BEST FILTERS FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY
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TO FIND THE BEST FILTERS FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY FOR MY WORK, I SET OUT TO PREPARE THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW OUT THERE!
Why looking for the best filters for landscape photography nowadays, when almost everything can be done digitally in post-processing? Despite all the advancements in technology, it’s because I simply believe that the use of filters at the time of shooting is still of fundamental importance for landscape photography in general, and for my Fine Art landscape photography in particular.
Traditionally, three kinds of filters are most used for landscape photography: Polarizer filters, Neutral Density filters (ND) and Graduated Neutral Density filters (Grad ND). These are the filters I will analyze in this review, both singularly and combined.
To create my images, I use whatever technique works best for each shooting situation; when alternatives are available, I always try and use the fastest and most effective one.
Since the advent of digital, post-processing tools made it possible to replace Grad ND filters by merging different exposures in software. When conditions allow, this is an effective technique, and for certain shooting situation is simply the best option. However, it’s a time-consuming process requiring a modicum of editing skills which not everyone might be interested in learning. Personally, while I have no problem merging exposures, if I can save post-processing time just by dropping a Grad ND at the time of shooting, I will certainly prefer to do that.
Long exposures, or – as I prefer to call it – the control over shutter speed allowed by ND filters, is obviously something impossible to replicate in post-processing.
However, advancements in camera technology introduced Frame Averaging, a feature allowing to automatically merge up to thousands of short exposures in camera, thus replicating the effect of a long exposure. The main advantages of this technique lie in the flexibility of selecting the precise duration of your choice and in much cleaner files. However, not many cameras offer such a feature, making ND filters still a must for the vast majority of photographers who need to use long exposures for their work.
The polarizer is the only filter that is impossible to replicate effectively either in post-processing or via in-camera technology, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
SInce I believe glass filters to be vastly superior to resin filters optically, when looking for the best filters for landscape photography I limited my testing to brands offering all the three filters I intended to test in glass. More specifically, I aimed to test what I consider to be the 8 major glass filter brands on the market, in no particular order: Kase, Formatt-Hitech, NiSi, Breakthrough, Wine Country Camera, H&Y, Haida and Benro. I already owned Formatt-Hitech filters, the brand I used between 2016-2021, and I asked all other 7 brands to provide me with demo units to test. In case of brands offering various ranges of filters, I kidly asked them to send me their top of the range. Unfortunately, Haida and Benro didn’t see fit to even answer any of my repeated inquiries. Given their lack of interest, I gave up on them and set off to test filters from Kase, Formatt-Hitech, NiSi, Breakthrough, Wine Country Camera and H&Y, a lineup that should offer you a wide enough selection to make up your mind.
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not associated with any of the brands reviewed in this article nor have I received any payment from anyone to write this article. Filters tested here either come from my personal stock or have been kindly provided as demo units for the purpose of this article.
THE FILTERS & THE HOLDERS
When it came to which filters to test, I decided to go with the 3 filters mentioned above: Polarizer, ND Grad ND filters. As far as the ND and Grad ND densities, I went for the ones I find are most frequently used, a 10 stop ND (3.0) and a 3 stop Soft-Edge Grad ND (0.9).
Of course, we need holders to use filters on our cameras. When I contacted all the filter brands reviewed here, I asked them to kindly include holders in their demo packages so I could test those as well. To keep the size of this article manageable, for your convenience I reviewed those in a dedicated article: BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY.
TESTED BRANDS’ LINEUP
Below you’ll find a description of the exact model of the filters I tested for each brand, with scope of delivery and tech information as well as July 2021 prices. More, since when we buy into a system we need to look for expandability as well, I added information about each brand’s offer in terms of 100mm filters other than those tested here, and in term of other square filter sizes as well.
Brands are listed in alphabetical order:
Filters tested: X4 CPL, X4 ND 100mm 10 Stop and X4 GND 100x150mm 3 stop Soft Edge
Filters info & scope of delivery: ND and Grad ND filters come packed in a diamond soft protective case, shipping in a white cardboard box with a small cleaning cloth and a small card from the company owner. Filters are coated with nanotec Nano Coating technology meant to repel water & dirt and come with a 25-years Ironclad Guarantee.
Polarizer: comes separate, in a classic hard shell plastic filter box.
While at the time of writing there is no option to integrate it in the X100 Holder, Breakthrough informed me that the newly announced magnetic filters coming later this year will solve this.
Price of the kit tested here: holder, polarizer, ND and Grad will cost you $615 US | Website: BREAKTHROUGH.
Breakthrough’s filter lineup
100mm square filters | ND: 3 – 6 – 10 – 15 stops | Grad ND: 2 – 3 stops Soft, 2 – 3 stops Hard | Reverse Grad: 3 stops Hard
Other square filter sizes: 150mm square filters.
Filters tested: Firecrest 86mm Ultraslim polarizer, Firecrest Ultra 100mm ND 3.0 (10 stops) and Firecrest Ultra 100mm Soft Edge Grad 0.9 (3 stops)
Filters info & scope of delivery: ND and Grad ND filters come wrapped in paper with a quality control info sticker, slipped into a black magnetic flip-top protective hard case, shipping in a cardboard box with a medium-sized cleaning cloth, an exposure chart and a booklet explaining the Firecrest Ultra line of filters’ proprieties. Filters are bonded to protect the inner coating and to enhance durability, and they undergo a second “lapping and polishing” stage to enhance clarity and sharpness.
Polarizer: cOmes integrated with the Firecrest holder Mark II (see BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY).
Price of the kit tested here: holder, polarizer, ND and Grad will cost you $509,17 US | Website: FORMATT-HITECH.
Formatt-Hitech’s filter lineup
100mm square filters | ND: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 6 – 8 – 10 – 13 – 16 – 18 – 20 – 22 – 24 stops | Grad ND: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 stops Soft, 2 – 3 stops Hard | Reverse Grad: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 stops
Other square filter sizes: 85mm square filters.
Filters tested: K-series 95mm HD MRC CPL, HD MRC ND1000 (10-stop), MRC Soft GND Filter 0.9 / 3-stop
Filters info & scope of delivery: ND and Grad ND filters come already mounted in their magnetic holders, wrapped in paper, slipped into a ziplock bag and packed into a soft filter pouch, shipping in a cardboard box with a large, 30x30cm cleaning cloth. Filters are made of Corning Gorilla Glass III and feature an oil- and water- proof, double-sided coating.
Polarizer: coMes mounted in a dedicated frame to use with the KH100 Holder (see BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY), slipped into a Ziploc bag and packed into a soft filter pouch, shipping in a cardboard box.
Price of the kit tested here: holder, polarizer, ND and Grad will cost you $466 US | Website: H&Y.
H&Y’s filter lineup
100mm square filters | ND: 6 – 10 stops | Grad ND: 2 – 3 – 4 stops Soft, 2 – 3 – 4 stops Hard | Centre Grad: 2 – 3 – 4 stops | Reverse Grad: 2 – 3 – 4 stops
Other square filter sizes: no
Filters tested: Round Magnetic CPL 90mm, Wolverine K100 ND1000 ND 3.0, Wolverine K100 Soft GND 0.9
Filters info & scope of delivery: ND and Grad ND filters come wrapped in a plastic envelope, slipped into a white, faux-leather, magnetic flip-top protective hard case, shipping in a cardboard box with an instruction booklet. Filters are made of high-precision optical glass that Kase claims to be very shatterproof and feature an oil- and water-repellent coating.
Polarizer: is mAgnetic for easy removal and comes integrated with the K9 Holder Kit (see BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY).
Price of the kit tested here: holder, polarizer, ND and Grad will cost you $459,85 US | Website: KASE.
Kase’s filter lineup
100mm square filters | ND: 6 – 10 – 16 stops | Grad ND: 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 stops Soft, 2 – 3 – 4 stops Medium, 2 – 2.5 – 3 stops Hard | Centre Grad: 4 stops | Reverse Grad: 3 – 4 stops | Combined filters: Soft + Hard Grad ND 3 stops, Medium + Reverse Grad ND 3 stops
Other square filter sizes: 75mm, 150mm, 170mm
Filters tested: Enhanced Landscape CPL, Nano IR ND1000 (3.0) – 10 Stop, Nano IR Soft Grad ND8 (0.9) – 3 Stop
Filters info & scope of delivery: ND and Grad ND filters come wrapped in paper with a quality seal & barcode, sealed into a plastic envelope slipped into a brown faux-leather magnetic flip-top protective hard case, shipping in a cardboard box with a booklet about how to use the filters to their max. Filters are made of optical glass for high definition, and feature waterproof, anti-scratch and low reflection Nano Coating.
Polarizer: comes integrated wIth the V6 holder (see BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY).
Price of the kit tested here: holder, polarizer, ND and Grad will cost you $559 US | Website: NISI.
NiSi’s filter lineup
100mm square filters | ND: 3 – 6 – 10 – 15 – 20 stops | Grad ND: 2 – 3 – 4 stops Soft, 2 – 3 – 4 stops Medium, 2 – 3 stops Hard | Centre Grad: 4 stops | Reverse Grad: 2 – 3 stops
Other square filter sizes: 75mm, 150mm, 180mm
WINE COUNTRY CAMERA
Filters tested: Circular Polarizer, Blackstone ND 10 Stops, Blackstone ND Grad Soft Edge 3 Stops
Filters info & scope of delivery: ND and Grad ND filters come already mounted in their protective filter vault holders, slipped into a plastic bag. Getting them in a kit, as I did, they come into a filter bag together with the holder, with no individual boxes, shipping in a cardboard box with a “how to” booklet. Filters are made of fire polished Schott Ultra White Glass and feature vapor deposition coating claiming to be perfectly neutral and have zero diffusion effect.
Polarizer: coMes integrated with the V2 holder (see BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY).
Price of the kit tested here: holder, polarizer, ND and Grad will cost you $724 US | Website: WINE COUNTRY CAMERA.
Wine Country Camera’s filter lineup
100mm square filters | ND: 3 – 6 – 10 stops | Grad ND: 2 – 3 stops Soft, 2 – 3 stops Hard
Other square filter sizes: 150mm
With that out of the way, as we know what counts the most is the filters’ performances. Let’s see how they fared!
Filters are fundamental for the technical and artistically expressive possibilities they open. To realize their full potential, though, traditionally there are two areas we need to pay attention to, when choosing the best filters for landscape photography.
First, neutrality. While all brands tout their products as being perfectly neutral, that is not always the case, especially when stacking multiple filters as we do in the field. Second, sharpness. While all brands tout their filters as being the sharpest on the market, adding one or more layers of glass in front of our lenses can have negative effects on sharpness.
To find out which filters are the most neutral and sharpest on the market today, I designed two “real world” tests that should provide you with enough information to choose the filters that best suit your work; one for color neutrality, the other for sharpness.
To find out which are the best filters for landscape photography, let’s start by examining our candidates for color neutrality.
Methodology. First, I lit a white wall in my studio with flashlights, making sure illumination was as even as possible. Then, I took a photograph of the wall without filters and used it to create a white balance preset that is perfectly neutral. Then, I took a series of photographs with each brand’s polarizer, a series with each brand’s ND and a series with each brand’s Grad ND. Then, I took a final series of images using the three filters together at the same time. Last, I proceeded to apply the white balance settings obtained photographing the white wall without filters to all the series of images taken with filters, and measured RGB values for the resulting images in three different portions of the frame to check if, how much and in what part of the RGB spectrum each filter, and filter combination, strayed from perfect neutrality.
Remembering that neutrality is achieved when R, G, B values are the same, let’s start by looking at the reference image (click on the image to enlarge):
Let’s examine our polarizers first, in alphabetical order (click on the images to enlarge):
As you can see, the NiSi polarizer shows quite an evident blue cast, confirmed by the relative strength of the blue channel. All other brands’ polarisers are for all practical purposes neutral.
Now, let’s check how our 10 stop ND filters behaved (click on the images to enlarge):
When it comes to 10 stop ND filters, results are slightly less uniform. Kase’s ND is definitely the most neutral here, returning an almost perfect triplet of R, G, B values all over the frame. Wine Country Camera, H&Y and Breakthrough are also neutral for all practical purposes. Formatt-Hitech and NiSi, on the other hand, both showed a weaker green channel resulting in a magenta cast.
As far as density, it is worth noting how all filters returned very similar values, confirming the manufacturers’ 10-stop rating, some minor fluctuations aside.
Then, let’s see how our 3-stop Soft Edge Grad ND filters fared. Keep in mind that I pushed all filters exactly down to the middle of the holder, to better check density and the progression of the Grad (click on the images to enlarge):
In the case of Grad NDs, it is interesting to check for color neutrality both on the top of the image, where the dark portion of the Grad is most effective, and on the lower part, to check for actual transparency of the transparent part.
Again, Kase returned an almost perfect sequence of triplets, once more together with H&Y and Wine Country Camera; this time, however, Breakthrough, NiSi and Formatt-Hitech also fared extremely well. Nit-picking, we could notice a bit of blue cast in the Formatt-Hitech Grad, and a bit of magenta cast in the Breakthrough Grad.
As far as density, in this test you could easily divide filters in two groups. H&Y, Kase and Breakthrough are the three less “dense”, whereas NiSi, Wine Country Camera and Formatt-Hitech are the darker ones, from brightest to darkest.
Last, let’s see how combining all three filters together affected neutrality & density. Again, I pushed the Grad NDs perfectly down to the middle of the holder to ensure consistency (click on the images to enlarge):
As you can see, once more Kase, H&Y and Wine Country Camera’s filters outputted the most neutral results, all three featuring a slightly weaker blue channel. Formatt-Hitech and NiSi returned images with a definite magenta cast, caused by a weaker green channel compared to the red and blue ones, while Breakthrough showed a more definite reddish cast in this test.
As far as density, you could see how Breakthrough, H&Y, Kase and Wine Country Camera filters overall returned brighter images compared to Formatt-Hitech and NiSi. It is also interesting to notice how the different Grads worked in darkening the top part of the image, with Breakthrough and Wine Country Camera being darker than H&Y and Kase.
First of all, it is truly amazing to see how much filter technology evolved in recent years. All filters reviewed here are very good when it comes to neutrality. That said, as a result of my quest for the best filters for landscape photography, Kase, H&Y and Wine Country Camera filters emerged as the clear winners overall when it comes to color neutrality.
Let’s now examine the sharpness of our filters.
Methodology. Using my Phase One IQ4 151 Mp digital back with the XT Rodenstock 90mm f/5.6 lens, I first took a reference photograph of the far hill I normally use as a test ground, without any filters and at f/8, the sharpest aperture for this lens at infinity. Then, I took a series of photographs using each brand’s polarizer, a series using each brand’s ND and a series using each brand’s Grad ND. Last, I took a final series of images using the three filters together at the same time. Finally, I created 900 x 600px, 100% center crops of each image to examine side-by-side with the unfiltered image to determine what effect adding filters has on sharpness, if any.
Let’s start looking at the full reference image, to show you the locations of the crops (click on the image to enlarge):
Let’s examine our polarizers first, starting with the unfiltered crop followed by the 6 filters tested. Polarizers have been turned to achieve maximum polarization for this test (click on the images to enlarge):
As you can see, all polarizers came out of this test very well, all returning critically sharp images with no smudging. More, it is worth noting how the polarization effect made these greens “pop”, adding some perceived sharpness compared to the unfiltered reference image.
While not directly sharpness-related, you can see the blue tone we noticed in the NiSi polarizer during our neutrality test replicated in the real world here as well.
Now, let’s check how our 10-stop ND filters behaved, starting with the unfiltered crop followed by the 6 filters tested (click on the images to enlarge):
As you can see, Kase, Wine Contry Camera and Formatt-Hitech are very sharp, returning images practically undistinguishable from the unfiltered image. Examining NiSi and H&Y images thoroughly, you can notice a slight loss in micro-detail, while Breakthrough is the weakest filter here, visibly smudging fine details more than all other filters in the test.
Again, looking at the portion of sky visible in the crops, you can see color casts confirming the results we saw in our neutrality test.
Now, let’s see how our 3-stop Grad ND filters fared, starting with the unfiltered crop followed by the 6 filters tested (click on the images to enlarge):
As you can see, all Grad NDs fared very well in this test, returning sharp and detailed images. Looking closely, the only filter that feels slightly softer is H&Y’s Grad ND, but nothing that would prevent me from using it for my work.
And last, let’s see how combining all three filters together affected neutrality, again starting with the unfiltered crop followed by the 6 groups of filters tested (click on the images to enlarge):
Again, all filters fared very well in this torture test, and all combinations are within a minimal margin from each other. Having to rate them, I found Wine Country and Kase returning the sharpest results, followed by a very very narrow margin by Formatt-Hitech; then NiSi and H&Y, last followed by Breakthrough.
This will be a pretty short section: as a result of this search for the best filters for landscape photography, all filters tested proved sharp enough for critical work, either used one-by-one or stacked; if I had to rate them, I would consider Breakthrough the only visibly less strong option here. This is even more amazing considering that we are talking about stacking three filters and testing them on a 151 Mp sensor using one of the sharpest lenses ever made.
Filters for landscape photography came a long way since I first started using them over 10 years ago. Glass filters brought a dramatic increase in quality over the old resin filters in terms of color neutrality and sharpness. Nowadays, not only glass filters are commonly available for ND and Grad ND, but many brands offer options such as Reverse Grad ND, Centre Grad ND and even combined filters (Kase), all with amazing quality compared to what we were used to 4-5 years ago.
However, camera and lens technology keep evolving as well. Pixel count increases constantly, pixel pitch gets smaller and smaller, lenses resolve more and more detail quality. Color fidelity and bit depth increases. While this is great for us photographers, at the same time it keeps putting more and more strain on filters.
Personally, I have been using Medium Format cameras for years, and I am currently using a Phase One IQ4 151 Mp digital back with Rodenstock lenses, arguably one of the best combination available on the market. There wouldn’t be much point in using a system with such high resolution and offering true 16bit colors if the filters I used weren’t color neutral, and/or if they did rob my system of sharpness. People using sensors with the same pixel pitch as mine, such as small medium format 100 Mp cameras like the FujiFilm GFX100 series, or 35mm cameras such as the latest 61 Mp Sony, need filters that resolve the same level of detail as I do. Looking ahead, it is to be expected that more cameras will feature such a small pixel pitch, if not smaller, and that further developments in camera & lens technology will only make it harder for filters to cope.
As we know, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that is true for the image-creating chain as well. Therefore, if you plan on using filters on your ultra-high-resolution camera system, you’ll need to get the best filters for landscape photography to avoid losing part of the image quality your system is capable of to less-than-ideal filters.
Let’s start by seeing which brand has the filters that work for you. As you could see in the TESTED BRANDS’ LINEUP section above, the 6 brands tested here offer a fairly comprehensive array of filters and options, with some brands stronger than others when it comes to some specific filters.
Overall, Kase and NiSi offer the most complete lineup both as far as the kind of different filters available in 100mm, and as far as the different sizes of square filter systems available. With various NDs, Grad NDs, Reverse Grad NDs and Centre Grad NDs, for a total of 18 and 16 filters in their lineup respectively, and thanks to their offer of 75mm, 150mm and one even larger option each (170mm and 180mm respectively), you can be sure Kase and Nisi will cater to every need you might have.
Formatt-Hitech and H&Y sit in the middle, with the former winning in terms of ND offer (with a whopping, if excessive, 12 ND densities for you to choose from) and the latter winning in terms of the number of different kinds of filters they offer, including Centre Grad NDs. Unfortunately, neither brand offer a 150mm square filter option, but Formatt-Hitech offers at least an 85mm option.
On the other side of the spectrum, Wine Country Camera and Breakthrough are the brands with most minimalistic offer. Both brands offer just two densities in their Grad ND lineup, both Soft and Hard; Breakthrough fares a bit better, offering one ND option more than Wine Country Camera as well as a Reverse Grad option, absent in the latter’s lineup. At least, both brands offer a 150mm option, albeit also with a very limited number of available filters.
Starting with color neutrality, the brand that consistently outputted the best results in the test are Kase, H&Y and Wine Country Camera. NiSi, Breakthrough and Formatt-Hitech, while very good, didn’t fare as well in my tests, all returning images showing some color cast in one or more filters.
Color cast is easily correctable when it comes to ND and polarizer filters, albeit at the possible expense of some minor noise coming from pushing one channel to balance the cast. Grad ND filters, on the other hand, due to the nature of the gradient are much more difficult to correct; I would keep this in mind when selecting my brand of choice.
Coming to sharpness, all filters tested here proved to be very sharp, with perhaps Breakthrough being the odd one out with slightly softer results.
WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU GET?
Finally, let’s now come to my overall recommendations for the best filters for landscape photography, divided by user cases.
For those interested in optical quality only: the absolute best filters for landscape photography today for you are Kase, H&Y and Wine Country Camera; then come NiSi and Formatt-Hitech; and last comes Breakthrough.
For those interested in both optical quality and in the most complete filter system: the absolute best filters for landscape photography today for you are Kase, then come H&Y, NiSi and Formatt-Hitech, followed by Wine Country Camera, and last comes Breakthrough.
For those interested in the most complete 100mm filter system regardless of optical quality: the absolute best filters for landscape photography today for you are Kase and NiSi, followed by and Formatt-Hitech and H&Y; last come Wine Country Camera and Breakthrough.
For those interested in the brand offering the most options in terms of square filters’ sizes: the absolute best filters for landscape photography today for you are Kase and NiSi, followed by Wine Country Camera, Breakthrough and Formatt-Hitech; last comes H&Y.
For those interested in the best bang for the buck: the absolute best filters for landscape photography today for you are Kase and H&Y, followed by Formatt-Hitech and NiSi; then Wine Country Camera, and last Breakthrough.
My overall winner for best filters for landscape photography is therefore Kase, who came in first for all user cases above. Whether you are looking for the absolute best optical quality, for the most complete system, for the most options in terms of square filters sizes or for the best bang for the buck, in my opinion and as a result of this test, Kase is today the best option for you.
MY PERSONAL CHOICE
If you, like me, are a 100mm filter user only, then as a result of this test together with the results of my BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY, the best brand – and my personal choice – is H&Y. They offer the same optical quality as Kase, with a selection of filters large enough to make anyone happy, and their holder is the best out there as far as light tightness and ease of use.
Whatever filters you choose, the most important thing is that you experiment and have fun with them, enjoying the expanded creative possibilities they will open for you!
Last, let’s not forget that filters don’t attach to your lenses without a filter holder, but that’s the topic for my next article: BEST 100MM FILTER HOLDER FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY.
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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