Filters are some of the most transformational tools when it comes to creating possibilities in landscape photography. Aside from the intended exposure effects, there are some things you might need to learn about using them that will help you achieve better-quality images.
If you’re an experienced landscape photographer, the use of filters may already be obvious and second nature to you. Whether it be for doing long exposures to achieve visual effects, using filters to deal with glare and reflections, or balancing out a high-dynamic range scene, it is undeniable that filters help us turn our photographs into more refined and visually pleasing images. There are, however some things that we all should know when it comes to physically using filters that will help us avoid any unwanted effects, artifacts, or even just wasted time and effort in shooting.
1. Unnecessary Use of ND Filters
The first and best lesson to learn about using filters is how and when to use them. This pertains to not only knowing how to use the filters but more importantly, to be able to use them with artistic intent. There is a common tendency especially for people who have just started learning how to shoot long exposures with ND filters, to use them all the time and at any chance that they get. We have a tendency to be fixated on getting the exposure setting right and being able to get well-exposed images, that we might tend to forget that the purpose of ND filters is not exactly that. We shoot long exposures during the day to be able to use the motion of certain objects in the frame to achieve better visual design. ND filters come in handy because, with the abundance of light, we have to limit its entry into the sensor to be able to prolong the exposure enough for the motion to happen.
It is important to always check whether something is moving within the frame and if that particular motion would benefit the photograph visually. If not, shooting with longer exposures and even setting up your filters will just be a total waste of time and effort. Not all landscape photographs need filters and not all need to be done in long exposure. Knowing when they will be beneficial is important in planning your shot.
2. Stacking on a Filter Holder
There are a few things to consider when using multiple filters on a filter holder. Filter holders allow us to use multiple filters with better ergonomics and at the same time reduce the probability of getting a vignette that usually comes from physically having the rims of circular filters visible in the frame. One important aspect when it comes to stacking filters would be to try to limit the number of layers to use. Having too many filters could mean making it harder for auto-focus to work and at the same time, there is a general rule that each layer of filters will result in varying levels of degradation when it comes to image quality.
All of that aside, there is one important factor to consider when using filter holders that will help you avoid any unwanted reflections and flares on your images and that is to avoid leaving any unused slots in between filters. This is most important when photographing any strong and direct light source especially the rising or the setting sun. Flares result from light reflecting back and forth between glass layers and this includes both filters and the front glass element of your lens. Choosing a filter holder that minimizes the space between filters would be the best move to avoid this however if you already have a set of filters, making sure to occupy the slots closest to the lens would be the best practice.
3. Skipping Polarizers
Circular polarizers are possibly the most useful filters across all genres of photography. For landscape photographers, this is commonly known to be a useful filter when shooting reflections on bodies of water or to increase the contrast between a blue sky and clouds. However, when one understands how circular polarizers work, there is one benefit that is even more universally applicable that we should all take advantage of and that is how CPL filters manipulate glare.
In the same way that it manipulates reflections on bodies of water, polarizers also manage micro-reflections on other mildly reflective surfaces. Most commonly, this is when we photograph foliage or even just moist rocks in natural locations. By turning your polarizer and finding the right angle it can either intensify these micro-reflections or reduce them to add more detail and vibrance to the image. This is most applicable when photographing waterfalls but also applies to other landscape scenarios especially when shooting seascapes.
4. Unnecessary Uses of Graduated Neutral Density Filters
Graduated neutral density filters have always been handy tools in being able to deal with a wide dynamic range specifically in situations when the sky is way too bright to be able to expose the details of your foreground properly. With camera sensors being more and more capable, there are instances when GND filters can be considered unnecessary. In addition, exposure bracketing or sky replacement are also viable options. However, there are instances when the shot can only be done with one exposure especially when swift motion is involved. In these instances, it is always better to use a GND to have more assurance that the important details in your image can fit within the dynamic range that can be captured in a single shot.
For photographers who do use GND filters, something that we might overlook is over-using a GND. In instances wherein the difference between the brighter part of the frame (the sky) and the darker side of the frame (commonly the foreground) is not too far, using a denser filter might over-do the effect and make the sky way too dim to a point where the foreground becomes unnaturally brighter. There are of course some instances when this can happen specifically when the photographer is facing the opposite direction as the light source since your viewers would not be aware of such, you might want to double-check any irregularities. At the same time if your intention is really to achieve that effect then that should be no problem at all. But if the aim of your landscape photography is to illustrate the scene in a realistic manner then taking an extra few seconds to balance out your exposure should be good for you.
Filters have always been very useful tools for photographers, especially for landscape photographers who see potentially better images through exposure effects. However, using them does not always equate to better quality images especially if certain steps in using them are missed. Having the right set of filters that you know how to use properly will always be the key to a more successful shooting process.