Here is when you should use filters instead of Photoshop

Tips & Techniques

As a landscape photographer, I find it both a convenience and an inconvenience to use filters. For example, using filters for balancing light in a scene,  eliminates the need for bracketed shooting. This saves space on my memory card and on my hard drive. On the other hand, sometimes things happen so fast that mounting filters spoils the moment. There are also instances when using a filter to smooth the water in a waterfall will save me from blending exposures in Photoshop. On the negative side, adding filters to the backpack takes up space and adds weight.

Mainly I use filters when I want to:

  • Smooth the water in a waterfall
  • Shoot long exposures
  • Balance the light in a scene
  • Enhance colors
  • Remove or reduce glare
  • Enhance reflections
  • Increase contrast in the sky

Water

Personally I find smoothed water aesthetic and pleasing to the eye. To get some texture in the water, I’ll expose for 1/4 of a second. This gets just the right amount of effect.  For rivers and waterfalls, I usually go for a six-stop ND filter to achieve the desired effect.

A challenge is often that water in motion causes wind which results in blurry foliage. This is the case, for example, if you go over two seconds of exposure. The antidote is to shoot a second, short exposure, for the foliage. The two images are blended in Photoshop. If it is dusk I usually shoot the water at f/22 without any filter, and then a second fast exposure for the rest of the scene. The second shot will perhaps be around f/8, and I may have to increase the ISO to achieve a sufficiently fast shutter speed. The image below was taken with a Nisi 6-stop filter.

Nisi 6 stop filter , 1/3 sec, Romsdalen, Norway

One of the perks of living in Norway is that the country offers a rich variety of waterfalls. This is from Norway’s perhaps most visited waterfall, Vøringsfossen.

1/3 sec

Long exposures

I got my first full-frame camera and filters in late 2013. I completely fell in love with long exposures and the surreal feel they offer a scene.

Using a ten stop filter is like doubling the exposure time by ten. This is a good way to estimate the exposure time with a filter on. I first try to decide the exposure time without the filter. Let’s say that 1/8 of a sec will give me a decent exposure. I then insert the filter, start the camera and begin to count: 1/4, 1/2, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 1 min, 2 mins. In other words, I stop the exposure after 2 mins. There are apps that can do the necessary calculations. (the image below shot with a Nisi 10-stop filter and a Nisi Medium GND)

90 secs, Pentax K-1, Pentax 15–30, Tyrifjorden Norway Nov 2017 — Nisi 10 stop and Nisi Medium to balance the light.

It is often difficult to predict the outcome when I launch a long exposure, but more often than not I am happy with the result.

70 secs, Pentax K-1, Pentax 15–30, Tyrifjorden Norway Nov 2017 — Nisi 10 stop and Nisi Medium

This particular morning it was so dark when the first colors appeared that is was completely unnecessary to use a filter in order to achieve a long exposure effect. I actually needed a 60-seconds exposure to get a decent histogram in-camera.

Tyrifjorden, Norway. f11, iso 160, 15mm

Balancing the light

During the golden hour, when the sky can be much brighter than the ground, it is wise to add a filter that balances the light. We are now talking about a filter that darkens the sky. It helps the camera sensor by compressing the dynamic range of the scene. There are a host of various graduated filters on the market these days.

Sometimes, things happen so fast or the light is so special that I opt to shoot bracketed instead. These days I simply let Lightroom do the blending for me  with the HDR option. Remember to un-check toning to avoid an “HDR look“. In a very short time, I have a file with an incredible dynamic range. In addition, I usually have a much better blend than what is possible to do by hand. Like this one:

Ringerike, Norway. July 2017. Three bracketed shots.

The next image is also an hdr from three bracketed exposures. I arrived at the lake when colors peaked. Since I was reluctant to miss a second of the color show I didn’t spend any time mounting filters.

Ringerike, Norway

Polarizer filter

My most frequently used filter is a circular polarizer (CPL). When I arrived at this modest canyon with a very cool rain forest quality, I became so elated that I began shooting without a filter. After a while, I came to my senses and attached a CPL to the lens. While peaking through the viewfinder I began turning the cpl until the colors popped. The difference it made was staggering.

Winter sunsets this far north can offer super intense colors. In this instance, I adjusted the CPL in such a fashion that the reflections were enhanced. When using an ultra-wide-angle lens we might risk producing some weird effects in the sky if we push things too far with the CPL.

‘The Heart’ — Tamron 17–28, Nisi V6 + cpl + Nisi Medium

At the beginning of October last year, my wife and I visited Rjukandefossen in Hemsedal, Norway. The sun had found an opening in the sky creating some very nice light which was a tad tricky to handle. I used two graduated filters for the sky and a 6 stop filter to smooth the water. In addition, I used a CPL to reduce glare.

Nisi V6 + cpl + Nisi 6 stop + Nisi 0.9 soft + Nisi Medium

Conclusion

Filters come in handy in many settings. They allow us to create effects that otherwise would have been more or less impossible. The advantages a polarizer presents in the field cannot easily be accomplished or emulated in post-processing. To use filters is, however, very inconvenient when I am sitting along the banks of a cascade squeezed between two big rocks. The same goes if I am very close to the edge of a mountain side. My first thought in such circumstances isn’t filters. Instead survival instincts take presedence and everything in me yells: “I have to get away from here as fast as possible!”

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