Nikon camera lens filters -modifying the light that enters your lens

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

There are times when we want to modify the light that enters our lens and the Nikon camera lens filters we choose will to some degree reduce the image quality. Why? The lenses we mount on our cameras have very high quality glass that is almost certainly of higher quality than the glass used in the filter we may choose to place over it. So using a cheap filter will seriously compromise the high price you paid for that high quality glass to begin with. Rule #1: Only consider using high quality filters with your high quality lenses.

Types of filter designs

There are two general types of filter designs:

  1. screw-on filters that are made of glass mounted in a threaded metal frame and screw onto the lens itself, and
  2. front filters that are more flexible in use with any diameter lens

The screw-on designs are made at various diameters, e.g. 62 mm, 67mm, 77mm, et cetera to fit a variety of lenses. A potential downside is that you will need to purchase a given filter at several diameters to accomodate all of your lens inventory. Depending upon the number of lenses you own with different diameters could mean a significant investment in filters.

One solution is to use a step-up adapter ring. For example, I have a 77mm circular polarizing filter and have a couple of lenses that require a 62mm threaded filter to fit the lenses. I have purchased a 62-77mm step-up adapter ring that allows me to mount the larger 77mm filter onto the 62mm lens. The adapter rings are considerably cheaper than extra copies of filters at different diameters.

The benefit of the drop-in front filter design is that the filters themselves are relatively larger and “drop in” a frame/holder that is mounted to the lens. In practice this arrangement can be cumbersome and it seems that they are decreasing in popularity. There may be an appealing element to using these because it is so easy to swap out different filters at will. Frankly though, the need to do this is a remote possibility.

Filters we should own

Here are the main types of very useful filters to keep in your kit:

Polarizing filter

Perhaps the most useful filter of any is the polarizing filter. This filters out many reflections to reduce glare and other bright reflections of light that would cause distracting elements in your images. It also renders the blue sky a beautiful deep blue while also reducing contrast between sky and land.

There are two types of polarizing filters: linear and circular polarizers. If you have a camera that has through-the-lens (TTL) metering and autofocus systems, as all modern DSLRs do, then you will need to use the circular polarizing filter. These are more expensive, but unless you can do without your TTL metering/autofocus systems while using it the circular polarizer is the one you will need.

Neutral Density (ND) filter(s)

A neutral density filter will uniformly decrease the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor. This is useful when in very bright light, e.g. mid-day sunlight, when you want a longer exposure time that is not feasible at a low ISO within a given range of possible apertures. For example, you may want to shoot people in an outdoor setting (like at the beach) and want shallow depth-of-field with an out-of-focus background, shooting at a wide-open aperture. A ND filter can help in this scenario.

Here are some other kinds of situations where a neutral density filter can be useful:

  • Show the blur of objects in motion which require slow shutter speeds
  • Reduce the elements of distraction in a scene where people/animals/vehicles are in motion but the main subject is stationary
  • Photograph the movement of water in a stream, waterfall, or ocean when in “too much” available light to achieve the motion blur desired in the moving water
  • Maximize sharpness of an image a wide apertures to minimize the diffraction effect at small aperture

In most cases ND filters that effectively reduce light by just a few f-stops is all that is required in many of these scenarios, so you’ll only need to have a couple of these on hand rather than a whole range of ND filters. Different manufacturers classify ND filters differently, so be sure you know the light reduction terminology for the vendor you choose to get the right filters for your needs.

Filters for Film Cameras

Digital camera technology has obviated the need for several types of filters that film photographers have needed to carry. So if you do indulge in film photography, as I do, you may want to consider some of the following types of filters as well.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

This subcategory of neutral density filters addressed a problem that no longer exists in the digital world: controlling dynamic range. To capture a shot of a sunset, for example, can be made easier for the film photographer by using a GND filter where the top of the image (the setting sun) is more heavily filtered (light reduced) than the bottom region (the foreground) of the image where much less filtering happens. Today’s digital imaging easily employs High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques of overlaying a multitude of bracketed exposures to render the wider dynamic range composite image.

Cool & Warm filters

Back in the day when Tungsten-balanced color film was used with Tungsten lighting, the resulting images were correctly white balanced. One could have used a cooling filter such as a 80B Blue filter to use with Daylight color films with “Type B” 3200°K photofloods. Conversely if one had Tungsten color balanced film (an extremely rare animal these days) a warming filter would be needed. To use the film in daylight settings (in 5600°K daylight) a filter such as an 85B Orange filter paired with “Type B” tungsten color films would be appropriate. This is nowadays more an historical lesson than any practical advice.

Filters for B&W Photography

Color filters have been used for many years in black and white photography. Their purpose is to lighten or darken certain colors of a scene to render an improved negative image in camera. While similar effects have als been doe in the darkroom, it is far simpler to get the image right in the camera in the first place.

Yellow

This is usually the initial choice in modifying an exposure on black and white film, and is typically used to enhance the definition of clouds in the sky. The yellow filter does this by darkening the blue hues of a scene and thus enhancing the contrast between any blue (becoming darker) and surrounding colors. It also has the effect of reproducing green, yellow, orange and red in lighter shades on the image. Expect a slight increase in contrast when using this filter.

Red

A much bolder effect can be achieved with the red filter. Blue sky will be rendered very dark as if a thunderstorm were on the approach. If you want to convey drama, the red filter is the one to use. It will render the look of buildings with greater clarity and can also have the effect of cutting through some fog and haze. Expect a significant difference in tone when using a red filter which can make your photos more interesting and … dramatic.

Orange

Orange filters will give more dramatic effects than yellow filters do. Essentially a mix of the yellow and red filters, it is an ideal choice to span the effects of the extreme differences between the yellow and red filters. Blue skies will render dark and the orange filter will also cut through haze and fog to a degree. If the dramatic effect of a red filter is just too much – try an orange filter to see if it does what you want.

Green

The green filter is used extensively when photographing plant foliage of any kind. It renders the green tones lighter in the resulting image and gives a more natural feel to the image compared to the same shot without the filter. No filtration will produce darker foliage and will make for less interesting images. The green filter is more limited in application than the others but it may be just right for some situations.

Blue

While not normally associated with B&W photography, the blue filter can add to the haze/fog present in a particular scene to really develop a mood for a photograph. A blue filter will also lighten blues and darkens yellows, oranges and reds which helps differentiating these color renditions in a B&W image.

So if you are into B&W photography it might be worth investing in a set of these color filters to augment your capability when shooting film.

Filters you don’t necessarily need

This is just my opinion, and you will likely hear differently from others but there is no practical need for a UV or Skylight filter. When I bought my very first SLR camera as a teenager, the guy behind the counter strongly urged me to buy a skylight filter to “protect my lens.” Instead of helping a kid just starting out in the hobby he just wanted to pad his sales slip with another easy add-on item.

But after taking that advice as gospel I kept that filter on my 50 mm prime lens all the time, fearing that if I ever removed it the precious glass on my lens would certainly become damaged by dust or even scratched beyond repair. Of course that’s a bunch of HOOEY!

If you want to protect your lens, it comes with an accessory that every new lens has … a lens cap! I do keep lens caps on all lenses I own when I am not using them. This is real protection. Leaving a skylight or UV filter on your lens all the time places an inferior piece of glass in front of a fine piece of optical glass that was designed to give sharp images on the sensor or film plane. Leaving a skylight or UV filter on your lens for “protection” ensures that you will always be shooting through a (sometimes dirty) window. Caveat Emptor.

Oh, just one more thing … if you should lose, break, or otherwise misplace a lens cap – they are much cheaper to replace than a decent filter.

Happy Shooting!

Leave a Comment