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This is WHY and WHEN you really need ND filters or polarizers

Manuel Becker Manuel Becker in Tips & Tricks
30.07.2017 · 6 min read
Photo by Manuel Becker

A pretty good and easy way to improve in landscape photography is to start using camera filters. It’s crucial to understand though, that some of their effects can be reproduced with Photoshop, while others can’t. Here is why you should own them nevertheless.

Using filters in city- and landscape photography has become pretty popular these days and there are quite a lot reasons you might not initially think about, why you should also get some if you don’t use them yet. But lets first talk about the different types of filters that are important to know and how they can help you to improve your outcome in various scenarios.

Different types of filters

Filters are made of glass or plastic and can be attached to your camera lens, to add various effects to your photos. While some of them were nearly fully replaced by software like Adobe Photoshop, for example to achieve different color effects, there are still 2 types that are very useful today.

Neutral-density filters (short: ND filters)

These type of filters are equal to sunglasses, because they limit the amount of light, that passes them. They are available in different strengths from a very soft shade to a nearly black version. The less light is passing the filter, the longer you are able to expose your photo. It hardly needs mentioning, that they are mostly used during daytime and especially during sunrise or sunset. Using theses filters during nighttime usually makes no sense at all. (if you know a technique or a reason why you should use them during the night, I would love to read about that in the comments below)

Polarizers (or pol filters)

While ND filters are filtering the full spectrum of light equally, polarizers are only filtering light waves of specific polarizations. In photography, they can be used to remove or reduce reflections from surfaces like glass or water.

5 reasons why filters are so useful

After I started using filters, it was at first like doing a completely different type of photography. I was using them for nearly every photo, because I really liked the effects, that they added to my images. It’s like everything that’s new to you and after a while you understand when it’s improving your photo and when it’s gimmickry.

#1 Effects, that can’t be reproduced in Photoshop

I guess that’s the most obvious reason to use filters and yet there are a lot of photographers, that don’t buy filters because they think, that they can achieve the same results in post processing. While this may be true for some of the effects, there are a few that either can’t be reproduced or would need huge efforts to get the same realistic results.

Silky water is one of the benefits you can use as a stylistic method within your photos. Especially the reflection of the water is really hard to reconstruct afterwards and if a waterfall contains a lot of rock formations in between the water, it gets even more difficult to achieve the same quality as you would get by simply using a neutral-density filter.

This is WHY and WHEN you really need ND filters or polarizers

By using a neutral-density filter at this amazing waterfall in Iceland called Aldeyjarfoss, I was able to do a 10 second exposure during the day, which adds this nice contrast between the sharp edges of the rock formations and the soft floating water to the image.

Adding structure beyond floating water is another great reason to use a polarizer. By removing the reflection from the water, you will be able to photograph the riverbed and therefore get some more details within your photo.

Here are 2 nearly unprocessed images, that show the difference between the usage of a polarizer and taking the exact same shot without one.

This is WHY and WHEN you really need ND filters or polarizers

Without polarizer: The water in the front is too bright due to the reflection of the sky and therefore gets too much attention.

This is WHY and WHEN you really need ND filters or polarizers

With polarizer: Instead of having a bright foreground, we now see nice little waves, that lead the eye of the viewer from the bright castle in the background through the foreground towards the bridge on the right side. The stones in the riverbed are some nice additional details, that are visible now.

Shooting through a glass front (on observation decks etc.) is also worth to try a polarizer, to remove the reflections within your photo. Using a dark blanket around your lens is also a good alternative for this situation, but that’s maybe not always possible.

#2 Saves time in post processing

That’s something especially beginners underestimate quite a lot. By using graduated ND filters you might be able to take a lot of your photos with one single image. Darkening the bright sky with such filters allows you to get the whole scene within one single exposure, which saves you a lot of time of exposure blending in Photoshop. I don’t mind that and I am a perfectionist when it comes to blending photos, so I am nearly never using graduated filters, but if you like to get everything within a single shot and if you are not a huge fan of retouching your photos in Photoshop, then these filters are a great choice for you.

This is WHY and WHEN you really need ND filters or polarizers

This is a perfect example, where a graduated neutral-density filter could have saved me a lot of time in post processing. The horizon is pretty straight at this spot in Geierlay, so using a graduated filter here is pretty easy and offers the opportunity, to get this result without having to blend multiple exposures.

Something I really like though, is using ND filters to remove people from my scenes. I describe several different methods in my post about 5 easy tricks on how to remove people from photos.

#3 Decelerating photography

This is definitely a trend right now and something probably every advanced photographer will appreciate sooner or later. Beginning with photography often makes you want to shoot every object, that might look good in front of your camera. This is a great way to start photography, because you get to know your camera and learn different techniques to improve. Especially if photography is a hobby for you and therefore is meant as a pause from your actual job, you will definitely benefit to stop running from one spot to another and take as many photos as possible. Filters are something, that will naturally ensure, that you slow down in your photography process, because every long exposure needs more time and you need more time in general to set up your camera. By doing longer exposures, you will also have more time in between to enjoy the scene and you will probably take more care of your composition, because the amount of shots that are possible during sunset are limited to this small period of time.

#4 Professional look

This sounds so wrong in many ways, because filters are definitely not the missing piece of equipment, that’s distinguishing hobby landscape photographers from professionals. However, in my opinion it’s a very easy way to add something to your images, that’s not possible by using a simple filter in Instagram. While these silky water effects may not be appealing to everyone, it’s nevertheless a great way to set a focus within your photos by removing details from the sky or rivers, that would otherwise grab a lot of attention through their structure. It’s also a great way to create a nice contrast between the sharp rocks of a waterfall and the soft water, that’s forcing one’s way.

This is WHY and WHEN you really need ND filters or polarizers

The simple usage of a polarizer in combination with an ND filter and a decent amount of post processing changes the appearance of this image in a subtle way. The ND filter was additionally used to get a longer exposure for the stream. This photo was taken at Runkel Castle in Germany.

#5 Adding new possibilities

For me, every part of equipment I use and every new technique I learn is kind of a tool in a toolbox, that I am able to use afterwards in the fields. Having these opportunities will open up more creative ways to combine different techniques for various places, making your shot more and more unique with your special style and preferences. Limiting yourself as a beginner is crucial in my opinion, as explained in detail in my article about How I drastically improved my photography with just 2 little decisions. The more you advance though, the less you might want to limit yourself, because everything will happen at the expense of opportunity costs.

In the next article, I will show you 4 situations, when you can get along without filters. But for now I would love to hear if you are already using filters or what did hold you back.

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Comments (10)

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Julius Moosbrugger
Julius Moosbrugger 29.08.2017
Great article! I share your considerations to ND`s. ND`s are also very useful, if you want to capture landscapes with a wide opened aperture (that can be an option sometimes, if you know what you are doing) and not to short shutter speed. If jou use your camera for videos also, the use of ND`S can be necessary, especially with an open aperture. That is because the shutter spees should be the double reciprocal value of the frame rate, means 1/120s if you have a frame rate of 60 pics/s if you want a crispy smooth cinematic look. And last but not least ND grads are great to get more control in the exposure.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 22.09.2017
Hey Julius, I guess I overlooked your comment, sorry! Really good points that you are adding here! I am not a pro when it comes to videos, so very good to know that NDs are also used within this area.
Barry Jones
Barry Jones 28.08.2017
Thanks for the great article, have just joined your site and it looks good, hoping to improve my photography. Have just purchased an ND Filter and in the three weeks I spent researching filters, I learned more about my camera than the previous 4 years that I have owned it. Thanks Again
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 28.08.2017
A warm welcome then dear Barry to the platform and thanks for your feedback! I started my photography by just trying everything out, but someday I felt there was a limit by just trying and then reading tons of articles / books really improved my photography by a lot, so I can understand you so well by what you said about your research.
Bren Ruiz
Bren Ruiz 27.08.2017
I felt myself (and my experience of the last weeks, since I started with ND filters) totally identified with every single comment of your very complete article! My photo had a big "jump up" (to my taste) and I'm enjoying and learning from every single euro invested on them. Thanks a lot for sharing and inspiring with these super articles.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 28.08.2017
Thank you very much for your feedback Bren. I am very glad that you liked the article and that you could agree on what changed for me after using filters.
Gunter Szwoch
Gunter Szwoch 10.08.2017
I am starting to use filters, I been using a polarizing filter for some time but have not used a ND filter. Will try soon and look forward to the results
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 10.08.2017
ND filters are definitely the bigger "game changer" for me, as they allow us photographers to change the results in a very different way. So if you like that specific style of if you want to reduce the amount of multiple exposures that are needed for sunset etc... then I guess you will love them as much as I do! ;-) Would love to read from you again here after you tried them out.
Daryl L. Hunter
Daryl L. Hunter 30.07.2017
My 2 cents. I use split field neutral density filters a lot at sunrise and sunset because of the high dynamic range between sky and foreground; however, I leave them off if there are no clouds as it just makes the sky seem dingy. Nice article!
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 10.08.2017
Thanks for your opinion and your feedback dear Daryl! There are still some situations, that ND filter can help when there are no clouds. For example if there is a waterfall or if you want to remove people from your scene, but then it's definitely a good idea to take an additional shot for the sky if it looks dingy.

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