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6 Tips for Using Landscape Photography Filters

tips for using filters in landscape photography

What are the best filters for landscape photography? And how can you use them to achieve consistently outstanding images?

In this article, I offer plenty of tips for working with landscape filters. I discuss the power of circular polarizers, the value of graduated ND filters, and much more. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll know how to handle filters like a landscape photography professional (and you’ll be familiar with the types of filters that every landscape shooter should own!).

Let’s get started.

1. Use a polarizer to enhance the sky

If I had to pick just one filter to use for landscape photography, it would be a circular polarizer.

Polarizers work by filtering out light that is reflected toward the camera, which means they reduce both reflections and haze. Haze can cause blue skies to appear less vibrant – but thanks to a polarizer, you can minimize unwanted haze and produce a deep blue color:

landscape photography filters tree in a hazy field
A polarizer cut through the morning mist to reveal blue sky in this Great Smoky Mountains National Park scene.

Note that polarizers work best when you aim the camera at a 90° angle from the sun, so always keep the sun’s position in mind when shooting.

The polarization effect can be enhanced or reduced simply by rotating the filter element on the front of your lens. That way, you can preview the saturated sky colors without needing to take test shots.

Pro tip: Be sure you don’t take the polarization effect too far. It’s possible to over-polarize a scene, creating a dark blue splotch in the sky that’ll make the filter obvious and the image look unnatural. (It’s often a problem when using ultra-wide lenses that capture a huge portion of the sky.)

While there are plenty of great polarizers on the market, the basic Hoya model is a good pick for beginners. Just make sure you grab a filter that matches your lens’s diameter!

2. Use a polarizer to reveal what’s underneath the water

When photographing a stream or lake, the light often reflects off the water’s surface. In fact, it’s often impossible to see the rocks or plants that exist beneath the water, which can be a problem; what if there’s something of interest below the surface, such as rocks, fish, or even logs from fallen trees? What if you want to photograph the light falling on the lake bottom?

Well, using a polarizer, you can eliminate reflected light, see beneath the surface, and capture plenty of detailed images of fish, rocks, logs, and much more. Cool, right?

And as I mentioned in my previous landscape filter tip, the effect doesn’t need to be all or nothing. You can modify the result by rotating the filter slightly to retain some reflected light while still capturing detail from beneath the surface.

No polarizer was used on the left side of this next image. Notice how the reflected light prevents you from seeing beneath the water? But on the right side, a polarizer was used to reduce reflected light, allowing you to see rocks on the stream bottom.

polarized and unpolarized waterfall images
A polarizer can reduce reflections on water. That way, you can add visual interest to a scene and see elements beneath the surface.

To be clear, a polarizer isn’t always the best move when working with reflective water. Sometimes it pays to include reflections in the scene (especially if the reflections are unusually beautiful). But removing reflections can help focus the viewer, and it can also help saturate colors for a stunning result.

3. Use a polarizer to reduce reflections on wet rocks

Waterfalls are a fantastic landscape photography subject – but when shooting a waterfall, you’ll often run into lots of wet rocks, which reflect light to create an unpleasant shiny effect.

Fortunately, as discussed above, polarizers reduce water reflections. They get rid of the glare and put emphasis on the detail underneath.

Take a look at this waterfall image:

waterfall with wet rocks in foreground

It looks nice, but the rocks feature too many distracting reflections. Add a polarizer, however, and you’ll get a result like this:

waterfall with polarized effect on rocks in foreground

Much better! The detail in the rocks is clear, and the result is far more balanced and powerful.

And remember: You can adjust the effect by rotating the filter (and you can look through the viewfinder to see the effect change). That way, you can capture a nice mix of reflected light and rock detail!

4. Use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky

When photographing landscape scenes, you’ll often want to include plenty of detail in both the sky and the foreground. Yet you’ll frequently encounter high-contrast scenarios, especially at sunrise or sunset, which forces you to make a choice:

Expose for the sky and let the foreground turn dark, or expose for the foreground and risk blowing out the sky.

Neither option is ideal; unless your camera has a massive dynamic range, you’ll often end up losing detail in either the highlights or the shadows. So what do you do? What’s the best move?

Easy: You slap on a graduated neutral density filter, which will darken part of the frame while leaving the rest untouched. You will need to carefully position the edge of the light-to-dark filter transition along the horizon line (here, your camera’s Live View mode can be very helpful). The sky will darken, the foreground will stay the same, and you’ll get a much more manageable scene:

two versions of the same scene shot with and without grad ND filters
The image on the left was taken without a graduated neutral density filter. Then I added a filter and captured the image on the right!

When you add a filter, watch the way the foreground exposure changes in relation to the sky. It’s possible to overdo a good thing (in other words, don’t let the sky get too dark!). If you notice that the sky is unnaturally dark in relation to the foreground, try a less dense filter.

(Looking for a good starter grad ND set? We recommend the Cokin Creative filter kit, which offers several decent-quality filters for a very reasonable price.)

One more thing:

While graduated neutral density filters are pretty darn useful, they can be a pain to carry around, plus they can be expensive. An alternative is to use exposure bracketing and HDR merging techniques, which will give you the same effect through post-processing. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference; both options are great and are consistently used by professionals.

5. Use a neutral density filter to control water motion

lighthouse sunset with water in the foreground

Moving water is often the most dynamic part of an image, and you can create different moods simply by changing the way you capture water. A longer exposure, for instance, will create a more peaceful effect while a shorter exposure will freeze waves in action.

Unfortunately, while long-exposure ocean and waterfall scenes are incredibly beautiful, it can be tough to get the lengthy shutter speed you need without overexposing the shot – unless you have a neutral density filter.

water in motion at sunset with a lone tree

ND filters simply reduce the amount of light that enters the lens, letting you lengthen your shutter speed for a long-exposure effect. Note that ND filters come in different strengths, so the more filters you own, the more you can carefully control your camera settings.

A 3-stop ND filter is great for slowing down waterfalls just enough to get a nice creamy look. But when capturing waves on the ocean, you may need to use a 4-stop or 5-stop filter.

And if you use a 10-stop ND filter instead, you can slow down your shutter speed to a minute or more and eliminate water movement completely, creating a calm scene that feels quiet and tranquil.

The image featured at the start of this section required a 3-stop neutral density filter to capture the water’s motion as it crashed on the rocks. But for the image below, I used a 10-stop ND filter, which let me lengthen the exposure to a whopping two minutes!

smooth water lighthouse sunset landscape photography filters

Which neutral density filters are best? We recommend the Tiffen ND Filter kit, which boasts plenty of flexibility at a very reasonable price.

6. Use a neutral density filter to stretch the clouds

Clouds are an important part of nearly every landscape image; they add depth and drama, plus they offer nice background interest.

But while natural-looking clouds can make for a nice photo, you can achieve an even more stunning effect by capturing their movement over several minutes. Check out this standard shot of the New York City skyline:

NYC skyline with fluffy clouds

Then look at how a long-exposure approach gave me a far more striking result:

NYC skyline with stretchy clouds and peaceful water

In particular, notice how the clouds stretched in the second image (thanks to the 60-second shutter speed).

If you’re out at night, you may be able to shoot at 30 seconds or greater without issue. But during the day (and especially around noon), you’ll need to use a neutral density filter to dramatically reduce the light hitting your camera sensor.

I’d recommend a 10-stop option (such as a Lee Big Stopper), but if you need a stronger effect, consider stacking a 10-stop filter and a 5-stop filter. That way, you can use a substantial shutter speed that’ll create beautiful motion blur.

Note that the proper shutter speed to capture cloud movement will vary depending on how fast the clouds are going by. The longer the exposure, the more movement you’ll capture. For fast-moving clouds, a 30-60 second shutter speed will result in plenty of motion blur, but the clouds will still resemble clouds. Push the shutter speed out to 120 seconds, however, and the clouds will become unrecognizable streaks of color in the sky.

Landscape photography filter tips: final words

Well, there you have it:

Plenty of tips for using filters in landscape photography.

If you don’t yet own any filters, I’d encourage you to start with a polarizer or a neutral density filter. From there, you can see how you feel about the filter process – and you can think about stocking up on additional models.

Which of these filters do you plan to use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Rick Berk
Rick Berk

is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

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