The importance of camera lens filter in travel photography

Camera lens filter is a thin piece of glass that fixed or screwed on to the front end of any camera lens. It acts as a filter to lights that going through the cameras’ lens. There are many different types of lens filters in the market. Most of them are invented way back in the film photography era. While they are probably one of the most important SLR’s elements when you are shooting films, most of them are less significant if used with digital SLRs. However, less significant doesn’t mean useless. There are still occasions or conditions when lens filters become handy. How about travel photography? Are lens filters important enough to become an essential item in travelers’ packing list?

I’m going to share my views here the importance of various lens filters in DSLR for travelers who shoot uncountable travel photos on their holiday. There are currently four (4) main types of photo filters available in the market, namely UV, Polariser, Neutral Density, and Colour filter. They exist since those old days when we shot only film. Let’s see how each one of them performs in today’s digital photography.

  1. UV Filter  – This filter is important since old days as films are sensitive to UV lights which can cause a picture looks hazy and blurry. Hence, UV filters are invented to cut down the Ultra Violet light spectrum from going through the camera lens and then the film. However, image sensors of today’s digital cameras are less receptive to UV light. Together with special coating on the latest lenses that help reducing UV lights, UV filters have become a less than critical element in digital photography nowadays. Instead, they act as a lens protector more than a filter.
  2. Polarizer filter – They work by reducing the amount of reflected light that passes to your camera’s sensor. Similar to polarizing sunglasses, polarizers will make skies appear deeper blue, will reduce glare and reflections off of water and other surfaces, and will reduce the contrast between land and sky. Polarizers are filter to visible light reflection so they are still important in today’s digital photography. They make your photos more vibrant than the actual scene you see, so they are creative filters.
  3. Neutral Density (ND) filter – ND filters are simply a darkened piece of glass to reduce the amount of lights entering through your lens into image sensor. The degree of darkness normally indicated as code numbers, such as Hoya’s ND2 means reducing light by 1 f-stop and ND4 by 2 f-stop. It is useful to reduce strong natural sunlight hence reduce the shutter speed or increase the Aperture of your camera setting to achieve identical exposure. Situations where ND filter is handy when you need to capture smooth flow effect of waterfall or ocean movement, or when you shoot portraiture with reducing Depth-of-Field. Again, this is a creative filter for capture something which your eyes won’t see and your post editing software can’t achieve.
  4. Colour filter – It could be cooling, warming or specific colour filter. It basically changes the White Balance of an actual scene, to either correct or create an unrealistic color cast. It is useful for film but not digital photography. Any digital camera currently including phone camera has this White Balance feature. They act the same way. Better still, digital WB setting can be fine tuned to your liking and it doesn’t need an extra piece of glass obstacle in front of your lens. So forget about it if you are shooting digitally. Check out my post on how to adjust your digital camera’s White Balance setting.

>>*Some in-depth explanation on camera lens filter can be read on Cambridge in Colour.

Do we need any of these lens filters in travel photography? The only filter we need to bring along is the UV filter. Travel photography is all about capturing what you found interesting on travel. UV filter will marginally improve the colour contrast and saturation of a photo to match what you see in actual. More importantly, for digital photography, it provides protection to the front element of your more expensive lens. It should be attached to all your lenses at all time. But bear in mind that lens filter, though is thin, adds an extra layer to your lens. This could harmfully affect the quality of lights or reduce lights that enter into your DSLR image sensor, hence, affect your image quality. So make sure you get the best quality UV filters in the market. Hoya HMC UV filters are a good start.

Switzerland countryside

(A good example of travel photo taken with only UV filter attached but still matched what I’ve seen in actual scene)

Other creative filters such as polarizers, ND or colour filters are not essential in travel photography. Unless you wish to create some artistic effect to your travel photos, these filters can be kept at home, with only one exception. The only time you will need them, especially polarizers or graduated ND filters, is when the best lighting or best time to photo cannot be planned or hoped for, or my LEICA 5-steps theory can’t be followed. Hence polarizers or graduated ND filters can be used to salvage some of the bad colour cast from bad weather or to enhance the vibrancy of colour found in a dull scene. 🙂 – Travel Feeder, your ultimate travel photo guide.

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