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In landscape photography, just as in portraits, fashion, products, or any other subject matter, accurate color capture is crucial. What makes it so much more difficult with landscapes, however, is the wider disparity in dynamic range, not only between foreground and background elements, but primarily between the upper and lower halves of the frame– between the earth and the sky. If you are into shooting landscapes, overcoming this hurdle will require you to have one of two filters (if not both) in your arsenal, even if you don’t use filters in any of your other photography.
Polarizing filters– sometimes called the secret weapon of professional landscape photographers– create richer, more vivid colors. The filter pulls double duty by (1) cutting down on reflections from bright surfaces like water and rocks, and (2) adding rich blues to skies by darkening them and increasing the color and tonal saturation throughout the frame. Polarizing filters are most effective when shooting at a 90-degree angle to the sun. It will therefore be least effective when the sun is either in front of or behind you. Polarizing filters will also enhance clouds, but you have you to be careful with your lens choice. Just like you can overdo it in post production, it’s quite possible to overdo it in-camera if you use a polarizing filter on a super-wide-angle lens. The result will be uneven shades of blue in an over-saturated sky.
Neutral density gradient filters help balance the exposure between the ground and sky to capture a range of exposure that the camera cannot possibly handle on its own. If you expose for the ground, you’ll get a gray or white washed-out sky. Exposing for those awesome blues and soft, billowy clouds, on the other hand, will make the ground so dark you’ll lose much of the detail you set out to capture in the first place.
The filter itself is dark at the top, completely clear at the bottom, and essentially shades of gray in between. Available in two varieties, the circular version attaches to the front of the lens like any other traditional filter. The other type is a square or rectangular filter that you hand-hold in front of your lens. Both work the same way, darkening the sky to avoid blowouts, while leaving the ground untouched and unfiltered. It’s a seamless transition that ensures proper exposure throughout the frame– making sure you get vibrant, saturated, and (most importantly) accurate colors in all of your landscape shots.
Neutral Density Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons User Kain Kalju.