- Polarizing filters reduce glare off of water and other non-metallic surfaces. They also boost contrast in the sky and minimize atmospheric haze.
- Graduated neutral density filters are dark on top and light on bottom, which helps even out the exposure between a bright sky and a dark landscape.
- Reverse graduated neutral density filters are designed specifically for use at sunset, in which the brightest part of the sky is along the horizon, and therefore, the darkest part of the filter is in the middle. These photo filters have the same effect as a normal graduated ND - they even out the exposure of the scene.
- Solid neutral density filters have the same level of light-stopping power throughout. These photo filters are used to block light such that you can extend the shutter speed for long exposure photos during the daytime.
- Expose for the sky, which renders the landscape very, very dark.
- Expose for the landscape, which renders the sky very, very bright.
- Soft-edge ND grads have a very gradual transition from the dark top to the light bottom. These are best for landscapes that don’t have a definite horizon.
- Hard-edge ND grads have a very abrupt transition from dark to light. These are most appropriate for landscapes with a very clear, flat horizon.
- Reverse ND grads have the darkest filtration in the middle, and it gradually lightens as you move up (though the upper part is still darkened). The bottom of the filter is clear. These photo filters are specifically designed for taking photos at sunrise and sunset, as shown in the chart below:
If you don’t have a lot of time behind the lens, you might not fully understand why filters are needed for landscape photography.
After all, in some cases, their effect can be very subtle. Besides, you can just Photoshop the image to get the same effect, right?
In this guide to photo filters for landscape photography, you’ll be introduced to various types of filters and explore the positive effects they can have on your shots. Let’s get started!
Editor’s Note: I’ve used many, many different landscape photo filters over the years, some good, some bad, and some just so-so. Currently, I’m using NiSi filters and holders, and have been blown away by their build quality, ease of use, and gorgeous results. As such, I use NiSi filters as examples throughout this article.
Camera Filters Help You Get the Good Light Needed for the Ideal Shot
photo by stock_colors via iStock
The whole basis of photography is light, and more to the point, good light.
Sure, you can be standing in front of a gorgeous landscape, but the landscape itself doesn’t make a great photo. Instead, the lighting that’s present in the scene will have a lot to do with the quality of the photo you create.
As I explain in an article I wrote about working with good light, defining “good light” is difficult because what’s good light for one landscape photography situation might not be good light for another landscape photography situation.
For example, a wintery mountain scene like the one above might benefit from soft, even, diffused lighting on a cloudy day because it enhances the cold, closed in feel of winter.
photo by 35007 via iStock
Meanwhile, the desert scene above, which has very fine details in the sand, might benefit more from strong sidelighting of the setting sun because that kind of light puts those small details front and center.
So, “good light” can depend on the landscape you find yourself photographing. It also depends on the time of day you’re shooting.
Traditionally, landscape photographers covet golden hour lighting - the hour or so after the sun has risen and the hour or so before the sun sets - because the light at that time of day is very soft and has beautiful warm tones.
photo by DieterMeyrl via iStock
But if you scout the locations you wish to shoot with light in mind, and if you’re armed with the appropriate photo filters for landscape photography, you can create photos that have much more visual appeal.
That is, don’t just look for a pretty landscape. Instead, consider where the sun will rise and set in relation to the subject. Think about how mid-day lighting will look as it falls across the landscape. Also consider how your positioning relates to the sun - is it to your left or right, above you, behind you, or in front of you?
All of these things will influence how good the light is, and in turn, will determine how good your landscape photography will be.
Types of Filters: Change the Light for Landscape Photography
photo by Sjo via iStock
There are numerous camera filters that you can use to improve the light in a landscape scene:
Let’s dive into each of these types of filters and how to use them.
What is a Polarizing Filter?
As noted above, the purpose of a polarizing filter is to “clean up” the light in a scene, for the lack of a better term.
Often, when tackling daytime landscape photography, you’ll find several issues that diminish the quality of the photo: glare (which you can see in the water above), haze (which can make distant landscape features look smoky), and a washed out sky. But a polarizing filter minimizes all of those.
Above, you can see an example of landscape photography without a polarizer. Compare that to the results below, in which a NiSi polarizer was in place.
As you can see, each of the three elements discussed above - glare, haze, and lack of contrast - have been corrected.
In other words, this photographer did precisely what we discussed above. They found a beautiful landscape, determined how the light interacted with the landscape, and they modified the light with a filter to get a much-improved shot. (Note that the image above was taken with a polarizer and a solid neutral density filter together, which is why you see the nice, blurry water.)
You can read my polarizing filter tutorial for detailed information about how to use them and how they can improve your landscape photography. For our purposes here, looking at the before and after shots above should be enough to convince you to learn more about using a polarizer!
What is a Graduated Neutral Density Filter?
When photographing a landscape, the sky is often very bright and the landscape itself is often much darker. This dynamic range can cause issues with your camera, which might do one of two things:
To get around this issue, you can use a graduated neutral density filter - which, as you can see above, is dark on the top to block out some of the light from the sky - to modify the light and get an even exposure throughout.
The effect of that can be quite striking. Compare the two images below to see what I mean.
Image Credit: Christian Hoiberg
Image Credit: Christian Hoiberg. With NiSi Medium Nano IR GND 8(0.9) F10, ISO100, 1/30s.
With a NiSi graduated neutral density filter attached, the image has a much more dramatic sky. Instead of being overexposed, the sky is now deep and rich with color and contrast.
Note that there are different types of graduated neutral density filters for different types of landscapes:
There is also something called a horizon filter, which is like a reverse ND grad in that its darkest area is in the middle, as shown below.
However, unlike a reverse ND grad, a horizon filter fades as you move up and as you move down. This photo filter is best suited for shots in which the sun is right on the horizon.
With so many different types of graduated neutral density filters, it’s understandable if you’re a little overwhelmed and confused by all the options.
What is a Solid Neutral Density Filter?
As alluded to earlier, a solid neutral density filter has the same filtering power throughout (as shown above), and the effect of that is that you can slow down time to capture movement in a landscape.
The need for solid ND filters arises from the fact that when shooting during the daytime, the long shutter speeds required to blur the motion of things like clouds and water would result in an impossibly overexposed image.
However, with a solid ND filter in place, you can extend the shutter speed to seconds or even minutes long, depending on the strength of the photo filter, and get all the movement you want without having an overexposed photo.
Image credit: 半岛魔镜. Taken with NiSi IR ND 1000(3.0) F11, ISO200, 30s.
Whether you want to photograph rivers or streams, waterfalls or the ocean tide, a neutral density filter is the answer.
Above, you can see how a NiSi IR ND 1000 filter helped create gorgeous blur in the ocean water.
When using one of these photo filters, you get a shot with a dreamy, ethereal look that would otherwise be impossible to achieve without a solid ND filter.
Using these filters is much easier than it might seem, and involves a basic five-step process for success. I walk you through this process step-by-step in this how-to guide for solid ND filters.
The same goes for the other photo filters discussed in this article. Check the links throughout this article for additional resources for using photo filters to master landscape photography!