9 filter mistakes every photographer makes (and how to avoid them)

10 tips for using your 10-stop ND filter: everything you need to know to ensure sharp photos

Although colour adjustment filters aren’t as necessary to digital photography as they were for film photography, there are some filters such as a neutral density (plain and graduated) or a polarizer filter that still deserve a place in every photographer’s camera bag.

In this tutorial our head of testing, Angela Nicholson, takes a look at some of the biggest mistakes photographers make when using filters, and explains how to avoid them.

Photography Tips: use a graduated grey filter

Worst filter mistakes: 1. Poorly positioned graduation

Graduated filters are available in a variety of colours including blue to boost skies or oceans and orange or coral to enhance sunrises or sunsets, but by far the most commonly used is a neutral or grey grad.

These filters are designed to darken part of the scene rather than change its colour. They are most frequently used to balance the exposure of a bright sky with that of the darker land beneath.

SEE MORE: Best graduated neutral density filter: 6 top models tested and rated

One of the trickiest aspects of using a graduated neutral density filter is positioning the graduated section.

If it is set too high the lower part of the sky will be very bright, but if it’s too low, the horizon will be dark.

Keep your eye to the viewfinder or on the LCD screen as you slide the filter slowly up and down until you find the perfect position.

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Worst filter mistakes: 2. Obvious graduation

10 tips for using your 10-stop ND filter: everything you need to know to ensure sharp photos

Graduated filters are available with a hard or soft graduation.

A hard-graduated filter changes quickly from clear to full density, while a soft one changes more gradually.

Hard grads are fine when the horizon is flat and there’s nothing sticking up into the sky, but if they cut across the a tree or building that extends into the sky it’s likely to be obvious that a filter is being used.

In these instances the traditional approach is to use a soft grad.

However in some cases even this will be noticeable and it’s better to take two or more images of different exposures without a filter and combine them into one.

SEE MORE: How and when to use ND filters (and what the numbers mean)

Worst filter mistakes: 3. Polariser with wide-angle lens

Best circular polarizer filter: 5 top models tested and rated

Polarising filters are used to reduce reflections, boost contrast and darken blue skies. When one is rotated to create maximum effect and the sun is at the right angle, the sky can turn almost black.

SEE MORE: Best circular polarizer filter – 5 top models tested and rated

As a polarising filter’s impact varies depending upon the position of the sun relative to the it, the effect can vary across the frame when shooting with very wide-angle lenses.

As a rule it’s advisable to avoid using polarising filters with very wide-angle lenses.


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  • mhammon

    A mistake I made was not looking for condensation between the filter and lens. In Hawaii last fall I noticed some of my exposures in the evening were very low contrast, but the histogram was OK. When I unscrewed the variable ND, I noticed that the back had a layer of condensation on it. Once I wiped it off, all was well with contrast. In high humidity areas or where you have temperature changes, like going from an air conditioned area to one which isn’t, this might be a problem for you.

  • David Worthington

    I have often found my CPL to be a distinct advantage on my 14-24 in certain conditions and have always been able to turn it to a place that does what it is supposed to do. Did you mean to say don’t use CPLs on wides if you don’t know how?