Guide to Camera Filters and How to Use Them

Isn’t being a cameraperson grand? I mean, what a great job! We are always going to great places, meeting great people. We do what we love and love what we do. We view life through rose-colored glasses. Believe it or not, it gets even better than that. Unlike other careers, when life seems too unreal, we can reach down and pull the rose color out and replace it with, you guessed it, a different filter. OK, so maybe seeing life rosy and shooting life rosy are two different things, but using filters on your camera can sometimes be awfully close to the same thing.

Now, many of you might be saying, “I can’t use filters on my camera. They’re too hard to learn.” If so, then you are missing out. Filters enhance the world in which we shoot. They can alter an image in just about any way you could think of, and then some. While most new shooters I know are scared of filters, it’s really not that hard. With just a few basic facts, you will be on your way to being a pro. Filters are all about experimentation and trial and error. Next time you go to your local rental house, ask to see their selection of glass. Rent a few and play with them. If there are no rental houses in your area, then try online. The filter company Tiffen has a free online program that allows you to see all of their filters and how they affect an image. Although it is not the same as actually looking through your lens, it does give you a good feel for it. Find it through this


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Matte Who?

Before we get into what filter is best for you, you have to realize that every filter must be held in front of the lens by something, and for some filters, that would be a matte box. If you think you need to run out and buy a rotating three-stage filter holder, with a set of extension rails and an eyebrow, or worse yet, you’ve decided filters aren’t for you because just listing this stuff already makes your wallet scream – never fear. There is always a rosier side to everything. For starters, almost all matte boxes can be rented on a daily basis and I recommend renting all your filters until you find the ones you like before purchasing. Matte boxes that screw on the end of the lens and hold only one filter tend to be less expensive, but they still have many of the same professional accessories that the larger ones (e.g., Chrosziel or Petroff) do. Finally, not all cameras have professional matte boxes made for them. If you’re an owner of one of those types of cameras, try out the Cokin system, which was originally designed for still cameras. Cokin makes smaller, lighter filter holders that often fit cameras with a smaller diameter lens (min. 36mm). They are high-quality and far less in price, but by no means are they lacking in selection. Regardless of how you hold your filters, be sure they can raise and lower in front of the lens and rotate.

So what filter do I use? Well, given that there is not enough room to list every filter ever made, and that there are some general groups of filters you should understand to help narrow down your search, I’ve decided to compile a separate, smaller list of some of the most popular types, (see sidebar below), and I will describe them briefly, so you can use it to reference later on when you start experimenting. But first let’s discuss the more general groups.

Multi-Stage Filters

A multi-stage filter is not a filter but actually a designation of a group of filters. What I mean by that is that there are many filters that have varying levels of effect, like “some” softness, “more” softness, “most” softness. These stages are usually designated by the same name followed by a progressively different number, e.g., Diffusion 1, Diffusion 2, Diffusion 3, etc. If a 1 is too little, try a higher number. If a 2 is too much, go the other way. They even make 1/8, 1/4 and 1/2 for many of them. Remember, it’s all in experimenting and finding what you or your client like.

Summa Cum Laude

Graduating filters, better know as grads, come in several types, but all grads gradually fade from full intensity to clear glass. All grad filters have an ending point which works best if you can hide it in the scene by sliding the filter up or down (or sometimes slanting) to place the end point on a straight line (i.e., the horizon, a roof line, the tree line, the skyline, etc.). The tobacco grad is one of my favorites. It is a burnt brown-orange color that turns a bland sunset into something spectacular.

Marco… (Polo)

One of the first filters you will want to buy is the polo, or polarizer. Essentially, a polarizer is a glare blocker. Look through a pair of polarized sunglasses. Then slowly rotate them and see what happens. Notice the windows on cars and buildings or the color of the sky or leaves. See how the glare is removed and how they become darker, fuller, richer colors. By rotating the filter, thereby removing the glare, you allow the true colors of the object to appear. It’s almost magic! And the sunnier it gets, the better it works. Now try putting your back to the sun. In some instances, you can make a burning hot sky turn into a deep blue, properly-exposed background or turn a mirrored lake into a fish-filled aquarium. Just remember, the more your back is to the sun, the greater the amount of glare happens and therefore the greater amount is removed.

TIP: Be mindful of the placement of your filter. Some newer Ultra Polos need to have a specific side of the filter facing towards the lens in order to work properly. If yours is one of those types, it should be clearly marked right on the glass. So remember, Marco: the polo is the filter to use whenever there is direct sun.

ND Filter Will Do

Not any filter will do what an ND filter does. In fact it is the only kind of its type, and I think it should be the next one you invest in. ND stands for neutral density. Neutral, meaning it neutrally affects the colors or, in other words, doesn’t positively or negatively change them in any way; and density, meaning to make denser or darker. ND filters are most commonly used to obtain an optimal f-stop. ND filters are multi-stage filters, and, unlike other stages, each of these filter numbers are non-sequential and reduce the f-stop by 1 (i.e., an ND3 lowers the light one stop; ND6 is two stops; ND9 is three stops, etc.). A good example of how to use this filter would be during an interview. By lowering your light level, it makes you open your iris, thereby shortening your depth of field. It can also be used to just darken a scene, like when you are trying to shoot a day-for-night camera trick.

The other ND filter that bears mentioning here too, is one called an ND grad. The ND grad combines the darkening of an ND and the gradation of a grad filter. This filter typically feathers the ND to a mid-point on the glass. This works perfectly for sunsets, ocean views or just any place where the sky is way too bright. Keep in mind, though, as with any grad, as we mentioned earlier, you must be careful to hide the line of transition. Either way, neutral density is the filter you want to darken your image.

TIP: Most pro cameras come with a built-in ND filter. What they don’t tell you is that the ND3 has less darkening than the first stage on your camera. So when you need a little darkening and the first stage is too much, drop in the ND3. Sometimes a little is just what you need.

Finally, in this day and age, when camera electronics rule and you can adjust every part of the image just by pushing or dialing or switching, filters might seem to have become obsolete. But what you may not realize is that filters can do many things electronics can’t. First, they give you consistency. A filter will always add, subtract or adjust the same amount every time. They are fast and easy to change. No more searching through pages and pages of menus or wasting countless minutes staring at waveform monitors or vectorscopes. Some filters just can’t be recreated in post. When was the last time you polarized an image in post? Hmm? But most of all, filters give you control. No more leaving it to the editors to change what you had intended the shot to look like. Besides, why should they get all the ooohs and ahhs anyway? And OK, let’s face it: a matte box says that you know what you’re doing. It says this cameraperson is in control. Finally… if you want to shoot through a rose-colored filter, then hey, I think it is a wonderful, beautiful, great idea! Did I mention awesome, dreamy, sensational…


Filters You Should Know and Try

812 – When warm is where you want to be, the 812 is the key. The 812 is a full-color filter that gives you a general warming to the entire image. For those cameras that don’t have the ability to adjust the white balance by hand, this filter consistently gives shot after shot the same amount of warming, no matter what the white balance. Think of it as a white balance, “plus warm”, switch.

High Con – Standard video tends to be flat, especially when the light is soft or the day is overcast. By using a high contrast filter, you pump up the boldness and intensity of the scene. Darks are darker, lights are lighter and colors are brighter. If you want to add pop to your image, then this is the filter for you.

Soft FX – Soft effects is a multi-stage filter. The more soft you want, the higher the number. Think soap opera or wedding photo, and you have the look. I like the level 1/4 or 1/2. They are very light and subtle and add a sort of film look. What is different about a soft FX and a diffusion filter is that a soft FX doesn’t bloom the whites or lower the contrast dramatically. So less is better, unless of course the subject really needs it.

Black Pro Mist – Another multi-stage filter that maintains the dark areas but softens the rest of the scene. The filter will bloom the highlights minimally and soften skin, but it keeps the dark areas dark. This filter was made in response to the issues the standard Pro Mist filter has with light scattering. Pro Mist softens the image and blooms the highlights, but the blacks become washed out. So use the stronger Pro Mist with discretion.

Enhancing – Want to make your nature scenes look “wow!”? Then this is the filter for you. This filter makes nature (like grass, moss and leaves) really come alive. It actually enhances the red in the scene, but you will be amazed how it affects all colors. Keep in mind that, since it enhances red, it will affect skin tones by usually giving them a warmer hue.

Star – How many points should a star have? How many do you want? This multi-stage filter comes in a multitude of variations. This filter is great for night shots, concerts and anywhere you want that magical burst. If your camera doesn’t come with one, it’s worth picking one up. Sooner or later a client will ask for one.

Gold Diffusion – This is sort of a combo filter. The gold warms the scene, and the diffusion softens the scene. Two popular filters in one. It saves you money and space, especially if you only have a one-stage matte box.

Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker‘s Lens Filters Manufacturer’s list.

Michael Reff is Director of Photography at Turner Broadcasting.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.


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