Posted by: David Vernon | May 14, 2010

Huge Tracts of … Filters

Another Matthiessen Falls

Here’s a little lesson to impart on you landscape folks.

If you’re anything like me (a little lazy at times) in the field, you sometimes rush to a solution that might be better thought out. This is a truism when it comes to stacking filters at the end of your lens. I always tend to have a “protective” filter on the end of my lens – in most cases a Tiffen Digital Ultra Clear. When I’m going to be doing landscape photography, I will almost always add a polarizer to the end of my lens. If I am in a hurry – and for NO good reason – I will stack the Polarizer on top of my Ultra Clear. This is a mistake that I usually have to fix later. Let’s say it’s a little bright out and I feel like I need a little neutral density. On it goes and the stack grows. Then let’s say the sky is a little too bright and I think I need some graduated neutral density. First the little Cokin adapter goes on to hold my grad NDs – and then one or more ND filters gets added. By the time I’m done I may have four filters, a Cokin adapter, and a handful of ND filters stacked out at the end of my glass. And this – this is a bad thing. Okay – it’s not as bad as this (the result of having two many photographers who no longer shoot film getting rid of a lot of their color-correction filters) – but it’s still bad.

Why is it bad? In a word: vignette.

As you rack out to your widest angle (say 17mm on a 17-40mm lens), the field of view for your lens widens. It’s like you start seeing out the side of your lens. The more stuff you have on the front of your lens therefore, the more of that stuff you start to see in the picture. Here’s a shot from a couple years ago where I probably had no less then five filters on the front of my lens:

The black bars on both sides – the edges of the Cokin adapter. The corners with the angle – the rounded edge of glass filters screwed onto the lens. The end result would be a lot of cropping in to resolve my problems – potentially cropping out an important part of the scene. So – here are the lessons:

  1. Don’t be lazy – like some people. Take your UV/Clear filter off your lens when it comes time to do landscape shooting.
  2. Put your polarizer on in its place. The polarizer almost always helps – and worse case it has no impact other then the aforementioned lengthening of your filter stack.
  3. If you use ND, you’re better off with the fewest number of ND filters you can get away with. That’s why single variable ND filters are so slick – one filter – many different stops of neutral density – no stacking.
  4. Consider hand-holding your grad ND filters. This nice little video from photographer Adam Barker shows you how – and what it can do for your shots. By removing the adapter you can get the grad ND right on top of your lens and significantly lower your stack size.
  5. Invest in quality filters. While not 100% true, the more you spend, the thinner the filter might be.

The combination of just a single circular polarizer combined with handheld grad ND filters usually resolves any vignetting problems and leaves you with the image you visualized.

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