Camera Filters and Effects

What are the best filters for my camera and what do they do? What effects do camera filters make?

Camera Filters and Effects

Cameras Filters and Effects - Most of the time, if possible, I like to keep the image as original as I can. I try not to use too many filters or effects to enhance the image I am after. The beauty of software such as Photoshop is that you can sometimes add these filters and effects later. This is whilst keeping the original file pure and untouched. On-camera filters are more permanent.

My first piece of advice here is that you try to keep your shots as natural as you can straight from the camera. At the very least, take two shots One with the filter and one without.

There are times however, that it is virtually impossible to get a certain shot without a little help.

1. Polarizer Filter

For example, there is no software currently available that can do the job of a good polarizer filter. I am thinking that this may never be the case due to what the filter actually does.

I would recommend that you spend a little more cash on this accessory and go for quality. Get a good brand and make sure it is a Circular Polarizer. Why buy an expensive lens only to put an extra, cheap element of glass in front of it?

You cannot mimic the effect of removing reflections and glare in Photoshop although you can add colour saturation and depth, all of which is what this great little filter actually does.

The times to use a polarizer can be the following;

  • Shooting through glass such as a car windscreen or house window
  • Photographing bodies of water. You can remove most of the reflected sky from the surface, and add the true colour of the lake, river or sea that you are shooting. With clear water you will add “depth” to the image as you bring forward any details such as stones on the bottom of a shallow river bed
  • Enhancing dark blue skies. Maybe for stock or travel photography or even property shots, it is nice to add richness to a beautiful sky. A polarizer is perfect for this as long as you are at the right angle from the sun (Approx. 90%)
  • Photographing flowers. You can again, remove glare and enhance colour with the use of a polarizer
  • To simply allow less light in through the lens to create a slower shutter speed. For example when shooting “milky” waterfall scenes (see below)

Basically, if in doubt when using a filter to photograph something, stick it on your lens and see if it improves the shot.

The image below shows the extreme effects of using a polarizer filter when shooting blue skies or water:

Beautiful Beach Photographed with Polariser Filter

Camera Filters and Effects Fig. 1

2. ND (Neutral Density) or Grey Gradual Filter

Of the very few filters that I ever use, this is one of my favourites, after the polarizer. It is simply a sheet of clear plastic with a slow, gradual darkening from top to bottom as shown in the "metering" chapter of this book.

Cokin Filters produce the best range of gradual filters in an array of colours; orange or red to enhance a sunset, green to enhance foliage or grey to add mood to a bland sky.

The ones I use are the neutral density or grey range. They darken areas of an image with affecting the colours too much.

3. When to Use Filters and Effects

Probably the only time I use this filter, and it is a lifesaver for some images, is when I am faced with a scene with strong dynamic range, e.g. when I have a dark landscape with a bright sky.

Your camera or meter will set exposure properties to cope with either/or, but generally not both. For example, you may end up with a well exposed landscape with overexposed and blown out skies or a well exposed and detailed sky with underexposed, dark landscape.

What the ND gradual filter does is to even out the lighting by just darkening the sky and leaving the landscape alone to produce a well balanced image…perfect.

4. Skylight/Ultra Violet Filter

From the minute I took up photography as a hobby, all the advice was to keep one of these filters on your lens at all times to protect it and to keep the UV light from having any impact on your images. Apart from maybe adding a little “warmth” to your images, there is not much else it will do.

Nowadays I don’t use them at all as I personally want the keep quality of the lens I am using to its maximum. Although there are times when I will use one, such as if I am photographing particularly messy sports or during a windy day at the beach where a film of “grease” can build up on the front element.

It is worth having one for such occasions but not altogether necessary and if you do buy one, again make sure it is quality.

There are obviously many, many more filters out there, especially in the Cokin range but as I said before, technology and software has come such a long way that there is actually little need to use special effect filters any more. Some are very “80s” and dated now anyway.

One other old favourite of mine was the red or orange filter when shooting black and white film, they really added contrast and depth to the skies and clouds.

5. Special Effects

If you don’t have it already, save up and get yourself a copy of Adobe Elements, Photoshop CS6, CC 2018 or later. Any version of these will suffice as I imagine there are very few photographers out there that even know Photoshop version 5 or 6 in their entirety!

If your budget is limited, there are excellent software programs such as ACDSee Pro Photo Manager that do the job to start with, and even some of the freebies are good, but if you are serious about moving forward with your photography, you would do well to get one of the Adobe pro versions.

One of the main reasons I say this is that there are so many 3rd party “plug-ins” that you can get at a very reasonable price that give you all the effects you could ever want, and a number of automated “actions” that greatly assist in your workflow enabling you to spend more time shooting!

One particular plug in which is currently free is Virtual Photographer from OptikVerve Labs. This is an amazing piece of software that you simply add to your Adobe program files and it appears in your filters menu in Photoshop.

Some of the effects are great and better than the ones supplied in Photoshop itself.


For example, this shot of an old steam train railway platform in southern England is nice, but the use of the "ambience" filter really brings the colours and mood to life.

Old Steam Train Photographed with Ambience Filter

Camera Filters and Effects Fig. 2

I must say though, that these effects are not to everyone’s liking but that is the beauty of photography and art in general, it is all in the eye of the beholder. I sometimes think, “What if 10 photographers all took images of the same scene? How could I make mine different?”

There are many effects to choose from which can give everything from subtle changes and enhancements to full-on freaky and unique alterations.

You do have a certain amount of control over the effects too, as not to overdo it.

6. Sepia Toning

Another great effect when shooting or converting to black and white is the sepia effect. The reason it is called toning is that when I started out, with a wet darkroom, the sepia toner liquid had to be added to certain stages when processing the prints.

It is all so easy now and can be done with the click of a button and if you don’t like it, delete it!

Occasionally I may take an image which I like, but don’t really like the colours. Converting to black and white can make a huge difference, and adding sepia can give it a real timeless classic look.

Old Steam Train Photographed with Sepia Filter

Camera Filters and Effects Fig. 3

7. Motion Blur

The use of a slow shutter speed to add motion blur can turn what would otherwise be a snapshot taken by anyone, into a picture that you would be proud to hang on your wall.

A good, sturdy tripod is essential as well as a cable or remote release if you have it.

In the example below you would need:

  • A polarizer filter
  • ISO 50
  • A small aperture of say F22 decrease the amount of light coming in. This would give you a slow shutter speed of 1.6 seconds or longer to blur the action.

Waterfall Photographed with Long Exposure

Camera Filters and Effects Fig. 4

For the opposite in the second image, and to illustrate my point, in order to "freeze" the water more you would need to use:

  • A higher ISO (which may add grain or noise)
  • A shutter speed of 250th/sec or more
  • A large aperture of F2.8 which lost all of the depth of field from the first image
Waterfall Photographed with Fast Exposure

Camera Filters and Effects Fig. 5

The same principle can be used for many images such as sports, moving vehicles, fireworks at night and many more. As an experiment, why not spend a day or two practising with slow shutter speeds, the effect can really enhance what you are trying to “say” in a photograph.

Once again, it is always important to remember the causes and effects of any actions or changes you make to apertures, shutter speeds or ISO’s. There has to be compensation elsewhere so be aware of what these changes are!

8. Isolation and Superimposing

To finish this section with a bit of fun, you could (once you get to grips with editing), always try your hand at playing with the images. As well as impressing your family and killing the endless hours on a cold, rainy day, you may well end up with some images that are worthy of stock libraries or even win a competition or two!

Isolation is the method by which you remove the background from a chosen subject completely. The reason for wanting to do this could be;

  • To use as stock photography where a designer can add wording for a front page magazine article, for example
  • To replicate the effect of shooting against a white background in a studio
  • To be able to replace the removed background with anything you like
  • Or just because you can!

Isolating a subject using the pen/paths tool can be a lengthy and complicated process. Rather than duplicate it all here, I have a page devoted to this at ATP that illustrates this in more detail (see link above).


The example on the tutorial page actually played a large part in my receiving the title of "International Commercial Photographer of the Year 2005" with the SWPP and BPPA (Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers and British Professional Photographers Association)

Once you have isolated the subject, it is up to you what you do with it. As you can see below, I have used my son playing on the piano to show what can be done.

Photo Illustrating Isolation of Subject

Camera Filters and Effects Fig. 6

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