These Are the Filters You Need for Landscape Photography

This is a brief overview of why you need filters for landscape photography, comparing the different types of systems you may encounter, and breaking down which setup is right for you.

Whether you're just starting on your photography journey, newly dabbling into landscape photography, or looking to upgrade your filter system, there should be something here for you. Decision fatigue is a real thing, especially when it comes to the world of photography. Trying to decide what brand to get, which lens is right for you, primes versus zooms, full frame versus mirrorless, it feels endless. Filters are no different, and I distinctly remember being so overwhelmed when I first started that I just avoided them altogether.

My goal for this article is to get your feet wet and provide extra resources for exactly what you might need for where you are in your work. Let's start with the basics.

Why You Need Filters

Long exposure using stacked ND filters

There are two main reasons to use filters. The first is to create movement in your images by manipulating the shutter speed (think moving water or clouds). This is accomplished using what are called neutral density (ND) filters that essentially block light from your camera. Standard values you'll find most often are 3, 6, and 10 stops of light. 

Another very important task filters can do is manipulate the physics of light, which is just a fancy way of describing the purpose of a circular polarizer (CPL), which is to cut out reflections of light on your subject or in the atmosphere. This is the most important filter you'll have in your bag as a landscape photographer, and if you're wondering just what it can do, check out my article that explains everything you'd want to know about a CPL.

A Soft Graduated Neutral Density Filter (GND)

Lastly, filters can manipulate your exposure in specific areas of your image, which is what you do with a graduated neutral density (GND) filter. These typically darken the edge of your frame and get lighter gradually. You'll see some referred to as "soft" and "hard," which just describes the transition rate from dark to light. Other filters exist to add “mist” or special effects to your images that I don’t even consider options, but they do exist.

Square Filter Systems

You're likely familiar with circular filters, as they have existed for nearly as long as photography. Square filters are a bit more unique and are only really present in landscape or architectural photography. Unlike circular filters that screw onto the threads at the end of your lens, these square filters require some type of system to interface with and attach to your lens. 

NiSi V7 Square Filter System

There are a lot of options out there for systems, but they all function similarly, typically housing a large circular polarizer closest to the lens and then some type of apparatus that interfaces with square filters. This allows you to do a few things you can’t do with circular filters. Most importantly, it allows you to use graduated filters so that you can adjust the exposure of something like your sky without affecting your foreground. For decades, it also allowed you to stack ND filters much more easily than circular filters, but that has changed a bit with modern circular filters (more on that later).

A huge benefit of square filters over circular filters is in their size. One issue you can run into when using circular filters is vignetting at wide angles, especially if you're trying to stack filters. This doesn't happen when you're using these 100mm x 100mm square filters. It also means you can use these in varying lens sizes without issue, making them a bit more versatile for your lens selection. 


Alright, so this means you should go out and buy a square filters system immediately, right? Not quite. Many photographers argue that square filters uses are obsolete in modern photography. Graduated filters are one of the main reasons to use these kits, but with modern cameras having larger dynamic ranges than ever before combined with using techniques like exposure bracketing, you can get away without using them. 

Stacked Magnetic ND Filters

On top of that, magnetic circular filters were introduced a few years ago, and they have changed everything about filter systems. Previously, if you had to screw on a circular polarizer or set up a square system, the setup time wasn't very different, so the opportunity cost to use one over the other was very little. Now, with magnetic filters, you can add a polarizer and an ND in less than 10 seconds. Factor in the size and weight difference between the two, and you're stuck wondering why you'd ever use square filters again. 

The truth is most of the time, I don’t want to use filters at all if I can get away with it. If a scene does need a filter, I want it to take as little time as possible. Like many tools in photography, if it feels like it gets in my way more than it benefits me, I’ll likely just never end up using it. So, if all of this is true, why do I still own a kit?

I own a kit for the same reason people continue to shoot film photography. It slows me down, makes me more deliberate in my compositions, and connects me a bit more to the process of photography. So, when I have the time and there’s a reason to use an ND stacked with a polarizer or a graduated filter might help balance my sky, they're there. Just because modern editing and technology have made a graduated filter less important doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer to get the scene in one exposure. There have also been times when my circular filters caused too much vignetting and having those larger square filters was quite important.

What's Right for You?

There are a lot of options out there, and the reality is everyone's situation is different. For example, I would never suggest the square filter system I use if you didn't already have a circular polarizer that you can quickly access. If you live somewhere with a lot of waterfalls or seascape, you might need more ND options than I typically carry around. I pointed out that many photographers recommend just bracketing your exposures so you don’t have to use graduated filters anymore, but what if you aren’t comfortable with editing techniques used for blending exposures? What if you prefer to get everything in a single exposure? In those situations, graduated filters are required. 

All You Really Need is a Magnetic Circular Polarizer

If you're just starting, all you need is a magnetic circular polarizer. They are super easy to manage and should never get in the way of your ability to create. On top of that, no matter where you find yourself in a few years, a standalone CPL will always have uses. If you do shoot scenes with water often, throw in a magnetic 6-stop ND, and you’ll cover most of your bases. Here are a few brands you can't go wrong with:

  1. Haida NanoPro Magnetic Filters
  2. Freewell Magnetic Filters 
  3. Kase Magnetic Filters

If you're looking to slow down a little and feel a little closer to the process of photography, then a filter system might be right for you. Just be aware of why you want one and what you'll use it for; otherwise, you might find yourself never taking it out of your bag. 

  1. Fstopper's Elia Lacardi did an entire series on the Nisi V7 Filter System that has a wealth of information. 
  2. Polar Pro's Summit System 
  3. H&Y Magnetic System 

Alex Armitage's picture

Alex Armitage has traveled the world to photograph and film some of the most beautiful places it has to offer. No matter the location, perfecting it's presentation to those absent in the moment is always the goal; hopefully to transmute the feeling of being there into a visual medium.

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I'll never go back to 100mm filters (having had three sets from different manufacturers) after switching to Kase Wolverine Magnetics.

Way way smaller, lighter and easier to use than my previous 100mm filter kits. 6 filters fit in a tiny case that I can clip to my belt or easily keep in a zipped jacket pocket (or even in my jeans) ! This in turn means I use them far more as it takes less than 10 secs to take one out and snap it on (I now leave magnetic rings attached to all my lenses - unless I absolutely need to use the hoods).

I'm not sure you actually need to go larger to prevent vignetting, these filters are different to previous circular filters, they are very very thin since they are magnetic and don't need threads. My largest lens thread diameter is 77mm and that's what all my filters are (I use the magnetic step down rings that I've attached to every lens I need them on).
In retrospect I probably should have bought the 82mm (to cover potential lens purchases) but I often stack 2 and occasionally 3 filters without any deleterious effect. The Kase filters seem to be completely neutral and lack any noticeable colour cast.

I don't understand why people still are using graduated neutral density filters when you can do all of what they would do in post processing and you can do it without ruining the parts of your image that get destroyed by gnd filters. I mean how many images have we seen where the peaks of the mountains are dark but the rest of the mountain is properly exposed?!?! I suppose they're good for JPEG shooters???

I used to use a 3-stop soft grad on some landscape but the increased dynamic range on Nikon's 45 mb sensor makes this unnecessary. Except ..... I just got back from Yosemite and there are a few locations like the little bridge in front of half dome where the reflection of the face and the dark, dingy reiver in front of you with kayakers is almost impossible to capture if you properly expose for the face. The river is just too dark. The grad filter was a miracle. I do agree though that the need for grads with today's sensors is much less necessary.

Dynamic range of human eye is still way larger than dynamic range of any camera we have.. And there are many situations where bracketing isnt possible.

Nope... You still getting higher dynamic range and if you for example shooting water... Seascape especially you will still be better with them. If you think you ok without them you fine without them... I personally cant live without grads and full NDs.. If you think filters are destroying your photos you never had good filters

I’ve just recently started using one and wish I had much much earlier, bracketing isn’t suitable for many situations and doesn’t work properly lots of times anyway. Nothing is better than getting as much of it right in camera as possible.

I’d rather go home with a singe workable RAW over 5 shots I need to hope blend.

First of all. Great quality lens filters do little to no damage to the photo quality. Second, there is nothing wrong with doing it old school. Maybe some people don't want to spend an extra one or 5 or 10 minutes editing a handful of landscape photos. Third, even with the advancement of editing software. There is always limits.

If you read my post I'm not saying that grad filters harm image quality, I'm saying that because of their design (a straight line dividing light from dark), they almost always leave weird artifacts because apart from seascapes, the line always intersects something that it's not supposed to. I understand preferring to do it in the field vs post, but doing this can end up ruining parts of the image that can't be fixed.

your filter system is absolutely massive and that's one of the reason I am staying with Kase filters and canon EF to RF adapter with drop in filters. When you about to take the full ND out of the filter holder there is something like a 100x150mm full nd filter from Kase. It basically is the same size as grads and for that reason it is a lot easier to take it out. Yet you can always detach your filter holder from the lens if you think you'll move it which to be honest didn't ever happened to me. Kase filters do the same magnetic square filters which are inside magnetic frame kind of and you don't need to slide them into the filter holder just stack them. I find Nisi very old fashioned and not innovative enough and I think that's one of the reasons they are sending you product to get the name out because most of photographers who used to shoot with Nisi before are now with either Haida or Kase filters on European grounds.

I prefer to do my photography "in-camera." So, I use the Lee 100mm filter system. If I were to buy circular filters I would have to buy five sets to fit my different lenses. The Lee system is much more economical.