I get quite a few e-mails every week about which filters I use and the technique involved, so I figured it would be easier to just write something up and link people to it, instead of typing the same reply over and over. This isn’t meant to be an introduction to filters by any means, and I will provide some links for that at the bottom. This is just my no non-sense guide to filters and how I use them. When I was learning about this stuff, I found it hard to find information on hand holding grads, etc.. Hopefully this little write-up will help someone out…
What polarizer do you use?
I use Hoya HD, and B+W polarizers. For wide angle lenses you will want the “thin mount” version so that you can avoid vignetting in the corners. There’s 2 big differences that I have come across between the Hoya and the B+W’s; The Hoya thin mount filters have a front thread, while the B+W’s don’t. This means that you can’t screw in a filter holder or use a regular lens cap on the front of the B+W. That may or may not be a big deal for you. The other thing that I have noticed, is that the B+W filters are much easier to clean than the Hoya. I don’t know the exact reason behind this, but it’s a huge difference, and I get annoyed with the hoya filters because they are so hard to clean at times. Performance wise, they are probably both the same, and I don’t notice any difference when it comes to the photos.
I want to get some Graduated Neutral Density filters, what do you recommend?
This is probably the most common question I get. I tend to hand hold my filters 95% of the time, and for this, the larger 4×6 inch filters are waaay better suited. They cost more, but the flexibility is worth it in my opinion. As far as which filters to get, if I could only have 2 filters, they would be a 3-stop soft, and a 2-stop hard. Those are the 2 filters I use the most. I also have 2&3 stop Singh Ray reverse grads as well. Unless you are including a huge amount of sky in your images, these filters work more like regular hard stop filters, and probably aren’t worth the extra money.
As for which brand of filters to get, there are a few choices. I recommend skipping the cheap cokin filters altogether, as they have a terrible colour cast. I bought the cokins as my first set, and soon gave them away to another photographer thinking he would try them out to see if he had a need for some grads. Instead of trying them out, he decided to use them for a year or so, stacking all 3 filters together (more is better right?). He used this technique for about a year and got ridiculous purple skies on almost every shot, before finally forking over some money for a single hi-tech filter.
Ok, funny stories asside, if you want to get a decent filter at a decent price, you could start out with the Hi-Tech 4×5 inch filters. I believe these are about $60 each, and they seem ok. The next step up are the Lee filters, and I think they go for roughly $80 each for the 4×6 inch filters. After that, you have Singh Ray. For some reason that I haven’t been able to really determine yet, the Singh Ray filters cost $160 each for a 4×6 inch filter. As far as I can tell, they don’t’ perform any better than the Lee filters, which are half the cost. So there it is, pretty plain and simple; if you want a good 4×6 inch filter, buy the Lee’s unless you have some specific reason to buy the Singh Ray’s.
What filter holder do you use?
I personally rarely bother with the filter holders unless I’m taking a really long exposure (2 minutes or more). I prefer the flexibility of hand holding the filters. This cuts out the vignetting problem that you will run into when stacking filters on top of the polarizer, but it also allows you to move the filter around during the exposure. I like to be able to move the filter around during an exposure for a few reasons; the main reason being that you can reduce the affect of the grad line, and spend much less time fixing that later in post processing. Also, when shooting into the sun, bye slightly moving the filter up/down during the exposure, you can cut down on lens flare, and increase the affect of the “sun star”. The other reason for me, is that it’s just easier and faster than messing around with a filter holder. Also, the polarizers that are made for the filter holders are very expensive. By hand holding the grads, you just place the grad on top of any regular polarizer. This also means that it’s much faster to adjust your polarizer…
I did finally break down and buy a holder for when I experiment with long exposures. I ended up getting the “Lee Foundation” holder, and the wide angle adapter ring. This holder is very well built and will take all three filter brands (Singh Ray, Lee, and Hi-Tech).
What Solid Neutral Density filter do you recommend?
I’m not really an expert with these, and I mostly just experiment with them. You can get the screw in filters, or you can get the square ND’s. I have the B+W ND 3.0, which is a 10-stop screw in filter. That’s a lot of ND, and too much for some people. It’s really best used when it’s bright outside (mid day, etc.) For sunrise, and sunset you would probably be better off with a 6-stop ND filter depending on what you are using it for. I have been using a Hi-Tech 4×4 inch 4-stop ND lately, and it seems to be working well for what I do most of the time. Again, I prefer the square filters because it’s easier to use them with a polarizer and stack them with GND’s.
What is the best technique for hand holding the Grad filters?
Well, the best technique is the one that works for you, but if you don’t have one yet, I will try to explain how I do it here. A lot of articles will tell you to use the DOF preview button on your camera to help line up the grad. I don’t mess with that button at all, and have never really found a need to. I generally get my polarizer tuned how I want it, and then I hold the grad in my left hand on the bottom left hand corner, and press it up against my lens/polarizer. Then while looking through the view finder, or live view, I line it up properly. I have never had a problem figuring out where to put the grad line, and that’s why I don’t see the need for the DOF preview button that all these articles refer too. By any means, use it if it helps you though. Then while holding very steady, I click the remote cable release with my right hand. I usually try to get at least a 2-3 second exposure so that I can move the grad up and down slightly (probably a quarter inch or less) in order to reduce the grad line on the final image. If your exposure is longer, say 30 seconds, you will want to do this a few times during the exposure.
Using the grad filters this way, you will tend to get them scratched up easier compared to putting them in the holders. Honestly though, it needs to be a really significant scratch for it to show up in photos. I have 5 filters that are all heavily used and scratched up, but only my 3-stop soft has a bad enough scratch to show up in photos. It’s a single quarter inch scratch that is visibly deeper than all the other ones. I need to replace that one actually. So basically what I’m saying is, if you hand hold your new $80 Lee filter, you are going to scratch it up in no time at all, but don’t worry about it because it takes a really significant scratch to affect your photos.
Now that I have given you the run down on filters and how they get scratched, and how much they cost etc. It’s possible in most cases to just bracket images and blend them later for the same affect, and I have been experimenting with this more and more lately. For some instances, you need to do this anyhow, so it’s a good thing to learn…
If you have any questions, comments, or anything to add, please feel free to post them here…
And now, if none of this really made much sense to you or you just want to learn more about Grad Filters in general, feel free to visit some of these links:
Singh Ray Blog – Full of articles on grad filters and technique. Probably the best one stop shop to learning more about grads.
Darwin Wiggett Article – Full of pictures and useful information regarding holders etc.
Earthbound Light Article – Good info on some of the differences between the filters
Rod Barbee Tutorial – Good all around info on filters
2filter.com – One stop shop for your filter needs… (except Singh Ray)