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Three Filters for Digital Nature Photography

February 19, 2010

We leave today for 7 days in Arizona.  In fact, as you read this, we’re probably driving through Monument Valley, or maybe Flagstaff, or we might even be setting up our tent at Lost Dutchman State Park in the Superstition Mountains.  Ah, life is great! 

Moving on to the meat of the post, I am often asked what filters I carry and use on a regular basis.  I’ve never been a user of gimmicky filters and even in my pre-digital days I carried only a small assortment of what I considered critical filters.  Interestingly, those filters haven’t changed much.  I eliminated one and added one so really, I’m still carrying the same quantity of filters.  In case you’re wondering, I use only Singh-Ray filters.  Why?  Like any of the higher cost, well known brands, the optical quality of Singh-Ray filters is exceptional.  Unlike those other brands, Singh-Ray is still a small operation and they place great value on their customers.  This is something they have proven to me on numerous occasions, and every time I deal with them.

Here are the filters I carry:

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

I carry 2 stop and 3 stop graduated neutral density filters in the Cokin “P” size.  The 2 stop can be used as a 1 stop and I can stack the two together to achieve 5 stops of filtration.  I am doing more and more image blending and/or exposure fusion but I still believe that GND’s have a place in any nature photographer’s camera bag.

Ultra-Thin Polarizing Filter

I carry a polarizer and I use it extensively when photographing foliage, creeks and waterfalls.  I don’t use it all that often for grand landscapes.  I bought the ultra-thin version because I do like to bust out my wide angle lens on occasion and the regular version vignettes badly starting at around 28mm.  There is no way to digitally mimick all the effects of a polarizing filter.  Yes, you can darken skies and increase contrast between blue sky and white clouds.  However, you can not remove reflections on leaves no matter how hard you try.

Variable Neutral Density Filter

This is about as gimmicky as I get.  The Variable Neutral Density Filter, or Vari-ND, allows you to dial in 2 to 8 stops of density in the field.  This increases shutter speeds and allows for some very creative effects, such as streaking clouds and cotton candy water.  This is one that is impossible to recreate digitally and I’m starting to use this filter more lately with great creative effect.

The filter I no longer carry with me: a warming filter.  Back in the film days, a warming filter was critical on overcast days to correct the color temperature (similar to white balance) and eliminate weird color casts.  With digital, we just shoot in RAW and change the white balance to whatever we desire.  RIP, my dear old warming filter.

That’s it, folks.  Pretty simple kit but it does everything I need it to do.  I likely won’t have a chance to post any entries while we’re away.  You can count on a thorough trip report upon our return from the Sonoran Desert, though.  I’ll see ya in a few days!

Got something to say about my filter choices or would you like to add to or subtract from my list?  Leave a comment and someone might just find it useful!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2010 9:05 am

    Hello Bret,
    What do you mean with “The 2 stop can be used as a 1 stop” ? You mean overexpose and then reduce the exposure inside the RAW editor?

    • February 19, 2010 10:55 am


      Graduated neutral density filters are darkest at the top. So, a 2 stop GND is really only 2 stops in the top 1/8 or so of the filter. If you don’t pull the filter all the way down over your front lens element you’ll only be using about 1 stop of gradation as opposed to the full 2 (with a 2 stop GND). It’s a handy little cheat when 2 stops is just too much.

      • February 19, 2010 5:44 pm

        Hello Bret,
        I know how the GND works, but you got my a bit confused, a 2 stop GND, is a 2 stop GND, how do you use it as 1 stop? thats my actually question?
        Using a 2 stop GND is always straightforward depending on the exposure difference between the highlights and the midtones of your shot.
        Do you mean that you use the 2 stop GND as 1 stop GND because it only affects the top part of the shot? but then again its not accurate since a 2 stop GND is designed to act as a GND and not as a solid ND… 🙂

      • February 19, 2010 9:42 pm

        Kostas, You’re right that a 2 stop GND is a 2 stop GND. I use a 2 stop GND as a 1 stop GND by not pulling the filter all the day down across the front lens element, thus only using the light part of the gradation (1 stop). The 2 stop, darkest part of the gradation is above the lens and outside of the lens field of view, hence it is not being used. This technique is not describing the use of a GND as a solid ND. This is very simple to explain in person and less so on the ‘net. I hope my explanation clarifies this for you.

      • February 20, 2010 2:27 am

        Surely does mate! I just was confused initially if I was missing something 🙂
        Keep up the lovely work! 🙂

  2. February 19, 2010 10:58 am

    Another great post Bret. One thing- you didn’t specify if your GND filters are soft or hard edge. I currently have a set of soft edge GNDs but I feel that I need to adjust that and mix in one or two hard edge filters as well.

    Have a safe & productive trip!


    • February 19, 2010 11:16 am

      Ah, good point! I use soft step GND’s. If you live near the coast it might be a good idea to keep a 2 or 3 stop hard step GND in your bag, too!

  3. February 19, 2010 12:05 pm

    Lemme see if I have this right: You’re headed to the warm desert and I’m sitting here at 20 degrees and snow. That’s wrong on so many levels. But then, life isn’t fair. Have fun

    My filter selection is the same as yours with 2 exceptions: I only carry the 2 stop GND and I don’t carry a VND though I may look a little more closely at that.

    For the polarizer, I use Cokin’s circular polarizer with the P adapter and the way that filter sits in the holder I’ve had no problems with vignetting. No problems that is since I took my trusty Dremel tool and trimmed off the front half of the P adapter. I still have one slot for a GND but the polarizer fits into the opening at the back of the holder. Once the front of the adapter was gone, so were the vignetting problems.

  4. Paulie permalink
    February 20, 2010 6:41 am

    I concede that Photomatix can replace a GND… But I like what the Darryl Benson Reverse GND can do for sun just peeking over the horizon. Guess I’ll sell my current 3-stop Galen and get the Benson GND.
    That reverse grad is a necessary one for sun just above the horizon, but other than that, Photomatix can handle most situations.


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