Photography: Filters!

This post is about photography stuff, so if you’re interested in that kind of thing… keep reading :).

50 years ago, Photoshop was called “filters”. In other words, before there was computer photo editing, photographers put special pieces of glass up in front of the camera in order to produce different effects (e.g., a sepia colored piece of glass in front of the camera would give you a nice ‘antique’ looking image). Nowadays, most of these effects can be easily reproduced on the computer, so filters have largely gone the way of the dinosaur.

However, there are a few things that are still so difficult to photograph that the best way to do it is with a filter. “What could be so hard?” you ask. Well, have you ever tried to photograph a sunset (or, even, the lesser appreciated but still spectacular, sunrise)?! It’s nigh impossible to get the thing to look in the photograph like it did in real life (a testament, perhaps, to how awesome sunsets really are).

There are a few ways to get a good sunset shot, but one of the best is to use something called a “neutral density graduated filter.” Don’t let the confusing name scare you, it’s just a piece of glass that looks like this…


It’s simple, the top is darker and the bottom is clear, and in the middle, there is a “gradient” that blends from clear to dark (hence the name, “graduated filter”).

When you try to take a picture of a sunset, you usually have a really bright sky and a fairly dark foreground, so your picture either look like this…


… where you have darkened the exposure enough to get the detail in the sky, but you’re foreground is just a silhouette of shadows. On the other hand, if you brighten the exposure to get the foreground, you end up blowing out the detail in the sky, like this…


Now, if you’re a photoshop whiz kid, then you could try to combine those exposures into one… but, trust me, it’s not easy, and it takes forever!

It’s much easier to hold this little piece of glass up in front of the lens (you’re supposed to have a “filter holder” that holds it in place for you, but mine hasn’t arrived yet).

Anyway, here’s an example of what it does:


I’ve just dipped the corner of the filter into the sky to show you the effect it has. See how the foreground is properly exposed, but this time, the filter is darkening a part of the sky so that the camera can capture the bright sky and the dim foreground all at once.

So, the end result is something like this…


Now that’s more like it… this is closer to what it looked like in real life. Also, for those who doubt, I will add that this picture is completely unedited. It came straight from the camera looking great. All for about $16 (£10) on eBay! There are about a billion different kinds of these filters, but, in case you were wondering, mine is a Cokin P121.


  1. Also for those who are too cheap - or just plain lazy - you can also use your sunglasses as a filter in a pinch for your point and shoot cam (only my sunglasses are large enough for a DSLR). My shades are gradient from top to bottom, like your filter, but actually, with a slightly yellow tint. I find it looks MUCH more like real life when I pop them in front of my camera lens!


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