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Best filters for photography in 2021: these camera filters can do things software can't!

Best filters for photography: Kase Wolvering Magnetic Circular Filters Kit
(Image credit: Future)

Despite what some technophiles may assume, photographic filters are still a staple in the photographer’s kit bag. It’s true that many of the old colored filters synonymous with film photography are no longer needed due to image editing software, but there are still optical camera filters that produce effects that software can't replicate.

Filters allow for different styles of shooting and image effects that would otherwise be unattainable. Exposures that are seconds or even minutes long during bright sunshine can be achieved with the use of a neutral density filter that blocks the light entering the lens. Polarizing filters can cut through glare on reflective surfaces like glass and water to reveal detail hidden behind. Some manufacturers specialize in creative filters for ethereal effects.

Some of these effects can be achieved through post-production editing software, such as the ability to apply a graduated neutral density filter to darken skies. But it’s better practice to capture the right exposure at the source, to avoid clipping in highlights and shadows. If the sky is overexposed at the time of shooting, your software won't be able to bring it back. Also, filters like polarizers can’t yet be replicated by editing technology due to the physical way light reflects off surfaces.

Filters are not only useful for landscape photography, where controlling light is near-impossible, but also for portraiture, architecture, and much more. In this guide we’ll be taking a look at the style, material, and sizes available of the very best filters in each class, including polarizing filters, ND grads, ND filters, variable NDs, infrared filters and basic protection filters to see what makes them so great. So, if you’re due an upgrade to your filter set, take a look down below.

Best filters for photography in 2021

(Image credit: Marumi)

1. Marumi DHG Super Circular PL

A polarizing filter like this Marumi can darken blue skies and cut through reflections

Specifications
Mount: Screw-in
Material: Glass
Sizes available: 37-105mm
Type: Circular polarizer
Reasons to buy
+Water and oil repellent+Wide range of sizes
Reasons to avoid
-Some flaring-Light transmission reduced

One of the best circular polarizers is the Marumi DHG Super Circular PL because it has good image clarity and is reasonably priced. This filter is available for a wide range of filter threads so should fit almost any lens you have in your camera bag.

Polarizers come in two types: circular and linear. Rather than referring to their shape, these terms actually refer to how they polarize light: either light that’s been reflected and is travelling circularly towards the camera, or in straight lines vertically/horizontally. By removing this light, we are left with non-polarized light, which is why we can see behind reflective surfaces such as glass and water. Use it to peer beneath waterlines, enhance color in foliage, deepen blue skies, or remove shine from windows. Also, be sure to check out our roundup of the best polarizing filters.

(Image credit: Benro)

2. Benro Master 100x150mm Glass GND

Graduated ND filters like this Benro can tone down bright skies in landscape shots

Specifications
Mount: Square (filter holder)
Material: Glass
Sizes available: 100x150mm, 150x170mm, 170x190mm
Density: 2, 3, and 4 stops
Gradients: Soft, hard, reverse
Reasons to buy
+Minimal color cast+Incredible glass clarity
Reasons to avoid
-More costly than others-Frame and holder design is awkward

Tripod manufacturer-turned-filter maker Benro has whipped up an excellent series of professional glass filters and the Benro Master 100x150mm Glass GND is superb in every respect. High-end German Schott B270 glass and anti-glare coatings provide ultimate clarity. It’s also easy to clean thanks to the NANO WMC Multi-Coating which repels water, oil, dirt, and is scratch-resistant.

Graduated neutral density filters work similarly to neutral density filters in that they block the light going through the lens. However, only one half of the ND grad is coated with light blocking material, with the other half being completely clear. They differ in strengths and come in soft, medium, and hard gradients to suit a range of uses. Use them to darken overexposed skies in landscapes or other areas of brightness in order to attain a balanced exposure in the frame. If the Benro isn’t for you, check out our guide to the other best ND grad filters.

(Image credit: NiSi)

3. NiSi 100x100mm 6 stop (ND64)

An ND filter allows much longer exposures, so you can blur seascapes, rivers and skies

Specifications
Mount: Square (filter holder)
Material: Glass
Sizes available: 49-82mm
Density: 6 stops
Reasons to buy
+IR tech reduces any magenta cast+Nano coating repels oil/grease+Superior glass
Reasons to avoid
-High price

(Image credit: B+W)

4. B+W XS-Pro Digital ND Vario MRC Nano

This is a variable ND filter to handle changing light when shooting video

Specifications
Mount: Screw-in
Material: Glass
Sizes available: 42.5-72mm
Density: 1-5 stops
Reasons to buy
+Very low color cast+Sharp and accurate+Smooth resistance all-round
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive for a screw-in filter

When compared with high-end square slot-in filters this screw-in option from B+W might seem drastically expensive. But the fact it’s a variable ND with minimal color cast, astounding sharpness, and eight layers of coating exclusive to the XS-Pro range, means it’s worth the cost.

If a neutral density filter equally darkens the frame for longer exposures or shallower depth of field, then a variable neutral density filter adds the ability to alter the intensity. Designed mainly for video use, a variable ND is useful when changing light conditions mean you need to adjust the exposure level, but without changing the camera's shutter speed or lens aperture (iris) – which would change the look of the video. If this filter is a little overkill for you, why not choose another one from our roundup of the best variable ND filters.

(Image credit: Hoya)

5. Hoya R72 infra red filter

An infra red filter can give you weird color shifts and striking black and white images

Specifications
Mount: Screw-in
Material: Glass
Sizes available: 46-95mm
Spectrum: Blocks visible light up to 720nm
Reasons to buy
+Filters down to 720nm for true IR+Use of glass gives sharp results+Metal frame feels sturdy
Reasons to avoid
-Ideally needs a converted camera

The Hoya R72 is a high quality, glass infrared filter at a bargain price. Everything about this filter feels premium from its glass and aluminium construction, to the bevelled notches that help screw it in. The R72 even blocks light down to 720nm (hence the name) to remove as much visible light as possible.

While other filters have bespoke coatings designed to block out the infrared (IR) spectrum of light, IR filters have been developed to do the opposite. They block visible light and only allow lower wavelength IR light through to the image sensor. This produces ethereal effects where grass and foliage take on a ghostly glow. However, to make the most of these filters you’ll need to have a camera that has its in-built IR filter removed. We have a full buying guide to the best infra red filters.

(Image credit: Hoya)

6. Hoya UV Digital HMC Screw-in Filter

Protection filters like this have no optical effect but do protect your lens from scratches and bangs!

Specifications
Mount: Screw-in
Material: Glass
Sizes available: 37-95mm
Reasons to buy
+Tempered glass+Huge range of filter sizes
Reasons to avoid
-Not the cheapest-Expensive in bigger sizes

UV filters, once designed to combat atmospheric haze in film photography, are now used to protect the front element of lenses as they offer a clear, undistorted view. There are many out there made of a mixture of materials, but one of the best is the Hoya UV Digital HMC Screw-in filter. Made from tempered glass the filter produces minimal optical distortion and flare maintaining the lens quality in photographs. The only downside to this Hoya UV filter is that it’s a little more costly than others, and the bigger the filter the more it costs. But for alternatives, visit our guide to the best protection filters for lenses guide.

Jason Parnell-Brookes

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer,  writer, and former Technique Editor of N-Photo magazine. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients.