Dan’s Filter Guide

Before we get started, an important disclosure

My filter kit is a really important part of my landscape photography work, and I’ve recently switched my whole kit to the Firecrest filters by Formatt-Hitech. The graduated Firecrest filters are glass, which means they don’t scratch as easily as the resin filters, and the Firecrest ND filters are extremely colour neutral, even my crazy 16-stop ND! Save 10% on Formatt-Hitech filters using the coupon code DanCarr10 in either their International store or their US store.

Free Gift From MindShift Gear

MindShift Gear make the best filter cases in the business and I use them every day. What’s great is that they have a variety of sizes to suit everyone’s needs. When you spend more than $50 in their online, having clicked through one of my links, you’ll get a free gift at the checkout! My favourite filter case the the Filter Hive, which will instantly qualify you for the gift. More details about this offer can be found here.

Lucroit Filter Holder

I use the Lucroit filter holder because they have some wonderfully innovative adapter rings for mounting it to your lens. Usually you would have to use a 105mm circular polarizer on the front of a filter stack. These are big, heavy and expensive. With the Lucroit system, they make adapters that allow you to screw a smaller polarizer into the adapter ring so that it sits between the lens and your square or rectangular filters. This means I can use my smaller 82mm polarizer, and it also keeps the stack height much smaller which means less vignetting. In fact, they even have a second set of adapters that mount onto your lenses using the thread that’s usually used for clipping on your lens hood. This means your polarizer can remain directly attached to the lens. Two great, innovative options.

Formatt Hitech Firecrest Graduated NDs (2-stop, 3-stop, 4-stop)

Graduated ND filters are an important part of my filter kit. I regularly use 2-stop, 3-stop and 4-stop filters. I found that a lot of filter kits come with a 1-stop grad, but even though I have owned them in the past, I never found a use for them. I can easily pull a 1-stop graduated edit in Lightroom, but anything more than this would be pushing it. The 3-stop is by far the most used grad, if I could just own one grad, that would be the one. If your budget is limited then you can get an awful lot of landscape photography done with a 3-stop grad and a polarizer!

Formatt Hitech Firecrest 3-Stop ND

I have a square Firecrest 3-stop ND that I mainly end up using on cloudy days, particularly for long exposures of water in the woods where light levels are much lower and hence there’s no need for the 6-stop version. It’s also a useful density to have for long water exposures right at sunset and sunrise.

Formatt Hitech Firecrest 6-Stop ND

I have both a square 6-stop ND and a screw-on 6-stop ND because I find the 6-stop ND to be the most useful general purpose landscape photography ND filter. If I could just have one ND filter, this would be it. If I’m traveling super light then I would probably just grab the round one and a polarizer. If I’m taking the full filter kit then the square one will come with me instead and I’ll use the full filter holder setup.

Formatt Hitech Firecrest 16-Stop ND

The Firecrest 16-Stop ND filter is a pretty crazy thing! It allows me to make long exposures in broad daylight that are roughly 5 minutes or more. I have to say that this is a very specialized filter and I definitely don’t use it often, but it allows you to try some interesting things right in the middle of the day where the harshness of the light might otherwise make it tricky to make something worthwhile.

For super long exposures I prefer the screw-on filters because it helps to prevent light leaks.

Canon 52mm Drop-In Filter

This filter holder drops into Canon’s super telephoto lenses. It doesn’t come with a filter in it, but you can screw in any 52mm filter. I keep a 3-stop ND filter in mine, and I use this in my long lenses when I want to shoot with a slower shutter speed for panning shots in bright sunlight. Panning is a great technique that can add a sense of speed and movement to many wildlife and sports photos, but sometimes there’s just too much light to get your shutter speed down to the level you desire. This filter holder solves that problem.

The other consideration for using this, with an ND filter, is so that when you are panning, you aren’t always at your smallest aperture like f/32. That small aperture makes every microscopic piece of dust on your sensor visible, and that can take time to fix in Photoshop or Lightroom. If you’re working an event and cranking out hundreds of images, it’s just something you don’t want to have to deal with. Using an ND filter will allow you to pan with your f-stop back in the middle of the range where you’ll likely not need to worry about cleaning dust spots off all your shots.

Various Circular Polarizers

Out of all the filters I have, my circular polarizers are the most important because they can have such a dramatic effect on the image right out of the camera. Colours are punchier and water can be rendered completely see-through. Since it’s so important, I have several of them because I often like to leave them on certain lenses, like my macro lens for example.

When new photographers are looking to make the next step up in their gear, perhaps from their first DSLR and kit lens, they’ll often ask what lens they should get next. If they have shown any interest in outdoor photography, I’ll always tell them to get a circular polarizer, not a new lens. The difference they’ll see in their landscape images with a polarizer will be vastly more appreciable than a minimal step up in sharpness that comes from upgrading a lens.

If I was putting together a first filter kit on a budget I would go for:

  • Circular polarizer
  • 6-stop ND filter
  • 3-stop Graduated ND filter

With those three filters you can do an incredible amount of landscape photography!

MindShift Filter Hive

If you need a case to store all your filter gear in then the MindShift Filter Hive should be top of your list. It holds 6x 4x6 filters and 6 circular filters, as well as having additional space and pockets for a filter holder and spare parts. The internal section removes from the main case if you need to store it inside another bag, and there’s a hanger for suspending it on your tripod while you shoot.

Various Other Filter Pouches

Whilst I use the Filter Hive for most things, MindShift also make a variety of other filter pouches for different gear profiles. If you just want to carry a couple of round filters, or a couple of 4x6 filters, then either the Nest Mini or the Hive Mini would be a good option. If you have a ton of different circular filters, but don’t go in for using the big square or rectangular ones at all, the Filter Nest is the one for you, holding up to 8 round ones. Lots of options!

One very handy thing is that the Canon drop-in filters for super telephoto lenses fit into the Filter Nest Mini perfectly, so you don’t need to carry the large cases that they package them with with when you buy them. You can even fit extension tubes in there at the same time so the Nest Mini makes a brilliant super telephoto lens accessory bag.

Got a gear question?

Leave it in the comments below!

4 Comments

  1. Urs

    Hi Dan,

    I have experimented quite extensively with filters in the analog days some 25+ years ago. I used cheap Cokin filters and a flimsy plastic filter holder, also Cokin. Using the polarizer was a pain in the neck because of rotating front element of the cheap kit lens that came with the Minolta Dynax 8000i that I owned then..
    With the advent of digital photography, I thought that filters are a thing of the past because the effects could be achieved in post on the computer. This worked for me so far reasonably well for the majority of what I am doing. However, I more and more get the hang to landscape these days. There were already a number of occasions where I could not take the shot I wanted because of the lack of suitable filters, ND, that is, mostly.
    Through your blog I ended up on Formatt Hightech and found out that they also offer a variable ND filter (well, in fact, it is a double polarizer). I love that concept because it would spare me from the hassle with the holder. Is there a big downside that I am overlooking? Do you have any experience with such a filter?

    Reply
    • Dan Carr

      The biggest downside is that vari-NDs are quite thick and they can sometimes cause vignetting on very wide lenses. It’s kind of hard to say whether it will have this problem on your lens or not… if you’re shooting full-frame with a 16mm lens then it might cause vignetting. If you aren’t shooting that wide then it probably won’t be an issue.

      Reply
      • Urs

        Thanks for responding so quickly. Well, currently I would not intend to use it on another lens than my old 24-70 f/2.8 L USM. I am considering to buy the 11-24 f/4 or the 14 f/2.8 prime since years but due to the bulging fron element of these lenses there is probably no filter that works on those.
        So far I have not decided for any of the two as I am a little bit in a mental conflict with myself. Ever since I use zoom lenses I tend to use them at there extreme ends of the zoom range but not so much anywhere in between. Therefore, I guess I would use the 11-24 most of the time at the 11 end. From that point of view, I think I would be served with the 14. Also, on my first trip to Iceland some 17 years ago (still in my film days), I had a 20 f/2.8 on my Minolta Dynax 8000i. The spectacular depth of field of that lens at only moderately small apertures actually gave me the ability to focus on a bunch of flowers in the foreground and still have the whole scenery around almost equally in focus as the flowers. I never again experienced this anymore with any other lens. I therefore came to wonder whether that was actually a feature of this particular lens or it is just something that is not present to the same degree in zoom lenses. Sure, depth of field depends on focal length, but if that is the only factor then I simply cannot believe that I get so much less DoF when I compare the 24-70 @ 24 with the 20 prime. So, to make a long story short, how would the DoF of the 14 compare with the 11-24 @ 14?
        Sorry, I allowed myself to get carried away. This started off as a question regarding variable ND filters, after all. I might go for one, just for the sake of experimenting. Once I got used to it, I may likely go for some more filters and I am also likely to re-invest into a polarizer based on the refreshed knowledge through your blog.

        Reply
        • Dan Carr

          The DOF between the 11 and the 14 is not a lot. I don’t think you would notice it. BUT the FOV change from 11 to 14 is huge. You can create very different images at 11mm.

          Reply

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