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Camera filters are transparent or translucent optical elements that alter the properties of light entering the camera lens for the purpose of improving the image being recorded. Filters can affect contrast, sharpness, highlight flare, color, and light intensity, either individually, or in various combinations. They can also create a variety of "special effects." It is important to recognize that, even though there are many possibly confusing variations and applications, all filters behave a reasonably predictable way when their properties are understood and experienced. Most of these properties related similarly to filter use in both film and video imaging. The following will explain the basic optical characteristics of certain types of camera filters, as well as their applications. It is a foundation upon which to build by experience. Textual data cannot fully inform. There is always something new out there.

In their most successful applications, filter effects blend in with the rest of the image to help get the message across. Use caution when using a filter in a way that draws attention to itself as an effect. Combined with all the other elements of image-making, filters make visual statements, manipulate emotions and thought, and make believable what otherwise would not be. They get the viewer involved.

Filter Planning
Filter effects can become a key part of the "look" of a production, if considered in the planning stages. They can also provide a crucial last-minute fix to unexpected problems, if you have them readily available. Where possible, it is best to run advance tests for pre-conceived situations when time allows.

Filter Factors
Many filter types absorb light that must be compensated for when calculating exposure. These are supplied with either a recommended "filter factor" or a "stop value." Filter factors are multiples of the unfiltered exposure. Stop values are added to the stop to be set without the filter. Multiple filters will add stop values. Since each stop added is a doubling of the exposure, a filter factor of 2 is equal to a one stop increase. Example: three filters of one stop each will need three additional stops, or a filter factor of 2x2x2= 8 times the unfiltered exposure.

When in doubt in the field about compensation needed for a filter that you have no information on, you might use your light meter with the incident bulb removed. If you have a flat diffuser, use it, otherwise just leave the sensor bare. Aim it at an unchanging light source of sufficient intensity. On the ground, face up at a blank sky can be a good field situation. Make a reading without the filter. Watch out for your own shadow. Make a reading with the filter covering the entire sensor. No light should enter from the sides. The difference in the readings is the compensation needed for that filter. You could also use a spot meter, reading the same bright patch, with similar results. There are some exceptions to this depending on the filter color, the meter sensitivity, and the target color, but this is often better than taking a guess.

Filter Grades
Many filter types are available in a range of "grades" of differing strengths. This allows the extent of the effect to be tailored to suit various situations. The grade numbering range can vary with the effect type, and generally, the higher the number, the stronger the effect. Unless otherwise stated, there is no mathematical relationship between the numbers and the strengths. A grade 4 is not twice the strength of a grade 2. A grade 1 plus a grade 4 doesn't add up to a grade 5.

Bayonet round filters
Certain manufacturers, most notably Rollei and Hasselblad, have created their own systems of bayonet mount for filters. Each design comes in several sizes, such as Bay I through Bay VIII for Rollei, and Bay 50 through Bay 104 for Hasselblad.

Series filters
From the 1930s through to the late 1970s, filters were also made in a sizing system known as a series mount. The filters themselves were round pieces of glass (or occasionally other materials) with no threads or rings attached. Instead, the filter was placed between two rings; the mount ring either screwed into the lens threads or was slipped over the lens barrel and the retaining ring screws into the mounting ring to hold the filter in place. The series designations are generally written as Roman numerals, I to IX, though there are a few sizes not written that way, such as Series 4.5 and Series 5.5.