What type of Camera Lens Filters do you really need?

Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine (Photo: Kim Olson)

Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine

One (of many) debates in the photography world is whether or not you should use filters for your lenses.

I kinda fall in the middle. I do use them and think they can be helpful, but I also don’t find them absolutely essential.

Filters I Use

When I was initially buying my gear, I wasn’t sure what I’d want or need. There’s plenty of advice for both using and not using filters so I figured I’d try out the ones that seemed to be most common and see what I thought myself.

The two types of filters I have are:

Because my main two lenses require different sized filters (more on sizes below) I decided to only buy filters to fit one of my lenses. I bought for my Canon f/4.0 17-40mm because it’s the lens I thought I’d benefit more from when using the polarizing filter for landscapes. And the bulbous glass seemed to need more protection, somehow, than the flat glass at the end of my 70-200.

UV Haze Filters

Why would you want a UV Haze filter?

UV Haze Filter

UV Haze Filter

One of the main reasons people tend to get them is because they’re worried about scratching or damaging the glass on the end of their lenses. Since the filter goes on the end of your lens, it essentially protects your glass. I’ve heard of photographers dropping their lenses and their filter breaks, but the lens is unharmed. And also if you happen to scratch the end of your lens and you have a filter on, then it would be far cheaper for you to simply replace the filter instead of the lens itself.

You don’t have to have the UV Haze filter on to protect your lenses if you’re super careful and diligent. But at the same time accidents do happen and good lenses are anything but cheap. Replacing one is not exactly something we want to do frequently (or at all).

When I got my first lenses, I had done enough research into the pros and cons of using UV Haze filters and decided to try one out and see how it worked out. I do end up keeping it on my 17-40mm lens all the time except for when I put on my polarizing filter.

Another benefit of using UV Haze filters is they are supposed to help cut down on haze which, if not combated with a filter, can make your end image look kinda muted.

Polarizing Filters

When I don’t have the UV filter on my 17-40mm, I have on my polarizing filter.

Polarizing Filter

Polarizing Filter

I chose to get the polarizer for this lens because I figured I’d be shooting landscapes with it more than any other lens and I do love the look of the deep blue skies that polarizing lenses help create.

I also liked that it can substantially cut down on the glare when shooting things that reflect – like lakes, streams, glass, etc. I hike a lot so I wanted to make sure I’m making the most of my images when I’m out in the field.

Because I don’t often shoot landscapes with my telephoto lens (I have Canon’s 70-200mm f/4.0) and because it has a different thread size than my 17-40mm, I opted to skip out on getting a filter for the telephoto. I’ve had all of my lenses for about 5 years now and so far I’ve managed to keep both the 70-200 and my 50mm f/1.8 lenses (the other lens where I don’t use a filter) free from damage.

Other Types of Filters

Besides UV and Polarizing, you’ll also find that you can buy a whole array of filters that can alter color, provide diffusion, control contrast, etc.

Neutral-Density Graduated Filter

Neutral-Density Graduated Filter

A more popular “other” filter is the neutral density (ND) – regular and graduated. These help you dramatically reduce the amount of light that is let in (for example, a full ND can reduce light by two stops). This can be particularly helpful when you are shooting things like waterfalls and want to slow down and blur the water.

As with pretty much all photographic gear, you can go crazy with options and buy all sorts of different filters. I personally keep it simple and stick to only the UV Haze and Polarizers (when I use them at all).

Before You Buy A Filter, Keep in Mind…

1. Filter Shape: Circular Screw On or Square

There are filters that you screw onto the end of your lens and there are square filters that you can slide in and out of a filter holder that sits at the end of your lens.

Circular is nice because you can simply screw it onto your lens and leave it there. But the main issue is you have to buy the exact size you’ll need for each lens you’ll want to use it on. One size doesn’t fit all (see Filter Size below).

Square Lens Filters by Cokin (Photo: Chriusha)

Square Lens Filters by Cokin (Photo: Chriusha)

Square filters fix the size issue of circular filters in that one size can typically be used on various camera lenses because you can buy one larger than your biggest lens opening & therefore accommodate all of your lenses. But they also are a bit more cumbersome because you typically have to attach a filter holder that sits on the end of your lens (see Square Lens Filters photo).

I personally opted for the circular type of filter, though looking back now, I may have been better off getting the square kind that can be used with different lenses. And I’ve actually seen some photogs simply hold the square filter in their left hands, positioning it in front of the lens but not mounting it. I suppose that would work best for photographers who use tripods or have really steady hands to hold the camera still.

Ultimately it’s a personal preference. I’ve only ever had experience with the screw-on type and I’ll admit I do kinda like the idea of leaving the UV Haze filter on my 17-40 to protect it, though it can be a hassle switching back and forth from my UV Haze to my Polarizer.

Before you invest in one shape over the other, you may want to try each type out and see which works best for you.

2. Filter Size

Not all filters are made equally. While square filters do vary in size, it doesn’t matter as much since you can usually use one size for most lenses.

But if you’re looking at buying circular filters, make sure you’re buying the correct size for the lens(es) you want to use them on.

Circular filters have different sizes based on the diameter of the filter. The end of your lens will likely have a measurement that looks something like this: ∅77m

Canon lens that uses a 77mm filter

Canon lens that uses a 77mm filter

So for this lens in the photo above, 77mm is the size of filter I’d want to buy.

3. Less Light Gets Through

You’ll also want to note that some filters will cut down on the amount of light reaching your camera. Some significantly by 2 stops or more.

For example when I use my polarizing filter, my f/4.0 lens becomes a lot slower in darker situations and I’m usually forced to bump up my ISO (since I don’t use tripods) or switch to my UV Haze filter, instead.

Sometimes less light is exactly what you’ll want (like when using the ND filter I mentioned above). But if you already have a slower lens, you’ll definitely notice your lens going slower in darker environments.

4. Go For Quality

A final reminder: don’t skimp on your filters. Cheap is not the way to go on this.

You’ll want to avoid slapping a low-end filter on your high-end lens or you could end up with a crappy photo since it was shot through a crappy filter.

What Filters (if any) should you buy?

I’m pretty on the fence on whether or not you need to have filters. Well, not fully on the fence. I don’t think you need them, clearly, since I don’t even have them on 2 of my 3 lenses.

I do, however, think they can be beneficial to have, so if you want to be cautious or don’t mind switching them out once in a while, then I say go for it.

I use B+W filters, but I have read good things about these other brands, too:

  • Hoya
  • Tiffen
  • Cokin

More Reading

I’m not a filter expert and these musings are based on my research and own personal experience. If you think you may want to investigate further and want more detailed information, here are a few good links to check out:

http://photographylife.com/lens-filters-explained

http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-lens-filters.htm

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/indepth/photography/buying-guides/filters-lenses

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