By Eugene Theron
In the most cliched way I could start and article, I am regularly asked what filters I carry for my mountain photography. The response is often met with open jaws and bemused looks.
The reason; I don’t carry much; you just don’t need it in the mountains. At the very most I am taking up a filter holder, drop-in circular polariser (CPL) and two graduated filters. If I’m feeling particularly outrageous, I may slip a 3 or 6 stop ND into my bag. That is it. After I have dropped the ‘very few filters’ bomb the next question I’m asked is why.
So, this is why:
Reason 1: Weight
Hauling extortionate amounts of photography equipment up a mountain is a heavy and exhausting endeavour. While a set of filters in your bag are not going to be the heaviest item that you carry with you it all adds up. Add it to your lenses, camera, tripod, food, waterproofs, drink, keys, wallet, etc etc and it all starts adding up making that trek up the mountain just a little more strenuous. Arriving tired kills the creative juices.
By taking only a few filters you can drastically cut back on your pack weight and arrive in better time in a better state of mind.
Reason 2: Style of Photography
This part is down to personal choice at the end of the day and how you want to portray a mountain scene. In general, I prefer to capture the drama and mood that I experienced at the time I was there. This in general leads to the need for less filters as I am not creating any additional creative touches such as moving clouds.
From time to time I carry a couple of specialist filters with me such a 3 or 6 stop ND filter. I use them to give a bit of creative edge to my images. This can range from creating a more ethereal scene by getting clouds to swirl or creating a slightly longer exposure for water scenes.
As more often than not I’m shooting in low light conditions anyway I can get the effect I want by simply adjusting the three main elements of the exposure triangle. After all I like my scenes with water for instance to not be longer than 1 second it can lose all texture. In the series of images above I used a 3 stop graduated ND to balance the sky and shot a series of images at different exposures to get the water effect I felt was most natural. Two of these exposures can be blended together to create the final piece.
Reason 3: You just don’t need that many filters
Mountains by nature are not flat and as a result don’t present with a flat skyline. To combat large differences in exposure in these situations you have two options: use a soft graduated ND filter or bracket. Both are viable options for shooting scenes with an uneven horizon but both have their drawbacks.
Using a soft graduated filter is generally my go to option in the mountains. The soft graduation allows gradual transition from light to dark to take place over the horizon. However, they can be tricky to use, especially with jagged ridge lines as you can notice the transitions if the peaks are prominent. This is where bracketing (shooting a range of exposures above and below optimal and blending together in post-production) comes into its own, further reducing the need for excessive filters). I generally carry two soft grads with me and will stack them if I need to balance the exposure by a few extra stops.
If you shoot a lot in moody overcast light you can often get away without using any graduated filters. More often than not you can capture images without a filter at all or by just using a polariser. To be honest the polariser rarely leaves the filter holder. I use it in most situations with some notable exceptions (blue sky days, creating panoramas, etc).
The polariser is a magic tool in landscape photography. Everyone should have one (a good quality one) in their bag. They are able to give an extra dose of punch to images by giving some extra contrast and saturation and/or vibrance to the scene. They are indispensable when shooting scenes that contain water or wet rocks. The polarising effect cuts through glare and reflections giving the image a more natural effect. In this image from the Lake District I only used a CPL. This allowed me to reduce the about of reflected light on the wet rocks to reveal their natural colour. I was also able to add natural contrast to the moving water as the CPL enhanced the separation between the darks of the water and whites in the rapid. Additionally, it reduced the light by one stop allowing me to shoot at a sharper f-stop for my lens and get the shutter speed correct for the river.
Taking all this into consideration you probably only need three filters on you in the mountains. There is no need to lug a full set of hard grads, soft grads, 5 different strengths of ND filters, reverse grads, etc with you. Leave the at home. Your knees will thank you and the reduced weight will have you arriving at your location a bit fresher and able to focus on creating something stunning. Whilst doing this there will be less options to consider when shooting by only using what you have available.
By now you’ve probably worked out what I carry or are wondering. Here’s the list:
- 0.9 (3 stop) soft graduated ND filter
- 0.6 (2 stop) soft graduated ND filter
- Filter holder and drop in CPL (the CPL equates to reducing the exposure by about 1 stop)
- 3 stop and/or 6 stop ND filter
All the filters I use are made by H&Y