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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) to darken skies. But it’s better practice to capture the right overall 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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab), diffusion filters (opens in new tab), infrared filters (opens in new tab) and basic protection filters (opens in new tab) 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 2023
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One of the best circular polarizers is the Hoya HD Nano Mk II CIR-PL because it has good image clarity and is sensibly 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 traveling 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 (opens in new tab).(opens in new tab)
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 (opens in new tab).(opens in new tab)
An ND filter is used to control the amount of light that reaches the sensor without having any effect on colors, tone, or contrast within the scene. Effectively you block out light like a tinted window on a car does. The letters ND stand for neutral density and an ND filter can be a fixed strength or its strength can be variable. Unlike graduated NDs, a standard ND filter like this NiSi slot-in filter blocks light equally across the whole of the frame.
An ND filter is most often used to allow you to use a much longer shutter speed that is otherwise possible - turning exposures into whole seconds, or even minutes. This allows you to blur water, clouds, or moving traffic. Furthermore, in busy areas can even be used to eliminate the crowds from the streets.
They come in different strengths, depending on how much they reduce the light. This NiSi model reduces exposure by six stops - allowing you to increase the shutter speed 64-fold (whilst keeping aperture and ISO the same). See other options in our best ND filter (opens in new tab) guide.(opens in new tab)
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 (opens in new tab).(opens in new tab)
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 (opens in new tab).(opens in new tab)
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 (opens in new tab) guide.(opens in new tab)
Diffusion filters are commonly used by cinematographers, for creating more flattering skin texture, or for reducing the contrast in the scene. Tiffen is far and away the leader in this category – and the Pro-Mist line is the reason why. Offering the brand's maximum white halation increase, with its minimum reduction in contrast and resolution, these filters provide minimal loss of detail while rendering soft, pastel-like light. This makes it ideal for striking videography or softening blemishes for beauty and portrait photography. It's the choice of countless cinematographers, but the sheer volume of choice of different strengths is daunting!
• 10 things you need to know about camera filters
• The best neutral density filters
• The best ND grad filters (opens in new tab)
• The best polarizing filters (opens in new tab)
• The best variable ND filters (opens in new tab)
• The best protection filters for lenses (opens in new tab)
• The 50 best camera accessories (opens in new tab)