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The "lo-fi" Instagram filter gives this photo I took of my daughter some extra punch, but the real trick here was waiting until the pulsing electronic billboards across the street were at their brightest so they would light her face just right. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

Are Filters the Answer?

Reader Question: Are lens filters still necessary for digital photography? Are there filters that National Geographic photographers use to make their pictures look better?

My Answer: Most National Geographic photographers don’t use filters to define the look of their pictures. In fact, it used to be a badge of honor to not use any filters at all. The philosophy behind this mind-set was that filters could look gimmicky and somehow cheapen the photograph. But the stigma against them has definitely lessened over the years — especially in the age of Instagram.

That being said, it’s important to note that no filter can be considered a “magic bullet”–and to warn against the dangers of using filters as a crutch. If you rely on filters to make your pictures more interesting, you won’t learn to seek out those special times and circumstances that will give you a truly special picture.

I freely admit to using filters myself, and there’s one in particular that I’ve found useful over the years: the polarizing filter. While this filter has a reputation among beginning photographers as the one that makes the sky dark and allows you to see through windows, these are probably the polarizing filter’s least valuable aspects. What it really does is reduce glare. It also extends the amount of time during the day in which the light looks good.

By reducing haze and scattered light, I find that I can take nice pictures earlier in the afternoon (when the sun is directly overhead), particularly when I’m out shooting landscapes. There is no Photoshop setting that can easily duplicate the effect you get when you use a polarizer. Yes, a polarizing filter does darken the sky and make the clouds look better, but try not to get carried away or you’ll end up creating something that looks too good to be real.

The graduated neutral density filter, which functions sort of like the tint on car windshields, is another powerful tool that can be especially useful when you’re photographing in less-than-perfect conditions.

For example, when you’re taking pictures in the mountains, the top of the mountain is closer to the sun and therefore illuminated more brightly. And doesn’t it always seem that the sun leaves valleys at the precise moment the light starts getting good? The graduated neutral density filter can help even out these exposure differences.

This kind of filter falls into two main categories: hard edge and soft edge. I prefer the latter because it yields a subtler effect. In the digital age, Adobe Lightroom and other photo-editing programs allow you to achieve a similar effect with a virtual graduated filter, so many photographers now regard soft-edge filters as obsolete. But, when you’re taking a ton of photos, it’s easier to take the extra minute needed to get something right at the time of capture than spend countless hours pushing pixels around on a computer screen.

Now, of course, there’s a whole other type of filtering that is discussed because of Instagram. When I first started using the app, I, like everyone else, couldn’t believe how the different film types and effects could make almost anything look great. And since this was supposed to be a quick and fun way to share pictures with your friends, I would just throw out weird-looking pictures without thinking. But now that my initial infatuation has worn off, I find myself posting fewer pictures that have been significantly altered because it’s just too easy.

Good photography is supposed to be hard; that’s why it’s so rewarding.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.