Lens Filter Talk with Matt Bishop

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon4 Comments

About Matt Bishop

Matt has been on the Lattitude Photography Podcast (Patagonia and Pentax, Preparing for Normal, and Being a Social Media Underdog) with our own Brent Bergherm, but this was his first time here on the Master Photography podcast.

Matt dove into landscape photographer back in 2002, when he purchased his first Pentax SLR camera and used Fuji Velvia film. He was fascinated by the Mountains of the Italian Dolomites and Tuscan countryside, fell in love with a wonderful Italian woman, and never looked back.

He transitioned into the digital photography world slowly. That started in 2007, returning back to Australia after 5 years in Europe. He stuck with Pentax and has become one of the most well-known Pentax professional landscape photographers in the world.

Worst Advice Received – You Need a Gradient ND Lens Filter For Landscape

Jeff recently posted a question in the Master Photography Facebook Group asking for “photography advice you were given that turned out to be bad”. Listeners had a lot to share, way more than can be covered in a single episode, but Matt said for him the advice that was bad was that he needed a graduated ND filter for his lens.

LEE Filters 100 x 150mm Soft Graduated Neutral Density 0.9 Filter
Graduated Neutral Density Lens Filter

If you don’t know what a graduated ND lens filter is, check out this Lens Filters Explained Photo Taco podcast episode. Quickly, they are pieces of glass you put in front of your lens that have a dark coating on one end that blocks some light and gradually goes to no coating by about the middle of the glass.

Matt was told early on that he absolutely need one of these graduated ND filters in order to create good landscape photos. For him, that has turned out to be bad advice – especially for the digital photography world most of us live in today.

The Problem With Graduated ND Filters

The problem is these graduated ND filters cover everything at the top of your scene and if you have a landscape feature in the scene that you want to be prominently feature but has been darkened by the graduated ND is really difficult to “fix” in post. You would have to make a very precise selection of that area and try to make it look like the lower portion of the shot that wasn’t covered by the ND.

Even worse is trying to use a round graduated ND filter because you can’t raise/lower where that filter goes from dark to transparent so that it matches the horizon line. This forces you to shoot a composition that matches the filter instead of the best composition of the scene.

Square filters do allow for you to match the filter to the horizon line, which is better, but they are usually more expensive and it certainly takes more effort and time to get that filter lined up with the horizon. To be clear, Matt likes and uses square filters for much of his landscape photography, just not an graduated ND.

If A Graduated ND Works For You – Great!

Before you write that comment or email to the show about how great a graduated ND filter works for you with your landscape photography, we aren’t saying this is universally bad advice and there isn’t any place for a good graduated ND. If you use one and it helps you to create the landscape images you envision, perfect. Keep on keepin’ on as they say.

When Matt started out as a photographer he didn’t have access to the information that is so readily available to photographers today. There wasn’t any social media or YouTube videos reviewing gear. Back then you mostly learned from other photographers. Based on advice from people who were creating compelling images at the time, Matt invested in a graduated ND filter. He was using it for literally everything.

Sure, a graduated ND can have a place in photography today if the scene you are shooting has a really flat horizon without any major landmarks or features breaking up that horizon. Outside of that, Matt has learned as a professional landscape photographer that a graduated ND filter can do more harm than good.

How To Deal with Bright Skies and Darker Foregrounds?

If graduated NDs aren’t the solution for dealing with a sky that is far brighter than the foreground for digital photography, what is a photographer to do? First, let’s talk about exposing highlights and shadows.

Do NOT Blow Out The Highlights!

With the dynamic range of many cameras today you may be able to capture the light of the scene in a single shot, but you MUST make sure you don’t blow out the highlights. This is another skill landscape photographers really need to make sure they have figured out.

If your exposure allows the brightest parts of your image to become pure white, there is not coming back from that. Lowering he exposure in post will only turn that white a dull gray without revealing any detail. If you make the highlight too bright, that detail is gone forever. Nothing can be done.

Above all, you have to make sure you don’t blow out those highlights. You need to spend a lot of time with your camera so that you know really well where the line of blowing out the highlights is at so that you can make sure you are below it. Matt’s strategy is to shoot a stop or two under exposed because he knows his Pentax camera will allow him to get the exposure he wants in post.

Mind The Shadows

There is a similar, but far less drastic issue with the darker areas of your photo. If you don’t have an exposure that captures enough light to capture some of the details of the shadows you will have to battle noise as you raise the exposure of those areas on the computer. Still, this is far more forgiving than blowing out the highlights.

Most cameras from the past decade can do a pretty decent job of allowing you to raise the exposure of the shadows so that they better match the highlights and represent the scene we saw with our own eyes.

Multiple Exposures – Bracketing

Some modern cameras have good enough dynamic range (the ability to capture bright brights and dark darks that are far apart in luminance) so that you can adjust things in post from a single image pretty well. It can be really hard to know that for sure while you are shooting, so most landscape photographers opt for a safer approach and take multiple shots at different exposures.

You take 2, 3, 5, or more shots of the scene using different exposures (usually changing the shutter speed for the different exposures, but ISO can be used too) and then blend them into a single shot using software like Photoshop.

If blending multiple images together sounds complicated to you, you’re right. It takes quite a bit of know-how to do this, but well worth the time required to gain that skill.

Are All Lens Filters Bad?

Matt does not want you to take away from this episode that all lens filters are bad. Quite the contrary, Matt uses lens filters frequently in his landscape work. The filter he uses the most is a CPL (circular polarizer). About 85% of the time a CPL is on the end of his lens to help him cut glare/reflection and increase saturation/contrast.

Using a CPL does a better job of those things than you can do in post. Even a master at Photoshop can’t replicate the reduction of glare/reflection in an image that you can get with a CPL. Matt even feels like it is near impossible to fully replicate the increase in saturation/contrast that a CPL provides.

You do have to learn how to use a CPL. You can’t just screw on a CPL and have it work, the CPL has to be oriented so that the polarizing elements are perpendicular (90 degrees) to the light of the scene. Matt’s technique for this is to set his exposure so that this highlights are blinking on the back of his LCD (look in your user’s manual how to set highlight warnings) and then he puts on the CPL and rotates it until those highlights stop blinking.

Matt also uses ND filters for some types of shots. He hasn’t found a lot of use for a 10 stop ND, but 3 or 6 stop filters can help in some of the situations where you need to use a slower shutter and the light of the scene is too bright.

What Should Photographers Look For In a Lens Filter?

Photographers really need to understand that lens filters isn’t a place to where they should go really low budget. Really that statement applies to most photography gear, but the moment you put a really cheap filter on the end your lens it doesn’t matter the quality of the lens. Cheap filters will reduce your image quality significantly.

Look for lens filters made of glass, not resin. Scott B270 is the common glass used by good filters, nearly all of the companies actually source the glass from the same manufacturer. There are also companies starting to put out filters made of Corning Gorilla Glass, which makes them a little sturdier.

Speaking of sturdiness, even the Scott B270 glass is pretty sturdy. Matt has dropped his square filters made of that glass many times, and they have proven to be very shatter resistant.

There are lots of good brands of filters today. Here are a few in no particular order:

  • Nisi
  • Kase (what Matt uses right now)
  • Haida
  • Breakthrough Photography (what Jeff uses right now)
  • Hi Tech
  • H&Y
  • Lee
  • Hoya

You should plan to spend somewhere between $400 and $700 dollars on a filter system that includes a CPL, a 3 stop ND, and maybe a 6 stop ND.

What About UV Filters?

Jeff has gone on record many times saying that he sees no value in a UV filter. This falls in with some of the bad advice photographers are given as they get started. No reason to use an UV filter, not even for the supposed protection of your lens.

Matt agrees, he thinks UV filters are utterly useless! Use a lens cap or a hood on your lens to protect your lens.


Jeff: EOS Webcam Utility Beta.  Free.  Has some limitations like only providing a 576p30 video signal to conferencing apps. Check out my educated guesses as to why Canon had to limit the video resolution.

Matt: DJI Osmo action cam