Tag Archives: Neutral Density

Photographic Filters – NiSi, Cokin & LEE review and comparison

“What filters do you use?” – It’s the question that most landscape photographers ask just after they’ve probed into what camera you’re using.

And in the same way as the ongoing “Nikon vs Canon war” (which is amusing to watch in itself!) the so-called brand allegiance is fun to explore when you start asking exactly why a photographer has chosen a particular system.

Sydney Example NiSi Filters Review Comparison ND1000 GND Soft Grad Opera House Photography Photographic Lens Bridge Harbour Circular Quay Morning Sunrise

For landscapes, filters can quickly become an essential part of your kit list – and they can be as big an investment for a full set as a very good lens in itself. Rightly so, I must add, as what’s the point in paying £5,000 for a lens to put a piece of cheap plastic in front of it for when you want to slow down an exposure?!

Let’s take the shot above – from Sydney, Australia – without a “Graduated Neutral Density Filter” either the sky would have been too bright or the city too dark for the camera to resolve in one frame. So, these things become part of what you do, and mine travel everywhere with me.

Having used Cokin, Hoya and LEE filters for many years (and being familiar with each of their little “quirks”), I have to admit I was a little hesitant when the Chinese manufacturer – “NiSi” approached me to see if I’d be willing to try theirs out. That said, they came with good reviews and the tech specs looked promising, so I accepted – but presented them with one big problem: My Phase One 28mm lens.

You see, many of you who have looked at my “behind the scenes” images will have noticed I have a range of extra things covering the camera to prevent “light leaks” – and this is common for almost every Phase One shooter out there. The cause? It’s the fact that the lens has a built-in “hood”, and the glass sticks out beyond, preventing the use of any sort of screw-thread (traditional) filter kit. Some manufacturers (like LEE) have introduced a special ultra-wide filter system such as the one I already own for these types of lenses (the modified SW-150) but in all honesty, they are still shockingly bad at preventing light from leaking through. I’ll explain in more detail later, but here’s what NiSi did to take up my challenge:

NiSi Phase One 28mm 150mm Filter Holder Lens Custom Made Paul Reiffer Photographer

They actually built me a one-of-a-kind prototype to test their system with. Custom-made for my lens, perfectly manufactured, it would have been rude to say no…!

I decided it would be worth doing a proper comparison on the three systems I own: Cokin’s “X-Pro” series of 130mm resin filters. LEE’s 150mm filter system (in both glass and resin) and NiSi’s 150mm all-glass, coated filter system. Both Cokin and LEE options, I’ve used for quite some time – the NiSi offer was completely new to me and a trip to New Zealand presented the perfect opportunity to give it a real test.

So let’s consider what we’re looking for in an ideal filter system. Really, it’s 4 things:

  1. Simple and easy to use
  2. No “light leaks”
  3. No “colour cast”
  4. Durable and hard-wearing

1) Let’s start at the beginning – “simple and easy to use”. And here’s the comparison:

professional 150mm 130mm cokin lee nisi phase one schneider sk ls afp large format independent filter holder comparison

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you, that LEE system is a nightmare! In fact, in order to install the filter holder, you have to remove the lens from the camera each time (risking additional dust hitting the sensor) and assemble the 4 metal parts together in the right order, followed by placing two silly bits of black plastic that claim to stop light leaking on to the back of it – hardly efficient! At a practical level, it just feels like something that has been designed by an engineer – not a photographer. When I arrive at a location, I don’t have time to assemble such a contraption, I just need to get the shot.

The Cokin offer for this type of lens is rather like a medical spine-lengthening device that you have to screw to the outside of the lens hood and slide the holder over the top, but at least it’s a lot simpler and compact than the LEE Filters SW150 system. “Basic” doesn’t describe its scant design accurately – but this is something which is meant to be a “catch all” for any large lens out there, so no surprises that it feels somewhat clunky and unsophisticated in comparison.

And then, on the right, we have the NiSi system. One piece of metal, with 3 slots attached to it and two screws that tighten the collar around the outside of the lens hood, ready to go. I’m still a little concerned about the two small gaps on the inner ring, but otherwise it seems like a much better design.

OK, first round: NiSi: 9/10 | Cokin: 5/10 | LEE: 1/10 (it’s made of good metal, at least)

2) Then let’s move on to “light leaks” – and here is where the problems really start.

You see, once you have a gap between the filter and the lens itself, light can creep in. Once light is inside that area, it’s going to bounce around all over the place – you’ll see reflections of yourself, other filters, any bits of dust on the back side of the filter itself, and there’s no controlling it. What makes it even worse is when a filter is uncoated such as those from LEE and Cokin (NiSi use an anti-reflective coating on theirs) and this is why you see photographers wrapping their lenses up in fabric or black tape when shooting – it’s crazy!

light leaks LEE cokin filters large format holder system problem issue

Cokin provide nothing to help with this issue – you have to improvise, whereas LEE offer the two “magic plastic” pieces that slot onto the holder (which are sadly ineffective).

Now, please note that LEE have recently released an update to their SW150 – and introduced the “mark ii” version. This now comes with an extra hood (called a “lightshield”) which is supposed to fix the issue. The reality, however, having seen it being used with my own eyes by a friend on his Nikon setup is that it’s far from perfect:

  1. It’s yet another piece of the puzzle to assemble together on the lens – that makes 5 pieces to put together when shooting – absolutely ridiculous!
  2. Without coated/anti-reflective filters, the issue still exists where even the smallest bit of light entering the chamber will continue to create the problem.
  3. I find it awfully arrogant that they are charging an upgrade price to existing users for the “lightshield”, given the cost of the original unit and that this extra hood is there to fix a design flaw that they engineered!

So, on both the LEE and Cokin front, I’m very unimpressed. So what about the NiSi system? Well, NiSi, like Cokin, provide nothing out of the box – so I had to wonder why…

cokin lee nisi filter comparison professional series slot square 150 system paul reiffer photographer

From the picture above it may not be completely obvious, but NiSi have somehow managed to completely surround the lens hood with their black metal dome, leaving almost zero gap between the holder and the first filter. Unlike the LEE and Cokin offers which have to put “spacers” in before the first filter slot, NiSi have designed this from the ground up to prevent light even entering the chamber. From shooting with the system over a week in New Zealand, I have to say even the two little “gaps” I was worried about had no impact at all – in every situation I put it into, without any additional tricks or fabric blockers, it showed no reflection or leak whatsoever.

NiSi Filters In Use Paul Reiffer Professional Photographer Phase One Cokin LEE Comparison Review New Zealand

Anyone wanting proof? Well, here are some of the outputs from those situations above. Without a lot of “wrapping”, both LEE and Cokin systems would have ruined the shots, as light would have been bouncing around all over the place. This setup from NiSi, however, worked perfectly.

Reveal Paul Reiffer Photographer Landscape Moeraki Boulders Beach Sea Sunset NiSi Filters New Zealand Test Review Cokin Lee Comparison

lake wanaka that tree willow sunset lone alone still paul reiffer professional commercial landscape photographer new zealand winter water

So, second round: NiSi: 9/10 | LEE: 3/10 (the black tabs do block *some* light) | Cokin: 0/10

3) The “fun” one for Cokin: Colour cast (or color cast for those West of Ireland!)

Spend enough time around Cokin users, and you’ll hear them refer to the “slight pink tones” that come from stacking (using more than one of their filters at the same time). Spend that same time around a LEE user, and you’ll hear them mock Cokin users because of the “awful red colour-cast they always get”.

In truth, what neither will tell you is that both LEE and Cokin have colour-cast issues. Cokin filters do generally deliver pinkish-images across the board. LEE present a greenish-blue tint to the image.

Colour cast is a real problem for photographers, but is a natural byproduct of putting sheets of resin or glass in front of the lens. While they’re called neutral density filters”, the reality is that there are always slight colour issues that start to play when multiple layers of any material come in between the light and the sensor.

What makes it worse, in Cokin’s case, is that when you stack their filters (add more than 1 filter in front of the lens), the tint gets dramatically worse. Take a look at these three raw files I took for fun in Lake Tahoe in May – I actually took the last one to demonstrate the point to one of the guys on my workshop:

cokin-colour-color-cast-problem-filters-red-pink-stacking-x-series-pro-paul-reiffer-photographer-review-evaluation-nisi-lee

The first is the scene with a simple ND-Grad. Yes, there’s slightly more magenta than there was in the natural image, but I needed it to balance out the brightness in the shot. The second image is where a 3-stop ND filter has been stacked on the ND-Grad, as the scene was getting generally brighter – note the pinky/reddish colour coming in? Finally, a stack of three (a stack of two ND-Grad filters from Cokin as well as their 3-stop “154” ND) – wow. Now that image is basically unusable (and pretty hard to salvage, even from raw)!

stack multiple filters electrical tape cokin lee nisi black bad idea block out lightWhile we know the problem comes when stacking the glass/resins on top of each other, sometimes, a single graduated filter just isn’t enough. To get “that shot”, I often use two filters in combination (and around 10% of the time, three). If you look at this image, you’ll see I’ve even come up with a handicraft method of stacking 4 or more filters to create two reverse ND-Grads for a bright horizon – but I wouldn’t recommend it!

Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve actually used the Cokin colour-cast to my advantage before – imagine what a slightly warmer/pink tone can do to an already stunning sunrise! But in general, if the filter can’t be relied upon to allow the camera to capture the real colours in a scene, it’s a big problem.

In reality, there is no such thing as a perfectly colour-cast-free filter. ALL substances have some form of impurities and slow down light at different speeds – so any manufacturer that claims they have “absolutely zero colour cast” is massaging the truth at best. What they can do, however, is reduce it (and test the effects of stacking, too!). Both NiSi and LEE claim to have colour-cast free shots – personally, I’m not entirely sold on that statement but they are both very good.

With LEE, there is a definite greenish tint to the images I capture (which needs fixing later). NiSi, slightly less so, and certainly both are a lot better than Cokin, but some level of colour-cast is something that we just have to accept for the time being.

Third round: NiSi: 9/10 | LEE: 8/10 | Cokin: 2/10 (just don’t stack them!)

4) The durability challenge.

Those who have shot with me will know that, sometimes, the image can take priority over my gear. This is especially true in the case of sunrises and sunsets – that perfect sky is there for a matter of minutes or seconds, and I can’t be worrying about wrapping filters back in their original tissue paper when I’m swapping them out between shots. Let’s take the shot below, from New Zealand’s “Church of the Good Shepherd” at Lake Tekapo for sunrise – I actually shot the same scene with 3 different filter setups all during about 6-7 minutes of the sun throwing light through the windows.

Shepherds Delight Paul Reiffer Photographer Nisi Filter ND1000 Soft GND review New Zealand Church Of The Good Shepherd Lake Tekapo

To perform that level of rapid-swap-outs, I need to be 100% confident in my gear. If I rest a filter on my bag, it can’t be “damaged” by a loose bit of dirt landing on it before I get chance to place it back in its holder.

I’m looking for a filter holder that is robust and compact (yes, it’s likely to suffer a few knocks during its working life!), as well as filters themselves which can resist the normal wear and tear of sliding in and out of their holding pouches. Again, this is where the manufacturers will all claim theirs are the best/strongest/toughest – the reality is they all have issues.

Cokin provide resin filters – which inherently are more susceptible to scratching. Indeed, I’ve had to replace 2 of mine recently because they just got too damaged (in part, because their holder itself allows the filter to touch the lens hood and any rotation then digs a trough into the surface!).

LEE (in some cases) offer both glass as well as resin filters, and I’ve personally found the glass options to be more durable – but the surface still appears to be easily marked.

NiSi offer an all-glass lineup – in theory more durable, but I have had some marks appear on the outside coating which seem to come from sliding in and out of the holding pouch. To be fair, unlike on a resin filter, these marks don’t seem to do anything to image quality and it looks like it’s only the anti-reflective coating that is affected, but it’s a little concerning that after a week’s shooting there are small signs of wear…

Fourth round: LEE: 9/10 (only for glass options) | NiSi: 7/10 | Cokin: 3/10 (for resin, they’re not bad)

Conclusion

Based on my unscientific view (of course!) the numbers tell me the answer: NiSi 34/40 | LEE 21/40 | Cokin 10/40(!)

But let’s not forget that numbers themselves only tell half the story. In reality, I’ve used my Cokin filters for a long, long, time and have always loved the images they help me create. Yes, all filters have their problems – and if we’re looking for the “perfect solution” then technically they’re a bad choice. But I’m not shooting in the perfect environment, with the perfect setup, with perfect lighting (and my photography is equally not perfect!) so does it really matter that much if there are some technical inadequacies in the glass/resin you’re using?

In the world of filters, there are tens of “top-brands” (and hundreds of others) – I haven’t even mentioned my options from Hoya, Tiffen, Formatt HiTech, plus many more. All of these will have things they do well, and things they do badly. When it comes to my Phase One 28mm setup, I have to always keep a soft spot for Cokin, as (unlike LEE or NiSi) they were the only manufacturer that even offered a solution to my ultra-wide lens when I first started using it – without them, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the scenes I already have!

Likewise, LEE Filters were the first company to make a specific adapter for the ultra-wide series of lenses through their SW-150 kit, opening the door for many photographers to get creative again. While that system now appears clunky and messy, at one point it was a great option in comparison to anything else out there. Likewise, LEE have had a long ride on the back of their “Big Stopper” 10-stop ND solution – which has served them well and created an entire genre of long-exposure photography that’s become iconic in some ways.

The challenge is, that times change, and “new kids” come to play in the same arena. This is how I view the NiSi solution – it’s taken some of the best technology as well as the feedback about other solutions (through working with and listening to photographers like me) to create a system that’s truly great. It’s also surprisingly strong on the camera – I had no issues leaving it in the wind (with no motion blur from catching gusts) for minute-long exposures up high. If their intention was getting an accurate representation of what the camera sees, with “no-fuss” involved, they really have hit the jackpot with their new system.

I love my Cokin filters for their quirks. My LEE system was great to learn about long exposure times, and helped a bit with the light leak issues the Cokin holder kept giving me. But from now on, if I have to travel light, it’ll be the NiSi system I pack when I want results from a shoot.

nisi filter holder good strong winds safe comparison lee cokin paul reiffer photographer new zealand sydney australia sunrise lighthouse

As always, there is a “final word”, of course. With all that said above – let’s just remember one thing. It really doesn’t matter what kit you have in the grand scheme of things, it’s what you do with it that counts :-)

Posted in Creative, Equipment, Industry, Landscape, Photo Shoots, Technical, Travel | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , 1 Comment

Neutral Density and ND-Grad Filters – what’s the use?

Quick question: What do the following images have in common?

Portland Bill Dorset Lighthouse Skyline Sea After Sunset England - Neutral Density Filter - Paul Reiffer, Professional London Landscape Photographer
Durdle Door Dorset Lulworth Beach Sea Sunset- Neutral Density Filter - Paul Reiffer, Professional London Landscape Photographer
Kimmeridge Bay Clavell Tower Rocks Sea Sunset - Neutral Density Filter - Paul Reiffer, Professional London Landscape Photographer

The simple answer? They’d be impossible shots to take without some form of filter – and in this particular case, a filter which many people misunderstand or simply don’t think they need. That is, until they understand the power that it can have when shooting landscapes. It’s also one of the most frequently asked questions of land/seascape photographers – “how did you manage to do that to the water?”

Allow me to introduce, the star of the landscape photography show: The Neautral Density Filter (and it’s sibling, the ND-Grad!)

The ND/ND-Grad filter adds a “tweak” to the relatively powerful tools photographers have onboard their cameras, but it can really mean the difference between a “stunning” landscape shot and a “what I see right now” image. You see, the challenge with landscapes is that of light – well, too much of it, anyway – especially at sunrise and sunset (not that we’d ever want to photograph at those times, eh?) Photographers have pretty much 3 key things they can play with to determine the look of an image : Aperture (“f-stops”), Shutter speed and ISO.

  • Aperture controls how much light is let through the lens onto the sensor/film (and also, as a result, the “depth of field” – or how much of the image is in focus).
  • Shutter speed, the amount of time the sensor/film is exposed to the light flowing through the lens.
  • ISO is the standard for measuring how sensitive the sensor/film is to light itself.

The key to a perfectly exposed image? – Hitting the right balance of those elements. Now, this is not a “photography 101″ post, so I’m not going into anything in detail, but suffice it to say, if I alter one of them, the others need to adjust to accommodate. So, if I increase the amount of light let through the lens (and also reduce the depth of field/amount of the shot in focus) I have to do something with either reducing the amount of time that light is allowed in for (shutter speed) or use a less light-sensitive film speed (ISO). Likewise, if I want to freeze a moving object as crisp and sharp as possible, I may have to reduce the shutter time to a tiny fraction of a second – but that means either increasing the amount of light let into the lens via an aperture change (which could affect sharpness) or increasing the sensitivity of the film/sensor (ISO), which in turn gives us a nasty by-product : noise.

So, back to landscapes, imagine this…

I want to shoot a bright scene – a sunset, looking straight into the sun. That would normally mean a very fast shutter speed and narrow aperture. The only problem is, I also want to see the movement in the water or sky. Now, I could reduce my ISO/film speed right down, to 100 or 50, but still that gives me a shutter speed of around 1/15th of a second at a reasonable landscape aperture setting of f/16. So, what if we reduce the aperture down to f/22 (the smallest some cameras and lenses will go)? Well, that’s going to get me to about 1/8th of a second – hardly the realm of “motion blur”, hey?

And there’s the problem. With my aperture closed all the way down, and ISO set to as insensitive as it can be, my shutter speed is still limited to a split second – enter the neutral density filter!

What is an ND or ND-Grad filter? Easy – it does exactly what it says on the tin. The “neutral” is key : it doesn’t affect colour in ANY way. Instead, it reduces the amount of light entering the lens, by x number of f-stops (effectively, aperture settings). For example, an ND-8 reduces light by “3 stops” – meaning what I was previously shooting at f/22, I would now need f/8 – or more importantly, I could shoot at f/22 for a whole second and still have the same exposure as if I’d shot for 1/8th of a second without it.

Bingo! So, to save the pain of typing a lot more, I shot a few quick example images while on Portland shooting the top photograph in this post at the weekend. They’re NOT meant to be good photos, but I took the opportunity to grab some images in context to help me explain.

Example Neutral Density Filter Photograph Comparison without ND

So, to the right, we have a normal image of the sea. It was pretty rough when I got there, and this doesn’t do it justice, but shot straight out of the camera’s meter at f/14, at ISO 100, I got a 1/40th of a second exposure – enough to freeze the water (which may have been the intention).

The challenge is, for landscape/atmospheric shots, that’s rarely the intention. Even a wave crashing over a cliff top needs some movement, but even at f/22, I’m only going to get around 1/15th of a second – which won’t deliver motion.



Example Neutral Density Filter Photograph Comparison with ND64Let’s take that exact same shot with an ND-64 on it (which is the equivalent of 8 stops of light being cut, or a 1.3 second exposure)

The waves are now clearly moving, you can see the motion in the water’s path and I can start to build some atmosphere around it. Now, imagine how powerful that filter can be when the light’s fading. That image of the lighthouse at the top of this post is a 75 second exposure, and it’s still eerily dark! Want to see how much the water was blurred? – Take a look at this image on Facebook which I took of what the sea was actually doing!


So what about this “ND-Grad” thing? Well, that’s simple too, really. You see, for sunrises and sunsets, you end up with another problem: The image is too bright in the top half and too dark in the bottom. An ND-Grad (or Neutral Density Graduated) filter gives us a way around that:

Example Neutral Density Filter Photograph Comparison ND64 with Grad

And here it is. They come in varieties of different transitions between cutting out light and allowing it through – the “gradient” – and are expressed in terms of “hard” and “soft”. The one on the right is a hard grad (a 2-stop grad on top of the ND-64 8 stop ND) and you’ll see that when it’s lined up with the horizon it can really make a difference to the feel of the bright sky without impacting the bottom.

Just be aware – ANYTHING over that horizon line will be affected. Use it on the top shot of the lighthouse in this post, and the lighthouse itself gets darkened – ooops!


So there we have it, a whistle-stop tour (in the easiest way I think I can explain it) of the neutral-density filters. The range out there is massive and you’ll find offerings from all the big names – Hoya, Cokin, Lee and others. Oh, and while I mention Lee, they’re the owners of one of the most often sworn-by ND filters out there for long exposures: “The Big Stopper” (a 10 stop ND – or, effectively, an “ND1024″!)

What’s really funny, to me, is that while you CAN add on colour filter effects “after the event” (in Photoshop), there are quite often serious limits to what a camera can physically do with the light it is given. While those photographers out there with their filter kits are often looked upon as “old school”, some simple rules of physics say that without limiting or altering the amount of light hitting a sensor (with current camera constraints) it’s simply not possible to get some of those amazing images without the use of such filters at the time of capture.

Hong Kong Island Skyline Night - Canon S100 Neutral Density Filter Joby Gorillapod - Paul Reiffer, Professional London Landscape Photographer

And if ever there was a benchmark for how much ND filters are (or should be) used? Well, I found out by accident while in Hong Kong last week, that my little Canon Powershot S100 (considered a consumer camera, not like my DSLR kit) has a neat little feature over its predecessor. That’s right – an internal, user-selectable, neutral density filter! Without which, the sea in this rather eerie shot of the skyline would just look a mess.

Just one final thought – if anyone wants to really go to town and get on with some long exposure work, check out this chart, courtesy of David on flickr. Yes, that’s right – there’s a filter out there which allows you to take a year long exposure.

If anyone tries it, give me a call in about 11.9 months’ time 😉



Posted in Creative, Equipment, Landscape, Technical | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment