BEST FILTERS FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW
EVERY BRAND CLAIM THEIR FILTERS ARE PERFECTLY NEUTRAL: SEE MY BEST FILTERS FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW CONTROLLED RESULTS TO FIND OUT!
Why doing a best filters for landscape photography review, do we still need to use filters even with today’s digital cameras? In my opinion, indeed we do. Despite all the post-processing tricks that the advent and development of digital photography allows, I believe that on-camera filters are still fundamental, particularly for landscape photography and architectural work.
Real world’s scenes very often have a dynamic range that digital cameras cannot capture, and Grad ND filters will help you balance the exposure in your frame in ways that no post-processing trick can, helping your camera to get the most out of your landscapes. To achieve full expressive control of long exposures, using ND filters is the only solution putting you in complete control of your shutter speed, no matter the amount of light available. A polariser will help you control reflections and saturate your colours in a way that is impossible to achieve in post-processing.
There are many brands offering complete sets of filters out there, and new ones keep appearing. The best known among professional photographers, and those we’ll examine in this best filters for landscape photography review, are Lee Filters, Formatt-Hitech and Singh-Ray. Recently, Formatt-Hitech released a new line of Schott Superwhite glass filters, the Firecrest, claiming to be the world’s first hyper-neutral filters. This, of course, got my attention. In my quest for the best, most neutral filter set, I got myself a set of the new Firecrest and a set of regular Formatt-Hitech filters as well, to compare with my Singh-Ray and Lee Filters.
To test my filter kits, I shot a white wall evenly lit with my Elinchrom Quadra flashes with my Leica SL equipped with a Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4. I set my white balance first, shooting the white wall without any filters as you can see in the image here. That same white balance has then been used for all the images in this best filters for landscape photography review.
To make sure that filters of equal strength got equal exposure, I used f/5.6 for all Grad NDs and for 3 stop solid NDs. I then opened my aperture to f/1.4 for 6, 10 and 13 stop ND filters. Therefore, any vignetting visible in 6, 10 and 13 stop ND images depends on the f/stop used, not on the filters themselves.
I checked colour neutrality on the top, centre and bottom part of the image for Grad ND filters, and on the centre only for Solid ND filters.
Numbers in the images express R, G, B values sampled using a 101px sampler in Photoshop CC. When R, G and B values are equal or very close to each other, the filter is most neutral; the further apart R, G, B values are, the more evident a colour cast is. Finally, please note that this test was aimed at testing colour neutrality, not any other characteristic of the filters.
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not affiliated with Lee Filters, Singh-Ray or Formatt-Hitech in any way. I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.
ROUND OR SQUARE?
Let’s start with a quick look at the different kinds of filters available on the market, for those not familiar with them already. Filters for still photography can be of two kinds, round and square. I use a square 100mm filter system for my photography, because it’s the most versatile and practical for landscape work.
The main difference between square and round filters is that with a square system you can precisely position your Grad ND filters according to the subject matter. With round filters you are at the mercy of filter manufacturers, which normally build their round Grad ND filters so that the line between dark and light is in the middle. Unfortunately, this is something that almost never happens photographing real world’s subjects. More, using a square filter system you will not have to screw and unscrew filters constantly when you need to change strength or type of filter, as you do with a round filter system. Just screw your filter holder’s ring on the lens once, and you’ll then be able to slide your filters in and out your holder without ever removing it.
GLASS OR RESIN?
Filters can be made of resin or glass. In short, differences between these two kinds of filters are as follows. Resin filters don’t break easily if at all, but they do scratch extremely easily, making them useless pretty quickly. Glass filters do not scratch easily, but they can break if you drop them on hard ground. Most importantly, glass is optically better than resin, offering better light transmission, better colour neutrality and higher transparency.
Neutrality is the propriety of filters not to add any colour cast to your images: the more neutral, the better. Colour casts introduced by solid ND filters can be removed in post-processing easily, but this can introduce balance problems between the different colour channels, resulting in noise, image artefacts, and so on. Colour casts introduced by Grad NDs, on the other hand, due both to the gradient itself and to its changing position between different images, are very difficult if not impossible to remove completely. Even when possible, this takes a lot of time and post-processing work, which I’d rather do without.
When looking at the test images below, please use the R, G, B values to make up your mind rather than looking at the image’s colours on your monitor. R, G, B values are objective measurements, and they are not influenced by anything. The colours in the images can be deceiving depending on what you have watched right before this review, on your monitor’s colours or calibration (or lack thereof), on the light sources in your room, on the colours of your walls, and so on.
Finally, if you are thinking “oh, but my filters have only a slight cast, that’s not going to be a problem” please consider that while this might be true if you use one filter at a time, if you do stack filters for your landscape work (as most of us do), the effect of the colour cast of each filter will obviously add up. The more filters with cast you add on top of one other, the worse the cast will become.
For this test, I choose what I believe to be the Grad ND filter that every landscape photographer should have at least in his bag, a 0.9 Soft Edge (3 stops). This filter offers a medium level of filtration and is the most versatile of all Grad NDs. I positioned all filters in the exact same position in the holder and gave all images exactly the same exposure. Differences in brightness depend on the gradient’s level and position in each manufacturer’s filter. I was also curious to see how the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 1.5 Soft Edge would perform, since the higher the filtration level, the most problematic it is to keep colour casts away, so I added this filter to the group as well. Here we go (click on the images to enlarge):
As you could see, the Formatt-Hitech resin features a small but clear magenta cast; the Sing-Ray, a slight blue cast; finally, the Lee and Formatt-Hitech Firecrest are basically neutral. What is really impressive here is the behaviour of the 1.5 stop Firecrest: the filter is almost perfectly neutral, offering better performance than any of the 0.9 filters in this test despite being the strongest filter in the group.
Moving on to solid NDs, I started with a mild 3-stop filter (click on the images to enlarge):
Here we can see that the Formatt-Hitech resin features a very prominent magenta cast; the Singh-Ray, some blue cast; and again, the Lee and the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest are the most neutral of the group, with the Lee showing a very little magenta cast and the Formatt-Hitech a minor blue cast, both inconsequential in practice.
I then tested the stronger NDs, which – for better or worse – are very much in fashion in landscape photography today. Let’s start with the two 6 stop filters, from Lee and Formatt-Hitech (click on the images to enlarge):
As you can see, the Lee Little Stopper shows an evident blue cast; the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest, on the other hand, while not perfect can be considered neutral for all practical purposes.
Finally, let’s move on to the big guns: 10 stops ND filters! To use long exposures in broad daylight, however, sometimes I need more than 10 stops. After seeing the great performance of the new Formatt-Hitech Firecrest filters for 6 and 10 stops, I recently got a Firecrest 13 stops as well, and I decided to add it to the test thinking it might be interesting (click on the images to enlarge):
The Lee Big Stopper, following in the footsteps of his little brother, showed an even stronger blue cast than the Little Stopper. The Formatt-Hitech Firecrest, on the other hand, showed a very little green cast but, in practice, can be considered neutral. Once more, though, I have to say that I am really impressed with the highest density ND filter in the group, the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 13 stop. True, it is not perfectly neutral, showing a small green / blue cast. However, let’s not forget that we are talking about 13 stops of filtering here, and that the Formatt-Hitech 13 stops performs actually better than both the Lee Little and Big Stopper!
Summarising, I’d rate the filters in this best filters for landscape photography review as follows:
1. Formatt-Hitech Firecrest. The most neutral filters in the test overall, these newcomer glass filters by Formatt-Hitech showed an impressive performance. Highly recommended!
2. Lee Filters. Not as neutral as the Firecrest, Lee Filters hold their own beautifully in the Grad ND department and in the Solid ND up to 3 stops. If you want to move up to 6 and 10 stops, however, things will get blue, and you’ll have to work to get your image back to neutral. Recommended.
3. Singh-Ray. With a slight blue cast in the Grad, and a bluish-magenta cast in the 3 stop solid ND, these filters offer a slightly worse performance than our champions. If they costed less, I’d recommend them; for the money, though, I’d definitely get Lee or the Firecrest over Singh-Ray any day.
4. Formatt-Hitech Resin. The worse filters in the test as far as colour neutrality, these guys however have price on their side, costing an order of magnitude less than the other three. Recommended only for the photographer seriously on a budget.
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