Cheap Lens Filters Can Work For News Too!

It’s amazing what cheap accessories we can actually use to improve our photography. Among the cheapest are filters.

That’s not to say that some day you won’t want more high quality glass (filters), but it is okay to start with one of those $12 starter kits with a few specialties thrown in (shop around, prices vary a lot! but do your research).

It was brought to my attention that some news photographers worry that using filters alters the photo in a way that is not objective. That is, they say it sort of falsifies the photo. It is my firm belief that you can use filters without distorting a photo, but it important to attempt to make the photo look the way the scene looks to your naked eye.

Our eyes may not have telephoto zoom, but they are pretty advanced compared to the average lens, camera sensor combination. Perhaps it is most significant that we have a wider range (and more forgiving) for contrast and color saturation.

Doubt me? Try taking photos of a bunch of pale winter sun starved caucasian kids in black suits on a stage under spotlight. Their faces are too bright, their suits are too dark. The contrast is a problem.

Notice their suits have all their details, but those facing the camera have no chin. This is too bright.
Notice their suits have all their details, but those facing the camera have no chin. This is too bright.
Notice how the edges of their suits simply fade into the background, but you keep all the detail of their faces. With a high ISO you might be able to tweak this. This is too dark otherwise.
Notice how the edges of their suits simply fade into the background, but you keep all the detail of their faces. With a high ISO you might be able to tweak this. This is too dark otherwise.

These Sno Daze candidates’ faces don’t look like white blurs to your eye, and their suits don’t fade into the background either. If you turn down the exposure, you might bring the face out, but you will lose their suits. This is a Catch 22, but you can usually get just enough detail if you use an AEB setting (an entry to come on that later). This difficult situations are easy for our eyes, because we have a more forgiving range of contrast, and our brains have a tendency to fill in the blanks and adjust. It’s like instant super Photoshop up there.

I bring this up because in some settings, we can capture a photo that looks more like what we see with our eyes by using filters, and we don’t need to break the bank to buy those filters. Here are some suggestions.

Graduated Neutral Density: This is my most recent lens purchase. The GND darkens one half of the lens and spins, so you can choose which half.

Why would you want to do this? Sometimes light distribution in a photo is unbalanced, especially when we are talking a bright, sunny day where the sun is actually in the shot. Any shot with the bright sky in the background and a darker foreground will almost certainly pose a contrast problem. You could darken your exposure to reduce the glare from the sky, but you would darken your foreground. Alternatively, if you brighten the foreground to bring out more detail, your sky will blow out. A GND will even out the contrast.

I got it because of this photo.

This photo looked great to my eyes, but even in RAW, there was no way to fix the contrast.
This photo looked great to my eyes, but even in RAW, there was no way to fix the contrast.

The sun was at the top of this person’s push pole, and because he was standing, there is a great deal of sky in the background. If the sun were to our backs, this photo would have been easier, but obviously it would have been a slightly different photo. Unfortunately, I had no control of where to take this photo, as there was no shoreline behind him to stand on. It looked great to my naked eyes, but my camera could not manage the shot.
With a GND, I could have brought the backlighting under control. I had been pondering a GND filter for some time, but hadn’t made the purchase yet. This convinced me, and it made this photo possible.

I already trashed the failed photos from this experience, but they looked similar to the one above with the canoe poler. With a GND, however, it looks almost exactly as my eyes saw it.
I already trashed the failed photos from this experience, but they looked similar to the one above with the canoe poler. With a GND, however, it looks almost exactly as my eyes saw it.

This is a prime example of how we can actually improve the accuracy of a photos representation by using filters.

Circular Polarizing Filter: CPL filters change the way light is polarized. This allows us to get more color saturation, or remove glare from non metallic surfaces.

Why would you want this? Imagine you are looking down at some shallow water, and something at the bottom catches your eye. You think it is neat, so you pull out your photo and snap a shot. Chances are, you will find you just photographed a reflection on the surface, and what is under the water is barely visible at all. It looked great to your eyes (because your eyes process as you are looking) but it didn’t work in the photo. This is also relevant if shooting through glass, such as shop or car windows.

This photo was made possible by my CPL.

My nephew loves firefighters, but my niece didn't get excited till she sat at the wheel.
My nephew loves firefighters, but my niece didn’t get excited till she sat at the wheel.

Alternately, you may be looking at a bright blue sky with clouds moving across it. If the clouds are robust enough, they will look to your eyes to be more 3-D than ever. You can see their texture and shape and shadows. If you take a photo, however, you might find that the clouds are flat, and the blue sky has turned to a dull periwinkle. With a CPL, you can again bring this back into perspective and make your photo look more like it did to your eye.

Higher quality CPL filters will actually polarize much more effectively, but a beginner will still see some benefit from a cheaper filter.

Ultraviolet filter: UV filters are actually not that useful unless you climb mountains (or so I’m told). This wasn’t exactly true at one time, but cameras have advanced to filter out UV fairly well all by themselves, but everyone should have a UV filter.

Why would you want one? UV filters are lens savers. When I first learned photography, I was told that the lenses of a professional photographer are more expensive than the camera body. In the age of DSLR’s the camera body has gone up in price, but the lenses are still far more expensive, so lens care is important.

One thing we overlook, however, is that when we are on the job taking photos and we get something on the lens, if we quickly wipe it away (even with a lens wipe) we are risking tiny scratches to the lens. Over the lifetime of the lens, how many times might we wipe that lens? How many scratches are we putting on it?

A UV filter can act as a splash guard, or a dirt filter. The filter doesn’t affect most news photos in any visible way, but if dust or water are in the air, the filter gets hit while the front lens does not. Even more important, if something hard goes air born and hits the front of your camera, your lens will not be damaged, but the UV filter will.

Finally, if you somehow drop your camera and it lands on the front of the lens, a lens filter could mean the difference between a trashed lens and a trashed $4 filter. Then you can toss the filter, hug your lens and promise it that you will be more careful in the future, while secretly thinking about your wallet.

Just be sure to buy a new UV so you will have backup the next time you drop it. You should have a filter on every lens you own for this reason.

If you are photographing for the newspaper, try to avoid most lenses that have a colorful tint. I don’t know any way to use these without actually altering the photo in a subjective way.

Some day I will also look into a few other filters, including an adjustable Neutral Density filter and a solar filter (for solar eclipses). These are really more artistic, though.

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