Fun With Filters

neutral density filter
A neutral density filter is one that you'll still want to have in the digital age

In the old days film photographers always carried a little wallet full of filters. You had an 81A for a warm up that made photos in full daylight a bit warmer, and an 80A, FLD, and 85C for correcting different types of artificial lighting. If you’d been in the business for a while, you may have had one of those boxy filter holders more common on movie cameras and a set of the square glass filters that might have included gradient filters for making the sky more dramatic when the foreground was lighter colored.

Digital cameras have done away with most types of filters. White balance on pictures in RAW format can be made after the fact and there’s little need for filters to correct lighting. Gradients and other effects are now easier in post-processing and few photographers bother with gradient filters anymore.

Yet, even in the digital age, there are still a few filters that are nice to have.

Skylight or Sky 1A

broken filter photo by Patrick Lauke

When is a filter not really a filter? When it’s a sky filter. A skylight or Sky 1A is really just a clear piece of glass, yet it’s one of the most important investments you can make. A sky filter isn’t on the lens for your photos, which it doesn’t change at all, it’s there for the lens. Specifically to protect the front glass of your lens from dust, dirt, sand, scratches and forward impacts. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the cheapest insurance you can buy for a lens.

Polarizing Filter

Polarizing filters are a big help getting the sky colors more saturated on a sunny day with haze. It also helps saturate other colors and cuts reflections from glass and metal.

Polarizing filters come in two flavors: Circular and linear. A linear polarizer is a rotating element that lets light aligned along a single axis into your lens. A circular polarizer has a polarizing element, just like a linear polarizer, but behind that is a quarter-wave scrambler that depolarizes the light.

Photo by Doug Kukurudza

The circular polarizer is the most common, but I use them both. The circular polarizer is supposed to be more consistent for beam splitting cameras, but really it helps the auto-focus more than the exposure. I use a linear polarizer when I don’t care about predictable results, when I want to shake things up and get a different perspective on a scene.

A polarizer can also function similarly to a neutral density filter on sunny days, cutting the exposure up to two stops.

Speaking of Neutral Density

A Neutral Density (ND) filter is very handy to have, particularly on bright days. It will cut the available light and let you select a wider aperture on a sunny day. ND filters come in multiples that provide a predictable reduction in the amount of light staringt at 0.3 (one stop),

A neutral density filter can make water look silky-smooth. photo by Paul Bica

and go in steps like 0.6 (two stops), 0.9 (three stops) and 1.2 (four stops). ND filters go all the way up to specialty filters like the 3.6, which is a whopping 12 stop reduction. You need a really bright scene for a 3.6. Think white cat on a snow field in broad daylight using an arc welder as a fill.

Those of you using your DSLRs for video, this is not an optional investment. You’re limited in your selection of shutter speeds and the only way you’ll get the f-stop you want in some shots is with a neutral density filter. Very seldom have I needed more than a 0.9 shooting video and, if that situation arose, you can stack ND filters for even more light reduction. Most of the video shooters I know carry a 0.3, 0.6, and 0.9.

So, there are still places for filters in modern digital photography, just not as many as the old days and the filters serve a different purpose.

Before and after with a neutral density filter. Photo by Ram Toga

Be Careful Who You Buy From

camera photo
It's one thing to buy some flash units or lights from overseas, but don't risk it for cameras and lenses

As the world gets smaller and shipping gets easier, a new phenomenon is appearing in the camera market: Web sites that appear to be stores located in the U.S., U.K., or Canada that are actually storefronts for operations in other countries. For many of the cameras and camera electronics, the vendors are located in Hong Kong.

First off, there’s nothing at all wrong with shopping for camera gear outside the country, provided you know that’s where you’re shopping and are prepared to take the risk. I routinely shop at DealExtreme, one of those sites that ships from Hong Kong, because the discounts are pretty good and shipping is free. I know whatever I’m going to buy from them is going to take between 2 and 3 weeks to arrive and I’m okay with that.

I buy a lot of my flash units and strobes from Hong Kong vendors and quite a few of my video lights came from overseas, but buy a high end camera or expensive lens through them? No way!

The biggest issue for me is making sure I have a valid warranty here in the U.S. When you buy from vendors in Hong Kong, you may be getting grey market products, refurbished units, or products with menus in another language. What you won’t be getting in any case is a valid factory warranty where you live.

I probably see two or three sob stories every week from people who purchased products from an overseas vendor only to realize they would have to send the product back to China if they need warranty service. Most of those people were just trying to save a buck or two on their camera purchase.

Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more to be sure of who you’re dealing with and that you’re getting a top shelf product. When it comes to camera and video gear, I only shop three places:

B&H Photo Video

I’ve never had a problem with a return or exchange at B&H Photo, ever. You could buy a turkey from B&H, bring them a bag of bones the day after Thanksgiving and they’d still probably give your money back if you weren’t happy.

Shopping through Amazon you’re sometimes paying a higher price than direct through the vendor, but that means the vendor has to adhere to Amazon’s return policies. That’s a big friend to have on your side and the convenience of one-stop shopping is a time saver.

Snapsort only sells products through reputable sources, so you can shop with ease.

Sometimes it’s just not worth the price difference to shop with vendors you haven’t worked with before. There’s a reason companies like B&H have been around for years and have an excellent reputation in the professional community.  If you want to save a few bucks on a site that doesn’t have that reputation, you’re taking your chances.


Shooting In Direct Sun

sun flare
The sun shoots a giant X class solar flare at us - by NASA

It would be great if we could schedule every shoot for golden hour or other times when the lighting is most dramatic, but the demands of scheduling don’t always cooperate with our desires as photographers. Sometimes you have to go when conditions are less than optimum and shoot with the helium ion key located 96 million miles from the subject and filtered through a 100 mile water vapor diffuser just where it is in all it’s harsh, sharp-shadowed glory.

No need to be distressed, there are always alternatives if you’re prepared.


It seems obvious but is often overlooked. The best shade for photography shades the subject while still leaving most of the background in daylight. Then you can use a fill flash to evenly bring out the subject, yielding the best of both worlds.

A beach umbrella also works well as portable shade when there are no natural sources.

The idea is to get your subject to lose the sunglasses so they don’t look like a mob boss and not have to squint.


Also called “rags” if you’ve been in the business a long time. The film business is famous for using rows of giant scrims, sometimes called “scrim the planet”.

For photography the standard sizes are 6×6, 8×8 and 12×12 and come in a wide variety of colors, weaves and patterns. Scrim cloth can act as a diffuser or you can get different material and use them like a giant reflector. Most often a scrim will be positioned overhead to diffuse sunlight. Scrims can cover the entire scene, or just part of it and there are even gradient scrims available.

One word of caution when using scrims outside, particularly at the beach, a 12×12 piece of fabric on frame is also called a “sail” in nautical terms and that’s just what you’ll be doing after a gust of wind. Clamp them down tight and weigh the c-stands with sandbags or free weights, even if it’s calm.

Neutral Density Filters

This is one of those things anyone using their DSLRs for video will have in the bag but not every photographer carries.

For photography, I find an ND 0.9 is generally enough to bring full daylight into line. Again, you might need a fill flash and you also might want to add a warm up filter or set your camera’s white balance to “cloudy”.

I use an HD ND filter that has warm up built into it. I know just where I must have dropped it a couple weeks ago, so if you’re walking on the beach in South Florida and find a 72mm ND filter with a warm tint, I’d appreciate getting it back. Thanks!

Photography Type Influences Gear Choices

long lens photo
Photojournalists and nature photographers are the most likely to invest in big glass

I get a lot of questions every week about what kind of camera to buy and what gear someone new to the business would want to have in their bag. I almost always have to answer those questions with another question of my own: What type of photography interests you the most?

For sure there will be quite a bit of overlap between fields. A photojournalist might find they have a lot of equipment in common with a wedding photographer. In fact, one style of wedding photography is sometimes referred to as “journalistic”. Other than the occasional overlap, most fields of photography will employ specialized equipment unique to that field. So your area of interest will influence how you spend your gear budget.

When it comes to cameras, that will be dictated more by your budget, but these days with modern DSLRs it’s far more likely a single camera can be used across different photography fields.

Portrait Photography

Portrait photographers are going to sink the most money into lighting and lenses. While portrait photographers are probably going to want a camera with a full frame sensor like the Canon 5D MK II or Nikon D700, it’s not a requirement. You can shoot perfectly good portraits with almost any camera, full frame or crop sensor.

For portraits lighting will be key and portrait photographers are more likely to invest big bucks in strobes and floor lighting.

Portrait photographers, along with DSLR video shooters, are also more likely to invest in prime lenses. Even though zoom lens quality is more than adequate for portraits today, shooting portraits is all about consistency, and for that primes are hard to beat.

Wedding Photography

Again, wedding photographers will likely employ a high end DSLR with either a full frame or crop sensor, the biggest differences will be the lenses and lighting.

A wedding photographer will almost certainly be using a high end zoom lens and, instead of floor lighting, will be investing their money in external portable lighting instead of studio lights.


PJs will need to be light and fast and they’ll favor lenses at both extremes. For working close in a crowd they’ll use the wide end of the scale and for sporting events and event coverage, they’ll have extremely long and very expensive glass.

If PJs carry a flash at all it will be compact, as they’re more likely to favor faster lenses and cameras with bigger sensors for shooting in low light than rely on flash units.

For PJs it’s all about the speed and the weight.

That’s one of the reasons photography questions are so hard to answer. The type of photography you choose will make a big difference in equipment selection.

Organize Your Photos In 2012

get organized
Get your images organized with a backup drive and a copy of Lightroom

It’s the beginning of a new year and while you’re promising to lose weight or stop smoking, add another item to your agenda: Organize your photos and update your backups!

While flooding in Thailand has driven up the price of hard drives, they’re still incredibly cheap by historical standards. So don’t use drive prices as an excuse not to keep your backups up to date.

You can still get storage like this Buffalo 1 TB USB storage device for less than $150. For that price you can get two of them and keep one off site somewhere. You don’t even have to plug these into the wall, they draw their power from the USB port. It doesn’t get much easier or less technical than that.

A terabyte is a huge amount of storage. The Fantom Drives G-Force MegaDisk has multiple interface options that include USB and firewire for $129.00.

Online storage is also a possibility but I wouldn’t trust the cloud as my only solution. I use Photobucket albums for my proof size customer images, but never for production images.

While online storage is a better deal than it used to be, there are still too many potential pitfalls in end user agreements. TwitPics users are sometimes surprised to discover that their images can be sold to media companies and used in ways they may have never imagined.

The legal question of image ownership if one of the big photo sharing sites ends up in bankruptcy court also has yet to be determined. If you’re a professional, that’s worth thinking about.

The online storage I am more comfortable using are the ones that allow you to store your own encrypted containers. That way if the ownership of my files comes into question during bankruptcy or government seizure, it’s no problem as long as I have local backups.

For organizing the local copies of your images it’s hard to beat Lightroom. If you’re lucky enough to be a savvy tech user you can get a huge amount of functionality in Digikam. Unlike commercial software, which seems to feel compelled to change direction periodically, Digikam just gets better and better over time.

The only guaranteed way of insuring your photos will still be around 100 years from now is to print them out on either metal plates or paper embedded with metallic inks. But with good backup discipline and regular maintenance, you can at least expect your digital image library to last through your lifetime.