Filters starter kit

[Update: in a later post I give a table with details and links of the final contenders. Eventually I also wrote about selecting a polarising filter for the Lee system.]

One good thing about having had an SLR for a long time (I think it’s either already 15 years, or close to) is that it should be fairly obvious what kind of photography you usually take and what you really like. And also where you need to improve. For me that’s generally landscapes (I explicitly include here architecture and city-scapes). This year I decided to explore this further; for starters, this meant I needed to prepare myself better, which is where filters come in.

I’ve had filters from before I went digital, but they’re all 58mm thread, which covers the lenses I had. For landscapes, you generally want two things:

  1. A wide-angle lens: here I’m all set, with the EF 17-40mm f/4L, which has great optics and a useful range. On my APS-C size digital body (the 30D), this translates to a 35mm equivalent of about 27-64mm. On a film or full-frame body, of course, you get a nice ultra-wide lens.
  2. Graduated Neutral Density (ND) filters: you need these to balance the exposure between sky or sea (both usually very bright) and the actual landscape. You really want these in a rectangular format, so you can decide where the change of density occurs.

So far so good; you can find plenty of explanations on the web on how to use them etc. The first question of course is: what exactly do you want to buy to start you off? Generally this means at least:

  • A set of graduated ND filters, say 1, 2, and 3-stop; this gives some freedom of choice, given that you have no control on how bright the sky is or how dense the shadows.
  • A filter holder that takes say 3 filters.
  • An adapter ring for each lens thread diameter that you intend to use; in my case this means 77mm and 58mm.

Next comes the tricky bit: there are many options. Let’s take these in turn.

Format: this has the greatest impact on overall cost, and there are two main contenders here. The “Cokin P” series, or 85mm width, and the “Lee” series, or 100mm width. The former cost significantly less (the basic set above would set you off around £60 with just one adapter ring; in comparison the latter would cost around £270). Part of this is an issue of quality – you’ll find many debates online about the colour cast of certain brands of filters, or how scratchable they are, etc.

But much of this choice is really no choice at all. The smaller filter size on a wide to ultra-wide lens causes serious vignetting. I have it on good authority that the Cokin P is usable on a 17mm only if you take drastic measures, doing without the adapter ring and shaving the front bit off the holder. There is also a compatible “wide-angle” holder, but this only takes one filter. So if you plan to shoot at anything wider than about 24mm, there is really only one choice of format.

Holder + Adapter: remember that wide-angle I mentioned earlier? Avoiding vignetting does not stop with the choice of format.

  • At 100mm, the holder itself is modular, so it’s easy to reduce its outward projection (Lee’s holder came pre-assembled for two filters, with the necessary screws and additional guides for a third). The projection of the adapter ring that this clips onto can be reduced by opting for a so-called wide angle adapter. This is built such that the first filter in the holder almost touches the outer edge of the lens thread, reducing the risk of vignetting. This variant is much more expensive (£37 for a piece of metal with no moving parts seems rather excessive), but again there is really no choice here. I fitted it on the 17mm and a film camera, and I could not see the difference with the filter holder and without, even with the lens UV filter threaded in. One caveat: the viewfinder does not have a 100% coverage, so I’d be happier to confirm this once I actually take and develop a few shots.
  • At 85mm, Maxim produces a wide-angle holder that only takes one filter. I am uncertain how well this (and the necessary adapter ring) would actually work at 17mm.

Brand: even once you choose your format, there are various choices.

  • At 100mm, it’s basically between Lee and Hitech/Formatt for both holders and the filters themselves. From what I’ve read in user reviews and other blogs, both are good quality, though Lee seems to have the edge, at least in quality control and user loyalty. They are also a little more expensive, but when comparing like with like (Lee grad filters are 100 x 150mm, while Hitech standard grads are 100 x 125mm) the difference is not great. The extra length gives more flexibility in usage: I’ve also read of some who have used the dark portion as a full ND filter. It’s worth mentioning that Hitech also produce the longer 100 x 150mm size. At least of late, Lee is often not in stock, due to insufficient supply capacity (everything is hand-made), but if you do your research, you should be able to find a supplier.
  • At 85mm it’s a little more complex: Cokin and Hitech/Formatt do both holders and filters, while you can also find compatible holders from Maxim. Judging by the reviews, Cokin filters have a rather serious pinkish cast, particularly when stacked. Hitech don’t seem to suffer as much. As far as holders go, there doesn’t seem to be much to choose between Cokin and Maxim (other than price); Hitech on the other hand has a holder that resembles more the 100mm variant. It’s also much more costly.

Hard or Soft edge: at least this decision will not affect your outlay, unless you choose to go for both. General consensus is that hard edge is better for scenes with an obvious transition (such as a horizon), while soft edge is needed when the transition is busy (think when the sky appears through the trees in a glade). Other typical scenes are less obvious: how would you classify the transition in a mountainous landscape? It’s certainly not straight, so my first thought was that soft edge would be more suited. However, after going through many documented examples on Flickr and on Lee’s site, it seemed that most photographers opted for the hard edge with good effect. Indeed, B&H claims that the 2-stop hard edge is the single most popular filter they sell. Advice I sought also said to go for a hard edge if I had to go for only one. To add more confusion to the choice, it turns out that different manufacturers mean rather different things with “hard” and “soft”. It is hardly a scientific approach. Furthermore, the wider the aperture, the less obvious (ie the softer) the transition will appear.

As always, you’ll also need to shop around as prices do vary rather substantially. And you’re more likely to find this kind of kit from specialized photographic suppliers (especially the 100mm) than the usual online retailers or high street chains. For myself, in the final analysis I was faced with two options: go for a less expensive 85mm setup with holder + adapter from Maxim and filters from Hitech (for around £60) or the more expensive 100mm setup from Lee (for £280). The difference is considerable, but then £60 felt too much for something that I would probably end up disappointed with and therefore not use. Next step: take it out for a spin.

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