Are photo filters worthwhile?


I will admit to owning a box of filters of many types.  Some I have not used for years, but some of them can get used every week.  So what should you have in your filter box?

However, before rushing out to get filters, you do need to standardize your equipment.  The first thing I did when I unpacked my new camera was to check the size of the lens diameter.  It was 55 mm.  The second thing I did was to rake through my collection of stepping rings to screw on to the end of the lens to bring the diameter up to 62 mm.

The first reason was to make the new camera lens compatible with my box of photographic filters.  The vast majority of these are 62 mm, which is a good size as it is larger than most 35 mm camera lenses, so will not produce a vignetting effect if you stack a few of them together, such as a polarizer and a +1 magnifier.

So here’s what I think you should have.  The first one is called simply a Skylight 1A.  This filter does make the sky a little deeper, but the main reason to have it is as a sacrificial piece of glass, so that your good, expensive lens does not get scratched.  Skylight 1A’s are very cheap.

One of the nicest filter effects is what is called “center spot soft focus”.  Now this just means the center is in focus and the edges are nicely soft and blurred.  This effect is used by portrait and wedding photographers all over the world to produce that wonderful “romantic” photograph.

Now to use this filter.  If you have an SLR (single lens reflex) camera or a digital, you actually look through the lens when you are focusing and what you see is what you get (the WYSIWYG principle, mentioned many times in this column).  Set your lens on the largest aperture you can (around f5.6 or f4 is fine).  Focus on your subject, keeping the face in the center of the screen.  Now bring up your magic soft focus filter and place it over the lens and what do you see?  The face is in focus and the edges are all blurred!  Try some different f stops as well (it makes the center spot larger or smaller) and record the details in your trusty notebook!

You can also use these filters with any compact point and shoot camera, but it is a little more hit and miss, as there’s no WYSIWYG with compacts.  What you have to do is position the center of the filter over the lens and, while keeping it there, bring the camera up to your eye, compose the shot and then shoot.  Takes some fiddling and manual dexterity and take a few shots as you are really flying blind.

The next one is the polarizer.  I have mentioned polarizers before, but the difference between polarized sunlit shots and unpolarized is incredible.  The depth of color when you polarize is fantastic.  As you rotate the polarizing filter, the reflections on any shiny surface, be that grass, trees, water or whatever, just disappear, leaving the undiluted bold color.

Soft romantic effects can be produced in many ways, and here are a few tried and true methods, and the first is super inexpensive as well.  Just gently breathe on the Skylight 1A filter just before you take the shot.  Your warm breath will impart a “mist” to produce a wonderfully misty portrait, or that early morning mist look for landscapes.  Remember that the “misting” only lasts a few seconds, so make sure you have the camera pre-focused and ready to shoot.  If you have control over the aperture, try around f4 as well.

Another interesting result is by smearing Vaseline on the same Skylight 1A and seeing the different effects you get.  Do not smear the Vaseline on the end of your lens.  It is impossible to get off without washing in hot soapy water, something you can do with a filter, but not with your lens.

There are many more filters, colored effects, graduated effects, star cross and more.  Filter photography is fun.