What filters should I be using? It's one of the most frequent questions I hear from new photographers and students. For today's modern digital photographer I've got great news. You don't need nearly as many as we did in the age of film.
When I shot film I carried an array of filters: polarizers, UV protective, neutral density, graduated neutral density, warming and cooling. Now with the amazing dynamic-range and color flexibility of RAW digital files I only carry the first three. Let's look at each type of filter I currently carry: polarizers, UV filters, and neutral density.
The first filter I ever purchased was a circular polarizer and I haven't been without one since. They allow me to control surface reflections (either to accentuate or eliminate them), pop the color of blue skies and rainbows, accentuate the texture of clouds, even to improve drab colors in the middle of the day. I have friends who don't carry polarizers anymore, but I still feel they are totally essential in both my landscape and commercial work.
The two images above of Torres Del Paine in Chilean Patagonia were taken seconds apart and processed identically. The only difference is that I added my Hoya HD3 polarizer and turned it until the contrast in the sky increased while watching the image on my Nikon D810's live view. Whether I'm working to reduce reflections on glass, increase reflections on a lake, or bring out the color of vegetation in mid-day light, I invariably reach for my HD3 polarizer.
Why the HD3 Polarizer? The answer is simple. It's the best quality polarizer I've yet found. Hoya designed it specifically for the demands of today's ultra-high resolution camera sensors. All polarizers reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor, but the HD3 allows about 2/3rds of a stop more light to pass through than any other polarizer I've used. It's also sharper, more durable and less prone to flare and ghosting even when photographing directly into the sun than any other polarizer I've used.
UV Protective Filter
As photographers we spend a lot of money on our lenses. A high quality UV filter is the best way to protect that investment when we take those lenses into harms way. I spend much of my time working in extreme conditions. Blowing sand, dust, saltwater, sweat and sunscreen are extremely hard on a lens's elements and optical coatings.
Over the years I've gone back and forth on whether to use UV filters to protect my lenses. I've been known to say, "why put an inferior piece of glass in front of your expensive lens?" For years I avoided UV filters for fear of flare and reduced sharpness. I've also spent a lot of money replacing scratched front elements.
That changed last year when I tested Hoya's new HD3 UV filters using my Nikon D810 and a combination of Zeiss and Nikon pro lenses. I couldn't find a single instance where the filters caused any significant image degradation, even shooting directly into the sun. To my amazement they are dirt and smudge resistant and seem to be nearly scratch-proof. Much like an iPhone or topnotch Android phone's glass, I don't hesitate to wipe these filters with a T-shirt. Now I have one for every lens in my kit - well every lens with filter threads.
Neutral Density Filters
One of the most creative decisions we as photographers make is how much time to keep the shutter open. We can capture less than a thousandth of a second to freeze action or capture hours of stars turning in the night sky. I frequently use longer shutter speeds to smooth waves off the surface of lakes or coastlines and to blur the motion of waterfalls.
Neutral density ("ND") filters allow me to use long, creative shutter speeds in bright conditions without stopping the aperture of my lens way down. Most lenses are designed to operate best between the apertures of F8 and F11. Stopping a lens way down to allow for longer shutter speeds can introduce softness from diffraction. Think of ND filters as dark glasses for your camera. They come in varying densities (darkness). I like to carry 4-stop, 7 2/3-stop and sometimes even 10-stop ND filters. If I encounter a brightly lit scene that I want to photograph with a slow shutter speed, I set my camera up, flip to manual metering mode, select my lowest ISO setting, dial in the shutter speed and aperture settings I want to use, and then use the camera's meter to determine how much neutral density I need to add to get the exposure right.
Another application where I frequently use ND filters is video work. High quality video should be recorded at a fixed shutter speed that is slower than most daylight still images (usually between 1/28th and 1/60th of a second). ND filters are critical to maintain creative aperture control while creating high quality video, especially in daylight situations.
My ND filters of choice are Hoya's Pro ND filters. Why? They are optically superb and completely neutral. Many other filters that are labeled as neutral will create odd color casts. Trust me. I've learned this lesson the hard way.
Why No Graduated ND Filters?
I'm frequently asked why I no longer carry graduated ND filters to balance my exposure between shaded foreground scenes and brightly backlit sunsets. These rectangular slotted filters are half ND filter / half clear filter and can be moved up and down to adjust them to the shadow line in each scene. The problem is that nature rarely gives us straight lines to work with. I often retuned with detail in my foreground shadows, but blackly silhouette mountains and trees intruding into the background sky. Now with the extreme dynamic range possible in our modern sensors combined with nuanced composite processing techniques like these, my old graduated ND filters rarely come out of the bag. I only consider using them anymore for video in extreme backlight situations.
More About the Hoya Filters I Use
Learn more about the HD3 Filters: including an interview with me last summer on Mount Rainier.
Note: Last summer Hoya asked me to field test their new line of HD3 filters during my travels in Europe. I was so impressed with their quality and performance that I was an instant convert. Hoya helped sponsor my recent adventures in Patagonia (where I captured all the images on this page) and asked me to try out their Pro ND filters while there. They are fabulous. I'm very choosy about my sponsors; I refuse to promote a product I don't believe fully in. I want to thank Hoya both for producing such wonderful glass and for helping support my passion for travel and adventure photography.