Filters for Landscape Photography

  By Mark Unrau

In today’s world of Instagram filters and powerful presets for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop you may ask yourself, “Do I need any real filters that actually go on the front of my lens?”

The answer to this is YES!

It is true there may be many filters that are no longer necessary with the advent of digital photography, and the array of digital filters that come along with it, but there are still a few filters that no computer can replicate. In this post, I will go through the set of filters that I bring with me every time I go out to shoot landscapes in Banff National Park, listed in order of importance to me:

The Square Filter Holder System

What it is:

Most lens filters are circular and are designed to thread onto the end of your lens. For the most part, this is fine. But, there are two main reasons why you would want to use square filters. This style requires a special holder like the one you see from Photorepublik in the above image.  I personally use the Photorepublik 100mm filter holder system with Haida ND filters. So far, I have no complaints about the construction quality of both Photorepublik and Haida. I will be putting up a blog post soon with a full review of the Photorepublik filter holder system from my trip to Ladakh. Photorepublik solid ND filters just arrived to The Camera Store, which I will be testing soon. Stay tuned!

Why you would want a square filter holder system:

1. Quick removal of filters without having to unscrew them

I can’t tell you how many times I have had clients who had filters that fused to the front of their lens in the frigid winter. Try removing the filter with gloves on in the cold… It’s not fun. Removing circular filters takes time and patience. With square filters, you can remove them quickly, and safely, to react to changing photography conditions.

2. You can use Graduated Neutral Density Filters. These filters are a landscape photographer’s essential filter, and are the main reason for a square filter holder system.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters (3-Stop and 2-Stop density)

What it is:

This filter is a rectangular filter (100mm x 150mm) that reduces the amount of light entering through the lens for a portion of the frame. In order to attach this filter to the end of your lens, you need a filter holder from companies like PhotoRepublik, Haida, Lee, or Cokin

As mentioned, these filters allow you to reduce the exposure for a portion of your frame, typically for a bright sky. As seen in the far-right image below, it reduced the brightness of the sunrise while not affecting the exposure on the foreground.

What it’s used for:

This enables you to “compress” the dynamic range of brightness so that your exposure will maintain all the tonal detail without clipping in your highlights. You can then process the image knowing you have all the tonal detail captured in-camera.


The image on the left was exposed to protect the detail and colour of the sunrise. But the contrast was too much for the camera to also bring detail in the shadows. The image in the middle was exposed to get detail in the foreground and shadows, but the colour of the sunrise is overexposed. The image on the right was exposed for the shadows, and then a 3-stop neutral graduated filter was used to bring down the brightness of the sunrise so the camera captured all the detail.

Other types of filters:

Solid ND

What they are:

This filter is a square solid piece of dark glass that reduces the amount of light entering through the lens across the whole frame. In order to attach this filter to the end of your lens, you need a filter holder from companies like Photorepublik, Haida, Lee, or Cokin. I personally use the Photorepublik 100mm filter holder system and Haida ND filters. Since the amount of light entering your lens is reduced, you must increase your shutter speed, making your aperture wider or increasing your ISO.

What they are used for:

For landscape photography, we are mostly concerned with creating a longer exposure. A longer exposure exaggerates motion with moving elements in your frame. You can turn that waterfall silky smooth or have the clouds streak across the sky, or create a ripple free lake.


The first image below was shot at 1/4s at f/18 at ISO 50. The image directly below it was shot at 246s at f/16 ISO 50. The wind was enough to cause ripples in the water, distorting the nice reflection of Mount Rundle here at Two Jack Lake. Having an exposure of over one minute can make those ripples disappear and add some movement and drama in the clouds! Another effect a long exposure may have, but is less noticeable is capturing the light as ripples bounce around under water, which can illuminate the rocks just below the surface. It almost has the effect of a polarizing filter!

Polarizing Filter

What it is:

A polarizer filters out sunlight from polarized sources such as reflections in water, or windows. You can buy these as round threaded filters, attaching directly to your lens, or in a format that will fit the square filter holder system. One of the great things about the Photorepublik 100mm Filter Holder Kit is the inclusion of a drop-in polarizer.

What it does:

Simply put, polarizing filters reduce or enhance the effect of reflections in your photographs.

What it is used for:

The polarizing filter is primarily used to reduce reflections on bodies of water in order to see further below the surface. This can also reduce the appearance of reflections of mountains in the water! It is also commonly used to darken blue skies making white clouds pop out from the darker sky, and one of the less discussed but very important uses of a polarizing filter is to reduce glare off of plants.


This is the roundup of the filters that are most commonly used for landscape photography. Hope this helps!

Why I didn’t mention a variable neutral density filter in this post:

The problem with using a variable neutral density filter for photography is the inability to accurately measure density when determining an exposure beyond 30 seconds. Variable neutral density filters also add an unwanted polarizing effect when you want to strictly reduce exposure.

About the Author: 

Mark Unrau is an award-winning professional photographer, co-producer with Front Range Films and the founder of Rocky Mountain Photo Adventures.

Mark’s diverse portfolio and unique travel and landscape photography has taken him from the hills of Tibet, the depths of the Haida Gwaii forest, the infamous coastal Kalalau Trail and to the isolated and volcanic Galápagos Islands. Calling the Bow Valley home since 2001, Mark launched Rocky Mountain Photo Adventures in 2014 combining his passion for teaching photography and guiding visitors across the spectacular landscape of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.