Must-Have Filters for Landscape Photography

While I was photographing the beautiful scenery of the Glacier National Park at sunrise, I realized that some filters are pretty much required to get good results when photographing landscapes. While many photographers think that some of the built-in tools in Lightroom and Photoshop can simulate filter behavior, making filters redundant in the digital age, some filters in fact can never be simulated in software, while others help in getting even better results in post-processing. If you do not know what filters are and what they are used for, I highly recommend reading my “lens filters explained” article before you continue to read this one.

1) Polarizing Filter

B+W Circular Polarizing Filter

A polarizing filter is a must-have tool for landscape photography. It is typically the first filter landscape photographers buy to instantly improve their pictures and and add vividness and contrast to them. A polarizer can reduce reflections from objects such as water and glass and can be used to darken the sky, bring out the clouds and even reduce atmospheric haze, making the scene look much more vivid. For all normal lenses that have a filter thread in the front, you can get a circular polarizing filter, also known as a “circular polarizer”. A circular polarizer is very easy to use and once you attach it on the front of your lens, all you need to do is rotate it clockwise or counter-clockwise to get a different amount of polarization. Polarizing filters work by blocking certain light waves from entering the lens. Rotating a polarizer allows certain types of light waves to pass through, while blocking other ranges of light waves. Thus, you could turn a sky from light blue to very dark blue or increase/decrease reflections by simply rotating the filter.

The effect of polarization cannot be reproduced or simulated in post-processing, especially when dealing with natural reflections. Take a look at the below image:

Move mouse over to see with and without polarizer

Move the mouse over to see images with and without a polarizer. Note how different the images are – the one without a polarizing filter has reflections and lighter colors, while the one with a polarizing filter has more saturated colors and no reflections. This is just one example of what a polarizing filter can do. See my article on “how to use a polarizing filter” to see more image samples.

I have been using B+W Circular Polarizing Filters (cheaper version) for many years now, but have been recently using Singh-Ray Warming Circular Polarizing Filter for my landscape work. I find both to perform very well, although I must say that I prefer the Singh-Ray version, because it transmits more light, which is an advantage when shooting hand-held.

2) Neutral Density Filter

Singh-Ray Vari-ND Neutral Density Filter

You have probably already seen images of running water and waterfalls that look very smooth and dreamy/foggy. This look can only be accomplished when your camera is mounted on a tripod and the shutter speed is very slow. In daylight conditions, decreasing ISO and increasing the F-number does not typically lower the shutter speed enough. The only solution in those situations is to decrease the amount of light that enters the lens and that’s where a neutral density filter comes into play. Neutral density filters reduce the amount of light that enters the camera lens and thus decrease the shutter speed and increase exposure time. Just like a polarizing filter, the effect of a neutral density filter cannot be reproduced in post-processing. Here is a sample image of a waterfall that I captured with a neutral density filter:

Glacier NP #5

There are many different types of neutral density filters. Some transmit less light than others, defined in F stops. I have used a number of different filters in the past and I find Singh-Ray’s Vari-ND Filter to work the best, because you can change the amount of light that passes through the lens by rotating the filter. It is not a cheap filter though. If you are looking for a lower-cost alternative, the B+W 77mm 1.8 ND MRC Filter is a great alternative that I have used in the past.

3) Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Soft-Edge Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Graduated neutral density filters are necessary in those situations, where the sky is much brighter than the foreground/background. Because the size of the sky versus the foreground/background can change depending on the composition, most graduated neutral density filters are made in a rectangular shape. Therefore, these filters must be either used with a filter holder system, or must be held by hand in front of a lens. The advantage of using a filter holder is that you can stack multiple filters and you do not have to worry about alignment issues. The disadvantage of using a filter holder is that it can add vignetting, so you have to be careful when using wide-angle lenses with focal lengths below 35mm. Here is an image shot with a 2 stop (0.6) GND filter to darken the sky:

Nikon 40mm f/2.8 Sample #9

There are many different types of filter holders and I personally use Lee’s filter holder system – it works great on both full-frame and cropped-sensor bodies. As for filters, there are even more choices: soft-edge graduated neutral density filter, hard-edge graduated neutral density filter, reverse graduated neutral density filter, in various intensities from different manufacturers. If you are not sure which one to get, I would recommend to start off with a 3 stop (0.9) soft-edge graduated neutral density filter from Lee. I personally use that one a lot and it does a great job at reducing the light in a scene. A much cheaper filter holder system with filters is made by Cokin, which offers three different size systems: A, P and X-Pro/Z-Pro (from small to large). I would recommend to get at least the Cokin P filter holder, although I would never use anything less than Cokin X-Pro/Z-Pro on full-frame. Cokin makes great and affordable filter kits for both Cokin P and Cokin X-Pro/Z-Pro series.

Now here comes the big question – can the effect of a graduated neutral density filter be reproduced in post-processing. Yes and no, depending on the light intensity and whether you are employing any HDR/blending techniques. In situations where the sky is not completely blown out and you shot in RAW, you could use a neutral density filter in Lightroom and recover plenty of details – up to two full stops can be recovered in most cases. But what about situations where the sky is completely blown out? A lot of people claim that graduated neutral density filters are not needed even in those situations, because they can bracket their shots and get very good results with HDR and blending techniques. That’s true, but blending and HDR do not always work well, especially in windy conditions. And I personally try to stay away from HDR, because it is tough to get results that look very realistic. So my preference is to use filters rather than spend time in post-processing to try to recover blown out details. But everybody is different and I know that some photographers will disagree with me on this.


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Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Cirenk07

    Hi Nasim, I just bought singh-ray filters vario 77mm thin-n-trio and so far it works very good filters, one filter that I have not had the Graduated Neutral Density Filter, maybe I’ll try lee’s filter as you suggest, thank you .. . Btw, you have nice shoot ^ _ ^

    • Cirenk07, thank you for your feedback :) Yes, try out the GND filter – it will make a difference in high-contrast scenes.

  2. 2
    ) Kevin

    Hi Nasim, your site has quickly become my favorite because of articles like this one. I took up photography two years ago when my twins were born and you have helped greatly along the way, Thanks! In regards to the Singh-ray Vary-nd would there be any advantage of going with the thin mount version.

    • Kevin, thank you for your feedback! The thin mount version is supposed to have less vignetting on wide-angle lenses, because it does not have the front threads; you cannot mount a filter in front of it (not that you would want to). Because it has no filter threads, you cannot put your standard lens cap on it either and you would have to replace your lens cap with a “push cap”. Because of this inconvenience, I do not use thin filters…

      • 17
        ) Christian

        Dear Nasim,

        Do you observe much vignetting on wide-angle lenses with the “regular” mount version? Which is the widest focal length you can use without vignetting?

        Regards,
        Christian

  3. 5
    ) Callum

    Thanks for yet another great write up Nasim!

  4. 6
    ) Michael

    Hello Nasim,
    It is always very informative to read your reviews.
    Can you discuss the step up ring & its pros & cons.
    I have lenses at 77mm, 67mm & 58mm. Can I buy a 77mm Polarizer, ND and GND at 77 plus the step up ring to apply all?
    Michael.

    • Michael, absolutely! That’s the only right way to do it instead of having to buy filters of different sizes. Get 77mm filters and step-up rings from 58->77mm and 67->77mm and you will be set. There is no disadvantage to using a step-up filter, except make sure to buy a higher quality version – otherwise you might have issues dismounting the filter from the ring.

      • 27
        ) Benno Houver

        What brand of step-up ring are you suggesting that doesn’t have issue with dismounting the filter? thanks.

  5. 8
    ) lee

    Hi Nasim,

    Really enjoy reading you reviews and advise. Had a question. I have a 50mm f/1.4 and 70-200mm f/2.8. I shoot mostly my kids at home and their sporting events ( mostly daylight). Which filters would you recommend for these. Thanks for the help.

  6. 9
    ) Nahz

    Hi Nassim,

    Good insight review :) by the way, is there to differentiate for B+W and HOYA 77mm CPLs? I know they have big difference in pricing, but what is recommendable from your point of view?

  7. 10
    ) mohammad reza alvandi

    hi
    i want get graduated neutral density filter 4×5.65 in of b+w . can you help me , i get 2stop or 3stop soft- eage for landscape photography?

    • 11
      ) mohammad reza alvandi

      hi
      i want get graduated neutral density filter 4×5.65 in of b+w . can you help me , i get 2stop or 3stop soft- eage for landscape photography?

  8. 12
    ) Pohaku

    Hello Nasim,

    I’m very happy to find this website… THE most helpful instruction I’ve ever received fro an internet source, book, or individual…Thanks a million!

    I, too, question as the poster above…

    I just purchased a B+W CP filter….
    and I can only afford one other filter for budgetary reasons.

    For a “””new”””landscape photographer enthusiast on a budget
    what would you recommend.

    A 2-stop or 3-stop Soft-edged GND?

    I want to try and shoot before 10am in the mornings and in the afternoons no earlier than 3:30pm but still very contrasty conditions here in Hawaii .

    My plan is to screw-on my CPL filter and adjust/expose for the foreground [subject]
    and hand-hold a soft-edged GND filter…

    Thank you for help and advice!!!

    Pohaku8

  9. 13
    ) daniel

    Hi Nasim

    Thanks for your excellent advice. I’m consider getting a vari-nd or the vari-n-duo. I will be using it on dx with 24 1.4 and 85 1.4 mainly for travel. For portraits as well as landscapes. The people shots will be hand held, I believe the nd will help using the 1.4 lens wide open (say 2.0 to 1.4) in midday. Do you feel it is better to have the nd together with the polarizer ? My understanding is with the duo you can reduce the polarizer effect to zero. As always, I value your recommendations.

  10. 14
    ) Sudhir Kochhar

    Hi Nasim!

    Your articles provide an immense insight into all aspects of Photography, which is of great value to all photo enthusiasts. Thank you!

    I have a Nikon D90 with the following lenses; 105mm macro, 10:24mm wide, 18-200mm zoom, 80-400mm zoom; for Filters I have the B+W Kaesemann 77mm MRC circular Polarizing filter with a 77-72 step down ring. Is this configuration good enough for Macro, Nature, and, Wildlife ( including Birding ) Photography? If not, what other lenses and Filters would you recommend. Specifically, which model of Singh-Ray GND square or rectangular filter should I use, the specs of this filter confuse me and since I will be buying online I don’t want to make any errors. Also, which holders and adaptors do I need to use this particular filter on my lenses.

    Thank you very much!
    Regards,

    Sudhir Kochhar

  11. 15
    ) Arthur

    Nasim, I’m going to take a alpinism course in the Alps this summer, and I’m still in doubt wether I should use a polarizing filter (for the reasons you mention in this article), or a UV-filter anyway. There’s a lot more UV light higher up in the mountains than on water level, and that should disrupt the colours.

    What do you think? Or is that effect negligible and I can use a polarizing filter without problems?

  12. 16
    ) Jeff Hobson

    I wanted to know which Polarizer Filter you used in your photo example with the leaves before and after? Was that the B+W filter or the Warming Polarizer filter by singray? Incredible difference it made!!!!!! Thanks, Jeff

  13. 18
    ) Mayank Manu

    Dear All
    can any one tell what setting I should take to shoot fire work and lightning

    i have D5100 with 18-55 kit

    regards
    Mayank

  14. 19
    ) Madhukumar V

    Excellent article. Very helpful.
    So beautiful pictures

  15. 20
    ) Prajakt

    Hi Nasim,

    Thanks for such a wonderful article. It certainly helps a lot to newcomers to Photography arena.

    I have been using CPL in past and am getting good results out of it. Recently I have purchased ND filter ND8 (0.6) to create similar effect. After using this filter, the issue I am facing is the image is looking as if taken with sunglasses on (which is obvious due to ND), whereas in case of CPL the original colours and shades are retained as is. I tried by changing the white balance in post processing, but still unable to get similar results of colours as that of CPL. Is there any technique of doing it? I see many photos which are taken with ND but those photos look much natural coloured than one that I am getting. Can you please help here?

    Thanks in advance.

    Prajakt

    • Hi Prajakat,

      I guess you are from India?
      Which CPL are you using?

  16. 21
    ) Dipankar

    What would you recommend for a novice like me? Keeping in mind I use a Canon 1100D with a Sigma 18-250mm lens.

    What basic things should I be looking to buy? Currently, I am quite interested in portraits & landscape photogrpahy.

  17. 23
    ) Vicki

    I’m confused about Lee SW150 filters. I order one SW150 and it’s so big I’m thinking about sending it back. I do have the 14-24mm lens but there has to be a better way….? Anyone want to comment on my dilemma or should I just suck it up. You can’t really hand hold this monster and I think the holder is going to be just a time issue putting it on and off different lenses. HELP!!

    • 29
      ) Samatra Johnson

      You need to get a filter holder. It attached to the front of your lens and you slide the filter in it.

  18. 24
    ) Michael John Pappas

    Thank-you for your wonderful website. It has opened up a new world of learning for me about one of my favorite subjects – photography. I was a photo-journalist in the Army and took pictures of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. At the time I used a range-finder Leica and and a Nikon out in the field. I still have many of my old pictures from the war on slides but have transferred them to digital format. I enjoyed taking pictures of the Vietnamese people, especially the delightful faces of the children there.

    Here is my question regarding your article on the use of filters for landscape photography – can I combine filters together? Specifically, can I use both a polarizer and a neutral density or graduated neutral density filter together. What would be the best time to use both together if at all?

    Thanks for your feedback and once again, your website is magnificent!!!

    Michael John Pappas

  19. 25
    ) Julien Neron

    Hi, I’m currently using a nikon D200 with Nikkor 28-105mm.

    I’m looking into buying a ulta wide lens such as a Tokina 11-16mm to shoot landscapes as my nikon is not wide enough.

    Do you recommend a polarizing filter on the Tokina? If so, I’ve heard vignetting on non-slim filters, should I pick a B+W slim one? Or should I buy other filters such as GND or ND that will get better result on the Tokina?

    I’m little confused about those filters on a DX UW lens.

    Thank you.

    • 30
      ) Samatra Johnson

      No matter what brand lens you use you’ll still need the filters to get the best results. For a lens that wide I would definitely get the slim filter. Just rememberyou attack another filter on top of it.

  20. 26
    ) Benno Houver

    Hello Nasim and Photographylife.com team…

    this is far the best website I ever encountered. Very informative!

    Currently, I’m planning to buy two different ND filters, the normal one and the graduated one.
    As for the normal one, I’m still deciding which to buy, 1.8 or 3.0. My goal is to make nice movement of clouds and also milky and smooth water movements. In those cases, 3.0 is needed?

    As you said above, step-up ring should be used to avoid having filters for lenses with different sizes. I agree with that. As far I understand, graduated ND filter can be moved in circles like a CPL. How can you do that if having step-up ring?

    The last question, there are several colors for the dark part of graduated ND filter. Which one is worth buying?

    Thank you very much!

  21. 28
    ) Vipul Kapadia

    Hi Nasim/Lola/Romanas/John,
    I have been reading your article http://photographylife.com/must-have-filters-for-landscape-photography but not sure if I should get a circular polarizing or an ND filter. Can ND filter do what a circular polarizing filter does?

    I am also seeing some people talk about Fader ND filters and I am confused. http://shop.lightcraftworkshop.com/index.php?p=home Any help will be appreciated.
    Vipul.

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