Special Effects Lens Filters for Your Digital Camera

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2003

Originally published in Digital Photographer Magazine

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While photo editing computer programs offer special effects filters, you don’t need a computer to create effects. You can purchase camera-mounted filters that screw or snap onto the lens of your camera. They are easy to use, and they produce instant results. For cameras with screw threads, you simply screw on one of these accessory filters. If your digicam’s lens doesn’t take screw-on filters, you can purchase an inexpensive filter holder that accepts slip-in filters. If you like to experiment, you can simply hold a filter in front of the lens or make your own filters.

If you look closely at scenic photographs in books and magazines, or view movies with sweeping vista shots, chances are you have seen these filters at work. Many filters are subtle: They make sunsets extra golden, they soften female faces and they add saturation to colors. Others produce special effects, such as starburst filters that add sparkle to theatrical lights and “zoom” filters that give a dynamic feel to a still picture.

Filters to Flatter Your Subjects

The next time you go to a camera store, ask for a booklet about lens filters. Several manufacturers who make filters provide colorful brochures that show you examples of their filters in action. You may be surprised at the large collections of filters that are available, and the effects possible with them may amaze you.

If your digicam lens has screw threads you can purchase screw-on filters individually and stack them together. However, if you have a smaller digicam with a simpler lens you can purchase an inexpensive filter holder such as the Cokin Digital Filter-Holder (MSRP $12.95) and add any of their assortment of drop-in filters. These are photo-grade plastic discs that can add color, soften the contrast or create special effects. You can stack up to four Cokin filters in one holder. The company makes Filterfast Kits that consists of a filter holder and two or more color and effects filters, such as a star filter and a sunset filter.

With either the drop in system or screw-on filters, you can let your creativity soar when you combine filters for multiple effects. For example, a softening filter plus a warming (gold tone) filter, helps you create a flattering portrait of a woman. Some filter manufacturers combine two filters in one, such as the Tiffen Pro Mist Warm Filter (MSRP $52.90). The Pro Mist and other softening filters smooth over wrinkles and make their subjects look years younger. The gold tone of the Warm Filter gives them that fresh-off-the-beach tan.

Filters with a Psychological Edge

Diffusion filters can create an even softer look than Pro Mist filters. Tiffen recently introduced the Glimmerglass filter, “the first filter series with a psychological edge.” This is a type of diffusion filter that is said to soften fine details while adding a mild glow to highlights. Glimmerglass comes in five grades and has a distinctive sparkle in the glass. In addition to its unique diffusion effects, the filter is designed to reduce contrast “making people look their best” according to the company. To complement this filter series, Tiffen introduced four grades of their “Smoque” filter said to “produce a smoke-like effect without the cost and hassle of a generator or the smoke it produces.”

You don’t have to travel the solar system to get Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn effects. Simply purchase any of Japanese-manufacturer Marumi’s Planet Series filters. Mercury gives you stream effects, Jupiter creates a whirlwind look and Saturn gives you a color halo around your subject. With MSRPs starting at $29.95 these filters use a center-spot design so the action effects surround the unchanged center of the subject.

Most other filter manufacturers also offer center spot filters. Tiffen’s center spot filter (MSRP $30.82) is basically a diffusion filter with a round hole in the center. The viewer’s attention goes to the sharp center, while soft edges form a frame around the subject.

Sunpak makes a similar filter they call a Vignette filter (MSRP $39.95) that produces a center-focus effect. The company also makes a Fog filter, a Diffusion filter and two different Soft Effects filters that “control the amount of blur for a dreamlike appearance.”

Hoya makes Color Spot and Rainbow Spot filters (MSRP $124 each) where the edges have added colors to them. The company also makes Fantasy Color filters where you can add a palette of pink, purple and blue or you can create a sepia tone for the look of yesteryear.

You can add the colors of the spectrum to your photos with a diffraction filter. This filter has microscopic prisms that divide white light into rainbow patterns. Cokin makes four unique diffractors that decompose the light spectrum to produce various rays “like a sparkling laser.”

Star-effect filters, available from most of the manufacturers, are made of glass or optical-grade plastic that is etched with fine lines. Snap one of these on your digicam the next time you shoot outside at night to add starburst patterns to lighting.

For a dramatic sunset, use a graduated filter that applies filtration to only the top (or bottom) of your image. The graduated filter softly changes from filtration to clear. A tinted graduated filter, such as the Cokin Yellow Graduated Filter, adds color to the sky while the rest of the image is unaffected. This rectangular filter slips into the Cokin Filter Holder, and you can slide the filter up and down to control where you want the effect to take place.

Singh-Ray makes a Graduated ND (neutral density) filter (MSRP $99) that was designed by nature photographer Galen Rowell. This gray filter slides up and down in a Cokin holder and lets you darken a bright sky. Sometimes the foreground details come out too dark and clouds are not distinct when there is a bright sky. With this filter you can find an exposure that properly balances the tones of the foreground and brings out the clouds in the sky. Singh-Ray filters come in “soft-step” and “hard-step” models; the latter has a more distinct boundary between the filtered side and non-filtered side.

Singh-Ray also makes a unique Gold-n-Blue Polarizer (MSRP $180) where areas in the frame change from dramatic blue tones to gold, and back to blue. You can rotate the filter to “color tune” your scene. The polarizing effect intensifies the colors and diminishes glare from sunlight reflecting on shiny surfaces.

Polarize and Protect

Most manufacturers make polarizing filters for lenses. These are designed to intensify colors when shooting in sunlight. When you shoot outside, the sun can play tricks with shiny leaves making them look white. Add a polarizer and you return the foliage to its natural color. Polarizing filters also help eliminate reflections when through glass and water. The next time you are at a tropical beach, try using a polarizer to capture starfish or sea anemones in a tide pool.

With a linear polarizing filter, you rotate the filter toward the sun to obtain maximum filtration. Circular polarizers require no rotation; they are designed to work in any position. Polarizing filters are a common accessory in any photographer’s gadget bag.

Another filter considered a “must” with pros is a clear glass filter called a UV (ultraviolet) or a skylight filter. Photographers use them to protect the delicate glass lens elements on their cameras. Since these filters are clear and don’t affect the exposure, many photographers simply leave these filters on the camera lenses all the time.

Several companies offer filter packages that include both a UV filter and a polarizing filter. The Tiffen Photo Twin Pack (MSRP $78.10) consists of a circular polarizer and a UV filter. They screw onto the front of lenses, and they may be used separately or in tandem. If your digicam’s lens doesn’t have screw threads, you can use the Cokin Digital Filter Holder together with one of the company’s slip-in polarizing filters.

Combining Filters

Whether you use a slip-in system such as the Cokin or screw filters such as those from Tiffen, you can stack together several filters to create unique effects. A star filter combined with a diffraction filter gives you rainbow patterns emanating from starbursts. A diffusion filter combined with a gold-tone filter produces a warm, soft effect. A graduated neutral density filter plus a polarizing filter will help keep the grass in the meadow green and the sky a deep blue.

You usually don’t need more than two or three filters to achieve a great effect. The order that you stack them together does not matter. However, be careful not to cancel out one effect with another. For example, a polarizing filter that increases saturation will not work with a fog filter that reduces contrast and color.

Making Your Own Filters

Purchase an extra one of those inexpensive UV or skylight filters, and smear some Vaseline or similar gel over the outer portion of lens for a vignette effect. You have complete control over the effect, and it may remind you of the joys of finger painting. You can make your own vignette filter by cutting a hole in a piece of plastic and placing it over the lens.

Try this for a unique fog filter: Stretch a piece of white nylon material from pantyhose over your lens. Fine-mesh black nylon over the lens can give you a diffusion filter effect. Hold a cut-crystal bowl over your lens to achieve a multiple-image effect, and if the sun cooperates, you might even get some rainbow patterns. A fine piece of window screen and just the right reflective surface could give you a starburst pattern. A visit to your local fabric store or home improvement center might yield other transparent materials that will let your creativity soar.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to lens filters for digicams. You can create breath-taking sunsets, flattering portraits and wild special effects—all without ever turning on a computer. Look at one of the filter brochures or manuals that the manufacturers publish or visit their websites for ideas. You will be amazed at just what you can do to add zip and sparkle to your digital photos.

For more information, visit the following filter manufacturers’ websites:

www.thkphoto.com (Hoya)
www.tocad.com (Sunpak)

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