EVERY BRAND CLAIM THEIR FILTERS ARE TOTALLY NEUTRAL: BUT ARE THEY? SEE THE RESULT IN THIS COMPARED REVIEW
Best filters for landscape photography, even with digital? Yes, indeed! Despite all the tricks in post-processing that the advent and development of digital photography allows, I believe that filters are still fundamental, particularly for landscape photography and architectural work. There are many brands offering complete sets of filters out there; the best known among professional photographers are Lee Filters, Formatt-Hitech and Singh-Ray. Recently, Formatt-Hitech released a new line of Schott Superwhite glass filters, the Firecrest, claiming to be the world’s first hyper-neutral filters. This, of course, got my attention. In my quest for the best, most neutral filter set I got myself a set of the new Firecrest and a set of regular Formatt-Hitech filters as well to compare with my Singh-Ray and Lee Filters.
Test methodology: white wall, Leica SL with a Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4, Elinchrom Quadra flashes. White balance set using the white wall in the first image and used for all images. Filters of equal strength got equal exposure: f/5.6 for all Grad NDs and for 3 stop solid NDs, f/1.4 for 6, 10 and 13 stop ND filters. Vignetting in 6, 10 and 13 stop ND images depends on that, not on the filter used. I checked colour neutrality on the top, centre and bottom part of the image for Grad ND and on the centre only for Solid ND filters. Numbers in the images express R, G, B values sampled using a 101px sampler in Photoshop CC. Most neutral results are when the three values for R, G and B are equal or very close to each other; the further apart they are, the more evident a colour cast is. Please note: the test was aimed at testing colour neutrality, not any other characteristic of the filters.
Disclaimer: to date, I am not affiliated in any way with any of the manufacturers tested here. I buy my equipment with my own money; test them as best as I can and provide my results as I see them.
Let’s start with a quick look at filters, for those not familiar with them already. Filter for still photography can be of two types, round and square. I use a square 100mm filter system for my photography, because it’s the most versatile and practical for my work. The main difference between the two is that with a square system you can precisely position your Grad ND filters according to the subject matter. With round filters you are at the mercy of the filter’s manufacturer, which normally builds its round Grad ND filters so that the line between dark and light is in the middle: something that almost never happens in real world’s subjects. Filters can be made of resin or glass. In short, differences are: resin filters don’t break easily if at all, but they do scratch very easily; glass filters do not scratch easily, but they can break. More, generally glass is optically better than resin, offering better light transmission and transparency. Neutrality is the propriety of filters not to add any colour cast to your images: the more neutral, the better. Colour casts introduced by solid ND filters can be removed in post-processing easily, but this can introduce balance problems between the different colour channels, noise, etc. Colour casts introduced by Grad NDs, due both to the gradient itself and to its changing position in different images are very difficult if not impossible to remove completely.
When looking at the test images below, besides looking at their colours please use the R, G, B values to make up your mind: these are objective measurements, not influenced by your monitor’s colours or calibration (or lack thereof). Last, please consider that if you do stack filters for your landscape work, the effect of the colour cast of each filter will obviously add up: the more filters with cast you add on top of one other, the worse the cast will become.
For this test, I choose the Grad ND filter that every landscape photographer should have at least in his bag: a 0.9 Soft Edge (3 stops). This offers a medium level of filtration, and is the most versatile of all Grad NDs. I positioned all filters in the same position in the holder, and gave the images the same exposure. Differences in brightness depend on each manufacturer different level and positioning of gradient. I was also curious to see how the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 1.5 Soft Edge would perform, since the higher the filtration level, the most problematic it is to keep colour casts away, so I added that to this group. Here we go (click on the images to enlarge):
As you could see, the Formatt-Hitech resin has a small but clear magenta cast; the Sing-Ray a slight blue cast; the Lee and Formatt-Hitech Firecrest are basically neutral. What is really impressive here is the behaviour of the 1.5 stop Firecrest: the filter is almost perfectly neutral, offering better performance than any of the 0.9 filters in this test.
Moving on to solid NDs, I started with a mild 3-stop filter (click on the images to enlarge):
Here we can see that the Formatt-Hitech resin has a very prominent magenta cast, and the Singh-Ray some blue cast as well; again, the Lee and the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest are the most neutral of the group, with the former showing a very little magenta cast and the latter a minor blue cast, both inconsequential in practice.
I then tested the stronger NDs, which – for better or worse – are very much in fashion in landscape photography today. Let’s start with the two 6 stop filters (click on the images to enlarge):
As you can see, the Lee Little Stopper has a clear blue cast; the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest, while not perfect, can be considered neutral for all practical purposes.
Finally, let’s move to the big guns: 10 stops! Since moving back from medium format to 35mm with its faster lenses, however, sometimes I need more than 10 stops. After seeing the great performance of the new Formatt-Hitech Firecrest filters for 6 and 10 stops, I recently got a Firecrest 13 stops and added it to the test as well (click on the images to enlarge):
The Lee Big Stopper follows in the footsteps of his little brother, showing an even stronger blue cast than the Little Stopper. The Formatt-Hitech Firecrest shows a very little green cast but, in practice, can be considered neutral. Once more, though, I have to say that I am really impressed with the ultra-high density ND filter in the group, the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 13 stop. True, it is not perfectly neutral, showing a small green / blue cast; however, lets not forget that we are talking about 13 stops of filtering here, and the Formatt-Hitech 13 stops performs actually better than both the Lee Little and Big Stoppers!
Summarising, I’d rate the filters in this test as follows:
1. Formatt-Hitech Firecrest. The most neutral filters in the test overall, these newcomer glass filters by Formatt-Hitech showed an impressive performance. Highly recommended!
2. Lee Filters. Not as neutral as the Firecrest, Lee Filters hold their own beautifully in the Grad ND department and in the Solid ND up to 3 stops. If you want to move up to 6 and 10 stops, however, things will get blue, and you’ll have to work to get your image back to neutral. Recommended.
3. Singh-Ray. With a slight blue cast in the Grad, and a bluish-magenta cast in the 3 stop solid ND, these filters offer a slightly worse performance than our champions. If they costed less, I’d recommend them; for the money, though, I’d definitely get the Lees or the Firecrest over them any day.
4. Formatt-Hitech Resin. The worse filters in the test as far as colour neutrality, these guys however have price on their side, retailing at less than half of the other filters in the test. Recommended only for the photographer on a budget.
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2016:
Following this review, I partnered with Formatt-Hitech to offer you a discount on what I believe to be the best and most neutral filters out there: just buy your filters clicking on FORMATT-HITECH website and use the code
at checkout to enjoy a 10% discount on all Formatt-Hitech products!
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Technical details: all images have been shot with the Leica SL equipped with the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4. Lighting has been provided by Elinchrome Quadra flashes. Death Valley image taken with a Leica M-P 240, Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4, Formatt-Hitech Firecrest Grad ND, Polariser and ND filters on a Gizto tripod equipped with an Arca-Swiss P0 Classic ballhead. All photos have been developed and finished in Adobe Photoshop CC.