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Do you keep a filter on your lens?

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When do you bother with lens filters

How often are they genuinely useful

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Filters – essential, or just a way for camera shops to make more money?

The only filter normally left on a lens like my Canon EF24-70 2.8L is a UV filter to protect the front element when I’m using it for ‘walk round’ type work. For work that I know will be required at very high res, I may take the filter off, particularly if there is any chance of flare. I have lens hoods for all my lenses.

I was recently asked why I had this filter fitted and had a bit more of a think as to just why it was there…

Laser cutting in a factory

Laser cutting in a factory – definitely a protective filter in place

A while ago I was working in a steel foundry – with lots of nasty dust everywhere. I was very careful to keep filters in place and wipe things down before any lens change.

Salt spray from the sea is another thing I’d rather clean off a filter than a front element.

Does this harm my pictures though?

My suspicion is that the majority of those who claim that a filter ‘degrades’ the image couldn’t tell the difference between two prints one with and one without a decent UV filter – just a hunch though ;-)

That said, I’d probably not bother with any filters on cheap lenses – typical ‘kit lenses’ for example.

Update 2015: With my move to the 50MP 5Ds I’m even more inclined just to see filters as dust/spark protectors. The loss of quality is there, but still beyond what most people would see in a print.

Here, they really are just an extra bit of margin for the seller.

Oh, and don’t fall for any choices backed up by claims that to be ‘serious’ or ‘professional’ you need to do something in a particular way – I can be both serious and professional in my work, but it doesn’t in itself make what I do any more relevant to the needs of others…

If you do want a filter, what to get?

Perhaps a protective filter, and a polariser – even this depends on what it is you are photographing and what you are saying with your photos.

I use the polariser sometimes in architectural and industrial work to control excessive reflections.

I use a variable ND filter sometimes to slightly blur people (longer exposures) in some architectural photography. [ND2-400 review]

What I’d avoid

Personally I avoid so called ‘creative’ filters – they are rather too often used as a crutch to try and improve what is a just not quite good enough original image.  I’d put this in the same league as strong sepia toning and excessive HDR/sharpening halos…

Take a look at work where a filter was obviously used – did it contribute meaningfully to the image?

One other thing is to avoid what I call the ‘new toy effect’ – this is where some new bit of kit or technique suddenly makes all your images look ‘really interesting’.

‘To the person with a new hammer, every problem is a nail’

It’s OK for a while (I try and avoid testing brand new kit on paying jobs though) This usually wears off in most people, but its remnants linger on all too often (invariably by men I note )

There are a sizeable number of photographers who fall into the ‘better tech automatically makes for better photos’ fallacy. They also assume that more expensive cameras will in some way make your photos better, without actually having to work on what it allows you to do.

I’ll finish off with a few more tools to be used sparingly/appropriately (IMHO)

  • HDR
  • Tilt shift lens miniature look
  • Graduated filters
  • B/W print toning
  • fisheye lenses
  • Heavy ND filters

You may have pet dislikes of your own…

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Site Notice: Like many working photographers, our work has completely dried up in these challenging times, so I'll be at home a lot. The silver lining is that I've lots of articles and reviews to write - if you've any suggestions or questions, please do let me know - Keith ...Why not sign up for our (ad free) Newsletter to keep informed about new articles.


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