If you’ve ever taken a photo of a landscape and thought it looked flat or lifeless or didn’t like how bright the sky was compared to the foreground, you need a filter.
But which filters fix these problems?
What filter is the most essential?
These are important questions, to be sure, and I seek to answer them below.
Check out my list of four filters every landscape photographer needs, ranked in terms of which ones I think are the most important.
#1: Circular Polarizer
The first filter you should buy for landscape photography is a circular polarizer.
There are just too many things a circular polarizer will improve in your landscape photos for you not to shoot with one on your lens.
For starters, a circular polarizer reduces glare off of non-metallic surfaces. That means when there’s water in the shot, a circular polarizer helps render the water nice and clear without all that glare from the sun.
Secondly, a polarizing filter helps improve the appearance of the sky. It does so in two ways:
- Polarizers reduce haze, giving your images the appearance of a clearer sky.
- Polarizers increase the saturation of blue skies while also increasing the contrast with white clouds.
In other words, when you use a polarizer, not only do you get clearer skies but you get more impactful ones with clouds that pop.
All of that is highly advantageous because when you photograph a landscape in the middle of the day, you often contend with glare, haze, and skies that look flat and lifeless.
See a circular polarizer in action in the video above from Joshua Cripps.
#2: Graduated Neutral Density Filter
You know how when you take a photo of a landscape and the landscape itself is extremely dark and the sky above it is extremely bright?
Yeah, don’t we all…
That’s a problem because though our eyes can detect the range from bright to dark in such a scene while allowing us to see the detail throughout, our cameras struggle in that situation.
Either you expose for the sky, which makes the foreground even darker, or you expose for the foreground, which makes the sky even brighter.
There are a few solutions to this problem, though, one of which is to use a graduated ND filter.
Graduated ND filters get their name because their light-stopping power shifts from a lot at the top to very little at the bottom.
That means that it brings down the brightness of the sky while having little impact on the foreground, as seen in the image above.
With a reduced dynamic range, your camera is much more capable of getting a well-exposed image throughout.
There are two kinds of graduated NDs – a soft edge and a hard edge.
A soft edge ND is most appropriate for situations in which there isn’t a definite horizon. As seen in the image above, the filter has a very gradual shift in filtering power.
However, a hard edge ND is best for shots that do have a definite horizon, like a shot of the beach and the ocean beyond.
In other words, if the horizon is nice and flat, opt for a hard edge ND. If there’s some variation in the horizon, opt for a soft edge ND.
#3: Reverse Neutral Density Filter
When the sun sets on the horizon and golden hour is upon you, the time is right for some breathtaking landscape shots.
The problem, of course, is that at that time of day, the sky is bright, the area just above the horizon is really bright, and the foreground is dark.
In other words, it’s a nightmare for your camera, which will struggle to deal with the wide dynamic range in the scene.
That’s where a reverse ND grad comes in…
Reverse ND grads like the one shown above are purpose-built for sunrises and sunsets.
That’s because they’re darkest in the middle where the brightest part of the sky will be, slightly less dark above that, where the sky will be, and very light on the bottom to help lighten the foreground.
In other words, it’s the perfect companion to shooting sunrise and sunset photos.
These filters even come in various strengths, from 1-stops to 3-stops, so you can be sure you get the filter that works best for the shooting conditions.
#4: Neutral Density Filters
Not all landscape photographers take long exposure photos, which is why I’ve put ND filters at the fourth spot on my list.
ND filters are must-haves if you want to extend the shutter speed to show blurry water, clouds, or other moving landscape elements.
Where a graduated ND has a coating that varies from dark to light, a traditional ND filter has the same coating throughout.
That means you get consistent light-stopping power across the entirety of the scene, as seen below.
For example, you want to take a photo of a waterfall during the day and blur the movement of the water, an ND filter is required.
ND filters come in a variety of strengths, from just one-stop to 10-stops and beyond.
With a 1-stop filter, your shutter speed will double, from, say, 1 second to 2 seconds.
But with a 10-stop filter, your shutter speed will extend from 1 second to a whopping 15 minutes.
In other words, if you want a greater motion effect, get a darker ND filter.