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Fabulous Filters in the Field

An alliterative title to this article, and perhaps longer than such an article deserves, as despite the claims of the various filter manufacturers, there really aren't that many that a Travel Photographer needs to carry around with him these days. It never used to be like this. In the days of film, before digital photography had appeared on the scene, it was necessary to perfect your image in the camera, as much as was possible. Some fancy techniques of the darkroom were available, but these required great skill, and the useage of a large amount of printing paper in order to get the final effect just right. For the average photographer without his own darkroom, someone who relied on others to print his images for him, the negative was the final process of photography, and thus any changes had to be made before the shutter release was depressed. Was the color-temperature of the light wrong for the film you were using? In that case, you needed a filter to correct this. Were you shooting in black-and-white, and needed to emphasize the clouds? Another filter was needed to do this. Perhaps you wished to add a starburst effect to lessen spread the brighness of an annoying light-source? Another filter would do that for you

Today, with our digital cameras, things are all different. The effects of the bag of filters that we all used to carry with us can now be simulated after the event, with PhotoShop or other photo-processing software. Adjusting the color temperature is trivial with the software on today's computer. Emphasizing an aspect of the shot, such as the clouds, or adding an effect, such as a starburst, is something we can all accomplish in the comfort of our own homes. Don't like the effect? Just take it away, and try some other setting - its trivial to do so. All the filters these days are digital, and we don't need to buy them, carry them around, or make sure they are clean.

Luckily for the filter manufacturers, there are a few exceptions to the above: filters that we do need to take with us in physical form, as their effects can't be added at a later point by software. The first of these is the UV or skylight filter. These used to be popular to cut down the UV that was flooding into the camera on clear and sunny days: too much would fog the film, reducing clarity. This is not an issue with today's digital sensors, but their other use, that of lens protection, is still of vital importance, and thus the skylight filter should be a permanent fixture to every lens in your camera bag. It is all too easy to bump the front of the lens - without a filter you might scratch the delicate lens coating and permanently disfigure the lens. Scratch the filter, though, and its low cost in comparison to the lens makes it disposable. The lens is saved, and the filter is just replaced.

The second filter that most photographers will find useful, that Travel Photographers will find essential, is the circular polarizing filter. Polarizing filters can reduce the glare bouncing off shiny surfaces in your photos. Simply rotate the polarizer until the glare disappears. They can also reduce the sun's glare on water, and help deepen the contrast of the sky from certain angles. As with any filter, beware of using them too much: we have all seen mountain scenery with the impossibly deep-blue skies that indicate an overuse of the polarizer, but in many outdoor scenes that a Travel Photographer is likely to encounter, the polarizing filter is invaluable. Its effect is one of the few that can't be afterwards added in Photoshop.

A third, physical, filter that it is worth carrying around with you is the Graduated Neutral Density Filter. This filter, as the name suggests, is graduated to reduce the amount of light that will enter your lens in certain areas, without altering the color of the image. A typical use for this filter is to reduce the brightness of the sky, and help to bring out some contrast in a bright sky that otherwise would be lost. This is even more important with today's digital cameras, as the dynamic range that their sensors can capture is much less than even the poorest quality film.

A disadvantage of the Graduated Neutral Density Filter, however, is that unlike the previous two filters, this one is not supplied as a physically circular filter that can be screwed on to the front of your lens. In the process of using the ND filter, it needs to be slid up and down across the front of the lens to select just which portions of the screen are darkened by its effect. Such filters are thus supplied as a square sheet of glass or plastic, and need a square filter-holder that screws to the normal filter thread on your lens. It can prove unwieldy to use, and not suitable for candid or quickly snapped scenes, but if you are taking landscapes shots and have the time to adjust it properly, it can be a very useful addition to your equipment. If you have different sized lenses, you only need to buy one (expensive) filter, and a range of (cheaper) filter holders to suit the different lens filter-threads. Note that the ND's effect can't be later simulated in PhotoShop, as it is effectively increasing the dynamic range of your sensor, though by taking a series of bracketed photographs of the same scene and later combining them with suitable software you can duplicate all of what the ND filter would otherwise achieve.

Before I end this article on Fabulous Filters in the Field, I want to mention a very useful accessory for any user of filters: the Stack Cap. Stack Caps come in pairs: they are two circular metal discs, one with a male thread and one with a female thread the same size as the threads on the circular filters that you use with your lenses. They perform the function of end caps to one or more circular filters, and enable the filters to be easily tossed into your camera bag without additional protection. If you have 3 or 4 circular filters in your bag, and need a compact method of storage, then stack caps will be the answer to your prayers.... and if you loose a lens cap, you can always use the male end of the stack caps as a stand-in until you can get a new one.


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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