Fun With Filters! (not the round ones)

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by LumbermanSVO, Mar 18, 2012.

  1. LumbermanSVO macrumors 65816

    Mar 15, 2007
    Denton, TX
    So, I really enjoy shooting at night and one of the problems I come across a lot is having too much light in some areas and not enough in others. I don't have any strobes and generally like the light patterns in the scene, I just need to balance it. I'm thinking some graduated ND filters might be the solution to this problem.

    Can some people share their experiences with square/rectangular filters? Any recommendations are where to start in assembling my kit? It seems that these are somewhat modular?

    I'd rather take my time buying higher quality stuff instead of buying a cheap kit right away.

  2. Phrasikleia macrumors 601


    Feb 24, 2008
    Over there------->
    If you find that you're struggling to balance a bright sky with a much darker scene below, then a graduated ND filter is the best solution. I recommend going big right away, something the size of a Cokin Z-Pro (4x6-inch filters). Even if you don't own a wide-angle lens right now, it's likely that you will (if you enjoy shooting landscapes or cityscapes, which you apparently do). So skip over the P-sized filters and just invest right away in the big ones.

    The largest sized filters are all pretty comparable in quality. Don't believe a word of what you hear about color casts--they all have some kind of cast if you stack them and do long exposures with them. Used alone, the larger GNDs are all pretty well neutral. Some are made of resins, and others are made from glass. The glass ones are of course more likely to break if you drop them.

    The holders are another consideration. The Lee holders are easier to remove than the Cokin-Style ones. Lee Holders have a knob that sticks out, which you depress to get the holder on or off. The Cokin holders must be slid on from above (over the lens adapter), and then locked by depressing two plastic tabs. The Lee holders can actually come off accidentally, if the knob knocks against the side of your camera bag or something else. Nonetheless, it's very easy to remove a Lee holder when you're doing bracketed scenes and want to get a faster exposure by having the filter go away for one of the shots. You can pretty well peel away a Lee holder without jiggling your camera too much. But you do have this big knob sticking out off of the Lee holder, which you don't have with the Cokin ones. For some people, the knob is a non-issue; other people hate it.

    If your scenes tend to be cityscapes, then you'll probably want a soft grad. Hard grads are best for seascapes, where you have a very abrupt transition between the lightest and darkest areas. Any scene that has a more jagged transition will be easier to capture with a soft grad (mountainous regions and cityscapes would qualify for this category).

    The degree of density for any given scene will vary, so in a perfect world you would have a whole variety of filters to cover your bases. If, however, you want to start off with one highly useful filter, I would recommend a three-stop GND. It's enough of a difference to tackle a scene with a very wide dynamic range, while giving you the latitude to push or pull a bit in post to get it exactly right (assuming you're shooting in raw format).

    You will of course have to purchase lens adapters for all of the lenses you might want to use with your panel-style filters. These are pretty straightforward. I would just recommend covering your bases sooner than later. Whatever lenses you use most will dictate which adapters you need: get them all, if you can.

    If you shoot seascapes a lot (or hope to), then definitely consider a reverse grad. They aren't exactly cheap, but they really do a nice job of evening out the light when the sun is close to the horizon.

    OK, I think that pretty well covers my initial thoughts on the subject! I love filters and use them in probably 80 percent of my photos. I look forward to the day that cameras have such a great dynamic range that filters will no longer be necessary, but until that day comes, I much prefer using a filter to doing multiple exposures. Sometimes the moment is fleeting or else can only be captured in a very longe exposure, and either way, nature won't wait around for that second exposure to fill in the blanks. The more you can get out of one shot, the better, in my view.

    Now, if you're trying to get balance out of areas that are scattered around the frame, then filters won't help you at all, of course. But that's a subject for another thread.
  3. LumbermanSVO thread starter macrumors 65816

    Mar 15, 2007
    Denton, TX
    Thanks you very much for this info. I'm slightly clumsy and I find that slowing down when working helps me out a bit, so it looks like the Cokin filter may be perfect for me.
  4. Ruahrc macrumors 65816

    Jun 9, 2009
    +1 on Phrasikleia's post, lots of good info. I especially agree with the starting at the bigger 4x6 filter size, it is really a lot nicer. Several key advantages of the 4x6 size IMHO:

    1) Bigger filters means easier to hand hold without getting your fingers in the frame. Hand holding is the fastest and easiest way to use the filters, often I don't even bother with the holder. Also handholding is a lot easier if you are combining a polarizer and an ND filter.
    2) If you have a DX system right now, buying a hard edge 4x6 can actually function as a solid ND filter if you move the transition all the way off the frame. This works all the way down to 12mm on DX with my Hitech 4x5" filters, it probably works even better with a Lee or Singh-Ray 4x6" filter that is an inch longer. This means one filter does the job of 2, making it both more cost effective and efficient to carry in the field. Double win!
    3) If you ever upgrade to a bigger format like full frame, you can keep using the filters, whereas you may run into problems with the P-sized stuff

    However, regarding the Cokin vs. Lee holders, I have to disagree. Having owned both, I vastly prefer the Lee holder. It is all around better built, feels more durable, and easier to work with. The mechanism by which it attaches to the lens is plenty secure (on my holder at least) and a lot faster/easier to work with in the field. That big knob means it's really easy to put on/take off (especially if you are wearing gloves), or adjust the rotation whereas the Cokin holder you are fiddling with the little tabs. Rotation setting on the Cokin doesn't seem as "secure" either (it's way easier to bump the Cokin holder and have it move vs. the Lee which is pretty solidly held in place).

    Also in the wide angle department, the Lee holder (when combined with a Lee wide-angle adapter ring) is far superior as it gets the filter a lot closer to the lens, meaning less/no vignetting even with ultrawide angle lenses. The Cokin holder can be easily modified to work more like the Lee, but I still find the WA usage of the Lee to be better.

    Oh and P.S. if you end up going with the Lee Big Stopper 10-stop solid ND, it is not compatible with the Cokin filter holder. At least not that I could get it to work. There is a foam lining on the Big Stopper that keeps out extraneous light leakage, and this foam lining interferes with the Cokin holder. On the Lee holder it's light-tight.

    The only problem is finding the Lee holder (and those WA adapter rings) in stock. They have chronic supply problems- so if you are in a bind and need a holder right away, you may be forced to go with the Cokin Z-pro. It can sometimes be 3-4 months from placing an order to when you actually get the Lee holder in your hands. I bought mine from if you give them a call they can tell you their current stock situation and give a good estimate of how long the wait is. I haven't followed up on availability too much recently so maybe it's a lot easier to get a hold of now I don't know. That's the whole reason I got the Cokin to start with though, I was going on a trip and needed a holder, and even though I ordered a month in advance, I still couldn't get the Lee so I had to buy the Cokin. When I got my hands on a Lee holder and WA ring though, I sold the Cokin because IMHO the Lee is simply a better designed and better functioning holder.

    As for the filters themselves, as stated above I use Hitech. They are the cheapest of the "good" brands (Hitech, Lee, Singh-Ray are all "good" brands and each are fine to use). I bought a total of 4 so far, 2 and 3 stops in both hard and soft edge. Having the selection is pretty nice but you can definitely get away with less. If it was down to one filter I would choose either a 2 or 3 stop hard edge. Reason being that the hard edge can be more easily doubled up as a solid ND, and you can "soften" the edge of the filter manually by feathering the filter handheld during the exposure.

    I would also highly recommend looking into the reverse grad filters. I actually think these may be on the whole more useful than the regular grads, I am wanting to pick one of them up as my next filter purchase.

  5. LumbermanSVO thread starter macrumors 65816

    Mar 15, 2007
    Denton, TX
  6. Phrasikleia macrumors 601


    Feb 24, 2008
    Over there------->
    Ruahrc, great to see you pitching in with such helpful comments. I'm surprised more people on this forum don't have opinions to share on the subject.
  7. TheReef, Mar 20, 2012
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2012

    TheReef macrumors 68000


    Sep 30, 2007
    NSW, Australia.
    You two covered it so well, nobody else has anything left to say :p

    I did think of two more things to build upon:

    • Some filters are not entirely neutral and will produce a magenta colour cast. This is especially true for cheap knockoffs. I've noticed my Cokin P neutral density filter isn't entirely neutral but it's definitely useable. Sometimes it's fixable if you shoot RAW, other times it isn't, especially with grads that aren't entirely neutral. If the scene you're shooting has a bright white cloud, the edges can often go purple. As the purple tint isn't uniformly distributed throughout the scene PP colour balance won't fix it, and will have to be done manually in Photoshop, this adds more time to your workflow.
      Do some research and buy a good quality filter to minimise the problem.
    • If you don't have any ultrawide angle lens (<16mm) and decide to go for a cokin P sized system, head over to eBay and get the cheap knockoff holders, they're just plastic and very similar to the real deal for a fraction of the cost.

    Like Phrasikleia, I use filters all the time, they open up a whole new world of potential :)
  8. LumbermanSVO thread starter macrumors 65816

    Mar 15, 2007
    Denton, TX
    So, next month I'm taking a vacation and a few days of that will be spent at Glacier National Park. For this trip I'm renting a 10-22, 24-70/2.8, 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1.4x TC III and 2x TC III.

    I was planning on cobbling together a Lee/Cokin kit, but I got side tracked with off-camera flash and now a nice filter setup isn't in the budget before this vacation.

    I was looking at these Cokin P-Series kits and I'm thinking that for the money it might be worth it to pick one up before this trip. Would you?

    Also, I know someone who would buy a P-Series kit from me later at a discount.

    What would you do?
  9. Rowbear macrumors 6502a


    Apr 14, 2010
    Gatineau, PQ, Canada
  10. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA

    Lee has a rubber-band holder/ND filter kit that's pretty cheap using polyester filters, add a couple of grads and it'll do just fine until you save for a better setup. The "Gel Snap" set is what you want to look for. You'd probably have to hand-hold the grads though- it's really set up for 4x4 filters- though you may be able to get by by not snapping the holder shut with a longer filter. Otherwise, you could just use regular grads or do stepped exposures without the filters and use HDR software to get the shot assuming static subjects. The Gel Snap ND set is good for moving water though.

  11. Doylem macrumors 68040


    Dec 30, 2006
    Wherever I hang my hat...
    I agree that a grey grad - or a selection - can be a ‘get out of jail’ accessory in difficult circumstances. In the days of film I found that some grey grad filters introduced unpleasant colour casts (magenta: urgh!). Not such a big problem with digital, of course, with tweaking of white balance and individual colours, and I keep a Cokin P filter in my bag for those occasions when the lighting is ‘difficult’.

    Instead of reaching for a filter, there are other ways to go. Sometimes we ask too much of our cameras: a scene, say, that has bright lights coming out of an inky black sky. That may simply be too much of a contrast - too wide a dynamic range - for the camera to capture convincingly... with every light source creating ugly flare.

    Searching for a filter, to ‘correct’ the scene, might not be as useful, IMO, as picking the optimal time to shoot... which may typically be the hour after the sun has set, when there is still some colour in the sky, rather than in the middle of the night. And maybe try to exclude particular bright lights from a composition, especially if they are close to the camera...

    As Phrasikleia demonstrates, if you pick the right moment - and use the right filters - the results will speak for themselves...

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