The 10 Most Important Camera Filters for Taking Amazing Photos

Do you wish you knew how to add vibrant colors and capture stunning photographs like the pros? Camera filters could be your key to creating amazing images.

When you mention camera filters to the average person, they’ll probably think of Instagram or smartphone camera filters.

But physical camera filters were around long before those. And for professional photographers, they are must-have for capturing photos that stand out from the crowd.

A boat on a lake at sunset, photographed using a polarising camera filter
A polarizing filter is essential for capturing a dramatic sunset like this. Photo by Eugenio Pastoral.

What Are Camera Filters?

Camera filters are pieces of glass that fit over your lens. By altering the light which passes over them, they can;

  • Accentuate colors of a scene
  • Highlight a specific color or tone of an object
  • Enhance the natural beauty of a portrait subject
  • Get rid of reflections and glare

But, which filters do we need for accomplishing these goals?

Let us walk you through the basic camera filter types and what they do, so you can choose ones to help you create amazing images.

1. Polarizing Filters

If you capture landscape photography, real estate photography, or travel photography, your images could be greatly enhanced with a polarizing filter.

A polarising filter, another classic among camera filters
A polarizing filter darkens skies and manages reflections. Photo by B&H Photo.

What Does a Polarizing Filter Do?

A polarizer, or polarizing filter, is used to manage reflections, combat glare (usually from water), or to darken skies on photos.

Adjusting a polarizer removes the glare produced by reflecting light. It also reduces haze due to atmospheric scattering, which is essentially another form of reflection.

Using a polarizer is simple: view the scene through the viewfinder and rotate the filter on its mount to find your desired effect.

When to Use Polarizing Filters

There are specific situations when it’s best to use a polarizing filter. These include when you are photographing the following:

  • Blue skies: a polarizer filter can darken the blue color and make the clouds stand out from the sky.
  • Plants: leaves on trees or blades of grass are reflective, which can result in a lack of detail and blurred images. The use of a polarizer filter will reduce the glare of the reflections, revealing detail otherwise obscured.
  • Water: both still water and moving water are highly reflective. A polarizing filter will deepen the blue or green of the water and may even allow you to see underwater.
  • Glass: windows of buildings reflect any light that hits them. Reduce the strength of reflections with a polarizing filter.
  • Shiny metal: this is the exception to the rule–a polarizing camera filter will NOT reduce reflections on metal. You’ll need to use the polarizer on the light source itself. A dulling agent can also be applied to the metal if you’re out of options.
Two images of a rocky coastline, one taken without a polarizing filter and one taken with a polarizing filter
A polarizing filter has darkened the color of the water in this coastal shot.
Two images looking up a skyscraper: one taken without a polarizing filter and one take with a polarizing filter
A polarizing filter reduces reflections on windows, as in this shot of a skyscraper, above.

When to Use a Polarizer

Any time you encounter glare in a scene, a polarizer can help. Remember, foliage and reflections can be controlled by polarizers, but metal objects require lighting control, not a lens filter.

Linear or Circular Polarizer Filter?

There are two common types of polarizing filters: linear and circular polarizers (CP). If the filter does not specify it is a circular polarizer, it’s probably linear.

Linear polarizers are usually less expensive, but the majority of modern cameras with auto-focus and in-lens metering, are only compatible with circular polarizers. This is true for both film and digital cameras.

2. UV and Skylight Camera Filters

UV filters block the level of ultraviolet light hitting the camera’s sensor.

What Does a UV Filter Do?

For many photographers, though, the main purpose of using a UV filter or Skylight filter (sometimes called a 1A filter) is purely for protection. The idea being that the disposable piece of glass on the front of the lens, takes the brunt of any accidental lens damage.

UV Protective Filter

How a UV Filter Helps

Not only does it stop expensive lenses from damage, but it also blocks anything in the optical path of the lens that would degrade image quality.

But do note, a cheap filter on an expensive lens is not the best solution. Thankfully, there are high-quality camera filters available.

Two images of a seas shell on a beach one taken with a skylight filter and one taken without.
Examples of shots taken with (top) and without (bottom) a UV filter

The Difference between UV and Skylight Camera Filters

Both filter out ultraviolet light, but a 1A Skylight filter also adds a slight warm tint to shots.

When to Use a UV Filter

So, when do we use a UV filter? Many modern lenses have deeply recessed front elements, which means the addition of a filter may not be necessary. Plus there is the risk they could cause lens flare.

Sometimes you will get a better measure of protection by using a hard lens shade. Still, high-quality UV camera filters are often a good general lens protection measure.

3. Graduated Neutral Density Camera Filters

This is one of the most popular filter categories in modern photography and is usually used by landscape photographers.

What Does a Graduated Neutral Density Filter Do?

Graduated Neutral Density filters (GND or ND Grads) add density, or darkness, to part of a scene without any color. Part of the filter is clear, part of it is darkened.

A Neutral Density Graduated filter
A Neutral Density Graduated Filter darkens part of a shot that has no color. Photo by B&H Photo.

When to Use an ND Grad Filter

These are very useful for outdoor and landscape photography. ND Grad filters can make balancing highlights and shadows simple. Think of it as HDR photography without the processing.

Different Types of ND Grad Filters

There are three main types of ND Grad filters:

  • Hard Edge ND Grad;
  • Soft Edge ND Grad; and
  • Reverse ND Grad.

A hard or soft edge refers to the transition from density to clear. A hard edge is a straight line boundary. On one side is the ND, on the other is clear glass or plastic.

A soft edge is a gradual transition from full density to none.

Three images showing the difference between a soft ND Grad filter, a hard ND Grad filter and a reverse ND Grad filter: more common camera filters
The above shots are examples of when best to use Graduated Neutral Density filters. Photo by B&H Photo.

Both hard and soft edge can be used for sunrise or sunset images where the foreground is underexposed but the sky is overexposed.

A reverse GND has the same straight line that a hard edge GND has, but it gradually fades towards the edge of the filter. This is best used when the sun is at the horizon–place the hard edge of the filter there, placing the sun in line with the darkest part of the filter. The sky then fills in naturally.

When to Use ND Grad Camera Filters

It’s best to use these if you are shooting a scene that includes both under and overexposed elements, but you want to expose both evenly.

You’ll perhaps get more use out of a soft edge ND Grad filter. Plus, the task of placing the filter’s density edge in the right place is simplified.

4. Neutral Density Filters

Neutral Density filters (or ND filters) reduce the amount of light entering the lens and enables photographers to use long exposures.

They are especially useful for capturing motion blur photography or softening water.

Another one of the classic camera filters, a Neutral Density filter
A square shaped Neutral Density filter. Photo by B&H Photo.

What Does an ND Filter Do?

An ND filter works by blocking the light entering the camera. Density is an old film term for black or darkness. Neutral refers to adding no color cast.

For instance, waves crashing against a pier, a stream rushing over rocks, or storm clouds moving can be blurred with a long shutter speed and an ND filter. They enable you to use longer shutter speeds on bright days.

Two images of a waterfall: one with a Neutral Density camera filter and one without
The waterfall shots above show how ND filters can smooth moving water.
A table showing how a popular brand of ND filter can slow shutter speed
A chart showing how to slow your shutter speed using an ND filter. Chart by B&H Photo.

Outdoor fill flash is another situation where using ND filters can help. Your camera may have superb flash automation, but if you want to blend fill flash with selective focus, ND filters are a good choice.

Related Article: Ultimate Guide to Flash Photography

When to Use ND Camera Filters

ND filters allow you to be creative, especially when it comes to motion blur. For example, if the scene requires 1/125th at f11 and ISO 100, you can add in a ten stop (+10) ND filter so you can expose at 16 full seconds at f16!

5. Color Correction Filters

Digital photography is so versatile: you can adjust color temperatures or white balance in camera or in post-production.

So why is there a need for color correction filters if we can edit in post-production? Well for one, it saves time in post-production.

What Do Color Correction Filters Do?

CC filters balance colors and help render natural colors in images. Think back to when film photography was king. Different light sources and films sensitized for different light temperatures. They were corrected for a natural white balance either by printing filters or color correction camera filters (or CC filters).

A range of blue color correction camera filters
A range of color correction filters. Photo by B&H Photo.

How Color Correction Filters Work

Setting a digital camera to a specific white balance is often all that is needed, but a real estate photographer or someone taking photos of painted art can achieve a little bit of fine tuning by using a CC filter. By using camera settings and CC filters on the lens, the post-processing time is minimized.

Another benefit is that colors can be rendered more accurately. This may be vital for imaging flat art for sale, for instance, or for real estate clients.

When to Use Color Correction Filters

Most color correction can be done in digital camera settings, however, if you need more exact adjustment, these filters may help. If you are using a film camera, you will find a lot of use for these, as film cameras have no built-in color balance settings.

6. Color Filters for Black and White Film Photography

This sounds like a contradiction in terms, however, color filters for black and white photography were, for many years, one of the most important tools in a photographer’s kit.

Different Types of Color Camera Filters

Black and White film is made with specific properties of light and color sensitivity. Color filters are used to change contrast for certain colors.

An set of red, yellow and green color camera filters, to be used of black and white photography
A set of red, yellow and green color filters are the most commonly used in black & white photography. Photo by B&H Photo.

There are several colors available for such filters. These include:

  • Red filter: this contrasts the most out of all the filters. It darkens blue skies and makes clouds stand out;
  • Orange filter: reduces the appearance of fog or haze, darkens skies in landscapes, and can reduce freckles or blemishes on the skin in portrait photography;
  • Yellow filter: produces more contrast between blue, yellow, or white items in an image. It offers less contrast than the red filter.
A yellow filter produces more contrast between blue and white items in an image, like the sky in the shot above. Photo by B&H Photo.
  • Green filter: softens skin tones and minimizes imperfections in portrait photography. Can also be used to lighten dark foliage (some manufacturers make a slightly less intense yellow-green filter.)
Green filters are great for softening skin tones in portraits. Photo by Steve Harker.

Blue filters are seldom used with black and white film, but some photographers use dark blue and light blue filters to soften the contrast.

When to Use Color Filters in Black and White Photography

Many photographers still shoot on film. A large portion of current film photographers shoot in black and white, so color filters remain a useful tool.

Use these filters with black and white film to increase contrast, or to emphasize or diminish certain colors on film.

Can you use these filters with digital cameras? Of course… see our next point.

7. Color Camera Filters for Special Effects

Color filters are not just useful in black and white photography. They can create interesting color effects when used with digital cameras.

Color Filters for Digital Photography

A square shaped red color camera filter
A red color filter can enhance sunset scenes on color images. Photo by B&H Photo.
  • Red or orange filters: can enhance sunsets, the Moon, or other scenes.
  • Blue filter: makes a daytime scene look like it was shot at night in the moonlight.
This image of the moon was shot using an orange filter. Photo by Steve Harker.

When to Use Color Filters in Color Photography

These filters create mood, transform day to night, or enhance what’s already in the scene. They are a fun way to look at the world.

Attach one color filter to your camera lens and another color to an external flash to create a very interesting look.

8. Infrared Camera Filters

If you want to dabble in infrared photography (or IR photography), you may think about converting your camera. IR photography gives a unique and dramatic effect to images.

A digital camera optimized for recording in infrared (IR) is a very specialized tool. But that can be an expensive option. The good news is you can get the same effect with an infrared (IR) filter.

What an Infrared Filter Does

Adding an IR filter to your camera lens will block most of the visible light, allowing only infrared light to pass.

An infrared camera filter
A infrared filter blocks most of the visible light entering the camera lens. Photo by B&H Photo.

Please note, however, this is not to be confused with thermal imaging, as that records radiation (which is not light).

Infrared is mostly used for scientific and medical imaging, astrophotography, and surveillance.

Two images of a palm tree on a beach: one with an infrared filter, and one without
An infrared filter has a dramatic effect on photos – like this palm tree, above. Photo by B&H Photo.

In the same vein, projected ultraviolet light can also be used with a specialized narrow bandwidth UV filter (not the same type of UV camera filter as in point #1), to capture things invisible to the naked eye. This is useful for photographing art, currency forgery or for scientific and medical purposes.

When to Use an IR Filter

You would use this filter to record images in infrared light. You will also need either IR film, or a camera converted to record infrared.

IR filters can be used to darken images, but an ND filter is a better choice for that.

9. Close-Up Camera Filters

Also known as diopters, close-up lens, or macro filters, these filters allow you to get much closer to your subject without the need to zoom in. You can also stack filters together for greater magnification.

A range of 4 close-up filters
Close-up filters magnify your subject without the need to zoom and can be stacked for added magnification. Photo by B&H Photo.

How Do Close-Up Filters Work?

The concept is similar to a magnifying glass. However, be wary as they can cause distortion along the outer edge of the image.

You would use a macro lens that is specially corrected if you are needing to render close-up views properly across the entire frame with both the center and edges of the frame in focus and without distortion.

A shot of a bee, taken using a +4 diopter close-up lens. Photo by Steve Harker.

When to Use Close-Up Filters

These filters are very useful during trips to the beach or a flower garden. Any time you want closer than normal focus, but the results don’t have to be perfect across the entire frame, close-up filters are useful.

10. Soft Focus, Star and Other Special Effects Camera Filters

There are many other special effects that can be accomplished with specialized camera filters.

Get creative and add star points, soften focus, or even add bokeh to images.

Soft Focus Filters

Soft focus camera filters are great for portraits, glamour, or boudoir photography to soften the skin tone of a person. They give a flattering, romantic feel to images.

Two images of a young girl smiling; one taken with a soft focus filter, and one without
Soft focus filters soften skin tones in portrait photography. Photo by B&H Photo.

A soft focus filter can give a glowing quality to an image: the subject is in focus, but the focus is soft, not tack sharp, and edges may be blurred.

A soft focus image of a pink flower
A soft focus filter has added a glowing quality to this flower image. Photo by Steve Harker.

Star Camera Filters

A star (or cross screen) filter creates a star pattern: it will make lights in an image look like stars.

The number of points you get is determined by the number of crosshairs in the filter. For instance, a four-point star is produced by a simple intersection of two crosshairs.

Six, eight, and ten point stars are very common for this type of special effect filter.

A star or cross screen filter
A star filter makes lights look like stars. Photo by B&H Photo.
Two images of a city skyline at night: one with a star filter and one without
A cityscape at night, shot without a start filter (top) and with one (bottom). Photo by B&H Photo.

Other Special Effects Filters

Other special effects (SFX) camera filters include multi-image prisms, speed streaking filters, and shapes that can alter how out of focus highlights (bokeh) will appear.

A multi-image prism camera filter
A multi-image prism camera filter. Photo by B&H Photo.

For example, a popular shape for romantic pictures is the heart shape. Similarly, flowers and spirals are also used a lot.

An image of heart-shaped lights, taken using a bokeh filter
A photo taken using a heart-shaped bokeh filter. Photo by freestocks.org.

When to Use Special Effects Camera Filters

If you can think of an effect you want to try, there is probably a filter for it. Doing it in-camera also allows you to stack effects. In other words, one special effect in camera, and another in post-processing.

Try it out, you’ll find one or two that fit your personal style.

Screw-On Filters vs Filter Holders

Most of the filters featured on this list are screw-on or threaded filters.

Threaded filters are compact, so you can keep them on the lens even when attaching a lens cap or using a lens hood. UV and skylight filters, polarizers, diopters, and the color filters are very often screw-on filters.

A camera with a filter attached to the lens
Screw-on filters can stay on your lens most of the time. Photo by Soren Astrup Jorgensen.

Special effects filters such as ND or ND Grad filters often come as square filters made for use with filter holders. It is easier to control the placement of the hard or soft edge of ND Grad filters when using a filter holder.

A square camera filter holder
ND or ND Grad filters usually come in square shapes and you need to use a filter holder, above, to attach them to your lens. Photo by B&H Photo.

Transform your Photography with Filters

So take a chance and try out some camera filters.

Don’t rely on the ‘fix that in Photoshop or lightroom‘ mindset: proper use of good quality filters can elevate your creativity and save time in post-production.

Take your images to the next level and rediscover your enjoyment of photography.

Do you have a favorite camera filter? Is it one we have mentioned or another one entirely? Leave your answers in the comments below.

A woman taking a photo in an autumnal forest
Rediscover your joy of photography by experimenting with different camera filters. Photo by Ben Blennerhassett.

Now that you’ve learned these tips for stunning photos, you’re a better photographer.

Guaranteed.

But the fact is, the journey doesn’t stop there. There are more tips, tricks, and secrets--all of which will help you take gorgeous photos.

And if you want to learn all of these secrets, I recommend you sign up for the PhotoBlog newsletter. We send our subscribers all sorts of great stuff--including the tips, tricks, and secrets, straight from the experts. All to help you capture world-class photographs.

Did I mention that it’s all totally FREE?

(Oh, and we’ll send you a natural lighting cheat sheet--designed to help you use light in ways you’ve never considered.)

So to start taking stunning photos, enter your email:

Download FREE Photography Lighting Cheat Sheet

Subscribe and get a free downloadable photography lighting cheat sheet

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

Send this to a friend