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How to Use a Filters with Your Digital SLR

Using filters with your dSLR is easy enough. You may spend a few moments getting set up and deciding what filter you want to use, but you'll soon start taking shots. When you get the hang of it, you get faster with filters.

Clean your filters at home before heading out on your shoot.

  1. Evaluate the scene and choose a filter.

    • If you go out during the golden hour (the hour before sunset or after sunrise) and shoot landscapes into the sun, a neutral density (ND) filter or an ND grad filter works well.

    • If you shoot portraits and like warm skin tones (and you don’t use reflectors or gels for that task), you might choose a warming filter almost all the time.

    • If you’re experimenting, try something different. Choose a filter first and dedicate your shoot to exploring its potential.

    • If you're problem solving (exposure, for instance), you should know what filters are in your bag and pull them out when needed.

    Most people agree that using more than two (three at the most) filters at the same time degrades image quality. Every pane of glass, resin, or polyester is another layer between your expensive lens and the sensor.

  2. Slide or screw in the filter.

    Depending on your filter system, either screw your precleaned filter to the end of your lens or slide it in the holder. More on the different filter systems later.

  3. Meter and adjust exposure.

    Your filter’s documentation might give specific metering instructions. Experiment and take test shots to fine-tune the exposure.

    For graduated filters, the center of the scene should be properly exposed, even with the filter in place. If you’re using spot metering, you may see better results from pre-metering the scene and then mounting the filter. Be prepared to review your photos and adjust, if necessary.

  4. Take the photo and review the photo.

    • If you're using a filter with an evenly distributed effect, such as an ND filter, examine the entire photo and make sure it has the right exposure or effect.

    • If you’re using an ND or color grad, make sure the filter is lined up properly with the horizon and that no halos (bright outlines) appear around buildings or objects near the horizon.

    • If you’re using a color filter, check the hue.

    • If you’re using a polarized filter, check for glare.

  5. Correct and start over or stay on course.

    If the photo looks good, you're good to go. If not, try to figure out what's causing the problem. Is the filter on the lens? Is the filter on correctly? Is this filter right for this scene? Reexamine your starting assumptions, if need be, and question whether you need this or any filter.

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