My Favorite Filters
By Andrew Hudson Published: May 25, 2011 Updated: November 26, 2013
There used to be a time when I didn’t use filters. The purist in me thought it was cheating (and I hadn’t bought any). But now, as I try to create pre-imagined images that are colorful and atmospheric, I seem to be using filters more and more. Here are my choices:
If you don’t have a polarizer, stop reading this article and get one! I use a polarizer on almost every shot with a blue sky. Without a polarizer, blue skies appear a tepid, light blue on film; with a polarizer filter, they come out in a rich, deep color. The filter works by cutting out reflected glare and It’s also useful for water (lakes, ponds), window glass, and tree leaves. A polarizer is more expensive than most other filters but worth the investment.
Note that most autofocus cameras require a special type called a circular polarizer which, of course, is more expensive. There are also “warming polarizers” available, which lend a warm tint, but I prefer to use a warming filter separately. And there are colored polarizers, such as the blue/yellow, which are used to add distinct colors (see below).
Filters I carry: Tiffen Circular Polarizer, Cokin 164 Circular Polarizer.
Warming filters add a light brown tint to the image, to simulate the golden glow of the late afternoon sun. I use them all the time for warm, golden, magazine-style photos. There are generally three filters, named 81A, 81B and 81C. A is the lightest, B is medium, and C is the strongest. I recommend starting with 81B. Of the other two, I use the 81A more, particularly with foliage as it enhances the green of leaves and grass. Tiffen offers their 812 filter which is a warming filter good for skintones (i.e. portraits).
For the beginner, I would recommend starting with a polarizer and an 81B warming filter.
Filters I carry: Cokin 026 Warm 81A, Cokin 027 Warm 81B, Cokin 037 81C.
This is a magenta filter that I use for most dusk shots. It’s designed to color-correct flourescent (artificial) light for daylight film. On dusk shots, street lights and office lights appear green and cold, so use a light magenta filter to make these lights white and to add a nice pink/purple color to the sky.
Filters I carry: Tiffen FL-D, Cokin 035 FL-W, Cokin 046 FL-D.
This filters are almost clear and reduce blue haze caused by UV. They’re used mainly for protection — if you drop your lens, you might just damage the cheap filter instead of the expense lens. They also protect against dust, moisture and scratches.
Filters I carry: Hoya Skylight 1B.
Neutral Density (ND)
The advanced photographer sometimes wants to reduce the overall light level in a scene, often to attain a slower shutter speed or a wided depth-of-field. Waterfalls, for example, look more romantic with slower shutter speed so I might use a two-stop neutral density (".6 ND”) to “hold back” the light and get a nice long exposure. NDs are often available as .3 (1 stop), .6 (2 stop) and .9 (3 stops).
Graduated filters are useful for scenic landscapes, when you want to combine a bright sky with a shady foreground. To photograph some flowers recently, I used a 2-stop graduated neautral density filter to “hold back” (reduce the light level of) the sky to match the light level of the shady flowers. On dull, overcast days, I might use a graduated tobacco filter to add a moody brown color, or a graduated mauve or graduated blue to make the scene look sunnier.
The “reverse grad” has a band of gray in the center to reduce just the light on the horizon, but keep the top and bottom of the shot the same.
Filters I carry: Cokin 120 Gradual G1, Cokin 121 Gradual G2, Cokin 124 Graduated Tobacco, Cokin 127 Graduated Mauve M2, Cokin 151 Graduated Fog.
I occasionally use a sepia or a light-sepia filter with old buildings. It gives the image an old, weathered, brown look.
Filters I carry: Cokin 045 Sepia.
Those are most of the filters I use regularly. Here are some others that might also appeal to you:
Actually I haven’t used one of these yet but it sounds interesting. Scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows (waterfalls by trees for example) are difficult to photograph as the bright areas become overexposed white and the darker areas become black. This is particularly a problem with color slide film which has a very narrow dynamic range. A low contrast filter apparently spreads light from highlights to darker areas (but also mutes colors).
Another filter I haven’t used yet but that looks interesting. This is a warm/orange graduated filter that adds a light brown to the foreground and an orange to the sky, simulating or enhancing sunsets.
Filters I carry: Cokin 197 Sunset 1.
Photographers Daryl Benson and Dale Wilson rave about this filter (Cokin 173) which adds blue and/or yellow to the scene. They use it a lot, often with a graduated mauve or a light warming filter, for very colorful images.
Filters I carry: Cokin 173 Pola Blue-Yellow.
Color Enhancers (Didymium/Intensifier)
Another filter I don’t use but some people do. It increases the color saturation in a shot, particularly for red, which is useful for fall shots, red barns, red flowers, and the red rocks of Arizona/Utah. Howard Ross claims to have invented this type of filter and has a great description here.
Photographer Daryl Benson recommends Howard Ross’ filter.
Color Correcting (Compensating) Technically color reducers, these filters hold back some colors in favor of others. For example, a CC10G reduces all colors but green by 10%. This is useful for nature shots where you want to increase the power of green in foliage. These filters often come as “gels” (thin pieces of gelatin) which I place in a Cokin holder. The CC30R is often used for underwater photography to bring up the otherwise reduced reds. CC20M is a nice dusk filter, similar to the FL-D (above). CCs are generally available in primary colors — red, green, and blue — and printing colors — cyan, magenta, and yellow. 80 Blue The “80” range of filters offers degrees of blue for a cooling effect. I use the 80C to make snow scenes appear slightly blue, and thus colder. But, since I like my shots to look warm rather than cold, I very rarely use my 80C. Filters I carry: Cokin 022 Blue 80C.Diffuser/Mist/Fog/Soft There’s a variety of filters than “soften” an image by adding some foggy blur. They’re sometimes used for a still lake at sunrise, a small bridge, or a woman’s face. Most of my effort is spent trying to get sharp, crisp images, so I don’t use a fog filter.
You might want to consider using a filter system. The most popular is by Cokin and offers a square plastic frame to attach to the end of your lens, with slots to hold up to three of their square filters. The biggest question here is…
Cokin A or P?
Cokin offers two sizes of filters. “A” is the smaller size, recommended for amateurs as small means cheap. “P” is larger and recommended for professionals who use larger lenses. I understand that the quality is no different, just the size. I use the “A” system with my 35mm SLR camera and suggest you do the same as the filters are cheaper and easier to carry. Only if you get a lens with a big piece of glass on the front (e.g. a 28-200mm lens, a 600mm or larger lens, or a lens for a medium- or large-format camera) would you need the “P” series.
I put small labels on each of my Cokin filters, such as “Grad ND” or “81B Warm,” so that I know what they are. I keep my filters in a special Cokin box but Daryl Benson cleverly uses a CD pouch for his “P” size filters.
Copyright 1999–2007 Andrew Hudson for PhotoSecrets / Photo Tour Books, Inc. You may reproduce this article for personal, educational, non-commercial and non-Internet use, such as in a local photo club newsletter or school project. No Internet publishing is permitted. For commercial use, please email me for permission. This article was originally written for Shutterbug’s Outdoor and Nature Photography magazine, winter 1998. Tips | photography books | Email