Why You (Probably) Don't Need Filters
When I post my pictures on social media I always make sure to read and respond to everyone's commentary. I love hearing compliments and questions from my followers and I feel the responsibility to always engage with them as if we were in a physical gallery. It just wouldn’t make sense to ignore people.
One of the most common questions I see on everyone’s work is “did you use a filter?” If it is in regard to my work, my response is almost always the same: “no.”
There are a ton of different kinds of filters, ND filters, graduated filters, polarizing filters, etc. and they all have different uses for different situations. I understand why people would use them, and I don’t think they are pointless or useless by any means. But I have several reasons why I choose not to use them in my own work.
Reason 1: Glass
One of the biggest factors of image quality is the lens you are using, even more so than your camera body. The type of glass you have in your lens can affect color, distortion, light, lens flare, and most importantly, sharpness. Put a crappy lens on an amazing 60MP camera and you will still come out with a crappy image. This is why I believe it is more important to invest in your glass than your camera bodies. You can usually tell what kind of quality a lens has by its price, meaning you will never find a lens with amazing glass for dirt cheap. There are many different grades of lenses; the base lenses or kit lenses, mid range lenses, and professional lenses. While you can create great work with any lens, the professional range of lenses will always produce superior images than the low range lenses. So, if you are investing several thousands of dollars in some great glass, why stick a filter in front of it and potentially rob your images of their quality?
Reason 2: Exposure
I usually get asked “what kind of filter did you use” on my images of water. People think that the only way you can shoot a long exposure image without it being over exposed is if you have a filter in front of your glass. It is very true, if you have a dark, ND filter in front of your lens, it will allow you to expose for a longer time than without it. But there are other things you can do in order to compensate for the light in your scene and still get a dreamy look by using a slower shutter speed.
1. Use shorter exposure times. You most likely don’t need to expose for very long in order to get the look you want. When I am shooting seascapes I rarely shoot slower than half a second. This is plenty slow in order to capture the tide with some dreamy drag. When I shoot waterfalls, anything longer than a few seconds and the water begins to lose all texture and become a white blob.
When shooting this image, 1/10 of a second was plenty long enough to give the waves this surreal, blurred look, giving us the feeling that the water is moving.
2. Keep your ISO low. In landscape, I rarely shoot above ISO 100 unless I am shooting something handheld or astrophotography. A lot of cameras have settings you can switch so that you can go even lower than 100 ISO. My Canon 6D and Sony a7s can both go to “Lo” or ISO 50 for example. This will allow you to expose for longer periods of time.
In this image, even though I was shooting directly into the sun, lowering my ISO to 50 allowed me to lengthen the shutter to 1/4" which made these nice textures in the waves.
3. Shoot in better lighting. The only times I would ever need a filter to do a long exposure would be when the lighting was bad anyways. In most circumstances, harsh, mid day light wont look good whether you do a long exposure or not. Just like any type of scene, wait until the lighting is less harsh and you can get better colors and contrast. A lot of waterfalls that I have shot, have been completely shaded anyways, so I have been able to shoot them mid day no problem. Just work around the sun like you always should and you will be able to do long exposures at any location.
Shooting this image early in the morning kept the water from getting direct sunlight, allowing me to slow the shutter down however much I pleased. I ended up settling on 1/4" to get this look that I liked in the ripples.
4. Keep your aperture narrow. If you are shooting landscapes, a greater depth of field and sharp scene looks best. I never shoot wider than f/11 unless lighting requires it. If f/11 is still too bright, don’t be scared to close your aperture more, even down to f/22. Yes you will get some diffraction at f/22 and it won't be as sharp as f/11, but it will still most likely be sharper than if you are shooting through a filter.
For this composition I was shooting directly into intense sunlight that was coming into the scene. I found the perfect shutter speed was at 1/6" to capture this water movement, so I closed my aperture all the way to f/22 in order for it to be dark enough.
5. Learn how to bracket. If you learn how to shoot and blend multiple exposures while processing, you can evenly expose your scenes and save highlight and shadow details. A lot of times the perfect exposure time for the water in my foreground will blow out the sky, in this situation I would shoot the sky at a darker, faster exposure and then blend them together in post. This will give you more options when shooting as it will allow you to shoot directly into the light and have more dynamic photos that will resemble the scene closer to how it looked through your eyes. This is also a better solution than a graduated filter when trying to expose both the foreground and the sky properly. If you have anything sticking up and above the horizon, the top part of it will be dark and will look unnatural. While some people are absolutely opposed to blending multiple exposures, it is arguably the most natural looking way to capture an image.
For this scene I shot two separate exposures and blended them together in Photoshop. One exposed for the sky, and one exposed for the water. This allowed me to capture the water movement exactly how I wanted at f/11 with my exposure at 1/10".
Reason 3: $$$
You will save yourself money, space, and hassle. It’s one less thing to worry about while shooting and you can spend those several hundred dollars on a better lens or on more batteries or something. For me it just seems plain easier to not have to use filters and worry about one more thing breaking, getting stolen, or scratched.
After all of this being said, you can still argue with me and say there are certain situations where you would absolutely need a filter, I agree, I am not trying to say they are completely pointless, I am just trying to explain that there are a lot of solutions and that most of the time when you think you would need one, you actually don’t.