“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 .
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:
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:
- Simple and easy to use
- No “light leaks”
- No “colour cast”
- Durable and hard-wearing
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.
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 .