Filters are essential for photographers, regardless of genre and sill level. Sure, the effects of many filters can now be reproduced using software applications like Lightroom and Photoshop. However, filters can be extremely useful for nature photography, and some filter effects cannot be reproduced in post. Let’s cover the best filters to own for nature photography, along with specific brand recommendations.
Circular Polarizing Filter
If you were to own just one filter, it would have to be a polarizing filter. The effect of a polarizing filter cannot be created or simulated during post-processing. Polarizers reduce reflective glare and naturally saturate colors. They are excellent for creating vibrant blue skies and removing harsh reflections from water, leaves, rocks, and more. The amount of polarization can be adjusted by rotating the circular rig on the filter. Many photographers swear by a polarizer and never remove it. One thing to keep in mind is a polarizing has absolutely no effect if you’re shooting directly into the sun.
One tip is to buy some polarized sunglasses. The sunglasses will give you a good idea of what effect a polarizer might have on a scene, especially if you tilt your head while wearing the sunglasses, which changes how much of the effect is applied.
Neutral Density Filter
A neutral density filter (ND filter) decreases the amount of light reaching the camera sensor. Adding the filter to your lens is analogous to putting sunglasses on. Many photographers use neutral density filters to achieve slower shutter speeds, which can be particularly useful for water scenes and fast-moving clouds. ND filters are a great for capturing seascapes and coastal scenes. We find 1/4 to 1/6 of a second shutter speeds to be ideal for water detail. Those shutter speeds (and slower speeds) can be unattainable depending on the light, that is unless you have a ND filter in your bag.
ND filters also allow you to take very long exposures after sunrise or before sunset, which can result in some very interesting effects with the sky. So, what is the right neutral density filter? Well, you can purchase 1-stop neutral density filters all the way up to 10-stop neutral density filters. We recommend either purchasing a 3 to 6-stop ND filter or buying a 10-stop ND filter.
Breakthrough Filters X2 3-stop ND Filter
Breakthrough Filters X2 6-stop ND Filter
Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Graduated neutral density (ND) filters operate in the same way as a standard neutral density filter by decreasing the amount of light available to your sensor. However, they are graduated so the effect is only applied to one half of the filter. This makes them great for dealing for high dynamic range situations, such as when you find yourself shooting into the sun. It should be noted that a similar result can be achieved during post-processing. But, if you don’t want to process your photos or spend a lot of time in the digital darkroom, a graduated ND filter is an essential filter for your camera bag.
Lee Graduated Neutral Density Filter Set *Note: Lee filter holder sold separately
Cokin Graduated Neutral Density Filter Set
In the days of film, it was a no-brainer to have a UV filter mounted on your lens. Film exposures were greatly affected by UV light, but even today, owning a UV filter is a good idea. Although digital sensors are much better at dealing with UV light, a UV filter has a couple other benefits that make it worthwhile. The first is protection. A quality UV filter will not detract from your image quality and it offers a line of protection for your lens. Not only will it help protect your front element if you drop your camera, it also will help protect your lens from smudging and scratching. UV filters will also help cut through atmospheric haze and help improve image quality in smoggy or hazy conditions.
In our opinion, a UV filter should be one of the first you purchase for your lenses.
Breakthrough Filters X1 UV Filter
Warming filters are another set of filters to look into. They do exactly what they might imply, they add and amplify the warm tones in your image. If you shoot in RAW, you can easily accomplish this by creatively adjusting your white balance while post processing. But as we mentioned earlier, if you don’t like to post-process or want to get your shot in the field, try these out.
Warming filters work great during golden hour and can help bring out the great colors you might experience at sunrise or sunset.