BEST FILTERS FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Wheal Coates Mine, UK

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.

The Dolomites Photography Workshop

TEST METHODOLOGY
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.

Cinque Terre & Tuscany Photography Workshop

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.

THE TEST
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!

Normandy & Brittany Photography Workshop

CONCLUSIONS
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.

Death Valley Photography Workshop

Thanks for reading this best filters for landscape photography review, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?

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JOIN THE DISCUSSION

13 thoughts on “BEST FILTERS FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW”

  1. A great in depth review to add to the list that puts the emphasis on FH’s neutrality. Perhaps they will make a decent filter pouch to go with them.

    Reply
    • Thank you Darren, glad you enjoyed it! :D Yep, it seems that FH Firecrest (not the regular resin series) are indeed the most neutral filters out there, beside the review I have been using them for a few months now and I really like them. They make a nice folding pouch, thin and practical if conditions are good; not so much so if there is wind, rain or the like. Plus, it has no shoulder / tripod strap. For that, the Lee pouch is still the best (and the one I use).

      Reply
  2. thank you Vieri. As mentioned i got myself two nisi filters (10-stop ND, GND 2stop) that went along with a package i bought (the Nisi V5 system). check that package out. It is really nice, with a built in polariser. Comparing this to my screw-on filters is slows me down a bit, but in a good way. It also is delivered in a nice pouch that even allows to attach to a belt and the filters themselves are also delivered in a nice pouch of their own. It are no weather sealed pouches though.. -1..
    I saw your Lee pouch on the workshop. When having a set of filters, this comes in more handy than individual pouches..
    The holder also takes other brand filters, so a FH glass filter is sure to be added..

    Reply
    • You are very welcome Christophe, I am glad to hear that you are happy with your new filters. It looks like the Nisi is a nice package, with the same kind of holder than Formatt-Hitech has (with the polariser inside). Are all the Nisi filters glass, or just the ND?

      About the pouch, yes, I can confirm that one pouch containing all filters is nice and practical. On the Workshop I had a Formatt-Hitech folding pouch for myself, very practical and thin once folded, and a Lee pouch for the filters I brought along for you guys; the Lee pouch is bigger, holds more filters and is sturdier, but it takes much more space in the bag as well.

      I am glad you are considering Formatt-Hitech Firecrest for your future filter purchases, you’ll remember that I told you guys in Scotland that they are the most neutral I have tried and now you can see it in this more “scientific” review that my feeling was right.

      Best,

      Vieri

      Reply
  3. Brilliant!! I have a real cheap set at the moment bought purely for practice and now looking to “up my game”.

    After hours of searching the net, getting prices and finding the best fit for my budget I was about to get the Formatt-Hitech resin filters but decided I’d search a bit more for what the difference was between the Firecrest and Resin. LEE are way out of my budget at the moment.

    Then I came across this post. Seriously, I wish more people broke down equipment this way with real, factual and non bias reviews and tests on gear. Considering I find filters of utmost importance to landscape photography (ignoring the fact I paid £20 for my current set). I can now have confidence in buying the Firecrest knowing they’ll give me the effect I want for a more reasonable price. And that’s all thanks to you!

    Reply
    • Hello James,

      thank you for your very kind message, I am glad you found my review helpful. As you, I found many reviewers lacking in factual basis and I found that to be a very likely source of bias – not necessarily in bad faith, on the contrary (at least, not all the time). In my reviews I try my best to present things as I see them, and to research the topic properly before writing anything. I am now a Formatt-Hitech Ambassador, but wasn’t one at the time I wrote this: I simply found Firecrest filters to be the most neutral, and started using them for my work which, in time, brought my work to FH attention and gave me the possibility of offering you a discount on your purchase (using code VIERIB10 at checkout). This, in turn, makes me very happy because it gives me the possibility to make it easier for more people to enjoy the filters I like :)

      Let me know how you find your FH Firecrest filters once you get them! Best regards,

      Vieri

      Reply
  4. Great review, thank you for taking the time to do it. As far as your method for testing, did you set up a custom white balance by taking a picture of the wall, and then after setting the custom (pre) White Balance, did you just take different pictures using different filters? I am curious because I would like to run the same test using the Firecrest Ultra, Nisi, Breakthrough, and Wine Country Blackstone filters.

    In your test was the firecrest you were using the new “ultra” series?

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thank you very much for your comment, much appreciated. As far as your questions:

      1. Test methodology is at the beginning of the article: “Test methodology: white wall, Leica SL with a Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4, Elinchrom Quadra flashes. White balance set using the white wall in the first image and used for all images. Filters of equal strength got equal exposure: f/5.6 for all Grad NDs and for 3 stop solid NDs, f/1.4 for 6, 10 and 13 stop ND filters. Vignetting in 6, 10 and 13 stop ND images depends on that, not on the filter used. I checked colour neutrality on the top, centre and bottom part of the image for Grad ND 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. Most neutral results are when the three values for R, G and B are equal or very close to each other; the further apart they are, the more evident a colour cast is. Please note: the test was aimed at testing colour neutrality, not any other characteristic of the filters.”

      2. No, it was with the old Firecrest, the Ultra just came out very recently – but preliminary tests tell me that they are even better!

      Hope this helps, best regards

      Vieri

      Reply
        • Well, since you do this on a tripod to ensure consistency (shooting different areas of the wall will disrupt the result’s consistency), why would you change ISO in the first place? Anyway, if you really should, be aware that – depending on cameras – raising ISO can changes colour rendition, so that will probably make your test much less meaningful (if not close to worthless, again depending on your camera). Best regards,

          Vieri

          Reply
          • Understood, thank you for your response. I ran a test but accidentally left my ISO at 1000.. Instead of using a grey card, can one just use a wall as you have? Probably has to be well lit wall right?

            Thank you.

          • Well of course it has to be a perfectly well lit wall, with the light completely flat. If you use uneven light the test is meaningless. Once more, please read my test methodology at the beginning of the post.

            Best regards,

            Vieri

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