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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Using Lens Filters: 2 Techniques from Professional Photographers

Landscape photographers love using polarising (PL) filters and neutral density (ND) filters as they reduce light reflection and slow down the shutter speed, making it possible to achieve shots otherwise not possible. Here, two photographers share how they created their breath-taking works with the help of these lens filters. (Reported by: Hidehiko Mizuno, Takehito Miyatake)

Slow shutter shot of rocks in sea against sunrise

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 24mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/14, 25 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight
Filter: ND400 filter/ Location: Hashigui Rocks (Wakayama, Japan)
Photo by Takehito Miyatake

A neutral density (ND) filter reduces the amount of light entering the camera, which slows down the shutter speed. It's useful for making water surfaces look silky-smooth.


ND400 filter: Bringing out a tranquil, mystical ambience with a long exposure

This straight line of rocks in the sea are called the Hashigui-iwa ("bridge-pillar rocks"). According to local legend, they are an unfinished bridge to the neighbouring Oshima Islands, and the result of an encounter between the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi and a demon.

With a back story like that, I felt that the mystical ambience created by the morning sun that rises from the Pacific Ocean suited the scene perfectly. To further enhance the atmosphere, I knew I needed to use a long exposure to smoothen out the waves and water surface.

In a backlit situation like this, where there is a large amount of sunlight entering the camera, it's not possible to obtain a slow shutter speed without an ND filter. The shot above was achieved using ND400 filter, which slowed down the shutter speed by about 8.7 stops, allowing me to shoot at 25 seconds.

Extra details: To accentuate the image, I narrowed the aperture to f/14, which resulted in a beautiful starburst effect.


No ND filter: Waves are captured too clearly

Rocks in sea during sunrise without ND filter

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 24mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/14, 1/50 sec, EV+0.3)/ ISO 400/ WB: Manual
Photo by Takehito Miyatake

Without the smoothening effect of the long exposure, the waves are very clearly depicted. The resulting image looks different from the dreamy, fantastical effect that I was aiming for.


Find out more about ND filters in this article:
Lens FAQ #5: What are the Pros and Cons of an ND Filter?

For more about photographing waves, read:
Wave Photography: Which Shutter Speed to Use to Depict Power and Dynamism?
Wave Photography: Capturing a Silky, Slow Shutter Shot with Beautiful Colours


Polarising filter: Removes water surface reflection to bring out the depth in water bodies

Dried lotus flowers and maple leaves in pond, shot with CPL filter

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 47mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/22, 2 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 50/ WB: 4,500K
Filter: Circular polarising filter/ Location: Himuro Pond, Kajuji Temple (Kyoto, Japan)
Photo by Hidehiko Mizuno

This shot of fallen maple leaves among withered lotus plants in a pond evokes thoughts of the end of autumn. I wanted to add dimensionality to the final image by incorporating the leaves that lay deep under the pond.

Using a polarising (PL) filter cuts light reflection from the water surface, which not only allows you to see into the water but also intensifies colours. You can turn the filter ring to weaken/strengthen the effect. A stronger polarisation effect generally makes the water look more transparent. 

Extra details

To smoothen the ripples on the water surface, I lowered the ISO speed and narrowed the aperture to f/22 to obtain a longer shutter speed.
- The blue hues of the sky were still subtly visible on the surface of the pond. To incorporate that, I set white balance to a slightly-cool 4,500K.
- I made sure that the red, yellow and blue colours in the image fell in a natural-looking harmony with one another.


No PL filter: Water reflection is captured

Flowers and leaves in pond with surface reflection

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 47mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/22, 2 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 50/ WB: Manual
Photo by Hidehiko Mizuno

When a PL filter is not used, the reflection of the sky on the pond surface will obscure the view further into the water. The maples leaves floating on the water also appear less striking in colour due to light diffusion.


Tip 1: Decide on your shooting spot, then test the PL filter

The polarisation effect varies depending on the position of the sun and the direction of the camera. Once you have decided which direction to face when you shoot, you can concentrate on creating your ideal composition. 

Shooting position illustration

I was shooting from the edge of the pond. Although there was limited standing space that allowed firm footing, I could move to my left and right, so it was relatively easy to find a shooting angle that gave the best polarisation effect.


Tip 2: Use the standard focal length range to maximise the polarising filter effect

When you use a polarising filter to its maximum effect, you might notice uneven brightness in your resulting image, with some parts darker than others. This tends to happen especially with wide-angle lenses. To prevent this from occurring, you can either increase the focal length (preferably to a standard focal length), or turn the filter to adjust the effect until the dark areas are no longer noticeable.


Find out more about PL filters here:
Using a Polarising Filter to Depict the Sky in a Deeper Shade of Blue


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Hidehiko Mizuno

Hidehiko Mizuno

Born in 1968 in Kyoto. The works he has released centre on the beautiful scenery, and also the shrines and temples of Kyoto.

Takehito Miyatake

Takehito Miyatake

Born in 1966 in Osaka Prefecture, Miyatake joined a photographic equipment manufacturer as a studio photographer after graduating from the Department of Image Technology of the Tokyo Polytechnic University’s Faculty of Engineering. In 1995, he set up his studio Miyatake Photo Factory in Tokushima Prefecture where he grew up.