A Beginner’s Guide to Using Lens Filters for Your Camera

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Navigating photography equipment can be a daunting task for beginners at the start of their photographic journey. To help you choose the right gear and take your photography to the next level, we’ve written a beginner’s guide on how to use lens filters.

Let’s dive into all the different types, qualities and functions of the most popular and widely available lens filters for your camera.

What is a lens filter?

A lens filter is a camera accessory that is placed on the front of a camera lens. Different filters serve different purposes and photographers use a variety of lens filters to alter how light enters the camera lens. 

This creates a number of desired effects, many of which can’t be replicated using photo editing software. The most common and popular types of filters are ultraviolet (UV)  filters, polarizing (CPL) filters, neutral density (ND) filters, and color filters.

Should you use a lens filter on your camera?

Lens filters are suitable for beginners, professionals and everyone in between. Anyone who is looking to improve their photography and experiment with different effects should read on to discover how lens filters can be valuable additions to their existing kit.

Why use a lens filter?

For the space they take up in your camera bag, a lens filter is probably the most powerful tool in your kit. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with your camera settings and how ISO, shutter speed and aperture affect your photographs, lens filters can open up a whole new world of experimentation. 

While ultraviolet filters are most often used as a protective filter and play a highly utilitarian role, they can be the difference between the heartbreak of a ruined lens creating unusable images and keeping your gear and photographs in mint condition. 

Neutral density filters allow you to deal with bright light sources, experiment with motion for a blur effect and achieve special effects with long exposures and slow shutter speeds. 

A circular polarizing filter will cut out unwanted reflected light such as sunshine bouncing off water or glass, and enhance the colour and contrast in your photos.

How do lens filters work?

A lens filter is a simple piece of equipment that can protect your camera lens and help improve the quality of your photographs. Filters screw onto the end of your lens and affect the amount, direction and type of light that enters your camera. 

Filters are often coated with special chemicals that increase their longevity and help them perform their photographic purpose. Multi coated filters are often more expensive as their materials are costlier and they take longer to produce. 

All camera lens filters require a degree of maintenance, so be sure to check our guides on how to clean filters and how to store lens filters.

What type of lens filters should you use?

There are many different types of camera filters but there are three that reign supreme – the same three that form the core of our lens filter product range – ultraviolet filters, circular polarising filters, and neutral density filters. When you use a particular lens filter depends on the conditions and the effects you want to achieve in your images.

Ultraviolet filter.
Circular polarizing filter.
Neutral density filter.

 UV FILTERS

The aptly named UV filter is sensitive to UV light, which it helps prevent from reaching the camera sensor. Ultraviolet light sometimes gives images a cool or blue tint, so using a UV filter could help you capture more accurate colours in your photographs.

We’ve written a useful guide explaining ​​how lens filters affect image quality, definitely worth a read!

A UV filter doesn’t affect your camera settings at all. That means you don’t need to change your ISO, shutter speed or aperture to accommodate it. Because of this, many photographers leave a UV filter on their lens more or less permanently. If you happen to damage your lens, there is a huge difference between the cost of replacing a UV protection lens filter versus replacing the entire lens.

WHEN TO USE A UV FILTER

We recommend you have a UV filter on your lenses all the time. It doesn’t affect your image quality or camera settings, and it protects your lens glass and helps cut out UV haze. If you’d like to learn more about UV filters and how they’re best used, you should check out our ultimate buyer’s guide to UV filters.

Shot without a UV filter.
Shot with an Urth UV Filter Plus+

CPL FILTERS

A CPL filter polarises light, which cuts out reflected light bouncing off water or glass. As with polarised sunglasses, a CPL filter gives you the sensation that you can see through the glare of reflected sunlight. 

A CPL filter can make the sky look more dramatic and colours look more accurate and saturated. If you’re shooting the sea and the sunshine makes the surface look silver, a CPL will cut that out so you capture accurate colours. If this is your niche, you should check out our guide on which filters are best for water photography.

Polarizing filters also come as square panes of filter glass which require a filter holder to use, although mainly this is a concern for videographers or photographers shooting with vintage glass and large-format cameras. Our ultimate buyer’s guide to polarizing filters is really in-depth and easy to understand, a must-read if you’re considering buying this lens filter.

WHEN TO USE A CPL FILTER

When it comes to using CPL filters, it depends more on the conditions you’ll be photographing in. If there’s a lot of glare while you’re shooting and you’re including sky, water (like the sea, lakes or rivers), or glass in the frame, a CPL will help you cut out glare and improve the contrast of your images. 

Shot without a polarizing filter.
Shot with the Urth CPL Polarizing Filter Plus+

ND FILTERS

An ND filter decreases the amount of light entering your camera. This is useful when you’re shooting in super bright conditions – like a cloudless day in the mountains – or if you want to experiment with some motion blur or a wide aperture in bright lighting.

When you’re shooting in bright conditions, an ND filter allows you greater flexibility and control over your camera settings. For example, if you want to use a lower aperture for a shallower depth of field, or a slower shutter speed to experiment with some motion blur.

ND filters are graded by the amount of light the filter effectively cuts as measured in f-stops. You always have the option of using a variable ND filter for flexibility, or you can check out our definitive guide to stacking lens filters to learn how to stack filters on top of each other to best suit your needs.

WHEN TO USE AN ND FILTER

An ND filter is a great option if you’re shooting in very bright conditions or if you want to achieve motion blur. Without an ND filter, you may need to use a very fast shutter speed, a low ISO and a small aperture. But by limiting the amount of light coming into your camera, you have more freedom with your shutter speed and ISO in bright conditions.

If you’re finding it tricky to determine the differences between a CPL filter and an ND filter, it’s worth checking out our handy CPL vs ND comparison guide.

No ND filter.
Shot with the Urth ND64 Filter Plus+.

Which lens filter should you buy?

Our lens filters are designed for use in the wild outdoors. When you take your camera into the wild, you’ll encounter unpredictable light, a high chance of wind, dust, dirt and rain — and when you do, you’ll want lens filters to help you regain some control over your photography.

We’ve shared our thoughts on the 3 best filters for landscape photography as well as a full guide to the best lens filters for outdoor photography in the magazine, both are worth checking out for pros and beginners alike.

Ultimately, you should pick the filter that you think will add the most value to your photography as you know best what works with your shooting style. We also have an excellent filter comparison guide for beginners that’s useful if you’re new to photography and need more help deciding what’s best for you.

Did you know Urth plants 5 trees for every product purchased? Shop our range of camera filters and accessories here.

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