Evening light on Watchman Peak above the Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah
Back in the days when I shot film filters were an indispensable part of my technique that enabled me to control the light, balance dynamic range, and give a little extra snap to every image. Well guess what? Fast forward to the digital age and the same still holds true.
It’s easy get caught in the trap of saying “I’ll just fix it in Lightroom or Photoshop”, but the truth is filters are every bit as important in the digital age as they were in the days of film. Photography after all is about shaping and controlling light and whether your image is preserved in celluloid or pixels there is still no substitute for capturing the best possible image up front.
Two filters that I consider essential are the graduated neutral density (GND) and the polarizer. The GND is available in several densities with both hard and soft transitions allowing you to ideally balance the contrast in the scene. This magical filter works best for landscapes where the foreground is in shadow and the background has direct light. Through the viewfinder washed out clouds suddenly become more defined and foreground subjects emerge from the shadows and retain their natural color. Positioning the filter takes a little practice so that the transition seamlessly blends into the horizon and is not obvious in the final image.
The polarizing filter blocks scattered light rays to remove reflections from water and foliage and definitely spends more time on the front of my lens than any other. By turning the filter you can control the amount of polarized light reaching the lens, which has the added benefit of saturating colors, darkening skies and increasing overall contrast. In addition, the polarizer works like a neutral density filter to slow exposure times allowing for a silky effect when shooting flowing water.
There are many other excellent filters available, but these two are a great starting point for creating more dynamic images and saving considerable time at the computer.