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A Few Filters Can Turn a
Reject into a Keeper

Living along the front range in Colorado, I have found several filters indespensable to taking pleasing mountain and waterfall photos that are not washed out due to haze and glare.

First of all, a folding carrying case with slots for filters, a pack of lens wipes and a brush with a squeeze ball to shoot air onto a lens to remove dust particles are helpful accessories.

Next, a UV/skylight filter is handy for reducing the amount of ultraviolet light that comes through a lens, minimizing haze. Consider keeping these filters on all your lenses to protect the front element from scratches, rain and fingerprints. This type of filter will have a minimal effect on your picture, perhaps intensifying the color slightly.

A circular polarizer filter is needed to remove glare from nonmetallic surfaces such as water, rocks, glass or leaves so richer color and dimension can show through. For example, when shooting a waterfall in full sun, the water can appear like a white mass unless a polarizer is used to differentiate between the layers of tumbling water. A polarizer can also stop haze, revealing bluer skies, more prominent clouds and greater detail in mountains. Overall, as you spin the filter to the optimum position, you will see richer color and more contrast in your images. This waterfall was in full sun and taken with a speed of about 1/10 second to give the water a creamy look, but without a polarizer it is washed out (left). The waterfall on the right was taken at the same speed with a polarizer.

No Polarizer Filter - Waterfall Polarizer Filter - Waterfall

A split-neutral density filter is almost essential for mountain or sunset/sunrise shots to control the light intensity and prevent the mountains and sky from being overexposed and washed out. Such a filter will help you brighten the foreground and balance the lighting to reflect what you see with your eyes.

One half of the filter is clear (not changing the image at all) while the other half is tinted, but neutral (without coloration) and decreases the amount of light which passes through by one, two or three stops of light depending on which filter you get. For landscape shots I recommend a soft edge between the two halves, which usually gives a less noticeable and more natural transition than a hard edge. Below you can see the mountain in the top photo is hazy and the sky is white without the filter. But the clouds show up in the lower photo and more color appears in the mountain because of the filter.

no split neutral density filter - mountains

split neutral density filter - mountains

I use a two-stop square Cokin soft edge filter with a filter holder that is screwed onto an adapter ring that is screwed onto the lens. The holder can accommodate 3 different filters at once and allows me to slide the filters so I can easily adjust tinted portions to cover only the areas I want.

split neutral density filter

split neutral density filter on uneven mountain horizon

The only drawback to using the two-stop filter is when I am photographing landscape that has a sharply sloping dark foreground and pale sky or distant mountains. In this situation I would prefer a one-stop split-neutral density filter (a two-stop was used here) to prevent the high points of the foreground from becoming overly dark.

Other Filters:
Graduated filters can be used to get creative and color a sky whatever you desire or enhance sunsets.
Filters with center spots allow you to focus clearly on your subject while diffusing the background, sometimes adding a halo of color of your choosing.
Color filters can help balance overly dominant tones or warm up portrait photos.
A diffuser can bring a soft haze to your image, reducing contrast for a dreamy feel.

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