The Right Filters For Fall Color Pictures

When shooting in autumn, the polarizer, neutral-density and grad ND filters are indispensable for achieving stunning imagery
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Left: Using a polarizer deepens blue skies, which look especially pronounced when contrasted against beautiful fall colors, like in this image of a golden aspen forest in Colorado. RIGHT: Kevin McNeal used a neutral-density filter to slow exposure and achieve a “cotton-candy” effect in these merging waterfalls in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon.
Filters from top to bottom: B+W Circular Polarizer MRC, Heliopan Circular Polarizer, Hoya Circular Polarizer

When it comes to color and impact, fall is full of opportunity. The season is an amazing time to create mood with color while capturing landscapes as they transform before one’s eyes. Trying to create an image about which I’m particularly passionate, however—especially in autumn—can be challenging. When shooting fall colors, there are three filters that I never leave home without: a polarizer, a neutral-density filter and a graduated neutral-density filter. Although each has its own purpose, they all overcome obstacles that otherwise would be impossible to correct without using a filter, even digitally. Polarizers, neutral-density filters and graduated neutral-density filters are indispensable in many of these photographic situations.

A circular polarizer reduces the glare from an image for crystal-clear saturation of colors, as you can see in these fall reflections in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. McNeal used a Singh-Ray warming polarizer, which also acts as an enhancing or intensifying filter for saturating the red, orange and brown hues of autumn.

The Polarizer
The most important filter for fall is the polarizer. Useable in all facets of nature photography, this filter can make a significant improvement to your images. The polarizer deepens the color of blue skies, provides more saturated colors, and reduces glare and reflections in bright or sunny conditions. Concerning fall foliage, the polarizer eliminates glare on leaves and flowers. It intensifies and saturates color in wet foliage and adds color density to blue or hazy skies. One additional benefit of using a polarizer is that it cuts through the haze in the atmosphere. This added clarity allows subjects to stand out more against the deeper tones of the sky so that fall foliage looks even more pronounced.

When light hits a nonmetallic surface, it’s reflected and polarized—the wavelengths are aligned—and when we see this reflection from the surface of water, for example, we call it glare. The polarizer blocks the wavelengths perpendicular to its axis. This is achieved by using a specialized foil positioned between two sheets of glass. The front part of this polarizer then can be rotated, altering the amount of polarized light that can be blocked out by the filter. A simple rotation of the front glass allows the photographer to dial in the amount of effect desired in the image.

To do this properly, position the polarizer on the lens and rotate slowly while looking through the camera’s viewfinder. Choosing where to stop the rotation is a personal choice, but you want to maximize the effect up to the point where it begins to look unrealistic. For example, when the scene includes blue skies, rotate the polarizer only until you get deep, rich blues. If overrotated, the blues can turn into an unrealistic darker tone, especially in higher elevations. To maximize the potential of a polarizer, keep the sun at a right angle to the camera by holding your hands out to the side while facing the sun. Where your arms point is where the polarizer works best. A 90-degree angle to the sun is optimal because this is the location of the most polarized light in the sky.

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The Fairy Falls of Wahkeena Creek, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon. A polarizer works twofold in this image, reducing exposure for the effect of motion in the rapids, while also enhancing the deep green saturation of the damp moss and foliage.

One challenge many photographers have is determining the best time to use a polarizer. It’s effective in many situations, but if you’re unsure when to use a polarizer, hold it up and look through it with your eye instead of screwing it onto the lens. This is a quick way to see if the polarizer is having any effect. In the fall, the polarizer is best utilized just before midday when conditions are brighter. The increased brightness adds extra contrast to the scene and cuts through the haze, especially when shooting through a telephoto lens. Photographing fall color on sunny days can add additional depth in the image when including the sky in your compositions, especially when contrasted against the vibrant colors of fall.

In addition to deepening blue skies, the most understated reason for using the polarizer is to reduce glare and reflections. This is important because once glare is present in an image, no amount of postprocessing can undo the damage. That glare reduces the color saturation in images, giving them a flat, washed-out appearance. The polarizer alters this by blocking out the polarized light, enhancing color saturation.

Reflections can be an issue without a polarizer, as well. This is evident in subjects that contain water. Nature photography in fall often includes elements such as creeks and lakes, which cause unwanted surface reflections. I like to take images of colorful foliage against the backdrop of the darker water. This would be impossible without a polarizer. It also reduces the glare off darker rocks, which allows the color of the foliage to stand out even more. Having the ability to dial in a certain amount of polarized light allows each photographer to create a sense of style that’s uniquely his or her own.

The ND Filter
The use of an ND filter allows for creativity. It encourages the photographer to think outside the box and develop fresh concepts of viewing nature. A neutral-density (ND) filter is made to reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor so that a longer exposure is required to achieve an equivalent exposure. The longer exposure of ND filters provides photographers the dynamic feel of movement, especially noticeable with subjects like water, which can be a great complement to the brisk colors of fall foliage when contrasted with the blurred effect of moving streams, rapids and water banks. Ideally, to capture this blur, you need to expose the image for at least half a second, but often, available ambient light will be too quick, even when using the lowest ISO and smallest aperture. This is when it’s advisable to use an ND filter to block light from reaching the camera sensor and thus increase the exposure time.

Be careful not to increase the exposure too long, though, as this can blow highlights in the water. Also, when buying ND filters, make sure they’re threaded, which means that other filters can be stacked on. This comes in handy when you’re trying to reach a higher number of stops or combining two different types of filters. ND filters can even be combined with polarizers for a two-step purpose. The polarizer reduces the glare and reflection, and the increased exposure time creates the enhanced movement in the water.

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The Grad ND
The last essential filter that’s used frequently for photographing fall colors is the graduated neutral-density (grad ND) filter, which compensates for an uneven light source. Often in landscape images, the sky is brighter than the ground; so if you meter exposure for the ground, the sky is overexposed. Alternatively, if you expose for the sky, the ground becomes underexposed. Common examples of this are sunrises and sunsets where the skies are bright, but the foreground is in shadow. Graduated filters were designed to allow the photographer to darken the sky with various stops of light so that the sky requires the same amount of exposure as the ground, allowing everything to be properly exposed.

Grad ND filters are made so that the top part of the filter is dark and the bottom is clear. Grad NDs come in various strengths, depending on the number of stops needed to balance the sky and foreground. Hence, the sky becomes darker without a shift in color. The trick is to place the grad in the right position. Inaccuracy will cause unnatural shadows in the image to be placed too high or low.

There are different types of graduated filters, depending on the transition of brightness in the scene. There are hard and soft grads, which are used in different situations. When evaluating a scene, the transition between exposures isn’t always clearly defined, and a longer transition is apparent in the image. In this situation, use a soft grad to blend the transition without noticeable changes. Other times, the transition is abrupt, like the horizon on an ocean, and the image would benefit most from a hard grad. The transition for a hard grad is immediate, and the transition is short.

To line up your grad ND correctly, use the depth-of-field preview button while looking through the viewfinder. Fine-tune the filter up or down to position it just right. Essential to using graduated filters is choosing the right number of stops of light. To do this correctly, spot-meter for the sky and then once more for the foreground. Take the difference between the two exposures and subtract one to capture a scene that looks natural. The best way to use a grad ND is to position it over the lens by holding it with your hand or using a filter system that allows the filter to be dropped into a slot in front of the lens. Most nature photographers prefer to hold the filter, allowing them to adjust the graduated line to the scene before them.

Falling Into Place
I try to create a story with my images as well as a sense of place, and I want people to imagine that they could see themselves in the images, which may even inspire them. Shooting fall colors is an event I look forward to all year. Capturing the vibrancy of images of changing seasons has always meant something special to me, so even with the introduction of digital photography, it’s important when shooting autumn landscapes to use optical filters to capture the beautiful colors, tones and hues that abound in the fall.

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Left: B+W Red Enhancer; Right: Tiffen Enhancing Filter

Recommended Filters
When purchasing a filter, quality is important. Chances are, you spent some time and money investing in a good lens, so why put a poor-quality filter in front? Remember, everything you put in front of that lens is only as good as the lowest-quality glass used, and not all filters are created equal.

Hoya Intensifier
Sunpak Red Enhancement Filter

Polarizers, for instance, should be used frequently, and it doesn’t make sense to use a less expensive polarizer that often can be less effective. Kevin McNeal uses the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo, which is a combination of a warming polarizer and a color intensifier. “I use this polarizer when I want to capture the best of the warmer tones in my images, especially the reds,” he says. “It works by leaving the neutral colors and only saturating the vibrant colors.” Manufacturers such as B+W, Heliopan, Hoya, Lee, Sunpak, Tiffen and others also make high-quality circular and linear polarizers, with numerous models for best matching to your camera and lens.

When choosing an ND filter, it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t have any colorcast. For a series of extremely graduated ND filters, the Blender ND Filters from Formatt Filters use a transition that’s very gradual over the length of the filter, rather than just in the middle, which can be limiting in a scene. For ND grads, McNeal recommends buying large, square models that are comfortable to hold and will fit over all your lenses.

Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo

Formatt Circular Polarizer

Tiffen Circular Polarizer

Lee Polarizers

Other great filters for fall include Enhancing filters from B+W, Hoya (which calls its an Intensifier) and Tiffen; these make warmer colors like reds, browns and oranges pop in photos.

The Red Enhancement filter series from Sunpak is great for intensifying the red portion of the spectrum, perfect for fall colors and sunsets, too.


B&W (Schneider Optics)
(631) 761-5000
www.schneideroptics.comFormatt Filters (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500

Heliopan (HP Marketing Corp.)
(800) 735-4373

Hoya (THK Photo Products)
(800) 421-1141

Lee Filters
(800) 576-5055
(800) 486-5501

Sunpak (ToCAD America)
(973) 627-9600

(800) 645-2522


    If you don’t have an ND filter you can also choose a smaller aperture such as F22 or higher to achieve the so called “Cotton Candy” effect. Once you’ve chose your settings, have a tripod handy or if possible, take your back pack and place on sturdy surface. Position, choose your settings then compose your photo. Set up 2 second timer and walla. I’ve used this method many times with excellent success. My only gripe on the slower shutter speeds vs. an ND is with a larger aperture such as F8 + ND you may actually get a sharper photo.

    Mr McNeal, thank you for a truely helpful article.

    I have used filters for many years but I learned even more from this article.

    Very nicely written and understandable for those non-pro folks like me.

    I like my polar filter very much, but only have one for my 80-200mm lens. I need to get one for my most used landscape lens (a 17-15mm).

    However, in post I almost always apply the polarizing filter in Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3 to every kind of photograph.

    Kevin, can you give any comparison to the results one gets using a physical polar filter as compared to using Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3’s one?

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