Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography


Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography

Tropical and Coastal Stock Photography - Images by Paul Timpa

I’ve written several detailed articles on specific photography topics, but I thought it might be helpful to compile a “Top 10” list of ways to help you take your photography to the next level. This will help tie many of the concepts together and serve as a sort of “quick reference guide”. Feel free to print this out, fold it up, and stuff it in your pocket or camera bag for next time you’re out shooting. If you incorporate even a few of these techniques, you’ll come back with some amazing travel or landscape photos. If you were able to take pin-sharp shots every time, that were perfectly exposed, full of drama, with vibrant colors, and engaging composition, that would be a good thing! These tips will help get you there.

Note: This article is mainly for those using D-SLRs, but some of the tips apply to compact cameras as well. D-SLRs are very powerful cameras. Because of the large physical size of their lenses and sensors (“digital film”), they’re capable of taking photographs that a compact camera cannot take. Add to that the full manual control over the exposure settings, and you can take extremely creative images.

So, let’s get right into it. Try to use some of the items below on your next shoot, and I think you’ll see a tremendous improvement in your pictures.

1) Learn to use “Manual” or “M” mode on your camera, instead of Program Mode (P), Aperture Priority (Av), or Shutter Priority (Tv). It may seem complicated, but it's really easy. In fact, I personally find manual mode to be EASIER to use than the automatic modes! This is because I'm not always wondering what the camera is up to and trying to override the decisions it makes in automatic. Here's an analogy I like to use: Which is easier? --> driving a car where you control both the steering and the speed, or driving a car where you control the steering but a friend controls the speed, and if your friend doesn't get the speed right, you have to start telling him how to correct it, hoping he gets it right. For me, it's much easier just to control both. Trust me, with just a tiny bit of practice, you'll be very comfortable using manual mode, and may even like it better than the automatic modes too.

There are two main reasons for using manual mode. Firstly, it forces you to choose a specific shutter speed and aperture. Both items will need to be manually chosen by you, which is a good thing, because you then have to think about what you’re trying to achieve creatively and stylistically with those choices. Using any of the other modes mentioned above causes the camera to choose at least one of those two items (shutter speed or aperture) if not both. Because background blur / depth of field and the representation of movement in a photo are directly controlled by the aperture and shutter speed chosen, it’s critical to select exactly what they are so you get the effect you’re looking for. The second reason to use manual mode is because on any other mode, the camera is choosing the exposure for you, meaning how dark or bright the photo is. The camera uses a technique where it tries to “guess” the correct exposure, but it’s just a guess. Sometimes it’s correct, and sometimes it’s not. The only way to ensure a correct exposure is to set it yourself. For more detail on how the camera makes its guess at the exposure and a great example of when / why to use manual mode, feel free to see this separate article I wrote on the topic:

2) Incorporate “Long Exposures” into your photography. One of the greatest things about photography is its ability to convey motion in a still image, and one of the most creative ways to show this motion is through the use of long exposures (using a long shutter speed). From flowing water, to car trails and star trails, to just people walking, long exposures can create magic in your photography.

[The photo above of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange was taken with a long shutter speed on a tripod to blur the people walking]

You’ll need a tripod or something steady to rest the camera on for this technique, because it’s not possible to physically hold the camera still for the duration of the long exposures. Moving the camera would result in blurry photos. Important: You should also use the 10-second self timer to take the shot, as touching the camera to press the shutter button will shake it enough to cause a blurry shot. Better yet, you can buy an inexpensive remote control to trigger the shutter, which allows you more control over when the shutter is clicked. To use this long exposure technique, set the camera up on a tripod or steady object, and choose a long exposure like 2 seconds, 5 seconds, or even 30 seconds. This shutter speed will result in a very bright shot, so set the aperture to something small (a big number) like F16 or F18, which will darken the picture and bring it back to normal brightness. If the photo is still too bright even with the smallest aperture, you can use a Neutral Density filter, which acts like “sunglasses” for your lens, and darkens the picture. Try this technique on water, cars at night, busy streets, etc. and you’ll see some amazing images. A great time to experiment with long exposures is at night, where you don’t have to concern yourself with the pictures coming out too bright. Some of the most stunningly beautiful photography is taken at night, and almost all requires the use of long exposures. At night, set your camera on a tripod or something steady, set your aperture to F5.6 and your shutter speed to around 5 seconds, and make sure to use the self-timer so that you don’t physically have to touch the shutter button. Experiment with the shutter speed to get the correct brightness. You’ll be amazed at the images you can produce with this simple technique.

[The photo above of the Brooklyn Bridge at Night, NYC, was taken with a long exposure] 

3) Use wide apertures. A wide aperture is what creates that beautiful background blur and makes your subject “pop”. There is just something special about a photo taken with a really wide aperture that makes it stand out. Whenever you see a portrait and the person is pin sharp, but the background is just a creamy wash of color, it just looks “professional”. This is also one of the things that a compact camera simply cannot do, because it’s a physical limitation of the size of compact cameras. On a D-SLR it’s possible to get beautiful background blur when you use a wide aperture. To further increase the amount of blur, use a longer focal length (zoom in) because longer focal lengths provide more background blur than wide-angle focal lengths. Standing close to your subject also increases the effect. The next time you’re out, set your camera to an aperture of F4 or wider (smaller number like F2.8 for F1.8), zoom all the way in, and try taking some creative portraits or landscapes.

[The photo above of a Pina Colada on a Caribbean beach was taken with a wide aperture to blur the background]

4) Keep horizons level and verticals straight. This one is easy, but it can make such a huge difference in the perception of your pictures. You could take the most amazing landscape photo, perfectly in focus with a great exposure, but if the horizon is crooked and slanted, the photo will look amateur. Always do your best to make sure the horizon is level when you take a shot. If it’s not, it’s a relatively easy correction in most editing software, and it takes less than 10 seconds to fix. It may sound silly, but it makes a huge difference. (Of course if you’re intentionally slanting the horizon for some kind of creative effect, that’s something different). As for “verticals”, that’s something that’s a little more difficult to control. When I say verticals, I’m just referring to any perfectly vertical lines in a photo like the sides of buildings, or walls, or lampposts, or anything that runs straight up and down. You get slanted verticals when you point the camera up or down, versus keeping it pointed straight ahead. This is why it’s so common in photos of buildings and architecture… you tilt the camera upward to include the top of the building in the photo and this causes the sides of the building to tilt inward. So how do you fix it? There are a couple of ways. Firstly, try not to tilt the camera. If you don’t think you’ll be printing the picture at a large size, then you can keep the camera level and zoom out wide with your lens to include the top of the building. Then you can just crop out the foreground later which will have the “effect of zooming back in”, except the final picture will have nice straight verticals. If the widest focal length still doesn’t capture the top of the building, you can try to see if you can take the photo from a higher spot like a nearby stairway. This way you might be able to get the top without tilting the camera upward. If none of those works, you can correct it in your editing software using the perspective control features. (For some situations, this may be the easiest way). Lastly, if you take a lot of architecture photos, you can invest in a Tilt / Shift lens (a.k.a. perspective control or PC lens), which allows you take photos of tall buildings without tilting the camera (I have one and I use it all the time). Level horizons and straight verticals really add a level of professionalism to your photos.

5) Rule of Thirds. The “Rule of Thirds” is a guideline to help with the composition of your photos – that is, where you place objects within the picture. The basic principle of this guideline is that you should avoid putting the subject of your photo directly in the center of the picture. For example, if you’re taking a picture of an ocean scene, rather than putting the horizon directly in the middle of the picture with the top half of the photo consisting of sky and the bottom half consisting of the land/ocean, think about putting the horizon in a different spot. The Rule of Thirds suggests that it’s more visibly pleasing to have main objects in your picture 1/3rd of the way from the top or bottom, or 1/3rd from the left and right, rather than splitting the picture in half. For instance, for the ocean shot, if the waves of the ocean are especially captivating, you can fill the bottom 2/3rds of the frame with the ocean and the top 1/3rd of the frame with the sky. This tells the viewer that the main point of interest is the ocean and its waves. On the other hand, if the sky is very dramatic, you could do the opposite and fill the top 2/3rds of the photo with the sky and clouds, and the bottom 1/3rd with the ocean. For people shots, consider putting the person 1/3rd in from the left or right, rather than right in the middle. For a sunset, rather than placing the sun directly in the middle of the photo, try placing it 1/3rd from the top and 1/3rd from the left. You’ll see that your pictures actually feel more “balanced” that way because the subject is not cutting your photo in half, leaving your eye bouncing around both halves not knowing which is more important.

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

6) Take sharp shots. It’s so common to capture what could have been a great image, but it’s ruined because it’s blurry. I’ve written an article dedicated to the topic of taking sharp shots, and I’ll include the link below. To summarize, the most important thing to remember is to use a shutter speed that is fast enough to combat the camera shake that causes blurry photos. My rule, which is conservative, is to double the focal length to determine my minimum shutter speed. This is especially true at longer focal lengths. So for instance, for a shot with the lens zoomed to 100mm, the shutter speed has to be at least 1/200th second. For a focal length at 200mm, the shutter has to be at least 1/400th second, and so on. If you do this, you’ll get a lot more “keepers”. If you have a lens with Image Stabilization or Anti-Shake, you have a little more freedom. Even so, I then shoot at a shutter speed equal to the focal length, so for an image-stabilized lens at 150mm, I’d shoot at 1/150th a second or faster. If you’re in a situation where you need a longer shutter speed than the guideline above allows, because the photo is too dark at faster shutter speeds, it’s simple: use a tripod or rest the camera on something steady. Alternatively, for “snapshots” you can try raising the ISO, but for important pictures, I wouldn’t recommend going above ISO 400 or 800 if using a tripod is an option. The other way to help ensure sharp pictures is to make sure the camera is focused properly. I recommend using only the center focus point, because if you use all the focus points, it’s much easier for the camera to accidentally focus on something you didn’t intend. I’d say more otherwise good photos are ruined because of lack of sharpness than any other technical problem. If you concentrate on getting this right, you’ll be well on your way to taking many more great images. More detail on getting sharp photos can be found in my article on this topic:

7) Get creative with Flash. It’s all too easy to just use the flash only at night, by setting the camera to program mode and popping the flash to illuminate your subject. This will get you decent-to-mediocre results, but with a just a small bit of effort, you can take your flash pictures to a whole new level of creativity. Here are a few tips.

Firstly, learn to use Flash Exposure Compensation. This simply controls how powerful the light from the flash is, making it brighter or darker as necessary. This is probably the easiest technique to use, and can greatly improve flash results. In your camera’s settings, there will be a setting for Flash Exposure Compensation. You can change the flash exposure, usually in a range from about -2 to +2 stops. When you do this, the camera adjusts the power of the flash accordingly. It can be very useful in many situations. You may have seen or taken photographs where the flash power is just way too bright. This sometimes happens with portraits when you take pictures from close up. Because you’re close to the subject, the flash power is too bright, making faces appear white or washed out. In this case, simply set FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) to a negative number like -1 or -2, and take the shot again. You’ll see the lower flash output produces a much more natural result. Similarly, if your subject is very far away, you may want to increase the flash output so that it reaches your subject. You can do this by changing the FEC to +1 or +2 or any number that works for you.

Another important time to use flash is during the day when there is bright sunlight. The bright sun can produce harsh shadows on your subject. The shadows are even darker and more pronounced if the sun is behind your subject. In these cases, it can really help to use flash. Pop the flash and set the Flash Exposure Compensation to -1 (so that it provides just a hint of fill-light) and you’ll see how much better your outdoor photos will look. I often use flash outside during the day.

Finally, you can start to use flash along with your camera’s Manual exposure mode, to capture amazing night images and portraits. For example, for a photo of a person in front of a nighttime city skyline, you can follow these steps: turn off the flash and set the exposure manually for the background, in this case the nighttime city skyline. Once you have the city skyline correctly exposed in Manual Mode, pop the flash to illuminate your subject. You will get a perfectly exposed subject as well as a perfectly exposed background. Use Flash Exposure Compensation to tweak the brightness of the flash if necessary.

8) Shoot in RAW mode, instead of JPEGs. Shooting your pictures using your camera’s RAW mode, vs. shooting JPEGs, will greatly affect the final look of your pictures for the better. You may have already seen my detailed article on this topic (I’ll put the link below), but to summarize: Shooting in RAW gives you the flexibility to adjust the contrast, saturation, sharpness, and white balance “after” the photo is taken. These elements are absolutely critical to the final look of your photo. When you take a photo using your camera’s JPEG mode, the settings for saturation, sharpness, contrast, and white balance are “burned into” the picture permanently and cannot be changed. The only way to adjust these after the fact is if you tried to manipulate the image in Photoshop or some other editing program, which could severely degrade the quality of your photo. Further, shooting in RAW provides a higher-quality picture because the photo is not “compressed” to make the file size smaller, like it is with JPEGs. If you want to take your photography to the next level, you really should be shooting in RAW. I often get asked about the vibrant colors in my photos – it’s from shooting in RAW. More detail on shooting in RAW can be found in my article on RAW vs. JPEG:

9) Use filters. There is still a place for filters in your camera bag, even in the digital age where images can be edited in Photoshop. Photoshop will never be able to blur a waterfall (not realistically, anyway) or remove glare from the ocean. This is where filters come in, and they can make a wonderful impact on your photos. The #1 filter that every photographer should have is the polarizer. It’s easy to use and can have a great impact on your photos. A polarizer reduces reflections, which has a couple of beneficial effects on your photos. For daytime shots, blue skies get deep blue and beautifully saturated, and clouds really pop. For distant objects, a polarizer cuts through the haze. On water, a polarizer reduces reflections on the surface of the water, allowing you to see what’s beneath the surface.

[The photo above of a woman snorkeling in Tahiti was taken with a polarizer to remove reflections from the surface of the ocean]

It also reduces reflections of water droplets on leaves and foliage, increasing saturation. For glass and other reflective objects, reflections are removed allowing you to see through the object. I use it especially in tropical locations with gorgeous turquoise water, to cut the glare, allowing you to see the coral and ocean life below.

Another type of filter is the Neutral Density filter. “ND” filters reduce the amount of light that goes through the lens (much like a pair of sunglasses reduces light getting to your eye), effectively darkening the photo. This allows you to use long shutter speeds during the day or at night, without the picture getting too bright. The long shutter speeds will allow for fantastic motion blur effects, and are necessary to blur moving water and waterfall photos that are taken during the day.

[The photo above of a waterfall in Costa Rica was taken with a Neutral Density filter to allow for a long exposure during bright daylight conditions]

A twist on the ND filter is the Graduated ND filter, which reduces the amount of light going through the lens, but only for a portion of the picture (for example, just the top half). This is useful for sunrises / sunsets or any scene where half the picture is very bright and the other half is darker. You simply place the dark half of the filter over the bright part of the scene to even up the lighting for a perfect exposure. For more info on filters and how to use them, I wrote a more detailed article here:

10) Shoot in the right light. This is one of the most important, though “abstract” tips. Truly understanding this principle is possibly the single most fundamental technique that will improve your photography. Shoot in the right light. Think about it – you’re not “really” photographing an object. You’re photographing light. Here’s a very oversimplified example that will illustrate what I’m talking about. Go on a beach and take a picture at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Return at midnight to the same spot and take the same picture at night. Do they look the same? Of course not. The beach itself is exactly the same, but the “light” is different. Yet you have two wildly, drastically different photographs, even though the location and the subject is identical. It is critical to think about that and understand that as a photographer. Whenever you’re shooting travel or landscape photography, think about the fact that you are shooting the light, and not “just” the object. Decide on the quality of light you want to shoot, that is, how bright, how dark, is it sunlit, moonlit, from what direction, etc. Then go take your photographs when the light is right. You may have heard the term “golden hour” used by photographers. This refers to the light you get outdoors just before/after sunrise and just before/after sunset. This is generally some of the best light to shoot in, because you get beautiful golden sunlight cast on your subject from an angle (which brings out texture), the scene is not too bright so you don’t have harsh shadows, and the sky is deep and saturated with a multitude of colors from golden yellows, reds, and oranges to deep blues and purples. Shooting in the right light can transform an ordinary photo into something special.

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Taking properly exposed, pin-sharp photos that are full of drama, with vibrant colors and engaging composition can be possible if you just keep in mind these few simple tips the next time you’re out shooting. Have fun, and as always, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app


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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


New York City Stock Photos - Images by Paul Timpa

Photos used in this posting:

Wall Street and New York Stock Exchange, New York Stock Photos:

Brooklyn Bridge at Night, New York Stock Photos:

Pina Colada on Caribbean Beach, Tropical Stock Photos:

Tahiti, Snorkeling in Lagoon, Tropical Stock Photos:

Costa Rica Waterfall, Tropical Stock Photos:


Camera Lens Filters for Photography

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Waterfall, Costa Rica

In this article we’re going to talk about the world of lens filters, and I’m not referring to the types of filters you see in Photoshop, but the “real deal” glass ones you screw on your lens.  In this day and age with all you can do in post-processing on the computer, many photographers wonder if there is still a need for filters.  I can assure you, there is…

The good news is that there are really only two kinds of filters you “need” to know about.  Once you understand them, how they work, and what they’re used for, those two kinds will cover 90% of your filter needs.  They are the Polarizer and the Neutral Density filter.  Toward the end of this article, I’ll briefly touch upon some of the other kinds of filters too.

Firstly, what is a filter?  It’s just a piece of glass that you attach to your lens that has various effects on the picture you’re taking.  They can help with making colors brighter, or cutting out haze on hazy days, fixing bright skies, etc.  One quick note – I say “glass” here, but they’re not always actual glass – sometimes they’re high-grade plastic or some other material, but for our purposes, we’ll just call it glass…

So before we talk about all the ways to physically attach a filter and how to actually “use” them, let’s jump right in and talk about the magic that is the polarizer.  A good polarizer may be the most important filter you buy, and is usually the first.  It’s important for two reasons -- #1, polarizers can have a dramatic effect on your photos that can make them look much better and #2, they are one of the only filters that cannot easily be replicated in Photoshop or with software. 

So what exactly does a polarizer do?  Rather than get into the all the scientific details about how light works, let’s just say that polarizers help eliminate reflected light, and that has various beneficial effects on your photos.  Some of the beneficial effects include:
- Making blue skies a deeper shade of blue; this makes clouds really pop
- Enhancing colors, especially of foliage / leaves
- Removing reflections on water, allowing you to see through the water
- Removing reflections on glass, allowing you to see through glass
- Cutting out haze

If you’ve ever seen one of those landscapes with an incredibly rich, deep blue sky and puffy white clouds, you can almost bet a polarizer was used.  Polarizers are also used (especially by me!) on turquoise Caribbean-style water.  Looking at the water without a polarizer, you’ll see a white sheen of reflected light on the surface, and probably not much else.  It is doubtful you’d be able to see anything underwater.  Look through a polarizer and prepare to be amazed.  The sheen on the surface completely disappears and suddenly you can see completely through the surface down into the ocean.  It’s literally like putting X-Ray glasses on.  Suddenly fish, coral, and even the ocean floor becomes visible, when before without the polarizer you could see nothing.  This is precisely the effect that could never be replicated in Photoshop.  If you took a photo without a polarizer and now have a picture of a white sheen on the ocean, there’s nothing you can do after-the-fact in Photoshop to suddenly “see down through the water”.  Your “x-ray vision” is only available while you’re on-the-scene. 


The same principle applies to reflections in glass.  If you’re in NYC at Christmastime taking pictures of the displays in the store windows, with no polarizer on, you’re going to wind up with shots of glass reflecting thirty other onlookers looking at the display, and your photo may not even show what’s behind the window.  Put a polarizer on, and the reflections of the people disappear, and you see straight through the glass.

In a less intuitive way, this is also why foliage and other items look better and more colorful with a polarizer.  Leaves can be very reflective.  Without a polarizer, you’re photographing lots of white reflected light (think of the sheen on the ocean).  Put on a polarizer and you see through that reflected light, straight through to the leaf’s natural color.

So how do you use a polarizer?  Easy, attach it to your lens (described in more detail later) and look through the viewfinder to see its effect.  Polarizers are designed to be able to rotate while attached to the lens.  Rotating it varies the effect.  You can just experiment by rotating it to see how much effect it produces.  For blue skies, the amount it affects your photo (if at all) depends on where the sun is located.  Basically it works best if the sun is directly to your side (left or right) and somewhat lower in the sky.  This also happens to be when most landscapers take their pictures anyway.  Polarizers have less (or no) effect when the sun is directly overhead, or directly in front of or behind you.  For ocean shots, again it’s best on an angle.  I usually try to aim at a 45 degree angle or so to the water.  Shooting straight down on water with a polarizer will probably have little effect.  But again, how many times would you be shooting straight down on water?  For oceans, as with foliage, glass, or anything else, just experiment by moving around and rotating the filter until it produces the desired effect.  Once you start taking pictures with a polarizer, you’ll wind up always wanting to have one with you.  They can be indispensable in enhancing your photos.

I mentioned that there were two main categories of filters that you’ll mainly use.  The first is the polarizer.  The second is the Neutral Density filter.  Unlike the polarizer, which is really just one filter, Neutral Density filters (or “ND” for short) are a “category” of filters.  You’ll buy a few of them, each having a different (but similar purpose).  So what is an ND filter?  Real easy:  it’s basically just a pair of sunglasses for your lens.  Yep, an ND filter is just a piece of glass with a gray coating on it that blocks some of the light, just like sunglasses.  So why would you want to use one?  There are three main reasons:
- You want to use a long shutter speed but it’s too bright out
- You want to use a wide-aperture but it’s too bright out
- A portion of the scene is too bright but the rest is normal, so you want to darken just the really bright part

Let’s take these scenarios one-by-one.  The first reason you’d want to use an ND filter is because you want a long shutter speed but it’s too bright out.  We’ve all seen the photo of the waterfall with the beautifully blurred, silky water.  This is achieved by using a long shutter speed, sometimes several seconds long.  Even with a small aperture such as F22, if you try to take a two-second exposure during the day, it’s going to be overexposed and way too bright.  Solution?  ND filter.  With an ND filter over your lens, it lets in less light, and you can use a long shutter speed without overexposing the photo.  How much light does an ND filter block?  Each ND filter you can buy tells you how many “stops” of light it will block.  A one-stop ND filter will block one-stop of light…meaning you can double your shutter speed once.  For example, if using no filter at all, the longest shutter speed you can achieve is one second without overexposing, attaching a one-stop ND filter will allow you to use a shutter speed of two seconds without overexposing.  A two-stop ND filter allows you to double the shutter speed twice.  So in our previous example, you’d be able to use a shutter speed of four seconds.  (1 second doubled is 2 seconds (first stop) and 2 seconds doubled is 4 seconds (second stop)).  A three-stop ND filter allows you to double your shutter speed three times.  Using our previous example, you could shoot for eight seconds.  They generally come in those three levels.  I personally use the 3-stop version (I figure I can always open the aperture to let a little more light in, but if I buy one that’s not dark enough, there’s nothing you can do at that point).

The second scenario, wanting to use a wide aperture in bright conditions, is very similar to the one above.  If you’re trying to blur the background by using a wide-open aperture, and it’s bright outside, it may be too bright for even your fastest shutter speed.  For example, at F1.8 during the day, you may go all the way to 1/4000th of a second for a correct exposure.  If it’s still too bright out, there’s nothing you can do with the camera, if that’s the fastest shutter speed your camera allows.  Use an ND filter to cut down the light.  A 3-stop ND filter will bring your shutter speed from 1/4000th to 1/500th.  (4000 to 2000, to 1000, to 500 is three stops).

The third category is one of the most important, and is probably the category where ND filters are used most frequently.  If you’re photographing a scene that has one portion that is really bright but other areas of the scene are dark or normal, you can use an ND filter to even-up the lighting.  For those of you who have read my article on HDR, you may remember that cameras are not great at taking pictures of scenes that have both really bright and really dark areas.  Generally, you have to pick just one area to focus your attention on, and the other area will just come out too bright (or dark), and you just have to live with it.  ND filters fix this problem.  How?  It’s pretty simple.  You use a special ND filter that is a piece of glass where only half of it has the gray coating – the other half is clear.  This is called a Graduated ND filter, ND Grad, or just Grad.  You attach the grad to your lens in such a way that the dark part of the filter covers the bright part of the scene, and the clear part covers the normal part.  Thus, it darkens just the bright part.  A classic example is the sunset.  When the sun is setting, the sky is usually much brighter than the land.  If you’re taking a landscape picture at sunset and you set your camera so that the sky is properly exposed, the land will be too dark.  If you set your camera to expose the land properly, the sky will be too bright.  Using an ND Grad, you can place the dark part of the filter over just the sky, leaving the clear part over the land.  Now you can take the picture and both areas will be properly exposed.

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Like regular ND filters, ND Grads also come in a few versions, generally ranging from one to three stops.  They also come in two styles – hard edge and soft edge.  The soft-edge filters have a smoother transition from the clear area to the dark area of the filter, so you can’t really see the dividing line.  The hard-edge filters have a more abrupt transition and are useful when you know you can put the transition line right on the horizon.  I personally use the soft-edge, three-stop version.  “Conversationally”, it’s a 3-stop soft-edge ND grad.

Some might say that software solutions such as HDR make graduated ND filters unnecessary.  While there are some occasions where this may be the case, there are other times when an ND filter is the only real option.  For instance, for any scene where there are moving objects, it is much more difficult to take an HDR image because the objects will have moved from frame to frame, and when you composite the multiple images there will be alignment problems that have to be solved.  With graduated ND filters, there is no issue, since you’re only taking a single shot.  The other primary advantage of using filters is time.  It takes a considerable amount of time to create HDR images, especially ones that look natural.  When using filters, you’re capturing the image with the all of the  highlight and shadow detail from the start.  That being said, for scenes with complex highlight / shadow ranges like nighttime cityscapes, HDR is still a great option.

Let’s talk about how to physically attach and use these filters.

There are two main types of filters – screw-in filters and “filter systems”.

Screw-in filters are the easiest to use.  They’re circular pieces of glass that fit the size of lens you own.  They have little threads on them (like a screw) and you just screw them onto the front of your lens when you want to use it.  They come in various sizes to match all sizes of lenses.  If you have multiple lenses of varying sizes, you have two options: you can either buy a separate screw-in filter for each lens you own, or you can buy one filter that matches the largest lens you own (by large, I mean the lens with the largest diameter at the front of the lens), and then buy little “adapter rings” that let you put that filter on smaller lenses.  These rings are called step-up / step-down rings depending on what you need.  The advantage of using the adapter rings is that you only have to buy one filter, which is much cheaper than buying multiple filters.  The only real disadvantage of using adapter rings is that with wide angle lenses, the rings make the filter thicker, and you may get vignetting (vignetting is a darkening around the edges of the picture, sometimes due to the lens itself, sometimes due to the edges of a filter being visible in the frame).  Polarizers can often be used as a screw-in filter.

The other type of filter is a filter that belongs to a “filter system”.  A filter system allows for much more flexibility.  It consists of three main parts, a filter holder, adapter rings, and the filter itself.  Let’s talk about each.  A filter used in a filter system is just a plain piece of glass that is not attached to anything.  Holding it in your hand, it just looks like you cut out a square piece of window and are holding it raw in your hand.  By itself, it’s not really useful since there is no way to attach it to your lens.  That’s where the filter holder comes in.  A filter holder is a rectangular piece of plastic with little fitted slots that you slide the filters into, and it holds them tight and in place.  Sometimes a filter holder has multiple slots so you can stack filters on top of each other for various effects.  Finally, are the adapter rings.  An adapter ring is just a small inexpensive metal screw-in ring that you buy in the size(s) of your lenses.  The filter holder is made to easily attach to all the different sizes of adapter rings.  So you just buy a few inexpensive adapter rings for the lenses you own, and now the filter holder will fit all your lenses.  Since all the filters you own fit in the filter holder, you can now attach any filter to all your lenses.  There are several advantages to the filter system.  First, purely from a cost perspective, this is an economical solution.  You buy one filter holder, one filter for any kind of filter you need, and a few inexpensive adapter rings, and you’re all set.  Any filter can attach to all your lenses and you don’t have to buy multiple versions of the same filter to fit all your lenses.  Because the filter holders can be made relatively thin and wide, and the glass filters can be wide, these filters can be used on wide-angle lenses without worrying about vignetting.  Most importantly, filter systems are necessary for using ND Grad filters.  You can’t really use a screw-in ND Grad (although they do make them).  The reason is because when you are using an ND grad, you need to physically position the transition-line (where it goes from light to dark) in the right spot for your picture.  So if you’re taking a picture of a sunset, and the top 2/3rds of the pictures is a gorgeous sky, and the bottom 1/3rd is the ocean, you need to position the transition line right where the sky meets the ocean.  With a screw-in filter, there is no way to move the dividing line once the filter is screwed on.  With a filter system, you can slide the filter up and down in its holder to position the transition line right over the horizon.  The filter holder also rotates so you can have the transition line on an angle.

The only real disadvantage to a filter system is that for the most part they work best on a tripod, so you can’t be very mobile when you have them attached.  This is because the filter holder is designed to rotate (so you can adjust polarization or the transition line of ND grads, etc), and if you handhold the camera it has a tendency to rotate on you.  More importantly, if you move abruptly, it’s possible that the filter may slide out of its holder and fall to the ground.  Screw in filters allow for more flexibility with handholding the camera.

There are countless other types of filters as well.  There are filters that can enhance certain colors, filters that create soft-focus effects, some that create small 8-point stars over bright light sources (I use this once in a while), the list goes on and on.  I don’t normally rely solely on the use of these other types of filters too much because many of these effects can be replicated using software.  I’d rather have the “original” unfiltered version so that I can apply the effects after-the-fact and decide if I like it or not, or how much of the effect to apply.  On the other hand, since I’m also a fan of capturing the scene as much as I can “in-camera” without having to use software, if I have the time I will take two shots, one with the filter attached and one without.

Even in today’s digital age, there is still a need for traditional photography equipment like filters.  With all the software in the world, it’s still not possible to replicate the effects of a polarizer or ND filter during post-processing.  The use of these types of filters will certainly help to take your photography to the next level.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

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Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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