Gear and Now: Filter it Out
Posted Aug 4, 2004

The use of filters can set apart an excellent videographer from an average one; it can also expose an amateur who's too reliant on cheap gimmickry. It can save a shoot or render footage unusable. Walking the fine line between judicious use and filter overload means knowing when to use filters and when not to, and how to use them well, since choosing to shoot a scene with some types of filters means committing to certain types of looks before you even press record. Especially when shooting a live event, you can't necessarily stop recording once you start to put a filter on or take one off without running the risk of missing a key shot. Explaining that you missed the cutting of the cake because you were changing a lens filter...well, with most mothers of the bride, that just won't cut it.

That said, whatever the risks, the knowledge and the skill to use filters effectively can greatly enhance your video.

In this installment of Gear & Now, we'll look at lens filters from several angles: what kind of filters videographers use, when they use them, and where they find them. In addition, we will discuss the question of when it's best to use a filter to achieve a particular effect while shooting, and when you're better off applying that effect in post-production, given the power and versatility of today's NLEs and effects software.

Sorting the Filters
Pro videographers use filters in several categories, each with their own intended effect. Major providers include Tiffen, Sony, Canon, and Sunpak. Obviously, when you choose a camcorder filter, you need to know some basic stuff like lens diameter; MiniDV can vary from 30.5mm for low-end models to 72mm for 3CCD pro camcorders like the Canon XL1S. has some useful charts for relevant mix-and-match info.

The types of filters most commonly used for videography include the following: 
UV: Absorbs ultraviolet rays to give the picture a cleaner, sharper look with less haze. Recommended for use at all times to protect the lens from dust, moisture, scratches, and breakage. Some examples are Tiffen's UV Protector and 37mm SKY 1A. 
Polarizing: Essential for outdoor videography; deepens intensity of blue skies; reduces or eliminates glare. Examples are Sony's VF52CPKS Polarizing Filter and Tiffen's 37mm SR Polarizer. 
Neutral Density: Reduces the amount of light without affecting the color. Eliminates overly bright, washed-out images. Sony's VFR52K 52mm Neutral Density and Tiffen's 37mm Neutral Density 0.6 are common examples from this category. 
Diffuse and Softening: Used to reduce blemishes and wrinkles in a picture; makes people "look better." Canon's entries in this category include its Softmat 58mm; Tiffen's include its 49mm Soft/FX 1. 
Fog: Adds drama to a scene by producing misty atmosphere. Lights flare, softens contrast and sharpness. Creates the natural look of fog, especially on overcast days. Tiffen's 52mm FOG 3 is one example of a fog filter. 
Star: Turns point light sources and specular highlights into stars. Can generate four- to sixteen-point stars. Example: Tiffen's 37mm Star 4PT 2MM.
Mist: Most popular motion picture effect. Creates special "atmosphere" by softening excess sharpness and contrast. Example: Tiffen's 49mm Pro-Mist 2.

Filter Use
The use of lens filters on a shoot depends greatly on the environment you're shooting in and the look you're going for. David Rennie, owner and operator of Tampa, Florida-based Catalyst Sight and Sound ( says the prescription varies from filter to filter. "The UV filter is employed full time, even indoors as it provides the added benefit of protecting the fixed lens on our [Panasonic] DVX100s from scratches."

Other lenses are used more sparingly to create a certain feeling in your video that is harder to accomplish without filters. Rennie explains, "We use Tiffen's Soft/FX and Pro-Mist filters in a combination of indoor and outdoor environments to create a soft, romantic feel to our video. The four-point star sees the least amount of service, but we use it outdoors at night to play off of street lights," he says.

Rennie notes that the filter alone won't get you the shot you want; it takes skill and experience with specific filters in specific settings to cultivate the look you seek. "Using the Pro-Mist outdoors can be a little trickier if the lighting conditions are too strong. Indoors is simpler, though shooting directly into a window with a strong outside light source can require some practice to achieve the desired results."

Other lens filters such as polarizing and neutral density reduce glare and enhance the color in your video. They help maintain image quality in environments where you would otherwise tend to see some picture degradation. Doug Graham of Panda Video (also known to EventDV readers as co-columnist for The Main Event [see p. 64]) describes the neutral density filter as "sunglasses for your camera." He explains, "This lets the camcorder function at a useful exposure setting in brightly lit conditions. Many camcorders have one or more built-in neutral density filters, but sometimes an additional filter is needed."

So what brand of filters are the professionals using? Well, opinions vary, naturally, but some options are more prevalent than others. "All the filters we use are made by Tiffen," Rennie says. "It has been my experience that they are the most reliable and often the best value, when considering both cost and quality." Rennie says his own arsenal of filters includes "various Soft/FX filters ranging from 1 to 3, Pro-Mist, the Pro-Mist black, the four-point star, and the UV filter." Graham's on-hand assortment includes "Neutral Density 3 and Neutral Density 9, Tiffen Black Pro-Mist 1, four-point and six-point star filters, rotating polarizing filter, spot focus, soft focus, Tiffen Foggilizer, Skylight 1B (clear protective filter), and UV (another clear protective filter)."

Posting Up
For live events, it can be tricky to know when to use a filter and when to hold off and do the effect in post. You need to have a working knowledge of everything you can do in post, given the tools at your disposal. What types of cleaning, color correction, and artistic effects are offered in your NLE of choice? How much noise or artifacting do they introduce? And how capable are they of correcting any effect introduced by your filter that, on second thought, you didn't want?

Naturally, it's best to know what you're dealing with on site before you start shooting; there are no second takes on the cutting of the cake. When you stake out the shooting environment, take note of lighting and other conditions and what you expect to have to compensate for, as well as the types of effects you expect to attach to the items on your shot list. Test out the filters well in advance and make sure you know what they add to—and what they impose on—your video under certain types of conditions.

If, however, you are not shooting a live event, you'll have a little more flexibility, and the opportunity for more on-site experimentation. "We often will shoot the same scene with and without the filter," Rennie says. "If the scene with the filter did not work out as hoped, we can apply an effect in post. Personally, I prefer to use the footage shot with the filter for a variety of reasons. Often is takes less time to shoot a scene a second time with the filter than it does to apply an effect in post and wait for it to be rendered. Second, very few effects will look as good as properly shot footage with the desired filter."

A similar strategy on a multi-camera live shoot is to run one camera with the filter on and another with the filter off. Then again, if you're primarily using the multiple cameras to cover different angles and positions, you'll have to weigh the trade off of expending one to let you hedge your bet on a filter or effect.