Working with Filters for Color Photography, part 1

There are different schools of thought on whether one should use filters for their color film photography or not; each having its own merits. For example, why get a super high-quality lens and put a ‘cheap’ filter on it, effectively reducing the quality of glass the image has to travel through? Great question (you should never do this, btw). What about if you put a ‘good’ filter on your lens? What is a ‘good’ filter? Does it matter? Can you stack different filters? Most have thread mounts on the front and back… does image quality suffer when you do this? What about vignetting? If you stack filters then mount the ‘correct’ hood, you’ve pushed that hood out a few more millimeters. Will you get dark corners in your photos?

Another question or concern is, if you don’t use a filter on your super expensive lens does the front element get buggered up over time? Do you ever wipe your lens off with your t-shirt before taking a picture? (I’ve done it ;-).

What about multi-coated filters? What about Polarizers? Warming filters? Cooling filters? UV filters? Skylights, etc., etc. Or do you get a clearer picture with just pure lens? What about a hood? Why bother with a hood?

So a few weeks ago I decided to answer the question for me and my own personal preferences once and for all. I took the F6 up to Rocky Mountain National Park with an assortment of filters I regularly use and did a couple controlled experiments. The results surprised me a little.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado


If you’re short on time, here’s the executive summary: yes, using filters matters when you’re shooting film. What filter, and how much it matters is the big question each photographer needs to answer by doing something similar to what I’ve done here. Stacking high-quality filters has virtually no impact on image sharpness, vignetting wasn’t an issue in my situation, and I’ll be doing this a lot more in the future with no fear of negatively impacting the photograph.

I’ll keep it short and sweet. On most of my lenses I run at the very least a UV filter. Here in Colorado, without a UV filter – especially at high altitude, pictures tend to get a bluish cast, stripping the image of all the lovely color nuance your eyes saw when you were standing there deciding to take the picture. UV filters filter  out Ultra Violet light and do have an impact on the image.

I’ll say this straight away: I use high-quality (expensive) filters on all of my lenses. Citing the first paragraph above, I’m a believer in using the highest quality piece of glass I can on any lens, no matter the lens.

I did this test with three specific filters:

  1. The Nikkor L39, a medium strength UV filter that filters a little more than some other UV’s. According to the old Nikkor catalogs it’s not suitable to leave on your lens all the time – but I do it, and it doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference.
  2. The Nikkor A2 filter, picked up for $10 at Englewood Camera in Littleton. The A2 filter introduces a slight warming tone to the image that – depending who you are and what you like – will either balance your image out nicely with the ‘real scene’ or make ‘too yellow.’ Different strokes.
  3. A Circular Polarizer, in this case the Nikkor circular polarizer. I also have and use a Heliopan slimline Circular Polarizer, but it’s 77mm and too large for the lens I was using for this test.

A word about filters, lenses and sizes. This is can be a quagmire of a topic. So many lenses have different sized front elements, creating the need for either different sized filters, or step-up/step-down rings to put smaller or larger filters on miss-matched lenses. True – you can do this. But you wind up with a bag of stuff you might not want to carry around all the time. It really depends on your priorities. There’s no absolute right approach.

My priority these days is going as light and small as possible while still getting being prepared for whatever. I decided on a series of lenses I thought I’d use often, then adapt the F6 to accommodate pre-ai lenses. This allows me to use many of the older Nikkor’s, most of which are 52mm front thread. Most of my zooms are 77mm front diameter, so I have basically two sets of filters: big and small. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than spending a fortune on redundant sizes then fumble around with a lot of extra stuff when you’re trying to take a picture.

Enough of all that. Here are two sets of images showing the results of:

a) no filter

No Filtration

b) A2 filter only

A2 Warming filter only

c) L39 + A2 warming filter

L39 UV + A2 Warming Filter

d) L39 + A2 warming + Circular Polarizer

L39 + A2 + Circular Polarizer

L39 + A2 + Circular Polarizer

and a second set:

No filtration

L39 UV filter

L39 UV + A2 Warming

L39 UV + A2 Warming + Circular Polarizer

One of the important things to me is not sacrificing image detail for slight color improvements. Let’s face it, shooting 35mm film is already at a disadvantage to medium or large format film when it comes to holding detail. So anything I can do to hold as much detail in the final image as possible – I’ll do. I was delighted to examine the “stacked” image closely and determine that there was no loss in detail, even shooting through three high-quality filters. To see the final image, click here.

Of course, there are things that will make a difference in your images, like quality and angle of light, haze, etc. so you’ll just have to play around to see what combination appeals to you. But rest assured that if you use a high-quality filter, even if you stack them, you’re not hurting the detail and sharpness of your image – providing you’re doing everything else right too.


About the Author:

John B. Crane is a photographer, illustrator and 3D animator living and working in Fort Collins, Colorado. When John isn't sitting in front of the computer creating complex technical and industrial 3D animation projects for clients around the world, he may be found roaming the Rocky Mountain West in his Subaru, old film cameras in hand, refocusing his eyes, enjoying the solitude and beauty the West has to offer. To view a complete catalog of images please visit
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