When it comes to camera lens filters, most travel photographers and travel photography enthusiasts fall into one of two categories: either they own no camera filters, or they need a separate check-in bag to lug them around.

At first, the lens filter market can seem quite daunting and complicated for those who have never used them, so we will cover each different type of lens filter, their pros and cons and which would suit your needs best.

So whether you’re considering purchasing your first set of camera filters, or you are firmly in the lens filter camp and are looking to expand your already sizable collection, let’s delve right in. 

Affiliate disclosure: While we do receive a small kick-back from any sales or leads obtained through our article, this has never and will never affect any of the content posted on our site. At Roamer Photography, we only recommend products that we have used extensively and would pay for ourselves, so while our affiliate links do help us out, these products are never included in our content for the sole purpose of generating income.

Why do photographers use camera filters?

Photographers use many different types of filters for a plethora of purposes, though one thing all filters have in common is that they protect the lens.

Travel photographers in particular are known for putting their cameras and lenses through the wringer when they travel, with each piece of equipment picking up its fair share of bumps and bruises over time. Cosmetic damage to the camera body is annoying but acceptable, while scratches and cracks on the front of your lenses are definitely not. 

broken camera filters

This is one reason why travel photographers usually use a UV filter on the lenses they take out and about. I for one have had a screw-on UV lens filter on each of my lenses from the moment I bought them; filters are fairly inexpensive, whilst lens replacements and repairs most certainly are not.

Other reasons photographers use lens filters are, of course, to alter the light that the lens takes in. This allows for some beautiful and truly unique exposures and results. 

Lens filters give you far greater flexibility with the settings you are able to use to attain a certain exposure. Some will, for example, allow you to shoot very long exposures even in bright daylight or a well-lit nightscape, allowing for the optically pleasing blurring of moving objects. But more on that later.

What forms do camera lens filters come in?

If you’ve done any searching for camera filters in the past, you likely already know that they come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are circular while others are square or rectangular, some have an even gradient across the filter’s entire surface while others have a split in the middle. On top of that, they range from almost completely translucent to seemingly any colour you can think of. 

When it comes to their physical form factor, camera lens filters tend to fall into the following categories.

Screw-on filters

Neutral density camera filters

A screw-on filters is a circular filter that is arguably the most common, and usually the first lens filter type that photographers will invest in. This is because they’re relatively inexpensive and they come with the convenience of not requiring a sizable bracket to attach them to the lens

Some screw-on lens filters also come with a ring to alter the level of the filter‘s effect, meaning that there can be much more versatile than other types of lens filters.

A screw-on filter’s relatively small size means that, when they are attached to the lens, they don’t add very much bulk to the lens or to your camera system in general. When shooting in certain conditions, this means that photographers can leave one or more filters attached to their lens all day or throughout an entire trip, barely noticing that it’s even there.

There are, however, negatives to screw-on filters that may not make them the best choice for you. If, for example, you own a collection of lenses with vastly different lens diameters, screw-on filters may not be the most economical or efficient choice for you. 

Screw-on lens filters can only be used on one particular filter thread size so to use them on any other filter thread size, you will need to purchase filter conversion rings or a separate filter altogether. Note also that if you use a step-down filter (which allows for smaller filters to be used on larger lenses), you may experience some unwanted effects in the corners of your images.

Screw-on camera filters do not make sense if you’re planning on using them on a wide variety of lens sizes. However, if you’re anything like myself and you only travel with a couple of lenses that you use for specific purposes (e.g. long exposure photography), screw-on filters may be the most economical option for you.

Square and rectangular filters

Camera filters can also come as square or rectangular filters that attach to your lens using a filter holder

The advantage of using square and rectangular filters is that they are much more flexible in terms of what size lens they can be used on, meaning the same filters can be used for most of your lenses. They can also be stacked more easily than screw-on filters if you would like to combine several filters. On screw-on filters, using several filters on top of one another can cause some vignetting.

That being said, square and rectangular lens filters also have their own drawbacks. For instance, you will have to carry additional gear in the form of a filter holder around with you and they are less convenient if you would like to keep them attached to your lens while you are hiking around a location. These lens filters can also be much more fragile than their screw-on counterparts, so you may find yourself having to replace them more often if you’re not careful with them.

The majority of professional photographers would most likely include a fairly expensive, high-quality set of square and rectangular filters in their camera kit, especially if they are using a wide variety of lenses. In this case, carrying a filter holder and a few filters would actually minimise their pack size in comparison to carrying multiple features for each of the lenses they use.

Drop-in filters

The least common type of camera lens filter we will discuss here is drop-in filters. While some photographers (rather confusingly) use the term “drop-in filter system” to refer to the bracket into which you can ‘drop’ square and rectangular filters, we’re referring to a different kind of camera filter

Drop-in filters are used with telephoto and super-telephoto lenses which may have front elements that are too large to accommodate a regular screw-on filter or a filter bracket. These kinds of lenses have a dedicated section near the back of the lens which can be opened to slide a filter in. 

This type of camera filter is not the most versatile as they are specialised to specific lens sizes and do not provide the added benefit of protecting the front element of the camera. They are usually, however, necessary for the lenses they are used for which is why they continue to be used and why we have included them in this list.

What do different camera filters do?

Now we’ve discussed the different shapes and sizes camera filters come in, we’ll move on to what purpose they actually serve and what effects can be achieved by using camera filters.

Ultraviolet (UV) filters

UV filter

One of the most common camera filters you’re likely to encounter is a UV filter. A UV filters is a clear filter and its primary purpose is to filter out ultraviolet (UV) rays when shooting in harsh sunlight. This can be especially important if you’re shooting film as certain film stocks can be very sensitive to UV light

Digital cameras, however, are less sensitive to UV light so this function is less important in digital photography. You will still, however, see plenty of digital photographers using these filters as UV lens protection filters

Since these filters have a negligible effect on the actual images that you capture, especially on a digital camera, UV filters can be kept on at all times to protect the lens, which is why many people (including myself) add a UV filter to any lens as soon as they buy it. After all, they’re much cheaper to replace if they get bumped or scratched than if you were to inflict that damage on the lens itself.

Circular polarizer/linear (CPL) filters

Circular polarizer/linear filters, more commonly referred to as CPL filters are another common filter type, particularly among travel photographers.

CPL filters reduce and remove the glare and reflections from reflective surfaces such as windows and water, meaning they are particularly useful when shooting waterscapes and architectural shots with reflective features such as windows and tiles. Polarizers can help you preserve more detail in your images and achieve effects that cannot be replicated in Adobe Lightroom.

Without CPL camera filter
With CPL camera filter

Neutral density (ND) filters

A neutral density filter, also known as an ND filter, is a type of camera filter that restricts the amount of light that is able to enter the lens, meaning that the photographer is able to shoot with a much slower shutter speed than would otherwise be possible without completely overexposing the image.

Longer exposures can be used to blur out, for example, moving traffic or crowds walking around a busy square, as well as smoothing out running or choppy water in the sea or a waterfall.

The images below are an example of this: first image was taken at a fast shutter speed of 1/4000, freezing the moving water in place, while the second photo was taken using a 3 second exposure and an ND filter, blurring the waterfall and smoothing out the water in the foreground.

fast shutter speed
Long exposure

For occasional users, arguably the best kind of ND filter is a variable screw-on filter. These can be attached to the front of a lens, and even the front of a UV filter if you have one attached to your lens, and the amount of light that is blocked can be adjusted by turning a ring on the filter itself. 

The downside of these is that you will need a separate ND filter for each lens and some filters, especially the more budget options, can occasionally produce some really strange effects like the one below. Not the biggest issue for digital shooters as you can just try again, but this may not be the nicest surprise if you shoot film and you finally get your rolls developed.

If you’re a heavy user, however, you will likely want to invest in a set of higher-quality square filters. These will be more expensive and will increase your pack size as you will need to carry a filter mount and since rectangular filters are not variable and their effect cannot be altered by turning a ring, meaning that you will need to carry several filters. That said, they will yield better and more reliable results than their screw-on counterparts.

Graduated neutral density (GND) filters

Graduated netural density filter

A graduated neutral density filters, or GND filter, is a rectangular filter that alters the exposure of one half of an image while leaving the other half unaffected. It works in the same way as an ND filter, but only on half of the image.

A graduated filter is an often overlooked but very useful kind of lens filter for landscape photography in particular, as in landscape photography it is common to shoot against a prominent horizon line.

This is particularly important when the sky is much brighter than the foreground as a graduated neutral density filter would allow the photographer to darken the sky but not the foreground. This means that they can capture all the detail they want in the foreground at whatever shutter speed they would like to use to do so, without completely washing out and losing all of the detail in the sky in the process.

Take a look at some of the best options here.

Why it’s worth investing in quality lens filters

When investing in camera filters of any kind, it’s important to invest in lens filters that are of adequate quality. After all, if you spend a small fortune on your lenses, you wouldn’t want to cover it up with a sub-par lens filter that may negatively affect the image quality of the images you are trying to take. If you do so, you may end up with a purple waterfall like in this image I took at Tappiya falls in the Philippines.

ND camera filter issue

I’ve also heard stories of in-expensive ND filters reflecting the writing on the front of the lens back into the lens, meaning that your long exposures may be unintentionally watermarked by your lens manufacturer. Again, not the best detail to notice when it’s too late to take another image. 

Recommendations

I used to buy the cheapest lens filters I could buy for my lenses, hoping that these would do the job whenever I did use them. As you can see in some of my examples above, this was a mistake. I tested filters from various different companies and found that for almost all of them, the quality of the filters I received was very hit-and-miss. Some produced less-than-ideal effects, while others scratched or cracked very easily.

After a couple of months of ordering and returning filters from different companies, I came across an Australian company that made reliable, consistently high-quality filters, which I now use for each of the lenses I own. That company is Urth.

All-in-all, I now own a vast collection of Urth’s filters and I haven’t had any issues with any of them yet. They’re especially travel-friendly as they come with protective metal plates screwed onto each side of the filter, shielding it when you’re not using it and it’s rattling around your camera bag. 

Urth is also a sustainable and environmentally conscious corporation, leading reforestation projects that have planted close to 6 million trees across 3 continents. So on top of getting reliably high-quality lens filters, you can also feel good about having done something positive for the environment.

Disclosure [updated]: While I do receive a small commission from the sales made by Urth through my affiliate links, this recommendation has in no way been influenced by this or by anyone at Urth. In fact, my recommendation of Urth’s products was posted via this article several months before I became an affiliate. At Roamer Photography, we only recommend products that we use and pay for ourselves, so while our affiliate links do help us out, these products are never included in our content for the sole purpose of generating income.

Conclusion

So there we have it: an introduction to lens filters and some advice, whether you’re in the market for your first set of camera filters, or you’re building on an already expansive collection. In any case, if you enjoyed this content or you would like us to cover any other topics or products, please contact us here and subscribe to our newsletter here to keep up with our new content.

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