Mastering Lens Filters and Long Exposure Photography

By Antoni Cladera

Filters?

Don’t get confused!

This guide is not about filters that you can apply on Instagram... quite the contrary.

This guide is about how you can use different types of lens filters (yes, those that you place in front of the lens) to create a bunch of jaw-dropping images straight on camera.

Tons of fun, great creative potential, less time in post-processing... Lens filters have lots of advantages!

Filters are awesome!

So keep reading...

In this guide you’ll find everything you need to become an expert in shooting with all types of lens filters.

Everything!

From the types of filters (polarizer, ND, GND, UV etc.) and their applications, including a lot of practical examples to inspire you, to how to find the perfect location, how to plan your photo ideas with PhotoPills and how to use step-by-step camera filters to create amazing effects.

Are you ready?

The adventure begins.

Welcome to the wonderful world of lens filters!

“Obviously, we all look at things through the filter of our own experience.“ - Malcolm-Jamal Warner

Content

Chapter 1

  1. 10 images shot with filters that will inspire you
  2. Types of lens filters (and their applications)
  3. How to find out the actual density of your ND filter with PhotoPills
  4. How to stack filters (ND, GND and polarizer)
  5. The perfect location for shooting with filters (and how to find it)
  6. How to plan your photo ideas with filters like a pro
  7. All the photography equipment you need (apart from filters)

Chapter 2

  1. How to use the polarizing filter (and expose with it)
  2. How to expose using one or several ND filters
  3. How to expose using a GND filter (and a reverse GND)
  4. How to expose stacking several lens filters (ND, GND and polarizer)
  5. How to expose using a light pollution filter
  6. How to expose using an infrared filter
  7. How to expose using a solar filter
  8. Moving filters during the exposure
  9. How to shoot with lens filters step by step
  10. 21 examples using filters explained step by step
  11. Exposure stacking vs using ND filters
  12. Bracketing vs using GND filters
  13. 12 errors that you should avoid when shooting with filters
  14. 12 photographers that excel at shooting with filters
  15. What’s next?

Chapter 1

1.10 images shot with filters that will inspire you

A great photo always starts with a great idea.

Something you have imagined, something that you think it would be possible and that you want to capture with your camera.

It’s a very simple creative process but it’s very, very powerful.

As PhotoPillers (crazy photographers and PhotoPills users) we usually sum it up in three words:

“Imagine. Plan. Shoot!”

It’s our motto, our battle cry.

But don’t worry, we still haven’t forced any PhotoPiller to tattoo it onto his arm, wearing our t-shirt is enough :D

Jokes aside, when shooting with filters, as with any other type of photography, location is key. We’ll see why and how to find the perfect location later on (section 3).

Yes, locations are an inspiration.

But if in addition to a dream location, you add some of these resources to your creative process, success is guaranteed :P

Imagine... Let your imagination fly!

Black and white (1)

Nikon D4s | 14mm | f/5.6 | 10s | ISO 200 | 5600K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft GND 0.9 (3 stops)

Most photographers associate landscape photography with color. And that’s particularly true when shooting long exposures with filters.

However, black and white photography can help you create a completely different and much more powerful atmosphere.

As you can see in the image, both the water that hits the rocks and the clouds come out blurred thanks to the effect of a neutral density filter (ND).

Thanks to the long exposure, you can see that the movement of the clouds looks even more threatening. This, along with the luminosity and texture of the rock, allows me to create a dramatic and dynamic scene at the same time.

Obviously, the fact that I chose a relatively low point of view also contributes to this. This helped me to emphasize the lighthouse and, above all, the sky.

Lines (2)

Nikon D4s | 22mm | f/5.6 | 20s | ISO 100 | 7500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops), soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) and polarizer

If you want to produce an impact on your spectator, there is nothing more effective than to guide her eye. And in order to achieve that lines are your best ally.

Look at the picture in this example. What was the first thing that caught your attention? And where did you look afterwards?

While I was working on the image composition, my idea was to give as much importance as possible to the foreground. That's why I looked among the rocks for an area with a lot of moss. As you can see, the contrast between the greens and the black is a very powerful magnet.

At the same time, the moss snakes from the bottom up in the frame following an "S" shape to reach the sea, the horizon.

And once there, I thought it would be very interesting to include a person in the frame. More specifically, a photographer who was there with his camera enjoying the moment. That person is the second magnet that has lured your eye.

In addition, this person helps me to give scale to the scene and to make the image more three-dimensional since he’s located in the background, in a middle plane between the moss and the sea on the horizon.

Water (3)

Nikon D4s | 116mm | f/11 | 1/5s | ISO 100 | 6500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops), soft reverse GND 0.9 (3 stops) and polarizer (to highlight the rainbow)

In this scene the greatest challenge wasn’t actually the composition, but being able to capture the rainbow formed thanks to the water spray.

Because of the terrain and the location of the waterfall on the Kunene River, the natural border between Namibia and Angola, it was very difficult to work on any composition other than what you see in the photo. I barely had room to position the tripod, but I tried to place it as close as possible to the cliff’s edge so that the waterfall would be in the central part of the frame.

But as I told you at the beginning, the key to the image is the rainbow. To clearly highlight it on the image, I decided to use a polarizer and rotate it until the rainbow stood out as much as possible. Conversely, if I had turned the filter in the other direction, it would have vanished.

Thanks to the ND filter I was able to use a slower shutter speed and thus get a silky water to convey strength and dynamism. Those were the same things that I was perceiving while listening to the water fall onto the canyon.

Reflection (4)

Nikon D4s | 17mm | f/8 | 1/125s | ISO 100 | 6500K | Soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) and polarizer

Whenever I see this picture it brings back great memories of my trip to Iceland. Those were very emotional days...

But back to filters, this photo is a perfect example of how useful a polarizer can be when it comes to highlighting reflections. Especially if you find yourself facing a scene in which the water is perfectly flat.

Once you have the polarizer mounted, turn it one way or the other while you’re composing the photo. You’ll see how the water goes magically from being completely transparent to being a perfect mirror.

While you’re checking the effect of the polarizer, change your point of view. As you can see in this photo, the idea was to frame the scene in such a way that the mountains would create a reflection on the water as big as possible. And that’s exactly what I did.

Fog (5)

Nikon D700 | 200mm | f/4 | 1/350s | ISO 200 | 4450K | Soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) filter

There’s nothing more ethereal and mystical than fog. It’s an element that completely transforms a scene.

And no, a filter doesn’t allow you to create fog from scratch... There are other tricks for that... ;)

But it does allow you to enhance it and make the light even more diffuse.

In this photo, the fog that covered the entire background and part of the surface of the water was awesome. It helped me to remove detail from many elements that were completely superfluous and, at the same time, to highlight the cabin and the fisherman. Therefore, the human element becomes the main subject.

However, the fog was very low and the Sun started to cast a harsh light to the whole scene. That light destroyed the magic of the moment and also the dynamic range that my camera was capable of capturing.

So the easiest solution was to use a GND filter to mitigate the highlights and balance them with the shadows of the scene.

Architecture (6)

Nikon D4s | 18mm | f/16 | 181s | ISO 100 | 6250K | ND 3.0 (10 stops) filter

Have you ever heard about the daytime long exposure (DLE) technique?

You take a photo in the central hours of the day, when the light is quite harsh, and you slow down the maximum shutter speed (from a couple of minutes to... let’s say... infinity?) using one or more ND filters.

Therefore, the sky and water (if any) have a very exaggerated silky effect and no texture whatsoever.

In addition to this, most of these pictures are turned into black and white, to exaggerate the contrast and accentuate the blacks and whites so that the architectural elements have a lot of detail. This, in turn, counteracts the lack of clarity of the clouds (and water).

As you can see in the photo, the idea is to convey a slightly distorted and somewhat dreamy scene or a set of elements that would look quite vulgar in any other type of image.

Clouds (7)

Nikon D4s | 14mm | f/16 | 120s | ISO 100 | 7500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft GND 1.2 (4 stops)

Seeing the clouds “running” across the sky is always a great show.

Although it seems impossible, it’s something that you can observe with the naked eye, and also capture it with your camera.

Take a look at this picture.

The fact that rough, cracked and completely dry soil occupies the foreground and almost a third of the framing is not a coincidence. But it turns out to be a static element.

To counteract this effect and give more dynamism to the image, I chose to make a long exposure thanks to the ND filter. That way the clouds would cross the sky at full speed over the sea.

At the same time, I used a GND filter to control the highlights and to avoid a blown out Sun at the background.

Isolation (8)

Nikon D4s | 27mm | f/5.6 | 45s | ISO 200 | 6500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops), soft reverse GND 0.6 (2 stops) and polarizer

If you want to take a powerful photo, there’s nothing like creating a simple composition in which the main subject is completely isolated.

Look at the picture in this example.

It’s a scene with very few elements: a bunch of rocks bathed by the sea, the horizon and an almost flat sky.

And despite everything, or actually because of it, it’s a powerful photo, don’t you think?

In this case, I worked on a simple composition to avoid the temptation of including too many elements in the frame. But filters played an essential role as well.

On the one hand, the ND filter allowed me to get a beautiful and silky water to give dynamism to the image. And, at the same time, it removes detail in the water that didn’t seem interesting to me (drops, foam, small waves).

On the other hand, the reverse GND allowed me to control the highlights on the horizon so that the sky would be correctly exposed.

And finally, the polarizer allowed me to get a crystal clear water to show a lot of detail in the rocks located in the background.

That way, I was able to isolate the rocks on the surface and turn them into my main subject.

Trail (9)

Nikon D700 | 21mm | f/16 | 1.5s | ISO 200 | 5600K | ND 0.6 (2 stops) filter

This photo is an example of how you can use a ND filter in broad daylight and manage to convey movement.

If you look at the scene, it’s a forest full of tall grass. Despite the lack of sharpness you can easily recognize the tall grass in the lower third of the frame. At the same time, the grass is blurred so you still sense that a relatively strong breeze was blowing at that moment.

This effect is very easy to capture. All you have to do is use an ND filter (even a small density one like the one I used for this picture) to shoot at a slow shutter speed and get that blur.

Infrared (10)

Nikon D300 IR | 14mm | f/16 | 1/4s | ISO 200 | 2150K | Infrared filter installed over the sensor

Have you been to Iceland?

If you answered "yes", then this location should sound familiar to you.

But if you haven’t traveled there, you may have seen this location in the portfolio of one of your favorite landscape photographers. It’s an extremely popular place where thousands of photographers go every year.

And I wasn’t going to miss the chance... :)

I have to confess that I did take the usual postcard shot that, as I was mentioning before, I'm sure you've already seen online.

But I also wanted to capture a special memory of the Kirkjufell and its waterfalls.

I’ve had a Nikon with an infrared filter installed on the sensor for many years. And it's a camera that I like to use on special occasions like this one.

If you compare this photo with the regular postcard shot that I took, you’ll notice that when I was in Iceland, the Kirkjufell wasn’t snowed. Neither the rocks and the edges of the waterfalls. Actually, everything had a beautiful green color.

A high contrast black and white image is very similar to any picture you get with an infrared camera. But as I wrote, they’re only "similar"...

Well, that's why an infrared filter is magical: it makes you see things that are different from reality ;)

Solar eclipse (11) [bonus track]

Nikon D500 | 480mm | f/8 | 1/500s | ISO 100 | 7460K | Baader solar filter

Have you ever had the chance to see a partial solar eclipse? And a total one?

No? Well, you should. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.

And if you’ve been as lucky as me, and you’ve managed to photograph a total eclipse, it’s something you’ll never forget. Those images will be stuck in your memory (and on your hard drive :)) forever.

Living and photographing the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 in Portland (USA) was quite an experience... and a challenge.

I took this photo during the partial eclipse phase, a few minutes before totality, that is the (brief) moment during which the Moon covers the Sun completely.

Obviously, when you’re photographing the partial eclipse phase, don’t forget to protect your camera with a solar filter (section 2) and your eyes with a pair of approved eclipse glasses. You’ll prevent the sensor and your retinas from ending up severely damaged.

If you want to learn how to photograph a partial phase of the eclipse, study the example (21) [bonus track] of section 17.

And if you also want to learn how to photograph all the phases of a total solar eclipse, including the diamond ring, Baily’s beads, the corona, the chromosphere and even details of the Moon’s surface, take a look at ’A guide of the best solar eclipses: when, where and how to photograph them’.

The only problem is that a total solar eclipse is not very frequent. So maybe you should start to practice with a lunar eclipse first: ’A guide to the best lunar eclipses: when, where and how to photograph them’.

So… what’s next?

Do you feel inspired?

“Sure Toni, now I have a tons of ideas!”

I hope so, because we're about to enter into the exciting world of photography filters.

Let's see the types of lens filters and their practical applications.

It gets bumpy from here on out! :P

2.Types of lens filters (and their applications)

Explaining in depth the different types of filters and their practical applications is going to take me a while (and a lot of pages)...

The following table is a summary of the options you have.

FilterWhat is it for?
Ultaviolet (UV)Blocks ultraviolet rays.
SkylightIn film cameras, it offsets the bluish cast that some scenes can have.
PolarizerEliminates non-metallic reflections. Eliminates or enhances fog and rainbows. Increases saturation and contrast.
Gold-N-Blue PolarizerAdds variable gold or blue tones to reflections depending on the orientation of the filter.
Varicolor Blue/Yellow PolarizerAdds variable gold or blue tones to reflections depending on the orientation of the filter.
Neutral density (ND)Reduces evenly the light that reaches the sensor. Increases the exposure time.
Graduated neutral density (GND)Gradually reduces the light that reaches the sensor with greater intensity on one of the edges of the filter. Successfully captures scenes with a high dynamic range.
Reverse graduated neutral densityGradually reduces the light that reaches the sensor with greater intensity from the center of the filter. Successfully captures a high dynamic range scenes.
Black cardPrevents light from reaching the sensor.
InfraredAllows only infrared light to reach the sensor.
Light pollution reductionPrevents sodium vapor bulbs from changing the color temperature of the night scene.
SolarAllows to photograph directly the Sun or a solar eclipse preventing the sensor from capturing infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) rays.

As you can see, the creative options you have with filters are endless!

But let's start from the beginning...

What is a filter?

The filter is an accessory that you place in front of the lens of your camera and allows you to achieve a series of effects (see table above) that otherwise would not be possible (or almost impossible).

The filter actually modifies the light and/or color that reaches the camera sensor so you get a correct exposure or achieve a specific effect. Later on, I’ll go into depth on these effects as I explain in detail each of the different filter types.

As for the materials, a filter can be made of crystal, resin or polyester. Glass is a higher quality material, gives better results and produces fewer side effects, so it’s more expensive. Polyester, on the other hand, is of lower quality and it may produce a less perfect effect.

“Toni, what filters do you use?”

I use Lucroit glass filters. I like them because, although they are more expensive than those of other brands, they allow me to produce higher quality images. So it's worth spending a bit more money on them.

Let's keep going.

A filter can be circular screw-on, drop-in, square or rectangular.

And depending on its shape, the mounting method onto the lens varies. The mounting method is known as a "system".

Systems (or mounting methods)

There are several filter systems:

  • The circular screw-on.
  • The drop-in for some telephoto lenses.
  • The square gel filter for some wide angle lenses.
  • The square or rectangular (my favorites).
Circular screw-on filters

A circular filter is a piece of glass, resin or polyester in the shape of a circle that has a metallic edge so you can screw it onto the lens thread.

Obviously, the size of the filter you should buy depends on your lens’ specific diameter.

So, at first sight, you may not be able to use a circular filter of a certain diameter on a lens that doesn’t have that specific diameter.

And I’ve written "at first sight" on purpose because you can always get a tool that allows you to use the same circular filter on different lenses – an adapter ring.

Imagine you have a 77mm diameter lens and a 58mm diameter one. My recommendation would be to buy a 77mm filter and an adapter ring to screw it onto your 58mm lens.

Keep in mind that it doesn't work the other way around. In other words, if you had a 58mm filter, it wouldn't cover the entire surface of your 77mm lens, so you would end up seeing the filter edges in the photo.

Therefore, your circular filter should have the same diameter as your bigger lens.

Some photographers prefer to use circular filters for the following reasons:

  • You can leave them screwed onto your lens so mounting them is very simple and fast.
  • It’s very easy to stack them as you only have to screw one on top of the other.
  • They have a reduced size so they are easily stored and transported.
  • They are more resistant than other types of filters.

But they also have several drawbacks:

  • Because they have to fit into the thread of your lens, they must have a specific diameter. So it’s complicated to interchange between one lens and another.
  • Circular filters can be difficult to unscrew. Sometimes they get stuck and are hard to handle in cold and low temperature situations.
  • When you want to apply several filters, placing them on top of each other produces vignetting (darkening of image corners when compared to the center).

If you're interested in buying circular filters, these are the most popular brands: Hoya, B+W, Haida, Tiffen, Breakthrough, Singh-Ray, NiSi, Formatt-Hitech and Haida.

In my opinion, these reasons are enough to recommend you to use square and rectangular filters. They are the filters I use and I love them.

However, that doesn't mean that you can’t stack circular filters with square and/or rectangular filters. For example, the B+W ND 3.0 (10 stops) circular filter is spectacular. So you could include it in your kit and, at the same time, use a rectangular GND filter along with a filter holder.

It's not the most comfortable combination in the world, but it can be a very good option depending on the type of filters you have and the quality you're looking for.

I'll tell you more about them later on. Before that, let me tell you about a very peculiar type of filter.

Drop-in filters for telephoto lenses

A drop-in filter is only used for telephoto lenses with a long (from 200mm) or very long (up to 800mm) focal range.

The problem with any long-range and some angular telephoto lenses is that the front lens is so large that no conventional filter, whether circular, square or rectangular, can help you get the effects you’re looking for.

Instead, these lenses have a slot in the back where you can insert a drop-in glass filter. This slot has nothing to do with another slot that certain wide angles have and where you can insert a very thin pre-cut gelatin sheet. These gelatin sheets also act as a filter, although for other purposes.

As you can see in the photos below, to insert the filter in this slot you need an adapter where you can place a neutral density filter (ND) or a polarizing filter.

You’ll be using circular filters in both cases, so they must have a specific diameter to fit perfectly into the adapter and then into the telephoto lens.

Finally, let's see have a look at both square and rectangular filters.

Square and rectangular filters

Certain filters can be square (usually neutral density or ND) or rectangular (graduated neutral density or GND ones).

Square filters can come in many different sizes (70, 75, 100, 150, 165 and 180mm), although the most common one is 100mm. Rectangular ones can be 67x85, 75x90, 70x100, 100x150, 150x170, 165x200 and 180x210mm, although the most used size is 100x150mm.

“Toni, how do I know what size does my filter should have?”

It’s very simple.

It depends on the minimum focal length of your lens.

Imagine you have this very popular lens among beginners: the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 from Nikon (or any other brand).

If you use it with an APS-C camera, take into account the cropping factor (1.5x for Nikon). Thus, the field of view at 18mm will be a bit wide (18 x 1.5 = 27mm). In this case, a 100mm filter will be more than enough.

Let's suppose now that you have a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It's a very fast and high-end wide angle lens.

If you combine it with a full frame camera and you take a picture at 14mm, the field of view of this lens is so wide that any filter smaller than 165mm will create a beautiful vignetting in the corners... XD

If you have a compact or Micro 4/3 camera, that is a camera with a relatively small sensor, be careful with the size of filters you use.

Why? Because if you use filters that are too big for this system, the transition area may cover a good portion or all of the image. The filter will be behaving more like a blender rather than a GND.

Moreover, sometimes you can use a hard GND filter as a soft GND if you have a Micro 4/3 camera.

In fact, if you have doubts about any of your lenses, the best thing to do is ask at your local photo store. Or read reviews online. It's very easy to find information.

One more thing...

The focal length, the aperture you set and the sensor size also affect the filter transition.

Due to the "zoom" effect, the transition in a super telephoto lens (focal lengths above 200mm) looks much softer compared to a wide angle lens (focal lengths below 24mm).

In addition to this, the greater the aperture the more blurred you’ll see the gradient, as a result of the shallower depth of field.

Square and rectangular filters are usually made of glass or resin. And you need a filter holder to use them, that is a piece of plastic or metal that you attach to your lens.

The advantages of using these filters are:

  • As they are not circular, nor do they depend on a specific lens size, they are perfectly interchangeable. Therefore, you can use the same filters with different lenses.
  • The filter holder has several slots where you can slide several filters at the same time. You won’t get any vignetting.
  • It's easy to slide the GND filters very precisely to position the transition exactly where you need.

However, square and rectangular filters also have their drawbacks:

  • They are bigger than a circular filter and much more fragile. If you drop it on the ground, it will most likely break.
  • You need a filter holder to be able to use them, so you'll need to carry more equipment. The filter holder is not essential, you could hold the filter with your hand depending on the shutter speed, but I highly recommend you to use one because it will make your life easier.

If you're interested in buying square and rectangular filters, these are the most popular brands: Lucroit, NiSi, Lee, Benro, Formatt-Hitech, Cokin, Singh-Ray, Breakthrough and Haida.

Now that you know the different mounting systems to attach the filter to the lens of your camera, let’s focus on the different types of filters and their applications.

Depending on the effect you want to get in your final image, you’ll use one filter or another.

So let's see the different types of filters, their uses, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Ultraviolet (UV) and Skylight

A few years ago, when most of us used film cameras, both filters used to be useful. Today, most photographers who use them do so to protect their lenses from breaking or scratches.

What is an ultraviolet (UV) filter?

An ultraviolet (UV) filter is a glass filter, usually circular, that you screw onto the front of the lens and blocks ultraviolet rays.

What exactly does a UV filter do?

A UV filter is generally used, as I said before, to block ultraviolet rays. It’s the equivalent to a sunscreen protection for your camera.

Back in the days of film photography some films were very sensitive to ultraviolet light. So if you didn't use a UV filter, you could end up with a blue cast affecting the exposure and color temperature of the pictures after developing them. Obviously, this problem was even worse if you took pictures on a very sunny day or at a relatively high location above sea level.

The fact is that modern films and digital sensors of any DSLR or mirrorless camera have a UV filter over them that protects them from this type of light. So the UV filter has become basically useless.

However, many photographers still use it as a protection for their lenses.

What is a Skylight filter?

A Skylight filter is a glass filter, almost always circular, that you screw onto the front of the lens. In addition to blocking ultraviolet rays, the filter has a faint orange-pink cast.

What exactly does a Skylight filter do?

Like a UV filter, this filter is used with film cameras.

The effect of a Skylight filter is slightly warm. Thus, if you're using a film with a specific color temperature for outdoor day scenes, the filter counteracts the bluish cast that some scenes, especially indoor ones, may have.

Obviously, if you use this filter with a digital camera (although, in my opinion, it doesn't make much sense) and you have some color problem in your photos, you can always correct it in post-processing with a software like Lightroom or Photoshop.

The difference between a UV filter and a Skylight filter is that the first one is neutral (has no tint or color cast) while the second one is a basic color correction filter with a slightly magenta tint.

Does a UV or Skylight filter really protect your lens?

If you drop your brand new $2,500 lens, the UV filter (which cost you $20) will break instead of the front glass of your lens. And, obviously, it would always be easier to buy a new filter than to send the lens to the official repair service to fix it, wouldn't it?

Yet, although it seems like a good idea, the truth is that in practice it's not quite like that.

The reality is that the glass of any UV filter is much more fragile than the front glass of any lens. So the UV filter is often broken by falls that usually don’t affect the lens.

As if this were not enough, if you hit or drop a lens strongly enough to damage the front glass, your lens will suffer some internal damage as well. So, even if the UV filter had protected the front glass, the lens would still be damaged.

In short, if you drop your lens with a UV filter and only the filter breaks but not the lens, all you did was breaking a filter. The lens would have survived in any case. And if you drop your lens without a UV filter and it breaks, an UV filter wouldn't have prevented it.

“But Toni, does that mean that UV and Skylight filters offer no protection at all?”

No. The bottom line is that they offer no protection against impacts. But they do protect your lens from dust, scratches, sand and other small threats.

The negative effects of a UV filter (or a Skylight filter)

One last thing.

Don’t forget that putting any glass in front of your lens will negatively affect the quality of the image.

A UV filter blocks a small percentage (between 0.1% and 5%) of the light that goes through it. The effect the filter has on the light slightly reduces the sharpness and contrast of your images. It's a barely noticeable effect that can be easily fixed with Lightroom or Photoshop, but you should be aware of it.

Unfortunately, that’s not it...

A UV filter can also cause flare or halos if you’re photographing a scene with a bright light source, especially in low ambient light or night photography. In these cases the flare is much more visible.

In addition to this, exposing your lens to UV rays helps to eliminate any fungus that may have grown. If you always have a UV filter screwed onto your lens, the chances of having fungus in your lens are much higher: moisture can slip between the lens front glass and the UV filter and fungus can create a great home XD

Should you use a UV filter (or a Skylight filter)?

Actually, it depends. Although I admit that I am not very fond of UV filters, I never use them.

Before you buy a UV filter and put it in front of your lens, keep in mind that:

  • A UV filter will protect your lens from dust and scratches at best. It might be a good idea to use one on the beach or in the desert. But in most cases, it's best not to use it.
  • UV filters have a small negative impact on your image quality. Most of the time, you won't notice the difference. But if you're looking for the best possible image quality, or if your photos show flares and halos, don't use a UV filter.

Polarizer

When using the polarizer (right picture) the reflections in the water disappear.

A polarizing filter is a piece of glass whose key function is to reduce the amount of reflected light that enters through the lens of your camera and the sensor ends up recording.

Thanks to this filter you can increase the saturation and contrast of your photo.

You can also remove non-metallic reflections (it's very useful for example to make the water more transparent and show more detail on the background), glitter on the surface of an object and even reduce the mist. As the filter gets darker, the reflections on the water disappear and the color of the scene elements (e.g. vegetation) becomes more intense.

The filtered angle is controlled by rotating the polarizer. Therefore, as you rotate the filter, these effects appear or disappear.

Moreover, you can control the intensity of this effect by changing the camera's line of focus with respect to the Sun.

But let's start from the beginning. Let's have a look at the different types of polarizing filters that exist.

Types of polarizing filters (and how they work)

“Wait Toni, wait... Are you saying that there several types of polarizers?”

Actually, I do.

Polarizing filters can be linear or circular.

But beware! Don't fall into the trap: the name of these filters has nothing to do with their shape (square or round), or the fact that they rotate (every single one does), but with the way they work.

As I said at the beginning of this section, this type of filter depends on the behavior of the light.

When a beam of light moves in a straight line, it does so as it oscillates in an infinite number of planes around the axis that marks the movement direction. Each of these planes is a polarization plane. So with the polarizer you can reduce all those planes to one or a very small range of them.

Maybe this diagram will help you understand it better.

This is how a linear polarizing filter works.

But there’s a problem...

Well, your DSLR or mirrorless camera may not work properly.

Don't panic, it won't break down. The thing is that, as the light is polarized linearly in a single plane, the light meter or the autofocus system can be confused when metering. And your photo will be badly exposed, out of focus or both.

How can you avoid it?

Eureka!

Using a circular polarizing filter (CPL). This type of filter has a second element, called a quarter wave plate that converts the already linearly polarized light into a circular polarization, thus avoiding any problems with the light meter or the autofocus system.

Why should you use a polarizing filter?

One of the biggest frustrations we landscape photographers have is that our photos sometimes lack color saturation.

Why?

Well, this is mainly due to the way the light bounces off the ground and all the other elements in the scene. The light bounces following a series of specific angles (each angle depends on the element in which it bounces), so the image looks dull and flat.

However, if you place a circular polarizing filter (or CPL) in front of your lens and rotate it to a certain angle, the filter is able to eliminate most of the light reflected in your scene. In other words, it increases your photo saturation and contrast.

Similarly, when shooting distant subjects (e.g. a mountain range), the polarizer reduces the haze.

Finally, the circular polarizer filter is perfect for removing reflections, as long as they’re non-metallic. This way you can capture crystal clear water or remove the glare on certain surfaces (building glasses, for example).

Yes, I know what you're going to say. That Lightroom or Photoshop are powerful enough tools to add saturation and contrast to your images.

And it's true, I'm not going to deny that both are very powerful.

But... It's really complicated to replicate the effect of a circular polarizing filter in post-processing. And if you want to reduce any glare and haze in a scene, that's just impossible.

What are the drawbacks of using a polarizing filter?

Unfortunately, polarizing filters have a number of disadvantages and problems.

Here are some things you should be aware of:

  • A polarizing filter can ruin the sky in your shot. If you use a polarizer with a wide angle lens during a sunrise or sunset it can make the sky appear unnaturally dark in certain areas. This is also true for panoramas. Be very careful when making panoramas: any problem or effect caused by the polarizer will be almost impossible to correct in post-processing.
  • It’ll take you longer to compose if you use a polarizing filter because you need to rotate it carefully until you get the effect you’re looking for. Don't forget that the polarizing effect of the filter varies greatly depending on the position of the Sun and the direction in which you’re pointing the camera.
  • A polarizing filter subtracts light from the scene. Depending on the model, it can be between 1 and 3 stops so you need to take this into account when setting the shutter speed.
  • A polarizer can cause vignetting. This is especially true if you use a wide angle lens because vignetting will affect the corners of the frame. To avoid this, you shouldn't stack too many filters and only buy slim or nano polarizing filters.
  • A polarizer may produce flare or halos in the final image.
  • For any polarizer, a rainbow is reflected light. If your polarizing filter is engaged, the rainbow will disappear from your photo. Rotate or remove the polarizer.
  • Finally, a quality polarizing filter is expensive. Instead of buying many different sized filters, I recommend that you buy the largest diameter filter you can screw onto your bigger lens. Then, buy adapter rings for all the other lenses you have. That way you can use the same filter with all your lenses.

Despite these drawbacks, I believe that a circular polarizing filter (CPL) is an essential accessory in the backpack of any photographer (especially landscape ones). With a high quality filter and a little practice you can get spectacular results.

And not only that.

Remember you can’t replicate the effect of a circular polarizing filter (CPL) using any post-processing software. If you don't get it on camera while in the field, you won't get at home in front of the computer.

Also, as you'll learn in section 11, you can stack the polarizer with other filters such as ND or GND ones for spectacular results.

I use the B+W Kaesemann Circular MRC 77mm polarizing filter. I also have the 112mm Slim circular polarizer from Lucroit and the 165x165mm square polarizer from Lucroit.

The most popular brands are Lucroit, B+W, Formatt-Hitech, NiSi, Lee, Hoya, Haida, Cokin, Breakthrough and Singh-Ray.

Gold-N-Blue (Singh-Ray) and Varicolor Blue/Yellow (Cokin) polarizer

Now that you know what a circular polarizing filter is and what it's for, let me surprise you by explaining a few things about the Gold-N-Blue circular polarizing filter (Singh-Ray) and the Varicolor Blue/Yellow de Cokin.

At this point, you know that "regular" polarizers enhance color saturation on your images and also reduce or eliminate reflections (as long as they are not metallic).

But can you imagine that besides that the polarizer gave the sky or the water a warm and golden tone? Or a cold blue tone?

Nikon D700 | 105mm | f/8 | 1s | ISO 200 | 8000K | Regular polarizer
Nikon D700 | 105mm | f/8 | 0.5s | ISO 200 | 8000K | Gold-N-Blue polarizer

The difference in tonality will depend on the direction you rotate the filter. Instead of eliminating reflections, this filter colors them with an intense blue or yellow tone as you rotate the filter.

I know what you're thinking: you can do the same with a color filter.

Note: In case you don't remember, a color filter is used in analog photography, and more specifically in black and white photography. Depending on the color of the filter, greens, blues or reds are enhanced.

But they’re also used in digital photography to change the color of a portion of the scene or the color temperature.

Back to the color circular polarizing filter...

The truth is that you don't get the same result with a color filter.

First of all because the materials’ quality is not the same (a color filter is usually of low quality and very cheap compared to any polarizer), so the effect can hardly be the same.

And secondly, because any polarizer will always increase the contrast of the image, while a color filter will not.

However, you’ll have to spend part of your savings in exchange for getting this nice effect on your photos...

But before you get your hands on a color polarizer, you should also know its drawbacks:

  • It’s a (very) expensive filter compared to a high quality "regular" polarizer (the CPL I told you about in the previous section).
  • It’s not easy to use this filter. Because it’s a screw-on filter, you can’t use with any filter holder. If you also need to use an ND or GND filter at the same time, you’ll have to handhold them in front of the lens.
  • It produces a quite strong vignetting, so you shouldn’t use it with other filters as you’ll accentuate the vignetting.
  • The filter has a strange effect on the color temperature of the photo. Don’t use the auto white balance. Use the "try and fail" method and adjust the white balance manually. If you make a mistake, you can always correct it later on in post-processing.

Neutral density filters (ND)

A neutral density (ND) filter is a piece of glass or semi-transparent resin that you place in front of the lens.

It allows you:

  • Increase the exposure time.
  • Use a very large aperture (small f number).

The idea in both cases is to get spectacular effects in your photos.

What do you get with an ND filter?

The first picture was taken without an ND filter. In the second one, you can see how the ND filter allowed me to increase the exposure time creating a nice silk effect in the moving water.

In ‘The Definitive Guide To Always Expose Your Photos Correctly!’ I explain in depth how to use ND and GND filters. You should definiteIy read this section and the complete guide carefully. Both are going to be very helpful ;)

Straight to the point...

The ND filter allows you to evenly reduce the light that reaches the sensor. It allows you to subtract light (always evenly, remember). This helps you capture certain effects without overexposing the scene:

  • You can slow down the shutter speed to create beautiful effects without overexposing the brightest tones. It allows you, for example, to capture a silk effect in the sea during a sunset.
  • You can use larger apertures (without overexposing the scene) to capture a shallower depth of field. This is useful, for example, if you want to separate the backlit subject from the background.
  • The effect you get depends on the number of stops you’re able to subtract according to the filter you’re using (1, 2, 3 stops...).

Another advantage of the neutral density filter is that since it reduces light evenly, it doesn’t alter the contrast or sharpness of your image.

Nor does it introduce any color cast. Or it shouldn't because, unfortunately, it’s not always the case depending on the filter manufacturer.

Nevertheless, the density of these filters is "neutral" because of this lack of color cast.

In short, they are sunglasses for your lens.

Types of ND filters according to their density

An ND filter is used to block part of the light entering through the diaphragm to the sensor. And to do that, you need to "subtract" that light precisely. That's why manufacturers offer a wide range of filters of different densities.

Here are some examples of filters, depending on their density or reducing capacity.

StopsLight reductionDensityLight transmission %
1ND20.350%
2ND40.625%
3ND80.912.5%
4ND161.26.25%
5ND321.53.125%
6ND641.81.563%
7ND1282.10.781%
8ND2562.40.391%
8 2/3ND4002.60.25%
9ND5122.70.195%
10ND1024/ND10003.00.098%

Thus, an ND 0.3 filter reduces 1 stop the light reaching the sensor. An ND 0.6 filter reduces 2 stops, an ND 0.9 filter reduces 3 stops, an ND 3.0 filter reduces 10 stops, and so on.

Remember, each time you reduce the exposure 1 stop, the sensor captures half the light.

Therefore, a filter allows only 1/(2power) of the initial light to go through it. In this case, "power" is the number of stops that the filter subtracts.

For example, a 6-stop neutral density filter only allows 1/64 of the light to go through your lens:

1/(26) = 1/(2×2×2×2×2×2) = 1/64

Depending on the light you want to subtract, choose a more or less dense filter.

But... Be careful!

The density indicated by the manufacturer is not always the real one, so I suggest you calibrate your ND filters.

How to calibrate an ND filter?

By "calibrate" I mean "find out the actual density of the ND filter". It’s a very simple process that I explain in detail in section 3.

Now, let's get on with the GND filters!

Graduated neutral density filters (GND)

A graduated neutral density filter (GND) is a piece of glass or resin that you can place in front of your lens.

But, unlike ND filters, the density of these filters varies gradually on their surface (they aren’t uniform).

What do you get with a GND filter?

GND filters don’t subtract light evenly on all surfaces. As its name suggests, they subtract it gradually. This means that there are certain areas of the filter that subtract more light than others.

So you can decide on which area of the frame you want to subtract more (or less) light. This is particularly useful in scenes where the light gradually changes within the frame. For example, in scenes where the upper area is brighter than the lower area. Or one side has more light than the other.

By placing the darkest area (the one that subtracts more light) over the highlights of the frame, your camera is able to correctly capture a high contrast scene. In other words, with just one shot you’ll be able to capture detail in both the highlights as in the shadows.

Without the GND filter, the highlights will probably be blown out or the shadows will be clipped. You have to decide whether to correctly expose one area or another.

With the filter you can darken the brightest area, so that the difference between the brighter and darker areas is smaller. Therefore, you’ll be reducing the dynamic range of the scene.

Nikon D4s | 110mm | f/11 | 1/60s | ISO 100 | 5850K | Soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) filter

They are called graduated neutral density filters because:

  • Their density varies gradually, subtracting light gradually.
  • From the bottom edge of the filter to the center, this gradual variation goes from transparent to a neutral gray tone.
  • From the center to the top edge of the filter, this gray’s density gradually increases, subtracting more and more light.

To summarize, they are sunglasses for your lens whose crystals have a progressive tint.

Although some photographers consider that filters are an artificial tool that alters reality, the truth is that a graduated neutral density filter helps you get just the opposite: capture a photo that is very close to what your eyes see.

There is another lesser-known advantage of GND filters: they allow you to increase local contrast. In other words, the detail and color of the image are improved.

This is because, as I told you, this type of filters reduces the dynamic range of the scene. One thing is linked to the other.

Let me explain it in detail.

And in order to do it, I have to refer to the exposing to the right (ETTR) concept.

In short, the camera doesn't capture the same detail in all tones. In fact, it always captures far more detail in the highlights than in the shadows.

This lack of information in the shadows makes it the area of the image where your get noise first and where you get less contrast. If you reduce the dynamic range of the scene, the shadows will become brighter, the sensor will capture more information, and the contrast will be higher.

You don't have to use a GND filter in extreme situations: you can also use a GND filter in scenes where the dynamic range doesn’t exceed that of your camera. Imagine a spectacular sky full of clouds. The filter can accentuate the detail of the clouds, or it can darken them and increase their clarity compared to the rest of elements.

Actually, as you'll see later on in section 17, their uses are (almost) endless.

But before explaining real examples, let's take a look at the different GND filters that you can find on the market.

Types of GND filters according to their density

Remember that the GND filters mission is to control how much light you want the sensor to capture. So, depending on the amount of light you want to subtract, you should choose filters of different densities.

The most popular filters have 2, 3 and 4 stops. In the table below you have the naming according to the filters brand.

StopsLight reductionDensity
1ND20.3
2ND40.6
3ND80.9
4ND161.2
5ND321.5
Types of GND filters according to the transition

Not all filters have the same transition from the darkest part to the clearest or more translucid part.

The transition can be hard, soft or diffused.

Hard filter - Soft filter - Blender (diffused transition)

Hard graduated neutral density filters

In hard filters the transition between the dark and the transparent part is clearly marked with an almost perfectly defined horizontal line.

You can see it perfectly if you hold a filter with your hand and put it in front of a light source.

They will be very useful when your scene has a clean horizon (i.e. there are no elements above the horizon). Or when the scene has a clearly visible straight line separating light and dark tones.

Soft graduated neutral density filters

In soft filters, on the other hand, the transition is gradual: the dark part gradually becomes transparent.

These filters are ideal when you have elements above the horizon. In other words, when you can’t see a clearly visible straight line in the scene that separates the brighter tones from the darker ones.

A soft GND is also ideal to use it over the sky during sunrise or sunset. When you have soft clouds during sunrise or sunset, they are barely colored. Thanks to the graduated filter, you can have much more saturated clouds.

Unfortunately, filter manufacturers don’t agree on standard gradient values (i.e. how fast the filter changes from dark to transparent). So the filter gradient can vary significantly from brand to brand.

Blenders (diffused graduated neutral density filters)

A blender filter is completely dark at the top (almost as if it were an ND filter) and completely transparent at the bottom. The difference with the previous two is that the density gradually changes along the entire length of the filter.

In other words, if you look closely you won't see a "border" or a "transition zone" between the darkest and brightest part.

This type of filter is not very popular, but is very useful in scenes where there is a wide dynamic range but the highlights and the shadows are not clearly separated.

If you're shooting in a forest, for example, this filter is ideal. The light is filtering through the treetops while the trunks completely stop the light from passing through.

What is the disadvantage of using graduated filters?

A graduated neutral density filter may limit your composition.

Yes, it can.

The problem is that all (or some) elements above the horizon may appear in the final image darker than the rest of the scene.

You can solve this problem with a post-processing software like Photoshop. But in order to do so, you must know how to use luminosity masks, for example.

However, you should ideally avoid, if possible, using additional tools. I don't think you’d rather spend more time in front of the computer than taking pictures.

If you're interested in buying a graduated filter, these are the most popular brands: Lucroit, NiSi, Lee, Benro, Hitech and Haida.

Reverse graduated neutral density filters (reverse GND)

The reverse graduated neutral density, or reverse GND filter, is a variation of the graduated filter.

Its peculiarity is that the darkest part, the one that determines the filter density, is in the middle of the filter, and it progressively brightens towards the top. On the contrary, the lower half is completely transparent (to avoid subtracting light in the foreground).

That’s why it’s called reverse.

What do you get with a reverse GND filter?

You can mainly use it for photographing backlit sunrises and sunsets with a clean horizon (without elements above).

Imagine you're on a beach trying to capture a beautiful sunset.

The Sun sets creating a strong light and you decide to adjust the exposure so that the highlights (i.e. the Sun) aren’t blown out in the histogram.

Nikon D4s | 28mm | f/11 | 4s | ISO 100 | 8100K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) filter

As you can see, the problem is that the sky looks great but the rocks are very dark. Too dark...

So you can try to change the exposure and adjust it to the shadows so that they don't turn out so black.

And that's ok. The problem is that by making this decision you’ve decided to sacrifice the highlights and now they are completely blown out. Not even your favorite software is able to recover them: the RAW doesn't have that information and that area of the photo is completely white.

Nikon D4s | 28mm | f/11 | 10s | ISO 100 | 8100K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) filter

“But Toni what if I fix it with a bracketing?”

A bracketing can be incredibly useful on many occasions. But not always..

Unfortunately, in this case you have to take into account a small detail: the movement of the water. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get 2 (or 3 or whatever) totally identical shots whose only difference is the exposure.

So it will be very (very) difficult to merge them later in Photoshop without halos and other elements that distort the image.

Be careful. I'm not saying it's not possible. It's just complicated.

Another option can be to use a soft (or even hard) GND filter to balance the exposure of the scene and use the dark part to mitigate some of the highlights.

Nikon D4s | 28mm | f/11 | 4s and 10s (2-shot bracketing) | ISO 100 | 8100K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) filter

However, the resulting photo isn't exactly what you're looking for, is it?

The top of the sky is too dark while the Sun doesn’t have enough detail. The overall exposure of the image still doesn't match what your eyes see.

Let's go back to the first shot you took and let's identify the bright and dark areas.

Using the light map as a reference, compare it with the effect of a soft GND filter and a reverse GND filter.

Can you see the problem?

In this case you’re facing a scene where the horizon is almost straight and you have hardly any obstacles.

When you try to capture a sunrise or sunset, the brightest (or clearest) part of the scene is not at the top of your frame. If so, a soft GND filter would be perfect.

The brightest part of your scene is in the middle of your frame.

Now, look at the diagram above and have a close look at a reverse GND filter. You can clearly see that the darkest part of the filter (the one that helps you counteract the brightest part of the frame) is right in the middle.

And when you use it... it works like magic!

Nikon D4s | 28mm | f/11 | 13s | ISO 100 | 6250K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft reverse GND 0.6 (2 stops)

So as you can see, a reverse GND filter can be a very useful tool in certain situations.

If you're interested in buying a reverse degraded filter, these are the most popular brands: Lucroit, Nisi, Benro, Lee and Haida.

Black card

A black card is actually nothing more than that. It’s literally a piece of black card or any dark element that has a smooth, flat surface.

What is it for?

Very simple: to cover (totally or partially) the lens during the shot.

You can do this either if the lens is "naked" or if it has one or more filters in front of it.

What do you get with a black card?

Basically blocking light :)

For example, if you're photographing a lighthouse, you can use a black card to cover the lens each time a beam of light hits the lens.

But you don't always have to cover the lens completely. With a bit of skill, a black card allows you to control the exposure of that specific area of the scene where the highlights are too bright. You’ll avoid blowing them out and your camera's sensor will capture enough information in the RAW file.

What are the drawbacks of using a black card?

The first and most obvious one is the lack of precision. It's a task you'll have to do manually. Remember that you will be handholding the black card (without the help of a filter holder) in front of the lens.

What does that mean?

On the one hand, you'll have to use the "try and fail" method to know how long you have to cover the lens.

On the other hand, you'll have to adjust the position of the black card. In other words, which part of the frame you want to cover. And be careful, because you'll have to make sure you move the black card slightly during the exposure to avoid having a black strip in your photo.

Moreover, depending on the shutter speed you're using, you may need to cover two sections of your frame.

Actually, you set the limits ;)

The second drawback is that it's a technique that you'll only master by spending time practicing.

It’s a craft, not a scientific technique so the results are not guaranteed. You’ll have to try and see the results.

Infrared filter

What is infrared photography?

Infrared photography produces very interesting, generally impressive and incredibly creative results, as the objects in a scene reflect infrared light very differently from normal light.

In order to get these results you need (surprise!) an infrared filter. This filter is specifically designed to block visible light. That is, the light your eyes see and the light your camera's sensor is able to capture.

So it only allows infrared light to go through the lens and reach the camera's sensor.

To give you a simple explanation, the light you’re able to see with your eyes is between 390 nm and 750 nm within the electromagnetic spectrum. Everything outside that range is "invisible" to you. This includes infrared, gamma, X, ultraviolet, microwave and radio waves.

Types of infrared filters

Just like the other filters, an infrared filter can be circular screw-on or square. Here, we are talking about external filters.

There are many models of external infrared filters, although the most common one is the standard infrared 720 nm (RM72) which is the one I use.

But there are also internal infrared filters. That is, a filter that you can put directly on the sensor as I did with my Nikon D300.

Actually, I asked a professional do it. The first time I tried to do it myself with a Nikon D70 and I broke it... XD

I learnt the lesson and decided to send my Nikon D300 to Lifepixel (a US company) to put a standard internal infrared filter.

Check that your camera can take infrared photos

Before you buy an infrared filter, make sure your camera can take such pictures. You can do a very simple test to confirm it.

Turn on your camera and put it in Live View mode. Grab the remote of your TV, point it at your camera and press several buttons on the remote.

If you’re able to spot a bright red dot on the LCD screen, your camera can capture infrared light correctly.

If the red light is dim, your camera can capture infrared light. But you will need a very slow shutter speed because the sensor has a very powerful filter against infrared light.

Finally, if you don't see any red dots on the LCD screen, your camera is not capable of capturing infrared light.

Check that your lens is suitable for infrared photography

One more thing.

Not all lenses are suitable for infrared photography. This is due to certain optical problems. But I don’t want to go in depth in Optics and Physics matters, so I’ll leave it here.

The only thing you need to know is if your lens is suitable or not. This complete database will help you solve the issue.

Light pollution filter

Sodium vapor bulbs are generally used in all types of public (streetlamps) and industrial lighting. They’re one of the most frequent sources of light pollution.

This type of bulb has a yellow to orange glow that modifies the color temperature and significantly reduces the contrast of a night photography.

A light pollution filter allows you to prevent artificial lights in urban centres from affecting your night photography or astrophotography.

Nikon D4s | 35mm | f/1.8 | 6s | ISO 100 | 6400K | Pure Night light pollution filter on the second picture. Can you notice the difference?

It's usually made of didymium glass. This material is capable of reducing the yellow and orange glow in such a way that the color temperature and contrast of your pictures are closer to reality.

If you've ever tried to take pictures of the Milky Way or Star Trails, you've seen the horrible effects of light pollution. I’m sure your photos have a sky with an orange cast that ruins everything, reduces contrast and doesn’t let you perceive the real color of the stars.

Once you use a light pollution filter you’ll see the difference. I have the Pure Night filter designed by Ian Norman and since I bought it, I always carry it in my backpack whenever I go out to take pictures at night.

Solar filter

A solar filter is specially made to photograph the Sun or a solar eclipse.

Don’t risk damaging your eyesight and equipment by using some cheap filter or one not designed for looking directly into the Sun.

Your filter must also block infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) light as well which, though invisible, can also damage your eyes.

What are the different types of solar filters?

There are three types of solar filters for photography:

  • Aluminized Mylar®
  • Metal-coated
  • Black-polymer (usually handheld)

All the filters can be:

  • Circular or square.
  • Mounted in a metal cell, making it very easy for you to clamp them over your lens and adjustable to different diameters.
How are you going to see the Sun through a solar filter?

Aluminized Mylar® filters are the most expensive ones. However, they provide a white Sun which is true to the Sun’s real color (Surprise! It’s not yellow).

Don’t be deterred by their wrinkled surface. This surface tends to scatter light a little bit.

But these filters are actually very sharp. They’re particularly good for highly magnified images.

Metal-coated glass filters and black polymer filters result in a saturated yellow Sun. Any of them will work fine, since you can always change the color of the Sun later on, in post-processing.

Finally, metal-coated glass filters offer you a sharper picture than black polymer filters which are more appropriate for naked eye observation and wide-angle images.

Don’t use homemade filters!

According to NASA, the following materials should never be used to view a solar eclipse:

  • Photographic polarizing filters
  • Sunglasses of any kind
  • Negative film (exposed or not)
  • Smoked glass
  • Space blankets and other forms of household Mylar, or silvery CD/DVD disks
  • Medical X-ray film
  • Floppy disks

You must avoid them because, while they dim visible light, they don’t block infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) light that can damage your retinas.

If you want to photograph a solar eclipse, I suggest you study ’A guide of the best solar eclipses: when, where and how to photograph them’.

The only problem is that a total solar eclipse is not very frequent. But you can always capture a lunar eclipse: ’A guide to the best lunar eclipses: when, where and how to photograph them’.

3.How to figure out the real density of your ND filter with PhotoPills

Sometimes when you buy an ND filter the density indicated by the manufacturer is not exactly the one the filter actually has. The manufacturer may indicate that the ND filter has a density of 10 stops, but in fact it’s not. It may be 10 stops and ¼!

This factory defect can be problematic when you’re calculating the exposure, because despite applying the reciprocity law, correctly, you don’t get the correct exposure while you’re using the filter.

But don't worry, there’s a way to fix it :P

To get the first exposure right, you should use PhotoPills to calibrate all your ND filters beforehand. That is, finding out exactly their density, or the stops that the filter actually subtracts.

In order to do this, just follow these steps.

Create constant light conditions in a room

Pick a room at home, close the door and the blinds (or curtains) and turn on the lights. You have to create constant light conditions.

Take a test shot with the correct histogram

Unfold your tripod and mount the camera on it. Without using the filter, take a test shot of the room with the correct histogram, where the picture is correctly exposed. Once you have it, write down the settings (aperture, speed and ISO). These will be the test settings that you’ll use in PhotoPills.

In the test picture below I used an f/4 aperture, a shutter speed of 1 second and ISO 100.

Nikon D4s | f/4 | 1s | ISO 100

Use the exposure calculator

Open PhotoPills and tap on Exposure (Pills menu). This takes you to the long exposure calculator it will help you to find the real density of your filter among other things.

In the long exposure calculator, tap on Calculate at the top of the screen, and choose Shutter speed as the setting you want to calculate.

PhotoPills - Pills Menu. Tap on Exposure to open the long exposure calculator.
PhotoPills - In the long exposure calculator, set that the setting you want to calculate is the Shutter speed.
Enter the test settings

In the exposure calculator, enter the Test settings. That is, the aperture (f/4), shutter speed (1s), and ISO (100) of the test shot (the correctly exposed picture of the room).

PhotoPills - Long exposure calculator once you've set the Shutter speed as the parameter you wish to calculate.
PhotoPills - Enter the Test settings in the long exposure calculator (aperture, speed and ISO). In the example f/4, 1s and ISO 100.
Enter the equivalent settings

Now, in the Equivalent settings, enter the same aperture (f/4) and the same ISO (100) of the test shot. Finally, enter the stops that your filter subtracts according to the manufacturer. In this case, I used a 6-stop Haida filter.

Once you’ve entered the settings, the equivalent shutter speed (1min 4s) is the first result shown in the table below. This is the shutter speed you’re going to use to take a second shot but this time with the filter on.

PhotoPills - Long exposure calculator after entering the Test settings in the long exposure calculator (aperture, speed and ISO).
PhotoPills - Enter as the Equivalent settings the aperture (f/4), ISO (100) and the stops of your filter (6 stops). And get the shutter speed you’re going to use in the results table (1min 4s).

Put the ND filter and take a test shot

Place the filter holder on the lens and insert the ND filter you want to calibrate. Enter the aperture (f/4), ISO (100) and equivalent shutter speed (thanks to the long exposure calculator you know it’s 1min 4s). Take a test shot.

Nikon D4s | f/4 | 64s | ISO 100 | ND 1.8 (6 stops) filter

Look at the histogram of this last test shot, the one you took with the filter, and compare it with the one you took without filter. If they’re almost identical and you can overlap them, the filter density labeled by the manufacturer is valid.

If the second histogram has moved to the left compared to the first one (darker picture), your filter has a higher density than what the label says. Conversely, if the second histogram has moved to the right compared to the first one (brighter frame), your filter has a lower density than what the label says.

Modify the settings according to the exposure

Imagine that the second test shot is darker. In other words, the filter subtracts more stops than what the manufacturer indicates. In that case, reopen the PhotoPills long exposure calculator and add a fraction of stop to the filter density. In this example I will add 3/4 to the 6-stop filter.

This will give you a new shutter speed (1min 48s).

PhotoPills - Exposure calculator after entering the Equivalent settings of the aperture (f/4), ISO (100) and the stops of your filter (6 stops).
PhotoPills - Enter the Equivalent settings, that is the aperture (f/4), the ISO (100) and the stops of your filter plus a certain fraction (6 3/4 in this example).

Take the picture

Take another picture with the new shutter speed you just calculated and repeat the process. Compare the resulting histogram with the initial test shot you got.

Up: Nikon D4s | f/4 | 1s | ISO 100. Down: Nikon D4s | f/4 | 108s | ISO 100 | ND 1.8 (6 stops) filter, actual density 6 3/4 stops

If they match, bingo! You now have the actual density of your filter.

Sometimes, as in this case, there may be a color temperature difference due to the filter color cast. But this has no impact when calibrating your filter. Remember that it's something you can easily correct in post-processing.

If they don't match, repeat the process by modifying the stops the filter subtracts in the long exposure calculator until you find the actual density of your filter.

Put the "try and fail" technique into practice!

And so you don't forget it, you should write down all the actual densities of your filters. You can do it on your smartphone. Or if you prefer, on a piece of paper, laminate it and put it in your filter bag (or in your backpack).

This way, you’ll always have it with you when you’re in the shooting location and you have to make the appropriate adjustments.

Use the long exposure calculator to calculate the shutter speed

Finally, once you’ve determined the exact density of your filter, and whenever you want to use your filter, use the PhotoPills long exposure calculator to calculate the shutter speed you need to correctly expose your photos. You'll save a lot of time.

I'll explain it in detail in section 9.

4.How to stack filters (ND, GND and polarizer)

“Hey Toni, can I stack a circular polarizing filter with a filter holder and one or more square or rectangular filters?”

Yes, my friend, it’s perfectly possible and highly recommended.

By stacking the polarizer with one or more ND filters and/or one or more GND filters, the benefits of each of the filters will be reflected in the photo... This will allow you to get truly spectacular images!

But always keep in mind that the more filters you place in front of the lens, the greater the loss of quality your image will suffer.

As always, photography is a constant decision-making process! ;)

Nikon D4s | 18mm | f/11 | 140s | ISO 100 | 6500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops), soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) and polarizer

In the image above you can clearly see that the polarizer helped me to get more detail on the rocks of the bottom of the sea.

In addition to this, the ND filter allowed me to increase the exposure time to create a silky effect in the sea (at the bottom of the image) and in the clouds.

Finally, I applied the GND filter to the brightest part of the sky. This way my camera could capture the whole dynamic range of the scene and prevent the sky from being overexposed.

“Toni, please show me how to stack all the filters in front of the lens.”

Here we go!

How to stack the polarizer with respect to the ND and GND filters

The mounting system depends on the manufacturer.

Some polarizers are screwed directly to the lens and so you mount the filter holder over it thanks to an adapter ring. Other systems allow you to screw the polarizer directly onto the filter holder and slide the filters on top of it using the corresponding slots.

When the polarizer is rectangular, insert it into the filter holder like any other rectangular filter: sliding it through one of the slots. Which one? The furthest one from the sensor.

Similarly, depending on the manufacturer, the polarizer may be closer or further from the sensor. That is, in front or behind the rest of the filters (ND and GND).

“So, do I have to follow a specific order when stacking my filters to avoid surprises?”

The answer is "yes and no" XD

I'll explain it to you in depth below.

Regarding the polarizer, you must stack it in the first or the last position in front of the lens.

So you can use the following combinations indistinctly:

Lens > Polarizer > ND > GND (The polarizer can go before the adapter ring as well, depending on the filter mounting system)
Lens > ND > GND > Polarizer

What order should you follow to stack the ND, GND and polarizing filters?

Actually, the order depends on the filter mounting system you use.

Suppose you use a square or rectangular filter system. This would be the right order.

Be careful! Always follow the direction in which light enters through the lens. That is, from the filter that is furthest away from the sensor to the closest one.

  1. Polarizing filter. This way, the polarizer is the first to let the light through and its effect is not affected by that of other filters.

  2. Graduated neutral density or GND filter(s). I recommend you to put them further away from the sensor because these are filters that you’re going to remove and put back or adjust inside the filter holder. Also, if you use one or more GND filters and one is a reverse GND, put the latter at the end (furthest away from the sensor) because it’s probably the one you’ll need to adjust most precisely. Check that the darkest portion of the filter covers the area of the scene you want.

  3. Neutral or ND filter(s). As this filter is even, once you slide it into the filter holder you won’t need to move it anymore. Moreover, it’s the most light sensitive filter. So make sure it sits snugly and that the light doesn't leak to avoid any surprises.

As I told you before, you can only follow this order if your filter holder lets you to mount the polarizer in front with an adapter ring. This is the mounting system that manufacturers such as Lee or Lucroit, for example, offer.

However, there are other manufacturers, such as NiSi, whose mounting system is slightly different because the polarizer filter is the one closest to the sensor.

Over the years I have tried many brands of filters and the truth is that I haven’t noticed much difference between mounting the polarizer closer to the sensor or further away. But it's still a personal opinion. If you go to any photography online forum you’ll find many discussions on this topic.

The most important thing is that the filter holder lets you to insert and slide the GND filters with ease. After all, they're the ones you'll be spending more time with during the shooting preparation, and the ones you'll need to adjust more precisely to avoid unnatural dark stripes on the picture.

What are the effects of stacking and/or combining filters?

If you have, for example, more than one ND filter, you can stack two (or more) filters to increase the number of stops and let less light go through the lens.

You'll understand it better with an example: if you have a 3-stop ND filter and you stack it with a 6-stop ND filter, you're simulating the effect that a 9-stop filter would have (6 + 3 = 9).

The problem you face when stacking filters is that for every filter you add, you're adding one more obstacle to light. That is, it has to go through more glass or resin objects until it reaches the sensor. So you have a higher risk of getting a less sharp image or with more chromatic aberration.

Moreover, most filters generate some color cast (resin ones do so more than glass ones). When stacking several filters, take a closer look at the effect it produces on the image because the more filters you put in, the more color cast your photo is likely to have.

Perfect!

After this explanation on filters, which I hope you’ve used as a warm up, the fun is about to start!

Will you come with me?

It’s time to search for the perfect location :D

5.The perfect location for shooting with filters (and how to find it)

Location is key.

Without a good location, it will be more difficult to get a photo that has an impact, tell a story, convey an emotion...

And even more so when we talk about locations for shooting with filters, as certain locations will give you better results than others.

When you're looking for a location, look for the following ingredients...

The ingredients of the perfect location

The location you already know
Nikon D4s | 14mm | f/13 | 20s | ISO 100 | 6500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft GND 0.9 (3 stops)

I’ll repeat it over and over again, and that's why I’m writing this first. I've always got my best images in locations I know like the back of my hand, that I love, and that I've been photographing for a long time.

When you find a location you're passionate about, come back.

Come back again and again. Explore every single corner and work on different compositions, during different times of the year and with different weather conditions.

Little by little you’ll be taking better pictures, trust me.

And if you don't, listen to Marcel Proust :P

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Main subject
Nikon D4s | 18 mm | f/8 | 20s | ISO 100 | 7500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops), soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) and polarizer

As in any other type of photography (Milky Way or Star Trails, for example) it’s important to include an interesting subject in your composition.

It's the best way to tell a story (your story) because that subject will be the main element. And it will also be the magnet to attract your spectator’s eye.

What do you need to look at when you're scouting a location?

Look for any element in the landscape that stands out: a rock formation, a tree, a unique construction (such as a lighthouse, a ruin, a building, a bridge, etc.), a monument, the remains of a shipwreck...

As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities.

Only your imagination sets the limits! :)

Basic composition elements
Nikon D4s | 22mm | f/9 | 120s | ISO 100 | 9100K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft reverse GND 0.6 (2 stops)

Your location has a special element that is the soul of your story.

Great!

But don't just stop there.

Go a little further and explore other possibilities that you’ll find in the field (or from the couch thanks to the Internet) and that can help you emphasize the story or tell it better.

Go deeper and your image will have a much greater impact.

Use elements so you can “paint” in the frame. What elements? Lines, triangles, patterns, textures, an isolated element.

The idea here is to guide the spectator's eye so that it moves along the frame in the direction you want, emphasizing or creating an effect such as a symmetry, a certain balance or a strong contrast.

Don't be shallow and avoid what’s already obvious!

It’s the only way to create a completely original image.

Element conveying motion
Nikon D4s | 20mm | f/16 | 1/30s | ISO 100 | 5500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft GND 0.9 (3 stops)

To convey motion you need... something that’s moving!

It can be a water element (a waterfall, the sea, a river, a lake, a canal, etc.), clouds, lights such as car lights... or even people moving around.

Tip: If you want to photograph a crowded area, having too many people can ruin the story you want to tell. In this case, if you take a long exposure with an ND filter for example, you can transform a crowded place into a ghost town :)

Natural landscape
Nikon D4s | 18mm | f/16 | 6s | ISO 100 | 6250K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft GND 0.9 (3 stops)

When you look for a location, the first thing you have to decide is the type of landscape you’re going to work with.

For example, do you prefer to photograph an urban landscape or a natural landscape?

Suppose you want to photograph a natural landscape. In that case, try to find a location that has one or several elements such as a strip of coastline, one or more mountains, a forest with a river, a waterfall, a lake, a field of crops... The possibilities are endless!

Let's focus for a moment on two of these elements: the coastline and the waterfalls.

Coastline

Nikon D4s | 165mm | f/16 | 1/6s | ISO 400 | 6250K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft GND 0.9 (3 stops)

Let's start with the simplest and most obvious shooting spot: lookouts.

Yes, I know. It's the first place any photographer would go. But that doesn't mean your photo isn't going to be original (that's where your expertise comes in when you’re working on your composition). After all, the lookout is there for some reason, don't you think?

Another thing you need to look at when scouting the area are cliffs. They’ll give you a vantage point of view and from there it’ll be easier to capture the waves crashing against the rocks. And if they do it strongly, it’s even better.

But if that's not the case and the sea is completely flat, you can always go to plan B: wait for a cloudy sky and pray for some wind to move those clouds. It doesn't have to be a hurricane. If the breeze is strong enough to move the clouds, it’ll be enough.

Finally, look for other elements that can add a special touch to the image. For example, a lighthouse defying the elements or an old pier whipped by the sea...

And, if the scenery and tides allow it, you can always get close to the shore to capture a spectacular foreground.

Waterfalls

Nikon D4s | 125mm | f/8 | 1/100s | ISO 400 | 5850K | ND 0.9 (3 stops) filter

The main subject of your image doesn't have to be just a big waterfall. Sometimes a detail of this waterfall can also be interesting.

Or you can include in your frame just some of the waterfall lower levels. Look at the rocks, leaves and other elements that can create an interesting foreground.

The small swirls of foam or water that run once the waterfall has passed are another interesting element that you can capture. Sometimes the rocks create small areas of water in which you can see very aesthetic movements.

Again, use your imagination. Observe for a few minutes how the water behaves and try to visualize the trace it’ll leave in a long exposure.

One last thing: capture the waterfall from the side.

It can be a more interesting point of view, and can create more volume or be a less classic composition.

Urban landscape
Nikon D4s | 102mm | f/16 | 185s | ISO 100 | 5850K | ND 3.0 (10 stops) and soft GND 0.9 (3 stops)

If, on the other hand, you prefer to shoot an urban landscape, consider including in your frame a significant building, a busy street, a water element (such as the sea, a river, a lake, a fountain...) or any other interesting architectural element (a bridge).

Another resource widely used in urban landscapes are light trails.

Solar eclipse
Nikon D500 | 480mm | f/8 | 1/500s | ISO 100 | 7460K | Baader solar filter

If you want to photograph the partial phase of a total, annular or partial solar eclipse, you need a solar filter (section 2). In addition to this, you’ll have to go to a location where the partial phase of the eclipse is visible.

In the specific case of a total solar eclipse, I suggest you to go to a location that is within the path of totality. This strip corresponds to the set of locations in the world from which you can capture all the phases of the eclipse and it includes, of course, totality (the moment when the Moon covers the Sun completely).

You can see the location from which I photographed the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 in the next picture. We were in a beautiful vineyard in Portland, United States, which was within the path of totality.

Nikon D4s | 18mm | f/16 | 10s | ISO 100 | 5850K

Experiencing totality is priceless!

“All right, Toni, but how do I find out where the path of totality is or where the partial phase is visible?”

Very simple, use the eclipse layer in the PhotoPills Planner.

If you’re curious about it, I can teach you how to plan a solar eclipse step by step.

Are you planning to photograph the next total solar eclipse? Then, I recommend that you take a look at ’A Guide to the Best Solar Eclipses: When, Where and How to Shoot Them’.

Also, if you like lunar eclipses, you can check ’A Guide to the Best Lunar Eclipses: When, Where and How to Shoot Them’.

Perfect. Now you know the ingredients you need to look for in a location to maximize your chances of success.

Now let's look at the tools you have at your disposal to find them.

Tools to help you find the perfect location

If you already have a location in mind, great!

But what if you have no idea? What if you're planning to travel to a destination you've never been to? What do you have to do to find that perfect location?

Most importantly, how can you find it comfortably at home to then work on your plan (section 8)?

Keep reading and you'll get the answers to all your questions...

Return to a location you already know

I know I'm a pain in the back, but I'm going to say it one more time.

A good starting point is to analyze in detail locations you’ve visited in the past. In other words, those sites that you’ve already photographed and that match with the photo idea you’ve imagined.

Take the time to review your photo archive and establish a list of potential locations.

Work on the pros and cons taking into account your photo idea. It won't be hard because you've been there at least once and have previous experience.

Get inspiration from external sources

Obviously, one of the first things you should do is look for locations on the Internet. To do this, here are some sources that you may find useful:

Visit the sources I just mentioned and look for locations that have the ingredients you need.

And now let me reveal to you three of the tools I always use before taking my photos... ;)

PhotoPills

PhotoPills has become for several years an essential tool when imagining, planning and taking my photos. Although at this point this shouldn’t be a surprise ;)

And I hope that, thanks to this guide, it’ll also become an essential application for you.

The possibilities the Planner offers are endless. Even if you decide to plan solar eclipses (and lunar ones)... :P

In addition, PhotoPills allows you to navigate throughout the map, find interesting locations and create your own Points of Interest (POI) database.

How?

It's very (very) easy!

Imagine that you’ve discovered a location, a Point of Interest (POI), that you love. For example, the Fire Island lighthouse in Long Island (USA).

Open PhotoPills and tap on My Stuff (top menu). Then tap on Points of Interest.

PhotoPills - My Stuff Menu. Tap on Points of Interest.
PhotoPills - Main screen of the Points of Interest tool.

Once there, the map will open. You have two options.

One, navigate throughout the map by zooming in and out until you find the exact spot where you want to establish the POI. Once you have it, tap on the "+" symbol at the top right corner.

On the new screen, place the Red Pin on the location you want to save. Add a name to your POI and tap on Category to select the icon that will represent it. Once you have done so, tap on the Save button and the Point of Interest will show up on the map.

PhotoPills - Add Point of Interest Screen. Place the Red Pin on the point you want to save. Type a name and choose a category for your Point of Interest. Tap on Save.
PhotoPills - View of the Point of Interest on the map.

You can check the POIs you’ve already saved by clicking on My list at the bottom of the main screen of the Points of Interest tool (remember that it’s in the My Stuff top menu).

Two, use the search box to find the location. It's on the map (you'll easily recognize it because it has a magnifying glass inside).

Type the name of the location or town. Tap on Find and the map will move to that exact location. You can also select one of the predefined POIs or the options the search engine provides you.

If you want to save the location, you have to follow the same steps I explained in the first option.

PhotoPills - Type the name of the location in the search box, tap on Search and select one of the results
PhotoPills - When you select one of the results, the map will focus on that location.

In addition to this, when you save your locations, you can also add photos and notes to describe them. And don't forget to share your locations with other PhotoPillers using the Action button!

You can also save locations with the Planner by tapping on the Save button that you can find at the bottom of the screen.

Finally, and always in the Planner, if you tap on the Load button and then on Point of Interest, you’ll see the list of your saved locations. Select the one you want and the Red Pin will be placed in that location.

That’s how you can start planning a photo!

But that's something I'll explain to you step by step later on in section 8.

Google Earth

Once you're familiar with it, you'll understand that Google Earth is a very powerful tool. Its main advantage is that it allows you to explore potential photographic locations anywhere in the world with its 3D view.

Best of all, you can do it at home... from your own couch!

All you have to do is place yourself virtually anywhere on Earth. Once there, you can analyze in detail the location and its surroundings from a topographic point of view.

With Google Earth you can study a specific area at bird's eye view, and you also have a ground level view. You can also use 2D and 3D orbital views.

As you explore the location, try changing your point of view, moving your position as well as zooming in and out. This helps you determine possible shooting spots, work different compositions in the same place, and of course find your way to get there!

You can download Google Earth on your smartphone, tablet, laptop and desktop.

Google Earth is available on iOS and Android.

Your legs!

The traditional system never fails XD

Sometimes I like to choose an area on the map and just scout it. I love to walk around the location looking for photos, but without carrying all the gear on my back.

You can't imagine how much I enjoy spending time at the location, looking for subjects, compositions, framing... In short, spending hours imagining, visualizing and exploring potential photographic opportunities on the ground is key to my photography.

It helps me a lot to create, plan and prepare the shot.

I challenge you to do the same!

In short, these are the tools I use. I hope you find them as useful as I do.

And if you have any other sources of inspiration that you consider key, share them with me and the rest of PhotoPillers by leaving a comment at the end of this guide :)

In photography sharing always makes things funnier!

Next step: planning the shot

Great!

You’re almost there...

So far you've decided your location. If you haven't, hurry, pick one because we're going to plan a photo.

You’re not far away from capturing the photo of your dreams.

Let's get to work!

6.How to plan your photo ideas with filters like a pro

Planning a photograph is like cooking a delicious meal.

It’s prepared with top quality products, with lots of love and patience.

You start by mixing the main ingredients to build the base of the dish (location, subject and composition).

Then, you add top quality products to add flavor to the meal (the quality of light and its direction, the Sun in the frame...).

Finally, you give the dish a little extra punch with the right finishing touch (weather conditions, wind direction, tides, etc.).

But, get out please. Get out of the kitchen and go back to photography.

The goal of planning in photography is to get:

  • A shooting spot, from where to take the picture,
  • A shooting direction (framing) and
  • A date and time of shooting...

... That help you to capture the photo you have in mind.

It’s an iterative process during which you’re producing (planning) the photo.

It may seem like a lot of work, but you’ve nothing to worry about. PhotoPills can make your planning job a breeze.

Let's go to the point...

That's how I plan the photo ideas I shoot with filters.

Producing the picture...

Nikon D4s | 14mm | f/16 | 25s | ISO 100 | 6500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops), soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) and polarizer

Considering a specific location and subject (section 5), the shooting spot, the shooting direction (the frame) and the date and time of shooting will depend on the rest of the ingredients you want to add to the photo, and their priority.

By "ingredients," I mean:

So once you have the location and subject, your job is to decide the next ingredient you want to add to the photo (the next most important one) and adjust the shooting spot, the frame and the date and time of shooting accordingly.

Let's use as an example the photograph that illustrates this section. My intention in the photo is to show the relationship between the main subject (the Favàritx lighthouse in Menorca) and the water-filled triangle in the foreground.

This relationship marks the shooting spot, the framing, but also the date of the photo, as I need the triangle to be full of water... So I have to wait for a strong wave or heavy rain to fill it. We don’t have tides in Menorca ;)

Then, I tweak the picture adding more ingredients. For example, a certain type of light and its direction (time of day) or wind and cloud conditions.

Planning the light (type and direction)

Nikon D4s | 19mm | f/5.6 | 1s | ISO 100 | 7500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops), soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) and 165mm polarizer slided upside down to enhance colors

Obviously, you can shoot with filters during the central hours of the day (harsh light). But my favorite moments of the day are the golden hour (orange and gold tones) and the blue hour (blue tones).

Remember the wise words of Galen Rowell:

“When the magic hour arrives, my thoughts center on light rather than on the landscape. I search for perfect light, then hunt for something earthbound to match with it.”

To learn more about the types of light, their relationship to the Sun elevation and the type of pictures you can take with each one of them, take a look at the ’Understanding the golden hour, blue hour and twilight’ guide.

It's an essential, must-read guide for every PhotoPiller.

“Great Toni, and how do I figure out when each type of light is happening?”

Well, it's obvious, isn't it?

With PhotoPills!

The golden hour and the blue hour occur at dawn and dusk... But PhotoPills tells you the exact times for any location in the world and for any date.

So you can quickly find out the information you need whether you’re on the field or at home, sitting comfortably on the couch :P

In fact, depending on the situation you’re in, PhotoPills offers you up to 3 different possibilities to quickly find all the information about light: the Widgets, the Sun Pill or the Planner.

The Widgets

This is the first piece of advice I give to a PhotoPiller. The first thing you should do when downloading PhotoPills is to enable the Widgets.

Widgets are a shortcut to key information.

Thanks to them you can quickly find out at a glance all the information you need about light (golden hour and blue hour), the Sun, the Moon and the Milky Way for the date you're in and the location you're in (even if you're offline).

I use them all the time... Enable them!

PhotoPills Widgets - Information about the Sun, Light and Moon on November 21, 2018 in Madrid, Spain.
PhotoPills Widgets - Information about the Milky Way and your next planned photos.
The Sun Pill

I use the Sun Pill when I want to find out the key information about light (golden hour, blue hour, twilight), the Sun, the Moon and the Milky Way, considering the location where I am or where I’ve placed the Red Pin and according to the current date or a close date in the future.

I also use the Augmented Reality (RA) button at the bottom of the screen. With this button I can see in the field the position and direction of the Sun. It’s perfect for predicting the direction of light at all times.

If you want, you can also learn to master the Sun Pill.

PhotoPills Sun - Information screen about sunrise and sunset, golden hour, blue hour, moonrise and sunset and moon phase.
The Planner

The Planner is the most powerful pill in the PhotoPills universe.

Use it to plan any photo for any date and place in the world... from home!

PhotoPills Planner - Information about the golden hour and blue hour on the top panel. On the map, the thin blue line tells you the position of the Moon for the selected date and time. And the thin orange line tells you the position of the Sun for the selected date and time.
PhotoPills Planner - Information about the Sun and Moon rise and set times on the top panel. The thick lines are the directions of Sunrise (yellow), Sunset (orange), Moonrise (light blue) and Moonset (dark blue).

Simply:

As you can see from the screenshots, the Planner not only gives you information about the golden hour and the blue hour, it also shows you the position of the Sun on the map...

That way, on the one hand, you know the direction of light at all times. On the other hand, as we’ll see in the next section, you can adjust your shooting spot and framing to use the Sun in your composition.

In short, learning to use the Planner offers you a new world of creative options.

Learn how to use it!

Imagine. Plan. Shoot.!

To master the Planner I recommend you to start with this ’Introduction to planning’.

The Sun in the frame (when you know the shooting date)

Nikon D4s | 14mm | f/8 | 34s | ISO 100 | 6500K | ND 3.0 (10 stops) and soft reverse GND 0.6 (2 stops)

Imagine that next Saturday you want to go and photograph the sunrise at the Favàritx lighthouse in the island of Menorca. And you want a rising Sun in the picture.

How can you find out the shooting spot and the time of shooting?

Very easy...

Open the PhotoPills Planner and follow the steps below:

  • Place the Red Pin near the Favàritx lighthouse. You can search for an address using the Load button. If you don't know how, I suggest you learn how to move the Red Pin.
  • Select the date of the photo with the Time bar. Do you want to learn how to change time with the Time Bar?
  • On the Map, the thick yellow line indicates the sunrise direction. And if you go to Panel 4, you'll see the time of the sunrise.
  • Using the Sunrise line as a reference, you can move the Red Pin to a position where the Sun rises near the lighthouse and is inside the frame. Look at the first screenshot below.
  • Now slide the Time Bar until you move the time close to the sunrise time and you’ll see the position of the Sun at all times – from the time of sunrise until several minutes later (thin yellow line). Take a look at the second screenshot below.
  • Once you know how to move the Red Pin, change the time and understand the meaning of the Sunrise lines and Sun position on the map, you have everything you need to plan the shot.
  • Adjust the shooting spot according to the composition you want. And check the shooting time on the Time Bar.
PhotoPills Planner - Place the Red Pin near your subject and select the date of the photo. On the map you have the Sun's position (and sunrise direction). And in Panel 4 the sunrise time.
PhotoPills Planner - Adjust the position of the Red Pin depending on where you want the Sun in the frame. Finally, set the time of the photo in the Time Bar.

If you want to plan a photo that includes other astronomical phenomena such as the Moon, the Milky Way, eclipses or Star Trails, you should follow a similar workflow. You'll find all the details in these articles:

The Sun in the frame (when you don’t know the shooting date)

Nikon D700 | 100mm | f/6.7 | 1/60s | ISO 200 | 5900K | Polarizer

“Toni, and if I'm sure about the shooting spot and the frame... Is it possible to find out when the Sun will be where I want it to be in the frame?”

Of course!

Use the Find button on the Planner.

I think it’s best if I explain it to you with an example, planning the shot that illustrates this section. It’s a sunset under a natural bridge on the island of Menorca called Es Pont d'En Gil.

You have the step by step explanation in the ’How to find Sunrises and Sunsets’ guide.

But if you prefer something shorter, I'll give you a summary of the workflow you should follow.

Open PhotoPills, tap on Planner and follow the steps below:

  • Place the Red Pin in the shooting spot. In this example, I’ve placed the Red Pin in one of the few spots from which you can see the horizon through the natural arch. Look at the first screenshot below.
  • Press the Find button. It's the first button at the bottom of the screen.
  • Press the option Sun at azimuth & elevation (iOS) or simply Sun (Android). This option allows you to set a range of dates as a starting point, and the desired Sun position (depending on its azimuth and elevation).
  • Enter the date range.
  • Enter the direction of the Sun (the azimuth) by placing the Yellow Pin over the natural arch in this example.
  • Enter the elevation of the Sun. In this case it will be zero as it’s a sunset.
  • Tap on the Search button (magnifying glass in the upper right corner) to see the results table with all the dates on which the Sun sets under the bridge.
  • Select the date that suits you best, save the plan and when the shooting day comes enjoy the moment and capture it with your camera!
PhotoPills Planner - After tapping on Search > Sun at azimuth & elevation button, enter the date range and the position of the Sun (azimuth and elevation). Tap on the Search button to see the dates on which the photo happens.
PhotoPills Planner - When you select a date from the results table, you’ll see the plan on the Planner. It's time to adjust what’s necessary and save the plan.

The workflow for planning the Moon is exactly the same as we explain in the ’How to find Moonrises and Moonsets’ guide.

As for the Milky Way and Star Trails, you’ll have to follow a different workflow.

You can find the explanation in these videos:

Predict the tides

Nikon D4s | 25mm | f/5.6 | 2s | ISO 100 | 6500K | Soft GND 0.9 (3 stops) and polarizer

If you’re planning a photo in a tidal zone... Don't forget to check the high and low tide hours!

There are countless websites and applications for it, but my favorite is Tides4Fishing.

As a safety precaution

Don't take it as a joke. Capturing long exposures with filters on the coastline can be dangerous.

As you move around and take pictures on the seashore, you’ll surely be surrounded by stones and rocks. And if they're wet or damp, they can be very slippery.

In addition to this, don’t forget to take the tides into account and how they affect on the strength of the waves.

That's why it's essential to scout the location in advance and (bingo!) know when the tides will happen on the shooting day. Depending on where you are, the difference between low tide and high tide can be considerable.

Be cautious and avoid bad surprises.

To get a better composition

In addition to safety, you should learn about the movements and height of the sea in your shooting location. Tides can cause significant changes in the surroundings.

Imagine, for example, that a group of rocks you want in the frame may be covered or uncovered depending on sea level. If at the shooting time the rocks are under the water... you’ve screwed up your shooting session!

Another example. The reflections you get when the tide is going down and leaves a very thin layer of water on the sand. If you add a nice light to that ingredient, such as the light during golden hour, you can get amazing results.

So it's crucial that you take tides into account when choosing your location and determining the shooting time in your planning.

Prepare your gear

Water is one of the main enemies of your photography gear.

Be cautious and:

  • Determine if your tripod can get wet or not. Chances are you'll have to put it somewhere where its legs will get wet. And if it risks rusting or breaking...
  • Take several microfiber cloths with you. When you put the filters in front of the lens, that surface is a magnet for water droplets. If you don't clean them regularly, your photos will have lots stains and dirt.
  • Wear water boots or appropriate footwear. Make sure that the sole doesn’t make you slip when you’re walking over rocks full of moisture or moss. And make sure you keep your feet dry :)

One more thing.

When you're back at home, don't forget to rinse your gear in fresh, warm water, especially the tripod. Salt can be devastating in the medium term if you’re not careful enough.

Don't forget to check the weather forecast (clouds and wind)

Nikon D4s | 14mm | f/16 | 120s | ISO 100 | 7500K | ND 1.8 (6 stops) and soft GND 1.2 (4 stops)

Only a few days left until the big moment... The shooting time.

You feel that you have everything under control. That nothing can fail.

Are you sure?

Think about it... :P

That's right, no one can control the weather... That's why we PhotoPillers like to say "Plan and Pray". We even designed a t-shirt with the Plan & Pray motto!

Whenever you're planning to take photos outdoors, it's important to take into account the weather forecast.

By doing this, you can anticipate what you’ll find in the location. And also check if the conditions you're looking for are there.

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to have the clouds you want and the wind direction you need to reinforce the composition.

Checking the forecast, especially regarding clouds and wind direction (and strength) is key!

My weather apps

Whenever possible, I like to check first the location’s national meteorology service. It usually provides the most accurate and reliable information.

But when meteorology comes into play, I’d rather be cautious and check several sources of information in order to have the most reliable data.

So here you have the two sources that I use to contrast the information the location’s national meteorology service provides.

Windy

Windy is my favorite application when I want to know what kind of weather I'm going to find at the shooting location. I find it very useful because I can check a lot of information and it has a very nice interface.

The application tells you, for a specific location, the following data: wind (direction and speed), rain, snow, temperatures, clouds (at different altitudes) and waves (direction, strength and water temperature).

The bar at the bottom of the screen also offers a lot of information. It gives you, for example, a 7-day forecast of all these elements and you can choose to see them in different formats (basic, meteogram and aerogram). Also, I love the option to see satellite images.

With Windy you can create your own custom maps including the data and colors you prefer. And, of course, you can see how the forecast changes over several days.

You can download the Windy application on your smartphone and tablet. You can also go to the website on your laptop and desktop computer.

Windy is available on iOS and Android.

Dark Sky

As I said before, when it comes to checking weather forecasts, I like to be conservative and check multiple sources.

And my plan B is always Dark Sky. It has an application available on iOS y en Android.

But since the iOS (paid) app is only available in the US, I have a shortcut on my iPhone and from there I access directly to the mobile version of the website. I've been using it for years and it works perfectly fine.

One of the main advantages of Dark Sky is that it feeds on many sources to establish a weather forecast as accurate as possible. It offers a practical chart of what the weather will be during the next hour, a detailed 24-hour forecast and a simple 7-day forecast.

In addition, the interface is very simple and easy to use. In general, the information it gives is reliable and very useful to compare it with the data Windy provides.

Study the clouds (and the wind)

From a composition point of view, clouds, along with wind direction and speed, are an essential element. Their presence, color and the direction (and speed) in which they move will make your image more or less dramatic.

So if weather forecasts indicate that on the shooting time there will be clouds in your scene, you should study them. That’s how you’ll be able to anticipate their behaviour and get the most out of them when you're doing your long exposure.

How fast are they going to move?

Don't panic because this isn't an "Advanced Meteorology" course... XD

I just want to draw your attention to some features so that you become familiar with the different types of clouds you may encounter.

Since we’re talking about long exposures, and as long as there is wind in the location, the clouds will be one of the main elements that will help you convey motion.

But how much motion?

In other words, how fast do those clouds move? And what shutter speed do you need during the shooting?

We can divide the types of clouds into 3 groups. Each of them moves at a different speed:

  • High clouds. They move very slowly. Use shutter speeds of 3 minutes or more.
  • Middle clouds. Their speed is moderately fast. I recommend using shutter speeds between 2 and 3 minutes.
  • Low clouds. They move very fast. Use shutter speeds of 2 minutes or less.

Obviously these are just estimates as everything will depend on how strong the wind blows.

What color can they have?

Clouds convey other emotions on a long exposure picture. They can also leave the spectator speechless depending on the color they have.

That's why it's important to know when the sunlight is going to color them.

Again, we can divide the types of clouds into 3 groups. Each of them is colored at a different time of sunrise or sunset:

  • High clouds. They are colored before sunrise or after sunset.
  • Middle clouds. They can get color between 5 minutes before sunrise and 15 minutes after sunrise. Conversely, they can get color 15 minutes before sunset and 5 minutes after.
  • Low clouds. They are colored during sunrise and sunset. But only those that are in the opposite direction to the Sun.

Are you still here? Yeah?

That's great!

Now you know how to find a dream location and plan a spectacular photo.

It's time to prepare the equipment you're going to use :)

7.All the photography equipment you need (apart from filters)

Camera

You can use filters on any camera to take pictures. Although, obviously, depending on the type of camera you use, some photos will be better than others depending on your expectations and their technical limitations.

Can you use filters on your smartphone?

Unbelievable but... Yes!

Some manufacturers, such as NiSi, have specific filters for mobiles. In addition to this, you’ll need a shooting application that allows you to shoot in manual (M) or using a semiautomatic mode (A/Av or S/Tv).

Also keep in mind that you’re going to shoot at relatively slow shutter speeds so you’ll need some kind of tripod or support to keep it stable. Otherwise, handholding your smartphone will produce blurred pictures.

Point-and-shoot cameras

In general, all point-and-shoot cameras offer great image quality and are very good value for money.

That said, your artistic capabilities will depend on your ability to find a filter system that fits your camera. For example, the circular filter adapter that Lensmate has for the Sony RX100 (for all versions) or my favorite, the MagFilter magnetic filters.

And if not, you can always try to handhold the filters yourself or move the filters during the exposure.

Try and experiment because you never know. You can still get an amazing picture!

Low-end cameras

The following cameras allow full manual and semiautomatic basic exposure:

Mid-range cameras

In the mid-range price (and quality), I recommend you the following cameras:

High-end cameras

On the higher price range (and higher quality), I recommend you these cameras:

Lens

Your choice of lens and focal length will depend on which part of the scene you want to capture in your photos.

If you want to include a large part of the landscape, use a wide angle. For example, the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (it's my favorite!).

If you prefer to focus on a smaller area or even more specific details, bring a standard telephoto lens. For example, the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 or the Canon 24-105mm f/4.

Filters

The filter(s) you choose will depend on the photo you’ve imagined (section 1 and section 5) and planned (section 6).

As I explained in section 2, each filter has a very specific use. So everything is up to you.

What do you want to capture?

Would you like to enhance a reflection? Use a polarizer.

Do you want water to have a silk effect? Use a neutral density filter (ND).

Here you have again the table in section 2 where I summarize the use each filter has and what you can capture with them.

FilterWhat is it for?
Ultaviolet (UV)Blocks ultraviolet rays.
SkylightIn film cameras, it offsets the bluish cast that some scenes can have.
PolarizerEliminates non-metallic reflections. Eliminates or enhances fog and rainbows. Increases saturation and contrast.
Gold-N-Blue PolarizerAdds variable gold or blue tones to reflections depending on the orientation of the filter.
Varicolor Blue/Yellow PolarizerAdds variable gold or blue tones to reflections depending on the orientation of the filter.
Neutral density (ND)Reduces evenly the light that reaches the sensor. Increases the exposure time.
Graduated neutral density (GND)Gradually reduces the light that reaches the sensor with greater intensity on one of the edges of the filter. Successfully captures scenes with a high dynamic range.
Reverse graduated neutral densityGradually reduces the light that reaches the sensor with greater intensity from the center of the filter. Successfully captures a high dynamic range scenes.
Black cardPrevents light from reaching the sensor.
InfraredAllows only infrared light to reach the sensor.
Light pollution reductionPrevents sodium vapor bulbs from changing the color temperature of the night scene.
SolarAllows to photograph directly the Sun or a solar eclipse preventing the sensor from capturing infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Filter holder

Remember there are two types of filters?

That's right, circular screw-on and square or rectangular filters.

Well, you have two ways of working with square or rectangular filters:

A filter holder is exactly that – a holder. It’s usually made of plastic, and you mount it to the front of the lens using an adapter ring (more details about the latter in the next section). The filter holder has a series of slots in which you can slide different filters. The number of slots depends on the manufacturer, although a regular filter holder has usually three slots.

Obviously, the size of the filter holder you need depends on the size of the filters.

So if you have determined that you need 100mm filters for your lenses, the filter holder will have to be the same size.

I use a 100mm Lucroit filter holder for my Zeiss Milvus 18mm f/2.8, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8, Sigma 35mm f/1.4, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, among other lenses.

I also use a 165mm Lucroit filter holder with my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Remember that this system can be used on smaller diameter lenses with an adapter.

The filter holders are made by the filter brands themselves. The most popular ones are: Lucroit, Nisi, Haida, Lee, Formatt-Hitech and Benro.

Adapter rings

As I told you in the previous section, you need an adapter ring to attach the filter holder to the front of the lens.

It usually has a thread on the back that holds it to the lens. The front usually has a click system that allows you to hook the filter holder pressing it a little bit.

But the most important feature of an adapter ring is not its front or rear attachment system.

It’s its size.

So the first thing you have to take into account is the diameter of your lens. If you don’t, the ring thread won’t fit the lens... ;)

Imagine you have two lenses: a 77mm one and a 58mm one. If you want to use your filter holder with both you need two adapter rings: a 77mm one and a 58mm one. That was an easy guess... XD

There are adaptor rings that have all the sizes you can imagine, and they’re usually very cheap.

Tripod and ballhead

You definitely need a sturdy and solid tripod. In other words, a heavy tripod!

This is particularly important if you plan to shoot long exposures with filters because you have to make sure your gear doesn't move an inch during the capture.

In any case, you need to keep your camera steady in order to prevent vibrations that could blur your photos.

“Toni, I have a basic tripod. Can I use it for my long exposures with filters?”

Basic tripods don't usually weigh much and that makes them pretty unstable.

Use these simple yet useful tricks to avoid vibrations:

  • Hang a bag filled with stones or even your camera bag from the hook located at the bottom of your tripod’s center column. But don’t do it when it’s windy, you’ll get the opposite effect!
  • Don’t raise the center column of the tripod if it has one, it will make it more unstable.

“If I had to buy a good tripod, what would you recommend?”

Get the Manfrotto 055XPRO3. It’s probably the best seller tripod among advanced amateur photographers!

If you want to (and can) spend a little bit more, have a look at carbon fiber tripods.

These tripods are robust and weigh less than the aluminium ones. They allow loads from 5 kg to over 25 kg (11-56 lb) depending on the model.

Brands like Gitzo, Manfrotto, Benro, Induro or Really Right Stuff offer tripods of great quality in both materials, carbon and aluminum.

“Great! What about the ballhead?”

Choosing your tripod head will depend on your taste, but make sure that it can bear at least 5/7 kg (11/16 lb) of weight and that includes a removable plate.

In my opinion, the tripod’s best friend is a good ballhead. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 is the one that I use. Supporting up to 23 kg (50 lb), it bears the weight of my gear with no problem. It allows me to work comfortably and with great precision.

Other ballheads that I like are the Gitzo GH1382QD, the Kirk Enterprises BH-1 and the Arca Swiss Monoball Z1 SP, all robust and with very high endurance (minimum 13.5 kg or 30 lbs).

Additionally, if you're using a super telephoto lens you may want to use a gimbal head, such as the one I use, the Benro GH2.

Intervalometer

While shooting with filters, especially during long exposures, you should avoid vibrations. Otherwise, you risk ending up with a whole bunch of blurred photos. In order to do so, you need a way to trigger your camera without having to touch it.

Shutter releases and intervalometers will do the job. But, in my opinion, you should forget about the remote shutter release and get a good intervalometer.

Why?

Because remote releases are not programmable. You cannot shoot at regular intervals automatically.

The intervalometer is programmable. You can set the exposure time, the time interval between photos, the total number of photos to be taken and even the time delay of the first picture.

These are all great intervalometers:

Memory cards

There are many different types of SD Cards (Secure Digital) depending on capacity and data transfer speed.

For beginners, 32GB SD cards class 10 or U1 (from $15) are enough. They are great, cheap and the amount of photos stored is fine.

But... Its main drawback is that the transfer speed (how fast data is written to the card) is not the best in the world.

Buy a memory card with a high transfer rate, because it allows each picture to be saved into the memory card quicker.

Nowadays, the price of SD cards has dropped so much and it’s so cheap to purchase an SDHC speed class 10 16GB card that you shouldn’t purchase anything with less specifications.

Finally, I recommend you to use several small capacity cards rather than a few large capacity ones. That way, if you lose a card or spoil it, fewer pictures will be lost. By using several small capacity cards you decrease the risk of losing your photos.

While there are still cameras that can work with CompactFlash (CF) cards, this system is slowly disappearing.

Microfiber cloth

I suggest you always carry several microfiber cloths in your backpack. Microfiber is the perfect fabric to clean both the front glass of your lens and your filters. It doesn’t damage, stain or leave residue on any glass surface.

You can easily leave handprints or grease while manipulating the filters. And if you're doing a photo shooting on the coast, the sea may splash and leave drops on the filter. Or it could rain...

Anyway, the chances of getting stains on your filter are very high. They are dirt magnets.

And if you don't clean it, that dirt will show up in your images.

So if you don't want to spend hours in front of your computer cloning black spots, always carry several microfiber cloths with you!

Before I finish, let me give you some basic tips on cleaning your filters:

  • Don’t clean a filter with any fabric other than microfiber. You could scratch it.
  • If the filter gets stained with salt water, don't forget to rinse it when you get home. Rinse it under fresh, warm water and dry it well with the microfiber cloth.
  • When washing your cloth don’t use bleach (it ruins the fabric). Avoid washing them with cotton towels (the microfiber collects all the particles) and don’t use fabric softener because it will eliminate the static electricity that the microfiber needs to work properly.

And now that we've seen in detail all the key pieces of gear that you can or, rather, you should include into your equipment, there's no time to waste.

It's time to learn how to use and expose with the different types of filters :)

Go to Chapter 2

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