Use Filters To Elevate Your Photography

By Tricia Raffensperger

No matter what type of photography you prefer, learning how to cope with difficult lighting conditions is one of the biggest challenges we face. Fortunately, there are some practical and easy-to-use tools that can help us capture images that might otherwise be impossible.  

Polarizing filters and neutral density filters give you the ability to tame harsh light, restore color and eliminate reflections that obscure or distract from your subjects. Regardless of your camera type or lens, these two filters can improve your images. And with the GNPA Smokies Fall Weekend coming up on Nov. 5-8, there will be many opportunities to play around with both types of filters to create some stunning effects. Personally, I love using them with water shots to create looks I could not otherwise achieve, or to make those fall colors pop even more. 

The filters I’ll be talking about are the screw-on variety, which thread directly onto the front of your lens. Whether it’s a circular polarizing (CP) or neutral density (ND) filter, you can adjust the effect by rotating it. And by the way, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of always rotating your filter in the same direction in which you threaded it onto your lens. That way, you won’t accidentally unscrew your filter as you’re adjusting it (a lesson some of have learned the hard way!). 

Here are a few of the ways that I enjoy using these two filters:


These allow you to remove the glare from water (and other surfaces), and enable your camera to capture what is beneath the surface, which can often add interest and detail to your foreground. To use a circular polarizer, you simply look through the viewfinder and rotate the filter until you see the effect you desire. You may choose to completely or partially eliminate the reflection on water, bright foliage or the sky to reveal more detail and color. Polarizers work best when you are facing 90 degrees away from the sun; in other words, when the sun is off to your side. 

Photo by Tricia Raffensperger

Photo by Tricia Raffensperger

These filters also enable you to capture beautiful reflections and color in the water by removing the glare. Polarizers are especially useful at places like Gibbs Gardens to capture the reflections of the flowers in the water, as well as all the different reflected colors from the surrounding trees and plants. 

There are many CP options available and prices range from $100 to $400. Filters come in various sizes to fit your individual lenses, so be sure to purchase the right size for whatever lens you’re using. Since I have a variety of lens sizes, I found it helpful to purchase a 1-82mm filter and several inexpensive step-up rings to fit all my different lenses. This has helped me keep costs down and travel a little lighter. It also allowed me to purchase a more expensive polarizer to use with all my lenses, rather than many of a lesser quality. You can also choose between neutral, warming or cool polarizers, depending upon the effect you wish to achieve. But any CP will allow you more creativity and eliminate common problems with reflections and glare. 


These filters allow you to slow down your shutter speed by reducing the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor. This is especially important when you’re trying to use a long exposure to blur motion, but the ambient light is too bright to allow those slower shutter speeds. 

Photo by Tricia Raffensperger

With an ND filter, you can create silky, dreamy effects with waterfalls, moving water or clouds, no matter how bright the scene. You can also shoot dramatic images of city lights or floating leaves as they drift on water. 

While newer cameras make it possible to hand-hold at longer exposures than previously possible, a tripod and shutter remote are often required for many slow-shutter water scenes. Also, keep in mind that ND filters are manufactured in different “stops” that reduce the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor by various degrees, from three stops to 16 or more. Each graduation or stop level can be purchased separately and in different sizes for different lenses. Or, there is the option of a variable ND filter that has many stops in one filter. By turning the filter ring to block the light, you can choose the amount of stops required to achieve your effect. The amount of available light determines the number of stops you must add to reach the results you desire. So a variable filter can again come in handy for coping with different situations. 

I always recommend reading reviews on the different types and brands of filters. Some can create vignetting on your image or a color cast, so the more knowledge you have, the better choice you can make regarding type of filter and price point. 

Photo by Tricia Raffensperger

When using filters, I prefer to use the manual settings on my camera to control the exposure balance, aperture and shutter speed. I feel this gives me better control and more options. But you can use other modes as well. I suggest choosing your water scene, and then setting the ISO as low as possible, but not on auto. You could choose your aperture and then adjust your exposure with the shutter speed, or vice versa. There are endless ways to use CP and ND filters, and I’m by no means an expert. So I’d encourage you to experiment with different approaches and settings to learn what works well for you. 

I think the best way to learn is among friends and surrounded by beautiful landscapes. So please consider joining us in November at our Smokies Fall Weekend, and let’s see what we can create together.

Tricia Raffensperger began photographing nature about 10 years ago after attending workshops and classes at the Showcase School of Photography, and she hasn’t stopped since. She’s served as Vice President on the board of RPS and is currently a board member of GNPA.