, but we thought it best to offer up just a few more to fill in any gaps we may have missed.
Remember when we mentioned camera brands? If you haven’t purchased a camera or are looking into a new one, check out Adorama’s list of the best camera brands. Not only do they provide highlights for each brand’s strengths, but they also provide links to more in-depth reviews to help you buy the best one for your needs and price limit.
We can’t take full credit for the lens filter sunglasses analogy. Credit goes to Nasim Mansurov of Photography Life. His article “Lens Filters Explained” offers a lot of great information on lens filters and their various uses.
For those new to lens filters, we offer up Adorama’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Camera Lens Filters.” This article is the perfect companion to ours and should clarify any concepts you might still be unclear about.
And that’s all. We hope we’ve covered all of your lens filter questions. Remember that the most important part about photography is enjoying yourself while you capture various moments and objects in images. Lens filters can certainly help you with this.
Have fun and happy photo-taking.