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How To Get Started With Lens Filters

How To Get Started With Lens Filters

Take your visuals to cinematic levels by learning how to use lens filters effectively.

In today’s world, a lot of creatives aren’t tied to a single title. You could be a producer, an editor, a colorist, a gaffer, a director, and a cinematographer. You may be in control of your project from start to finish, and understanding the role that lens filters play is critical in helping you achieve your vision and get the most out of your image.

Today, we’re going to share some of the basics for producing the best results, along with the gear you need to take your cinematography to a whole new level.

The video below is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about the different types of lens filters that are available. 

What are Neutral Density Filters?

Neutral density (ND) filters are most commonly used in outdoor environments when working in bright sunlight. If you’ve ever shot outside and gotten a nice exposure on your subject, but the sky was overblown or cloudy instead of naturally blue, it’s probably because you needed an ND filter.

Neutral density filters are available in both variable and fixed filter types. Variable NDs typically feature an adjustable ring for the precise reduction of stops of light. Fixed ND filters can be quickly swapped out or stacked for the right adjustments.

There are also IRND filters, which cut infrared light that can otherwise affect your image and lead to color shifting on plain ND filters.

Beyond that, there are even graduated ND filters, which feature more light reduction at the top of the filter to counter a bright sky and less light reduction at the bottom to allow subjects below the horizon to be properly exposed.

Advantages of ND Filters

ND filters bring several benefits to your camera. First, they allow you to cut light down to allow for proper exposure in any bright environment. Second, an ND filter enables you to open up your aperture dramatically for an increased shallow depth-of-field effect, if desired.

On the photography side, they also allow for incredibly smooth long exposures, and from a filmmaking perspective, you can use this long exposure trick to your advantage.

How to Remove Objects with ND Filters

We’ve shown you how to use VFX magic to remove objects from your scene, but let’s say you needed a clean background plate of an area that’s normally filled with constant traffic or people.

You can actually use an ND filter to take an extended long exposure photo and effectively remove all moving objects within that environment, then composite your actor into the scene via green screen later.
Keep in mind, you’ll need to use a significantly dark ND filter that’s capable of cutting several stops of light depending on the time of day that you’re shooting. This is a great time-saver that can give your scene the background you need without the hassle of blocking off the street or spending hours rotoscoping out cars and people.

It should be noted that this method doesn’t always work 100%, but in most cases it can be extremely effective. To see a step-by-step walkthrough of how to use an ND filter to remove traffic from a busy city street (along with a few limitations of this effect), check out this tutorial from Fstoppers.

Circular Polarizers

Circular polarizers allow for more dramatic skies, and can be adjusted like a variable ND filter, by twisting an outer ring to the desired setting. Not only can you enhance your skies, but you can also increase or decrease reflectivity on glass.
As mentioned in the video above, it’s a good idea to use step-up rings to adapt bigger filters to smaller lenses, that way you can use your lens filters across multiple lenses.

Special Effect Filters

You’ll also find a myriad of filters that can give you certain effects. Some of the most popular are Tiffen’s line of Black Pro-Mist filters. These filters give you enhanced light diffusion for more radiant light, softer highlight roll-off for instantly more flattering lighting, as well as softened edges to give your footage a more filmic, cinematic look.

Black Pro-Mist filters work exceptionally well indoors, and can really enhance the overall lighting atmosphere in a scene.
In addition to Black Pro-Mist filters, there are countless special effect filters out there, from colored filters that simulate night or sunsets to filters that produce a certain bokeh shape.

If there's a certain look you're after, there's probably a filter for that!

Matte Boxes

Circular filters are available for almost every type of lens filter, and while they tend to be affordable, they can be a little tricky to work with if you need to make adjustments. 

If you’re switching environments, shooting for a long period of time, or wanting to stack multiple filters, you might want to consider investing in a matte box.

Matte boxes are a much more professional option than circular filters, and they’re also a great way to enhance your workflow by enabling you to easily swap out filters (rather than deal with screw-on filters) to find the best one that suits your needs. This is particularly helpful when it comes to using ND filters.

If you opt for a matte box, you will need to also factor in the cost of cinematic filters, which typically cost a lot more than their smaller, circular counterparts. Cinematic ND filters tend to be 4x4” or 4x5.65”, and can be purchased individually, or as a set.

Two of the most innovative matte boxes are the Tiltaing Mini-Matte Box and the PolarPro Basecamp Ultralight Matte Box.
The Tiltaing Mini-Matte Box is one of the most affordable matte boxes on the market, and can mount onto 15mm rods or directly onto your lens, which makes it a much more mobile option. 

It's lightweight, includes an adjustable flag to prevent unwanted lens flaring, and when it’s not in use, you can simply fold it down over the lens and filter. It also includes adapter rings to fit a variety of lenses, but it only supports a single 4x5.65” filter at a time.  

The PolarPro Basecamp Matte Box is a pricier, but much higher-quality matte box that supports two filters. It has increased durability, and can even be purchased with a variable ND kit for maximum versatility.
It’s no secret that a lot can be done in post-production to create almost any look you could want. Working with RAW files has allowed for more creative control than ever before, but if your RAW files are under or overexposed, you may find yourself lacking details that are unrecoverable. 

If, however, your video footage has been properly exposed with ND filters, you’ll find that you can grade and stylize the image to your heart’s content with virtually no compromises on quality and clarity.

Whether you’re adding or diffusing light on set, the end goal is the same: to achieve a balanced image. Adjusting your scene for proper exposure takes time and preparation, but in the end, it’s always worth it!

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