Photo of a blue lens filter on a Canon DSLR

To photographers and video enthusiasts, filters can protect your lens, create special effects, control color and light, and do so much more.

Filters come in a variety of formats, and have an ecosystem full of filter-related accessories and systems of their own. Some mount in a matte box, some screw directly to a camera lens, others have a system that connects to the front of a lens and allow different circular or square filters to be dropped in.

This guide will take a look at a few of the options available to help deck out your camera kit.

Types of Filters

Filters are essentially pieces of glass or plastic placed in front of a camera lens to change the look of a shot or add a layer of protection between the lens and the elements.

To mount filters, there are a variety of styles and systems. The first system is the screw in type. These filters, available for pretty much all lens sizes, connect with the threaded area inside the front lip of your lens. The preferred material for these – and all – filters is glass. Plastic is fine, but marks easily, wears poorly over time, and is more prone to aberration than a good piece of glass is.

The screw in lens filter also includes a threaded exit, much like your lens, which allows the shooter to stack multiple filters. This is a good thing, but stack too many and the image will either begin to diminish from too many layers, or the edges of the filters will begin to show up in shots. Some popular filter brands are Tiffen, Canon, Carl Zeiss and Nikon and each of these is known for other industry-leading products. The advantage of using screw in filters is they essentially become a solid piece of the camera, keeping the elements out and making them ideal for less than perfect shooting conditions.

A collection of camera lens filters
A collection of camera lens filters
Another popular system is a filter holder. Made by companies such as Cokin, LEE Filters and Nikon, these systems mount to a camera lens and include slots where shooters can slide in one or more glass or plastic filters. The advantage is in how quickly new filters may be added or placed in different order. A drawback is that they sit slightly away from the lens, allowing the elements in.

A third type to consider is a matte box filter system. Included with most matte boxes are either fixed or rotating filter trays, which allow shooters to slide in standard filters in a manner very similar to the filter holder system. While matte box systems can range greatly in price (usually a bit pricey), the overall benefits of using a matte box compliment the convenience of a built in filter holder brilliantly.

Filters for Lens Protection

While there are many types of filters, few are as practical and singularly necessary as a filter acting as a first protective layer. The usual suspects for protective filters are either clear filters or UV filters.

A clear filter does nothing aside from protect the lens it is attached to, while UV filters counteract haze caused by ultraviolet rays while they protect.

Interchangeable lenses are far more expensive and difficult to fix than a filter, and fixed lenses are part of a larger front module of a camera and can cost thousands to fix. As an example, a Sony EX-1R with an MSRP of $6,850 has a 77mm thread and can be protected with a Tiffen 77mm UV Protector Filter for $54 (Tiffen 77mm UV filter, B&H), but a scratch on that fixed lens can be upwards of four figures to repair before considering the time lost while that camera is in for service.

Special Effects Filters

When we think of special effects, most of our minds wander to Luke Skywalker hopping into a landspeeder, or Optimus Prime transforming from a truck into a powerful robot. While those visual effects are impressive, special effects filters fill a much more practical role in the video world.

A standout among special effects filters is the star filter, which causes light peaks to glow in the shape of a star. The number of points in the star can be different with different types of star filters.

Another of the special effects filters is the center spot filter. Center spot filters are diffuse, blurry filters with a hole removed from the center. The effect is that of focus in the center with a dreamy, hazy cast around the center. These can be fun for dream sequences!

Diffusion filters are even dreamier, as they soften a subject and add a creamy-dreamy look to an image. Some shooters make their own diffusion filters by smearing a bit of Vaseline on a clear filter, (never directly on the lens!),  or by stretching pantyhose over a lens, but experience shows that a dedicated diffusion filters are the way to go. Some are uniform in their diffusion, while others have a graduated amount of diffusion, creating effects for only part of your subject.

Special effects filters do not need to be expensive. Try different options from any of the popular manufacturers and build unique and creative looks.

Corrective Filters

As fantastic as cameras are, there are situations that go beyond the ability of camera and shooter. In every videographer’s bag of tricks, a set of corrective lenses should exist. Here are the essentials.

A polarizing filter is used to reduce reflection and retain color in subjects, making shots of water and windows less reflective and outdoor scenes look far more saturated and intense. A graduated polarizing filter allows the shooter to adjust the amount of light cut out by the filter. Many photo and video pros choose a polarizing filter when shooting water scenes, or bright foliage to get the true color without any reflection.

Along the same lines as the polarizing filter, a neutral density filter cut down bright light and help the shooter maintain detail in highlights. Many pro cameras have built in ND filters, but it never hurts to keep a couple handy. A good bet is adding a graduated ND filter – it rotates to adjust the amount of light allowed to pass through.

Color balance filters are excellent for changing the mix of colors in a shot, creating a general color balance across all of the footage they’re used for. This can replace using the camera’s white balance feature in some cases, or simply augment it.

Contrast filters and contrast reduction filters are handy and serve useful, though opposite purposes. A contrast filter reduces highlights and bright spots, adding depth to dark areas of a shot, whereas a contrast reduction filter cuts down those dark areas.

Beyond Filters

Sometimes, what comes with the camera isn’t enough to capture the whole picture. A tool related to the filter world to help that is the wide-angle adapter, a lens which screws to an existing lens to increase its field of view.

If the diameter for a filter fits one of your lenses but not another, take a look at step up rings available at a local retailer or online. These rings screw into smaller threaded lenses or filters and have outer threads to fit larger filters. They are usually very reasonable in price as well.

Conclusion

When it comes to using filters there are few rules aside from having fun while experimenting with them, and not stacking so many that you see them in your shot, but even that isn’t really a rule. Maybe a little natural vignette isn’t the end of the world either.

Use screw in UV filters or a clear filter to protect a lens, control light with a neutral density filter or polarizing filter, and design the shot of your dreams with special effects filters like a star filter or a diffusion filter.

Creating shots that are done properly, or to match a style doesn’t have to be expensive or intimidating. There are solutions to match most budgets, and filters to match most visions!

 

Manufacturer Listing

AbleCine
Canon Inc.
Carl Zeiss
Cavision Enterprises Ltd.
Cokin Filters
Hama GmbH & Co KG
Hasselblad Bron, Inc.
Heliopan Lichtflter-Technik Summer GmbH & Co KG
Kenko Tokina Co., Ltd.
LDP, LLC
LEE Filters USA
Nikon, Inc.
Nikura
Olympus Corporation
Panasonic Corporation
Promaster
Pro Optic
RAYNOX (Yoshida Industry Co., Ltd.)
Rosco Laboratories, Inc.
Schneider Optics, Inc.
Sigma Corporation of America
Singh-Ray Corporation
Studio 1 Productions, Inc.
The Tiffen Company
ToCad America, Inc.

Russel Fairley owns a turnkey video production company presenting 400+ videos a year, featuring Web videos, TV commercials, and live event coverage.

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