There are many good reasons for adding a filter to your camcorder lens. Some people think filters are only useful for enhancing the color or shading on a scene, others think filters cut down the available light going into the camera's lens - and both of these are right, but filters do so much more, and offer the video producer many options to make better video. From protecting the camera lens to cutting reflections and glare or fixing exposure to the sky, filters open a wide range of enhanced abilities for the video producer to explore. Let’s get into the details.
If you should bump your camera or camcorder lens against something hard, or accidentally drop it to the ground, guess which part gets damaged first? Usually, it’s the lens. A lens filter attached to the front of your camcorder’s lens is the number one method of protection against such damage. I had a camcorder attached on a tripod that was knocked over from the wind. The lens filter was cracked and smashed, but the lens remained protected. Otherwise, I would have suffered a major lens repair bill.
If you plan to shoot outdoors at the seashore, with its salty sea breeze, or out in a slight sprinkle of rain, a protective lens filter on your camcorder frees you to shoot in these environments knowing your lens is better protected. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the same thing as a true protective camcorder cover, which would provide even more protection from the elements. But in certain environments, the added protection of that lens filter can help you make that decision to keep shooting.
2. Inexpensive to replace
Filters for your camcorder can range from very inexpensive less than $20 UV (UltraViolet/Haze) types, to the slightly more expensive Neutral Density (ND) and Circular Polarizer types ($30 and up). These filters are made by a wide variety of name brand manufacturers, including Tiffen, Hoya, B+W (Schneider), Cokin, and others. They are available in filter diameters that match the screw thread of your camcorder’s lens. A quick web search at popular online retailer B&H Photo reveals a wide variety of such filters. Some are even available as a kit of multiple filters for a discounted price. Wouldn’t you rather have a minimum $20 filter replacement bill than a $200 lens repair bill?
3. Easy to clean
It’s actually easy to keep the lens filter clean, and you can be aggressive about it because you aren’t harming the primary lens at all. A simple kit of lens cleaning solution/lens paper does the trick. The main lens remains protected and clean and if your fingers never touch your primary lens glass, you're never going to have to worry about greasy fingerprints that never seem to wipe off.
4. Allowing a more aggressive or artistic shooting style
Many videographers out there may be squeamish about taking their camcorder out into environments that aren’t perfect. Many others, though, look at these conditions as a challenge awaiting them. Changing the color or hue to a video can elicit different emotions in a scene. Using a special filter to tint the shot slightly can give your scene a bluer tone that might make a lively scene appear more "cool" or less friendly. Likewise, a yellowish tint can make a video appear warmer. Yellow tinted filters can also give your video a dated feel - like a story from the old west. Many videographers who wish to create a black and white scene don't rely on simply taking out all color during the editing state. This works, but it also can diminish contrast, which is very important in a black and white scene. A special filter actually works here, and it's good for creating a day-for-night scene, too. Then if you really want to make a viewer feel they're on an alien world, try tinting the sky green or orange, who's to say that world only has a blue sky like ours?
5.Polarizing filters for reflections and glare reduction
Polarizing filters are available in two varieties- standard, and circular. Circular Polarizers (CP) are best because you can adjust them without affecting the focus or zoom of your lens. One bane of shooting outdoors is the massive amount of glare and reflections that are present from various surfaces, water in particular. It’s just part of nature, but a circular polarizer lens can minimize these reflections considerably. Just rotate the CP filter until the reflections and glare diminish. This glare and reflection reduction also intensifies the colors, making for a more visually appealing image. A grayed-out sky becomes an eye-popping blue and dull colorless water surface on a lake or sea becomes invitingly blue.
6. Neutral Density (ND) Filters for exposure and depth-of-field-control
ND filters are part of every professional videographer’s tool kit. ND filters are primarily used to reduce the amount of light in a scene. This might seem strange because you would normally think that you would need all the light you can get. But it all has to do with exposure and depth of field control. Have you ever noticed in major TV shows or commercial film releases how there will be scenes in which the talent is in sharp focus, but the background is out of focus? This selective focus didn’t happen by accident. It was carefully planned through the use of depth of field control.
Normally outdoors, or on a well-designed set, there is plenty of light to shoot a scene. The result may be a well-lit scene, but one which doesn’t have much selective depth of field. The subject is just as much in focus as is the background, which can be distracting. The best solution is to employ selective depth of field control. This is accomplished by using either "faster" prime lenses with wider apertures (f-stops), or by light reduction using Neutral Density filters. Professional videographers have a wider choice of such "fast" lenses, particularly if they are using the new generation of DSLRs that can shoot hi-def video. But selective depth of field can also be achieved by consumer videographers through light reduction and the use of ND filters.
Typically rated at ND1, ND2, and ND3 these ND filters reduce the light by two, four, or eight f-stops respectively, and force the camcorder to "open up" to gather in more light- by two, four, or eight f-stops respectively. The optical process of opening up f-stop apertures achieves the required depth of field effect - where close subjects are in focus, but background subjects are selectively out of focus.
ND filters can also be used to force a camcorder to shoot at slower shutter speeds. This can have a blurry, motion-implied effect on certain subjects - particularly waterfalls, etc.
7. Graduated ND Filters to control bright skies
Bright skies pose a particularly difficult problem for videographers - normally a camcorder would expose for the sky, darkening the foreground. But through use of a Graduated ND filter, whose top portion is darker than the clearer bottom portion, this exposure problem is solved. The darker portion of the graduated filter is placed over the brighter sky, while the clear portion is placed over the foreground subject. The result is a perfect exposure for both. Some graduated ND filters are even available in colors for very dramatic mood changing as well.
Lens Filters are your Camera's Best Friends
Lens filters will not only prevent direct damage to your camcorder's expensive lens, but they can also help you achieve very creative control of the video you capture - from simple UV reduction of sky illumination, to glare reduction and color enhancement through circular polarizers, to proper sky/subject exposure with graduated ND filters, and through selective depth of field control with ND filters. Don't leave home with out one.
Tony Gomez is a veteran producer, editor, videographer, digital photographer, and reviewer of consumer and professional digital imaging and video products, with over 30 years experience.