Sure, post-processing tools are more powerful today than ever before. And though there are plenty of filter presets in programs like Lightroom and Photoshop, there’s just something about the effect that real filters have on a landscape image that can’t quite be replicated in post.
The question is, what types of filters are best for landscape photography? Here are three types to consider.
Hands down, a polarizing filter is one of the most useful filters for a landscape photographer. Not only do polarizers filter out reflected light - such as light bouncing off the surface of water - but they can also enhance the blue tones of a sky. This is particularly useful in situations in which the sky is hazy from fog, smoke, mist, or smog.
Polarizing filters have their detriments, however. To get the best effect, you need to have the sun as close to a 90-degree angle from your shooting position as possible. Having the sun to your side at all times isn’t exactly doable. Furthermore, it’s possible to over-polarize an image. If you turn the filter too far, you’ll see dark splotches in the sky that totally ruin the scene.
Great for: Increasing vibrancy of the sky and minimizing reflections.
What to watch for: Over-polarizing the scene.
Graduated Neutral Density Filter
How often have you encountered a fantastic landscape, only to find that the landscape itself is too dark and the sky behind it is too bright? Quite often, most likely, especially if you’re shooting at sunrise or sunset.
With so much contrast in the scene, you’re forced to take multiple exposures - one exposed for the sky and another exposed for the landscape - for blending later on, lest you expose for one or the other and have an image in which half the scene is either under or overexposed. A graduated neutral density filter changes that.
Graduated neutral density filters reduce the dynamic range of high-contrast scenes. The filter darkens the sky, bringing down the highlights, and making it easier for your camera to get a well-exposed image throughout. The term “graduated” refers to the fact that these filters are dark on top, for the purposes of darkening the sky as noted above, and gradually get lighter towards the bottom, so the landscape itself is virtually unfiltered. Some filters have a hard edge, which is ideal for landscapes in which there is a definite horizon line. Others have a much more graduated area of transition for landscapes that have hills, trees, and other features that contribute to an uneven horizon.
Great for: Darkening skies so you can get a better exposed image throughout.
What to watch for: Using a hard-edged filter for landscapes that don’t have a definite horizon.
Neutral Density Filter
Unlike graduated neutral density filters, regular neutral density filters have the same level of light blockage throughout. These filters are used in daylight conditions when you need to slow down your shutter speed such that, without a filter, the image would be wildly overexposed.
A prime example of this is taking a long exposure photograph of a waterfall during the daytime. The shutter speed required to blur the motion of water is far too slow for daytime use. Often, the brightness of the sun prevents you from using other exposure settings - ISO and aperture - to minimize light reaching the sensor because the settings can’t limit that light enough. That’s where a neutral density filter comes in.
Great for: Daytime long exposure images.
What to watch for: Using the wrong power of filter - too light and the image will be overexposed; too dark and the image will be underexposed.
More on Filters
To get more insight into the value of these filters for landscape photography, have a look at the video below. In it, Brent Mail demonstrates the effects that each of the filters discussed above have on landscape photos.