Ultimate Guide to Lens Filters

The photography market is cluttered with numerous brands of camera filters, many of which are useless and made with cheap materials that often ruin your images. In contrast, others can damage your expensive camera lenses.

In this article, I focus on the best filters money can buy that can add value to your photography, why you need them, and filters that can improve your creative photography skills.

The filters I’ve listed below are what I use and carry around with me on every photography project ranging from landscape, architecture, still life, portraiture, product and seascape photography.

Polarising Filter

Polarising filters can increase colour saturation and decrease reflections — and are one of the only lens filters which cannot be replicated using digital photo editing. They are an indispensable tool that should be in every photographer’s camera bag.

I use the LEE 100 system polariser because it’s simple, easy to use and gives me more flexibility. In addition, I can apply a graduated neutral density filter to increase my dynamic range and darken high-lit areas in my image, thus making for a more evenly-balanced image in sunny locations.

When to use

Polarising filters are best used during hazy and sunny conditions to reduce reflections and haze in landscapes, lakes, rivers, oceans and densely populated cities. Polarisers can also be used in food and portraiture photography to reduce glare and reflections on glasses, windows, watches, etc.

When not to use

I don’t use the polariser in wet conditions or when the sun sets because the filter can dampen red, orange and yellow light that hits objects such as rocks. In addition, I do not use the polariser in low light conditions because it can force me to increase my ISO and shutter speed, thus increasing noise in the image.

It’s also important to note that there are two types of polarising filters on the market: a CPL or (Circular Polarizing Filter) and an LPF or (Linear Polarising Filter). However, what’s the difference between them?

The short answer is that Linear and Circular Polarizers do the same thing. The actual polarisation effects, such as reducing reflections on glass surfaces, increasing colour saturation in foliage, and darkening a blue sky, are the same with both Linear and Circular polarisers.

Circular Polarizers contain a Linear Polarizer component that does the main work of polarisation, as well as a second layer inside the filter called a Quarter Wave Plate, which “spins” the light after it goes through the linear layer and before it enters the camera lens.

The main problem that the circular polariser addresses are cross-polarization on your reflective surfaces, such as mirrors and beam splitters. Reflective surfaces polarise light . . . which is why a polariser can reduce or eliminate those reflections.  If you have a mirror or other reflective surface inside your camera, a linear polarizer can cross-polarise the reflected image and possibly black out the image. 

Therefore, it is best to choose a CPL if you’re using a modern camera such as a full-frame DSLR. However, if you’re using an old DSLR, you may need to use an LPF, but you may end up with blacked-out images.

Credit: LEE Filters

Graduated Density Filters

A Graduated ND Filter (or GND) is a partially darkened filter you place in front of your lens to increase the dynamic range. It’s similar to a Neutral Density filter, but the main difference is that only the upper parts are darkened, while the bottom is entirely transparent.

I use LEE graduated ND filters because they’re practical and easy to install into the filter holder in coastal and mountainous terrain. In addition, when installed into the filter holder, you can easily rotate or move the filter plate up and down into the desired position.

It’s also worth noting that the 0.6 filter provides an extra two stops of light, while the 0.9 filter offers an additional three stops of light.

When to use

When not to use

Graduated ND Filters aren’t ideal when there are elements (such as mountains, trees or buildings) that project above the horizon. Remember that its purpose is to darken parts of the image to create a well-balanced image, i.e. an overexposed sky.

Credit: LEE Filters

Neutral Density Filters

A neutral density filter is a photographic filter that reduces the amount of light that strikes the sensor by a specific amount and causes no change in the colour of the photographic image. That said, cheap ND filters may cause slight colour cast imperfections.

There will be times when you need to capture scenes that are too bright for the camera. In these situations, neutral density (ND) filters come into play.

I use a combination of HOYA and LEE neutral density filters for landscape, portraiture, seascape and architectural photography. However, ND filters are also excellent for abstract photography and long exposure. I love using ND filters when shooting traffic to create a long exposure effect of moving light.

When to use

The type of ND filter you will need depends on the project you’re working on. For landscape photography, you can use an ND filter to smoothen bodies of water through long exposures (as seen in the image below). It’s also perfect for creating wispy clouds or even dreamlike forests.

Source: J J Williamson | Credit: J J Williamson | Hoya Pro 10 ND Filter (Greyscale)

In portraiture, an ND filter would allow you to shoot with a wide aperture even in the middle of the day. That way, you don’t have to end up with images with ugly highlights.

And for architecture photography, you can use it to “erase” people in the scene. Since people move around, they won’t appear in your photos if you do long exposures.

You can use an ND filter to create motion blur in abstract photography. In addition, you can use an ND filter to open up your lens to a wider aperture and reduce the depth of field and a blurry background.

You can also use an ND filter to slow your shutter speed enough to synchronise the shutter opening with a flash in brightly lit situations.

As a general guide, I take the filters (listed below) on every project outdoors when shooting in flat light and high sun:

  • Hoya Pro ND8 will reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor by three stops. The ND8 is helpful for portraiture and most landscape and seascape shots.
  • Hoya Pro ND64 will reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor by six stops. The ND64 is suitable for bright conditions when shooting in the desert, oceans and most landscape scenes. Like the ND8, the ND64 will maintain some texture in the clouds, water and moving foliage.
  • Hoya Pro ND200 will reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor by 7 2/3 stops and is ideal for shooting dramatic scenes in bright light. I’ve found the Pro-ND200 is excellent for most seascape and landscape scenes. In addition, I’ve found this filter valuable for shooting cityscape scenes overlooking lakes and rivers with wispy clouds in the sky. The Pro-ND200 provides a more abstract look to moving clouds and helps smoothen out moving water.
  • Hoya Pro ND1000 is ideal for exceptionally bright conditions and will reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor by ten stops. The Hoya ND10 gives you a broad scope to create incredible images using slow shutter speeds or wide apertures. The disadvantage of using the ND10 is that most detail and texture will be smoothed out in cloudy and water scenes.
  • LEE Super Stopper will reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor by fifteen stops and is ideal for exceptionally bright conditions. A 15-stop solid ND filter allows you to utilise a larger aperture than average. So, you can open the aperture up a few more stops rather than shooting at f/22 to limit as much light as possible. The 15-stop ND filter will smooth out all water and cloud conditions providing a deeper yet sharper image. However, it should be used with caution, especially in competitive photography.
Credit: Gary Gough Photography

When not to use

ND filters are designed to reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor in bright conditions. Therefore it would be foolish to use one in dark or twilight conditions.

Credit: The School of Photography

Colour Filters

Colour filters are exactly what they sound like; a piece of coloured glass you place in front of the camera’s lens. 

Credit: Photo Joseph

Colour filters change how the camera sees the light, and the effect depends on the filter’s colour. Coloured filters can also come in a graduated format, which means half the filter is coloured, gradually becoming clear on the other half. Graduated filters are commonly used to apply the filter effect to the sky but not the rest of the scene in landscape or outdoor portrait photography.

When to use

Colour filters can be used on most photography projects. Colour filters help the photographer get their image right in-camera, thus reducing the need to over-process or add filters and colour adjustments in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

Colour filters are also suitable for learning about photography and how the camera interprets light. Yes, you can get that effect digitally, but do you know how the camera interprets light with a one-click result?

When shooting images that will all need the same filter, it’s easier to screw a filter into the lens than to open each file in Photoshop or wait for a batch edit to complete.

Graduated colour filters are harder to mimic in Photoshop. They can still be applied in post-processing, but since they take more steps, it’s often easier to use a graduated colour filter to enhance a sunset, for example.

Professional black and white photographers often prefer colour filters because photo-editing software doesn’t always offer the same result, and they help reduce over-editing said images.

Black and white photographers prefer to use red, orange, yellow, green or blue colour filters.

In landscape black and white photography, a red filter will turn a blue sky almost black and make clouds stand out, giving the scene a dramatic feel. They’re also excellent for increasing visibility in haze and fog.

Source: Flickr | Credit: Claudio Matsuoka

When shooting plants, they help increase the definition between flowers and foliage. This is particularly useful when shooting red flowers, as they have a similar tone to the surrounding leaves.

Red filters produce such an extreme effect that they can make your photo look like it’s been shot through an infrared filter. This makes them a popular, cheaper alternative to actual infrared photography.

An orange filter provides a dramatic effect during golden hour photography when shooting landscapes in black and white.

When not to use

As a general guide, I don’t use any colour filters when the environmental conditions are perfect or when I can correct the hues, tones and white balance by using my in-camera settings.

Colour filters can be helpful during landscape photography; however, it’s wise to use a graduated colour filter if you’re photographing in colour. A graduated colour filter can be adjusted to enhance sunrises, sunsets, foregrounds, dusty coloured mountains, autumn scenes etc.

Colour filters that are not graduated are typically used for black and white, product, home and portraiture photography to enhance or warm a scene the photographer is shooting.


If you’re looking at investing in colour or graduated colour filters, avoid cheap filter sets or second-hand filters with cosmetic scratches. Cheap colour filters will ruin your photography. The prices for a good quality colour filter typically start at around £110-£130 each for specialist filters. However, individual LEE colour effects filters are cheaper at about £50.

Credit: Leica Camera Australia

Soft Focus and Effects Filters

Soft focusing and effects filters are specialist filters for photographers that wish to add more drama, mood or dynamic range to their subject. In addition, soft focus and effects filters are great tools for competitive photographers and photographers not adept at using Lightroom or Photoshop.

LEE do a set of specialist soft focus and effects filters, commonly known as ‘specialist filters‘, that range from net filters, fog and mist filters, low contrast filters, star filters, selective star filters, mist set and nest set filters.

When to use

Firstly, it’s important to note that a soft focus can be achieved in-camera using a specialist high aperture prime lens. However, it may not provide you with the soft focus you want. Secondly, a soft-focus effect can be achieved in post-process if you have the know-how.

Regarding special effects, these too can be achieved in-camera using a variety of camera and photography tricks; for example, smearing Vaseline on your expensive camera lens gives the illusion you’ve shot your subject in fog or mist. However, it can also ruin your camera lens too.

Credit: LEE Filters
  • Net filters are great for soft focusing effects. I use the LEE net filter to create a softer focus on flowers such as tulips, roses, peonies, daffodils, etc.
  • Fog and mist filters are essential filters, in my opinion, for overcast days when everyday landscape photography can be challenging. I like to find myself an old boat or jetty and use the mist or fog filter to create a colour or black and white mist or foggy scene. In addition, I have also used the LEE mist and fog filters to create a dreamy, hazy effect that “blooms” the lighting indoors and outside. The LEE mist filter can also help with blurring out foreground distractions too.
  • Low contrast filters help to evenly spread the light over the entire scene. Some photographers and cinemaphotographers use the low contrast filter to reduce the appearance of subject contrast and soften highlights.
  • Star filters are excellent for landscape, seascape, city and portrait photography. They create multiple points of light or stars streaking outward from a central light source. This can make lighting within the scene take on a more glittering, glamorous appearance. However, they should be used with caution in competitive photography to avoid the viewer’s eye being distracted from the main focal feature.
  • Selective star filters, when carefully positioned, introduce a star pattern into the highlight areas of the photograph and are excellent filters for golden hour and night-time photography.
Credit: LEE Filters

LEE also sells various colour and warming effect filters that enhance and warm the scenes of blue skies, sunsets, sunrises, autumn glows, and dusty moody mountains. However, I prefer to use the in-camera white balance and hue settings, of which any additional touch-ups can be made in post-process.

When not to use

Soft focus and effects filters are designed for specialist effect and competitive photography.

In my opinion, I would use the soft-focus filter wisely when photographing female subjects because it can lead to a plastic skin appearance which is not very attractive in female portraiture.

Fog and mist filters are great tools for low light conditions; however, I’ve found them to be more of a hindrance in bright conditions.

Solar Filter

A solar filter is a specially produced filter, or pieces of film material, that are highly effective. They only allow a small amount of light through, ensuring safe viewing at high magnification.

When to use

You must use a bona fide solar filter when viewing or photographing the partial phases of a solar eclipse or the maximum phase of an annular eclipse. Even if the moon covers 99% of the sun, the remaining 1% crescent is dangerous to view with the naked eye and can cause severe eye damage or blindness.

Credit: Keele Photography

The ONLY time the filter is not needed is when the sun is completely obscured by the moon during the totality portion of a total solar eclipse. Several online tutorials mention using a neutral density filter or stacking neutral density (ND) filters. However, this advice is wrong.

A neutral density filter allows a photographer to control an image’s exposure easily. The filter stops “a certain amount of light” from reaching the camera sensor, allowing us to leave the camera with a higher aperture for longer.

The primary concern with using ND filters instead of solar filters is not the difference in the amount of visible light reaching the camera. It is in the amount of invisible UV light and IR light reaching the camera when standard ND filters are used.

Infrared is particularly dangerous as your retinas have no pain receptors or other nerves that detect heat. You can literally ‘cook’ your retinas by looking at the sun through a high-power lens and not feel the first twinge of pain!

So the absolute first rule is: Never look directly at the sun through the viewfinder unless a proper SOLAR filter is in front of the lens.

In addition, if the sensor on your camera is exposed to too much solar light and the sun’s rays hit the ND or stacked NDs at a certain angle, it could result in your camera sensor being fried.

Telescopes, binoculars, and cameras need solar filters for two reasons: to protect them from intense sunlight and to ensure that you don’t accidentally look at the sun through an unfiltered instrument. In every case, the solar filter must be attached to the front of your telescope, binoculars, or camera lens.

  • Lee 100 gradient solar eclipse filter is designed exclusively for white light solar photography. Achieving correct exposure when photographing a solar eclipse is almost impossible without this filter – used correctly, the filter allows you to gain perfect exposure. Please note that this filter is NOT for visual solar observation.
  • Seymour solar filter features an aluminium cell with the Seymour Solar black polymer thin film. This is a great cheaper alternative to the glass ones. These films are in the same cell, so they also have the nylon thumb screw for added security. The Seymour solar filter is suitable for telescope viewing only.
Credit: PhotoPills

When not to use

Remove the solar filter when the sun is completely obscured by the moon during the totality portion of a total solar eclipse.


When researching or reading about solar filters, do so from reputable sources and camera manufacturers. Avoid ND filters and DIY solar eclipse kits that have not been tried and tested on your camera or lenses. Authentic and certified solar filters usually are priced at just over £100-£400, depending on what material you need and thread size.

Check the weather conditions before investing and using a solar filter. There have been times when I could not use my solar filter because there was too much cloud.

However, if the weather forecast predicts broken clouds during a solar eclipse, it would be wise to take the solar filter and be prepared to use it at a moment’s notice.


The market is cluttered with numerous brands of camera filters, many of which are ineffective and a waste of money. However, as I have documented above, multiple brands on the market are valuable to hobbyists and professional photographers.

In addition, throughout your photography career, you will come across numerous photographers’ articles that claim all camera filters are useless and a waste of money. These photographers are usually Adobe Kings and Queens who prefer to create images in Photoshop and Lightroom in front of their PCs. This defeats the objective of photography.

Purchasing a filter for your camera is a great way to add features, enable more creative photography, or improve the look of your images. Buying from somewhere like eBay may seem like a great idea due to the potential to save money. However, you may regret it.

eBay is home to many brands of camera filters. However, the vast majority are second-hand that have been cleaned up and sold on as new, while others are factory rejects that have been picked up by overseas traders and sold for a total price.

In addition, many fakes on eBay and other online shopping sites are often tricky to spot. I’ve purchased and sent back five fake HOYA filters and a few LEE filters in the last ten years. So, my advice here is to always buy from a reputable trader or someone you know and trust.

The online market is also cluttered with numerous brands of generic filters, of which the makers claim their filters do the same thing as their rivals. Generic filters are just as bad as fakes, used and second-hand filters and should be avoided at all costs.

Filters help minimise glare and reflections, enhance colours, reduce the light coming into the lens, and more. Each lens filter serves a specific purpose, as each one is built to deliver a particular effect that can help enhance the final look of an image.

Filters are relatively inexpensive as far as camera gear goes, but if you don’t know the right ones to buy for your needs or how to use them to improve your photos, you may waste your money. Therefore I encourage all budding young photographers and professionals to join a reputable photography organisation or club where you’ll gain more knowledge on how to use camera filters.

Thank you for reading.

Published by J. J. Williamson

Prints, frames, stock images and portrait services.

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