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Choosing A Camera Lens Filter - Including Infrared, Neutral Density, and Graduated Color

written by: xanadu324•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 9/10/2009

This article will help you decide which lens filter is best for you and your digital camera by listing some of the most popular filters, what they’re commonly used for, and what effects you can get with them.

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    Black and White Filter

    I personally don’t use these filters. I’d much rather shoot all of my photos in color and choose to convert them to black and white on a case-by-case basis. Not only do I get the chance to edit the photos how I see fit, but I get the color image as well. You can easily make a color photo black and white, but without many hours of post-processing you cannot make a black and white photo color. Do not let my opinion dissuade you from using these filters, just be absolutely sure you want that photo to be black and white.

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    Graduated Color Filter

    No, these filters have not finished school. They are called gradated filters because they gradually increase the density of color from one side of the filter to the other. They come in a variety of colors such as brown, blue, and magenta. These are fun filters to experiment with, but don’t always give a great effect. If you want to experiment with these filters, do what I do and take a photo of the subject before using the filter, and then take one with the filter. If you don’t like the results, you still have an unfettered image.

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    Neutral Density Filter

    A neutral density filter absorbs wavelengths of light. These filters allow you to use a slower shutter speed or a wider aperture when it wouldn’t normally be possible. The best times to use an ND filter (what a neutral density filter is commonly shortened to) would be smoothing water movement when you want the water to look silkier rather than stopped in time, to achieve a shallower depth of field when there’s very bright light, enabling a larger aperture, to make moving objects less visible or not visible at all, and to introduce blur to moving objects like flowing water, a person riding a bike, or your dog running along the beach.

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    Special Effect Filters

    There are many different types of special effect filters.

    Color graduation filters can add colors to the image adding a touch of reality, such as adding a darker shade of blue to the sky. They come in different tones, usually from 1 to 5 with 1 having the least amount of change and 5 being the densest amount of color. There are also solid color filters which, like graduation filters, add a tone of color. The difference is that it color casts the entire photo rather than just a portion. They also come in ranges from 1-5 with 1 being the weakest change and 5 being the strongest amount of color.

    Star effect filters, depending on the pattern and the size of the grid, give light sources and reflections a multi-beam star look. Most of these filters have a mount so the photographer can turn the filter to get the desired effect of the star. The star filters come in choices of a four point star, a six point star, and an eight point star. There are also spectral cross filters which will not only give a cross effect to the image, but softens the focus as well.

    Soft image filters and fog filters can be used when you want a look of surrealism in your photos. Soft focus will rid the image of sharpness and give a blurred look, while a fog filter gives the image a look as though it’s been taken in a fine bright mist, such as when it’s sprinkling outside or when it’s still very early in the morning.

    Multi-image filters are another way to play with your photography. When you attach a multi-image filter to the front of your camera, you can almost get the effect of what an insect sees through its eyes. You can get them in ranges such as three images horizontally, five images in a circle with the fifth image being in the center, or even get them with the multiple images being different colors.

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    Close-Up Filters

    Close-up filters are also called diopters. They require no exposure compensation, making them great to use if you are a beginner photographer and don’t yet know a lot of manual settings for your camera. When they’re added to a lens they reduce the DoF (depth of field) and reduce the minimum focusing distance for your camera. They can also be stacked for a maximum effect (a +1 diopter and a +3 diopter would give you a +4).

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    Infrared Filters

    Since you can’t see infrared rays, these filters are not necessary to use on a daily basis. They’re more for fun and experimenting. Infrared filters block all available light, but allow infrared rays to pass through. This gives an effect of extremely dark skies and white trees. The effect is even denser when the photo is converted to black and white rather than color.