There you are, sitting on that Jamaican beach, the shot of your life dancing before you, beckoning you to start shooting. "Hmmm…if only the sky were a little bluer," you think to yourself. And then, because "Prepared" is your middle name, you reach into your camcorder bag with confidence and pull out a blue graduated filter. (Okay, maybe you’re not in Jamaica, and maybe "Prepared" isn’t in your genetic make-up, but let’s slip into our imaginations, shall we?)
If you’ve ever wanted to spice up or alter the brightness, color, focus or appearance of the image your camcorder records on tape, but weren’t quite sure how to go about it, consider the lens filter. These precious gems go a long way to enhance your production, with price ranges likely to fit your budget.
Throughout this article, we’ll look at the types of filters available, the effects they offer, their prices and more. We’ll also talk to three amateur videographers–Alex Kanaris from San Gabriel, California, Frank Treban, from Tallahassee, Florida and Susan Meier from Chicago, Illinois–to find out the types of filters they’re using for their best shots.
Fit to Shoot
Lens filters come in two basic types that attach to your camcorder in one of two ways. The first type is the round filter, which screws directly onto threads machined into the barrel of your camcorder’s lens. The second type is the square filter, which slides onto a mount (called a matte box) you attach to the front of the lens.
Because lens diameters vary, so do lens filters. Generally, round filters range in thread diameter anywhere from 34mm to 82mm. Filters used in higher-end broadcast production run in larger sizes, with price tags to match. Be sure to check your lens for the appropriate size filter you’ll need before you make your purchase. You can find the thread diameter printed on the side of the lens, inside the lens cap or in your camcorder owner’s manual.
Square filters can be advantageous because they come in just one size. You only have to make sure the matte box that holds them fits your lens. This can be a life saver when you’re out on a shoot because there’s no need to worry that a particular filter won’t fit. Also, you can interchange filters between camcorders as long as each camcorder has a matte box attached.
Just Your Type
Filters come in a number of types. From the simple, clear filters that protect your camcorder’s lens to special-effects filters designed to add sparkle to your productions, lens filters have become a popular accessory in the camcorder user’s toolbag.
How many filters you’ll need depends on a number of factors. Do your research and take the time to answer these basic questions: What do you want to achieve? Are you looking for special effects or just basic lens protection? Under what type of shooting situations do you tape? Outdoors? Portrait shots? Sporting events? Your filter needs will vary depending on your answers to these questions. Think about what it is you’re trying to achieve, and go from there.
If lens protection is what you’re after, consider the clear or U/V (ultra-violet or skylight) filter. Both types can permanently attach to your camcorder’s lens and protect it from dust, grime, fingerprints and scratches. In addition, the U/V type reduces unwanted haze caused by ultraviolet light. If you don’t think that spending those few extra dollars on another video accessory is worthwhile, consider this: a scratched lens filter is far cheaper to replace than a scratched camcorder lens. Tiffen Manufacturing sells UV Protector filters starting at just $16 for lens diameters of 49, 52 and 55mm.
Polarizing filters are a perfect way to darken the image slightly or get rid of unwanted reflections from shiny surfaces such as water, glass or plastic. To change the effect your polarizer gives you, simply rotate the filter to block out more or less reflected light. Give one a try when your production requires you to shoot a scene through a window or catch a glimpse of underwater life from the edge of a stream.
One fan of the polarizing filter is Alex Kanaris from San Gabriel, California. Kanaris’ interests in photography began when he was a child. In the late 80s and early 90s, he got his first video cameras–the Sony F-77 and the Sony V-101. Since then, he’s been shooting travel videos, seminars, theater and other live performances. Although he has a number of different filters, one of the types he uses most frequently is the polarizer.
"It serves both as a neutral-density filter to allow me to open the lens a couple of f-stops, and as a means to increase the color saturation of the sky, the sea and many other kinds of scenery," he said.
"I’m really infatuated with the effect of a polarizing filter."
Susan Meier has been shooting video since the early 80s. She currently owns a Canon ES200, and shoots video "mostly for fun." She reiterated Kanaris’ views on the polarizer. "I always have my polarizer (filter) with me," she said. "I spend quite a bit of time shooting outdoors and it really helps reduce the glare," she said.
Cokin’s Series-A circular polarizing filters sell for $44.
Looking for a little color in your life? Try a colored filter during production.
Color-compensating (CC) filters come in progressive degrees of red, green, blue, yellow, magenta, cyan and other colors. A CC red 30 filter, for example, will add a moderate degree of redness to a shot, while a CC blue 100 will make everything look very blue indeed. Use these filters to remove unwanted color from your shot, or to bring out the best colors possible. They’re also used to correct problems with white balance; attaching a CC magenta 30 filter, for example, is a common method for converting fluorescent light to daylight.
Color-graduated filters are half-clear and half-colored, with a smooth transition in between. Available in a variety of colors, these types are the filter of choice for shots where you want to keep half the scene its original color while adding color to the other half. You can create a spectacular-looking sunset, for example, with a red graduated filter.
Rosco offers their round and square Permacolor Glass Filters in a number of sizes and colors, starting at $15 for the 49.5mm size.
Want to soften the image in your viewfinder? A diffusing, or soft-focus filter will do the trick. These types are a good choice for close-up shots, like portraits, where you want to reduce the appearance of fine lines or blemishes. Cokin’s Series A diffusor filter sells for $17.
Neutral-density (ND) filters are another type commonly found in the videographers accessory bag. These help change the brightness level in your shot by reducing the amount of light that enters your camcorder’s lens. ND filters are available in a variety of strengths, measured as an integer (such as .3, 1 or 6). Thus, an ND 2 filter blocks half as much light as an ND 4. The ND filter helps you prevent exposure problems, and is the type to consider when you find yourself shooting in a very brightly lit situation (a sunny day in the snow, for example). They are also useful when you want to blur the background of an image. By simply attaching an ND filter to your lens and focusing on your subject, the background will automatically "smudge." Why? It’s simple: The ND filter reduces incoming light, which forces your camcorder’s automatic iris to open wider. In turn, this reduces the depth of field, which leaves the background of the shot blurred or out of focus. Tiffen’s ND filters start at $22 for sizes ranging from 37mm-55mm.
Frank Treban is a school teacher from Tallahassee who’s been a video enthusiast for over 20 years.
"When I first started out, I had a lot of problems with overexposure," he said.
"One of my colleagues suggested I experiment with filters to see if they would help. One of the first kinds I bought was a neutral density," he said. "Right off the bat, my exposure got better."
For a demonstration of the effect of polarizing and neutral-density filters, visit Videomaker‘s MPEG page at http://www.videomaker.com/edit/other/mpegpa.htm
Filters designed to add special effects to your shots are available in a number of styles.
Star filters come in plastic or glass, and add a dazzling touch to your production while helping to draw attention to certain portions of your shot. It’s quite possible you’ve seen them in use before, but never realized it. They are used to add extra sparkle to jewelry, water scenes, crystal, and sequined clothing, to name a few. Depending on the number of grooves etched into the filter, you’ll get different numbers of "stars" in your shot. A filter with fewer grooves results in a shot with fewer stars. Cokin sells various star filters in a number of thread sizes. For lens sizes ranging from 36mm to 62mm, expect to pay around $22 for Cokin’s Softstar model. The Softstar version runs $27 for lens sizes of 48mm to 82mm, with the Star-4, Star-8 and Star-16 versions selling for $29 for the same thread size.
Center-spot filters are another unique way to add variety to your shots. These heavy diffusion filters have a clear circular spot in the center and are commonly used for portrait shots, where a less distracting background is desired. Tiffen’s center-spot types start at $27 for lens sizes of 49-55mm, up to $48 for 72-77mm sizes.
Other popular special-effect filters include
streak filters, which create a two-point streak effect similar
to the effects produced by star filters, and split-field filters
which allow close-up focusing on one area of a shot while retaining
focus on the distant background. Ask about other special-effect
filters wherever filters are sold.
Keeping a Clean Image
Most manufacturers go through extensive methods to quality-test their filters before they sell them to the public. Tiffen Manufacturing in New York, for example, goes through a two-step quality-testing process. The first test measures the optical and physical quality of the filter; the second measures the quality of the filter’s specific function. In addition, a regular cosmetic test is also performed on all lenses before they hit the market. No matter what rigorous testing procedures the manufacturers put their products through, proper cleaning and storage techniques are imperative to keep your filters in top-notch condition,
Most filters come packaged in plastic cases when you buy them. These provide a great storage method. But if your filter collection is expanding, consider a storage method that holds more than one filter. Tiffen’s Pro-tective 6 Filter Organizer is an option. This water-resistant pouch holds filters (or game cartridges and computer disks) up to 82mm, and runs just $19. Two- and four-filter pouches are also available for just $7 and $15, respectively.
Avoid throwing loose filters into your camcorder bag or your jacket pocket. While this a quick to way to accommodate your busy schedule, you’re sure to end up scratching your filters, rendering them useless. Slow down and package them right.
Kanaris agrees. "I keep my filters in the storage containers they came in, and put them back in as soon as I’m done using them."
Just as important as how you store your filters is how you clean them. Always use a soft cloth or tissue specifically designed for filter or camera-accessory cleaning.
Markertek Video Supply sells a variety of cleaning products, including wipes, brushes and cleaning fluids. Microwipes are 5-by-8-inch lintless cleaning wipes that come in boxes of 240 for just $4. Blower brushes, which safely brush and clean lenses and other glass surfaces, come in small, medium and large sizes, starting at $5.
Filters are a super way to improve or enhance your video productions. But before you get carried away, remember that filters alter the image you see in your camcorder’s viewfinder. This means there are some important factors to keep in mind before you attach one to your lens.
Two crucial elements to remember every time you shoot are white balance and image distortion.
Some camera systems require that you manually adjust your white balance (your camera’s sensitivity to primary colors) after you’ve attached your lens filter. How much adjusting you’ll need to do depends on what kinds of filters you’re using.
According to Treban, having to manually adjust the white balance shouldn’t discourage videographers from using filters.
"Sure, it’s an extra step to think about before you start shooting," he said, "…but the results are worth it."
The next factor to consider is multiple filters and image distortion. Every additional filter you attach to the lens reduces the intensity of light that reaches your camcorder and adds distortion to the recorded image. Experiment with various combinations of filters when you’re shooting, and purchase the best filters you can afford.
Ready, Set, Go!
Purchasing a lens filter is an easy, relatively inexpensive way to alter or enhance your video productions. Whether you want to add complex-looking special effects to your shots, or are simply trying to keep your camcorder’s lens in top-notch condition, there’s likely a filter to fit your needs.
Here, we’ve surveyed the filter category for you, told you what effects to expect with each type, and even given you tried-and-true advice from videographers who are using them. The only thing left for you to do is experiment.
There’s no excuse for "so-so" looking video anymore. Pick up a lens filter and add some variety to your productions.
So, what are you waiting for? Isn’t there a sky waiting for you to turn it blue?
Alice Greany is Videomaker‘s editorial assistant.
Lens Filter Manufacturers
101 Williams Dr.
Ramsey, NJ 07446
52 Harbor View
Stamford, CT 06902
195 Carter Dr.
Edison, NJ 08817
285 Oser Ave.
Hauppauge, NY 11788
90 Oser Ave.
Hauppauge, NY 11788