The Importance of Filters (or why I changed my mind on the importance of filters)

From the moment I picked up my very first camera many years ago, I was told that filters were the best way to minimise or maximise certain effects the environment can have on your images. Be it a circular polariser to reduce reflections and haze, a graduated ND filter to tone down the harsh highlights in the sky, a UV filter to block out the blue cast from images taken on very bright days or, most importantly I was told, to protect the front element of your lens from dust, smears and scratches.

So having spent out, what was at the time, a small fortune on my kit lens and basic zoom, I was keen to heed the advice from the vast amount of well-respected and experienced photographers extolling the use of filters back then and so I fully bought in to the hype of using them. But as my own experience grew and my knowledge of photo editing software advanced, I started to question whether the ‘hype’ was just that and if I was actually doing a disservice to my images by using filters.

I say this, as I was starting to find that lens flare was becoming more of an issue with an extra piece of glass in front of the lens because, although I had considered it a cool effect when I first started out, it was now annoying me to have it in nearly every shot (to a greater or lesser degree) when pointing my lens anywhere close to the direction of a light source, especially when it was something that I could almost completely convincingly add in PS, should I wish to. So too with a polariser, I found that the amount of light I was losing through it, especially considering I was using ‘slow’ lenses already at that time, just wasn’t worth the trade off and resulted in blurry, dark or grainy images, regardless of my persistent meddling with the holy trinity of ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed. As for graduated filters, I discovered early on that by exposing for the highlights in my shots and then bringing up the shadows in post, I had effectively consigned my ones to the trash. Finally, regardless of any damage they prevented, I was confident in the fact that I treated my kit like a newborn baby and so, in my mind, there was no way I would allow any harm to come to it.

All in all, I decided that in a world of digital photography, filters were becoming less and less relevant and so it was that I became one of those contrary photographers, not bemoaning anybody else’s use of filters, as such, but certainly not promoting their use.

It was for these reasons that almost overnight I stopped using anything in front of my lens, preferring to give myself the option of having or not having the extra benefits they supposedly provided, knowing I could add anything I needed in post latterly. In fact, the only filter I ever really used was a 10-stop one for my long exposure shots. With all that said though, it was the single most important benefit of a filter that I couldn’t miraculously replicate in Photoshop, and that I had fundamentally overlooked, that being preventing damage to the lens. This brings me on to the very point of this post…

On a recent photo mission to Northern Ireland, my photog buddy, Dave and I (along with our good friend, Cathy Baitson) had made a point of visiting a number of coastal areas, with the aim of producing some milky watered, long exposure shots of the country’s many craggy bays and this endeavour eventually led us, of course, to the Giant’s Causeway at sunset.

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Having made my way around various parts of the causeway, I ended up on the main part of the formation that juts out in to the sea and with my camera securely fastened, or so I thought, to my trusty ‘3 Legged Thing’ tripod, I aimed my lens towards a particularly fast rushing piece of water and set it off. Thirty seconds later and with that shot in the bag, I boldly picked up my kit by the lowered centre stand of the tripod and suddenly felt a gut wrenching shift in weight in my hand, as my camera slipped from the safety of its not-so-snug clamp (which I clearly hadn’t tightened enough!) and started falling towards a particularly hard looking hexagon, basalt column!

Even now I can see everything going in slow motion as it had then, but before long I heard an even more gut wrenching sound of glass smashing and sprinkling in to bits on the floor, as my DSLR tumbled a few more steps before coming to an abrupt stop!

With a heavy heart I reached out for my camera, almost having to turn away at what I was about to see and there it was

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The 10 stop filter had cracked almost in half! It was bad enough that the filter had broken but, in some ways, absolutely agonising that it hadn’t smashed out completely, as I had no way of seeing the lens element behind it and as it had bent itself in to the filter thread, it was a good 5 long and worrying minutes before we managed to prise it off!

Thankfully, although I didn’t feel thankful at the time, I’d had a very lucky escape with only the £100-ish 10-stop filter bearing the brunt of the damage, instead of the front element of my near £2000 24-70mm f/2.8 lens! Something to be further thankful for was that, as it had taken so long to sort the filter issue out and pull myself together enough after nearly bursting in to tears (manly ones, obviously!), the sun had set, meaning I could still get my long exposures in the dimming light by closing my aperture right down to f/22 and dropping my ISO. If life gives you lemons……

So in conclusion, whilst there is a trade off to be had with adding filters, from this one act of salvation, I now firmly believe that the positives far outweigh the negatives and I’ll definitely be adding something appropriate to my lenses when I’m out shooting in the future… and checking my tripod clamp as well!

What are your thoughts though? Are you a diehard filter fan, or do you prefer to add artistic elements replicating them in post? I’d love to hear your experiences.

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