While some photographers argue filters are unnecessary, given today’s powerful post-processing tools, they still play a valuable role nonetheless. And a lens filter helps photographers have more control over the quality and amount of light that reaches the sensor. So not only can the right filter save hours of unnecessary post-production. But, several of their effects remain unreplicable through editing alone. Namely, they enhance colors in difficult lighting situations while effectively improving dynamic range. And those effects genuinely improve the quality of the images you take in the field. So, despite the changing traditions, they’re very much relevant today.
But, there’s quite a bit of debate amongst which lens filters are truly valuable. And many debate whether investing in a “budget-friendly” option is even worthwhile, considering the potential adverse effects on image quality. Some of these arguments are justifiable. But, not all of them. There are also several misconceptions about filters that remain. And it can be hard to know which is best, their benefits, and what to consider. Especially since purchasing a filter isn’t about picking the cheapest one alone, as that generally reduces image quality. With that, we’ve compiled a guide to explain each of the primary filters available today. And we’ve also listed the best lens filters in their respective classes.
Jump to a Section
- Circular Polarizing Filter
- 1 – Breakthrough Photography X4 CPL
- 2 – Hoya HD3 CPL
- Neutral Density (ND) Filter
- 3 – Breakthrough Photography X4 ND
- 4 – Lee Filters Stopper
- Graduated Neutral Density (GND) Filter
- 5 – LEE Filters Hard Graduated ND
- 6 – Cokin NUANCES Extreme Graduated
- UV Filter
- 7 – Hoya HD3 UV
- 8 – Breakthrough Photography X4 UV
- What to look for in lens filters
- Lens Filters and Image Quality
Circular Polarizing Filter
The circular polarizer (CPL) filter is the first go-to of many photographers since they improve image quality in most situations. These filters consist of a thin polarizing film mounted or bonded between two layers of glass. And this design is here to remove polarized, reflected phase-aligned light. And you rotate a secondary ring to adjust the level of polarization, removing any polarized light entering the lens.
Doing so helps control reflections, haze, and glare from shiny, wet, or polished surfaces in the scene. And it increases the level of saturation and contrast to make elements pop. It also effectively improves the camera’s dynamic range in the process. Thus, these filters are a must when photographing landscapes, as they increase saturation in the skies making the clouds pop. They also make foliage appear more green and lifelike. They also remove surface-level reflections and specular highlights on the water so that you can photograph underneath the surface. The only time they’re not beneficial is when using wide-angle lenses, as they create varying shades across the frame and cause vignetting in the corners.
Overall, while this filter reduces incoming light, causing you to compensate with shutter speed or ISO, the results are not replicable in post-processing. So, it’s worthwhile. And they’re a must whenever there’s glare and atmospheric haze in a scene.
1 – Breakthrough Photography X4 CPL
Breakthrough Photography’s X4 CPL comes in 17 sizes ranging from 39mm to 112mm. This is a glass circular polarizer filter with a nanotec coating and MRC, a weather-sealed design, and a brass traction frame. Together, it delivers best-in-class durability. But, it’s also the world’s most color-neutral CPL filter. Breakthrough spent enormous energy refining the design over their X2 model to make the filter more color neutral. And now it offers a near-perfectly flat transmission curve. So gone is any yellow hues or color cast. And they also include a 25-year Ironclad Guarantee with purchase as a bonus.
2 – Hoya HD3 CPL
Hoya’s HD3 CPL comes in 9 sizes ranging from 49 to 82mm. And it’s a glass circular polarizer with nano and MRC coatings, a weather-sealed design, and a lightweight aluminum frame. But it’s now twice as hard and twice as sharp as their award-winning HD2 filter. Yet, it also sports a high-transparency polarizing film, which offers better light transmission than standard films and improved saturation and clarity. The result is that it’s fully certified to work with 100 MP cameras without any loss of resolution. And Hoya also includes a 5-year limited warranty with purchase as a bonus.
Neutral Density (ND) Filter
The neutral density filter is another go-to for many photographers, especially those shooting landscapes or long exposures.
Neutral density filters are dark-toned filters that uniformly block a specific amount of light from entering the lens. By doing so, you have more room to manage the exposure and avoid overexposures in bright scenes. You can find these filters ranging from 1/3 stop to 10 or more stop reductions. Or you can find them with a variable range, which you can adjust freely. Attaching this filter reduces the entire exposure by this value. Doing so lets you shoot longer than average shutter speeds, perfect for capturing long exposures during bright daylight and a must for videographers filming outdoors. They also make it possible to shoot at wide-open apertures during bright sunlight, making them a go-to for portrait photographers.
Overall, ND filters making capturing long-exposure photography feasible in any lighting condition. And they’re a must if you shoot outdoors in bright sunlight often.
3 – Breakthrough Photography X4 ND
The X4 ND is Breakthrough Photography’s most popular set. This ND filter is available in four densities ranging from 3-15 stops with 12 filter sizes from 43-150mm. Each filter uses a nanotec and MRC front element to reduce glare, improve contrast, and add protection against dirt and debris. And each filter uses a brass filter frame, adding durability. Yet, despite such a heavy density, they deliver outstanding performance. And they produce minimal vignettes, color cast, and excellent corner-to-corner sharpness. Breakthrough also includes their 25-year Ironclad warranty with purchase as a bonus.
4 – Lee Filters Stopper
The Stopper range is Lee’s most acclaimed release to date. This ND filter is available in three densities ranging from 6-15 stops and three filter sizes from 85-150mm. The Big stopper is their medium-strength option, providing a 10-stop reduction. And it uses a high-end resin construction, delivering outstanding corner-to-corner sharpness and durability. Lee also includes a companion app to calculate long exposures, removing the guesswork, and a protective poach as a bonus.
Graduated Neutral Density (GND) Filter
Graduated ND filters are a variant of ND filters. Instead of blocking all incoming light, these filters add a vertical gradient that selectively reduces the light across the length of the filter. Most of these filters are rectangular, so you can move them up or down as needed depending on the horizon. But, they do require filter holders. Even so, you can also find these filters with hard or soft gradual transitions. And they come in a wide range of densities ranging from 1-10 stops.
And they’re a go-to for landscape photographers, letting them reduce the bright sky, improving its contrast, without changing the exposure of the foreground. Doing so lets photographers balance the contrast in the scene. And it also lets them capture an HDR image with a better dynamic range in a single exposure.
Overall, while you can largely replicate this effect by bracketing exposures and altering the images in post-processing, these filters can save precious time in the field. And they generally make post-processing more efficient and easier. Depending on the exposure length, you can spend several minutes bracketing exposures. And every minute counts when you’ve hiked through difficult terrain to capture a fleeting sunset. But, admittingly, these filters only work when capturing even horizons. Uneven elements like buildings, trees, or mountains will get darkened too. So in such cases, bracketing the exposure will offer better results.
5 – LEE Filters Hard Graduated ND
Lee Filter’s Hard Graduated ND is one of their most popular series, especially for landscape photographers. This hard GND filter set offers three densities ranging from 1-3 stops and three sizes from 85-150mm. And each filter uses a high-end construction made of resin for durability and excellent clarity. They’re also rectangular in shape, so you can freely adjust where the gradient falls within the frame with precise control. But, the hard gradient blends seamlessly into the scene, and it’s ideal for landscapes with flat horizon lines. Lee also includes a carrying pouch to protect the filter when not in use as a bonus.
6 – Cokin NUANCES Extreme Graduated
Cokin’s Nuances Extreme Graduated ND filters are their high-end range of square filters. And these soft GND filters are available in three densities ranging from 2-4 stops and three sizes from 84-130mm. Each filter uses tempered glass, upping the durability fourfold over the previous series. And it also makes them entirely resistant to ghosting and flares and free from vignettes. They’re also rectangular in shape, so you can freely adjust the gradient as needed for more fine-tuned control. But, unlike hard GND filters, the soft transition across the filter here is suited to a broader range of use cases. So you can use these filters with uneven horizons. Cokin also includes a carrying pouch to protect the filter when not in use as a bonus.
UV or Skylight filters block ultraviolet light from entering the lens. And you can find these filters using glass constructions with anti-reflective coatings. But, in today’s world, their benefit is debatable. And they’re generally viewed mainly as a protective cover to prevent unwanted damages to your lens. Historically, they were used to prevent UV light from damaging film. But, with the advent of digital sensors, their benefit has faded since most CMOS sensors have a built-in UV/IR filter.
Even so, UV filters can remove atmospheric UV haze in certain situations. Namely, they help when shooting at high elevations or on bright days near water or snow, all of which cause haze that interferes with contrast. But, most photographers use these filters to prevent damages from sand, dust, and debris when working in harsh conditions. And they help make cleaning the lens easier and offer some protection to the front element against sudden impacts. So they’re generally a go-to for photographers who want to add insurance without having to adjust for unwanted exposure changes. But, you can also use a CPL filter to double in this regard. And most high-end lenses have a UV coating, so it’s a bit redundant.
Overall, UV filters are a good option if you want extra peace of mind and insurance for an expensive lens. Just be sure to get a quality filter with a multi-resistant coating (MRC) to avoid any negative impacts on image quality.
7 – Hoya HD3 UV
Hoya’s HD3 UV filter is their latest general-purpose filter. And it’s available in 9 sizes ranging from 49-82mm. It’s a clear filter using optical glass and a nano anti-reflective coating designed for protection or to remove unwanted UV light that causes haze. It also features a thin lightweight aluminum-alloy ring, preventing unwanted vignettes. Hoya’s also extensively coated the filter to help bead water, oil, and stains for easy cleanup. Yet, it’s now 5x sharper and 800% harder than their award-winning HD2 UV filter. And it’s now fully certified to support 100 MP cameras without any loss of resolution. Hoya also includes a plastic case for storage and a lifetime warranty as a bonus.
8 – Breakthrough Photography X4 UV
Breakthrough Photography’s X4 UV comes in 17 sizes ranging from 39-112mm. This optical glass UV filter offers a nanotec coating and MRC that’s weather-sealed and uses a brass traction frame. The frame is also ultra-slim and double-threaded for secure connections that eliminate vignettes entirely. Together, it offers class-leading durability amongst other UV filters and outstanding rigidity. Yet, it’s also among the sharpest UV filters around and offers exceptional light transmission. Breakthrough also includes their 25-year Ironclad Guarantee with purchase as a bonus.
What to look for in lens filters
Lens Filters and Image Quality
Most lens filters will reduce image quality slightly. However, it’s usually not noticeable unless you use a high-resolution camera and pixel-peep. Many will also cause slight vignettes in the corners. So, it’s important if you choose to use lens filters that they be of high quality. Avoid bargain filters from unreputable brands, as they’ll end up reducing image quality. And in those cases, using no filter is best. A good rule of thumb is that the filter should cost at least 10% of your lens new.
The construction of each filter varies. So it’s important to find a quality option with weather sealing, protective coatings, a brass retaining ring made of thin glass, or resin. This configuration will ensure the filter is robust and unlikely to suffer from dent or have issues with threading. It’ll also guarantee that the light entering is controlled while reducing flare and optimizing contrast and color. These differences aren’t apparent easily with kit lenses. But, when you use high-performing flagship lenses, you’ll begin to see the downsides, if present.