Filters have always been, and will always be, an essential part of landscape photography. Photoshop enthusiasts may beg to differ, but the soaring demand for these products over the past few years proves otherwise. You can, to a great extent, get away with not using filters, but simply ask yourself this; do you prefer spending time in nature or behind the computer? If you answered nature, then you need to look at getting filters.
The primary reason for using a filter system is that the sky is usually brighter than the land, especially in dramatic sunset light. Graduated ND filters are dark on the top half and transparent on the bottom half. When the dark part is positioned over the sky of an image, it ‘reduces’ the amount of light allowed through and this results in a darkened exposure of the sky. This concept is displayed as simply as possible in the image below. On the left it shows the effect with no filter while on the right it shows the effect using the filter. Pretty awesome.
ND stands for ‘neutral density’, which describes the secondary purpose of the filter. This means that it shouldn’t affect the colour of the light passing through it. In other words, the colours captured by the camera should be true to the scene photographed. This is the great challenge for manufacturers of ND filters and some are more successful than others. The colour issue, as well as the overall quality of the product should be your primary consideration when deciding which brand to buy. This isn’t much of a decision though, as Lee stands head and shoulders above the rest.
I’m writing this article based on 7 years of experience with graduated filter systems. I started with one of the cheap brands, which felt and performed like a toy from a lucky packet. I then upgraded to one of the middle-tier brands and those were quickly discarded for a basic Lee kit. I immediately fell in love with it and before long I invested in a full Lee kit, which has assisted me in getting so many of my very best images over the years. The people behind the product are extremely passionate, precise and true to their product. Each graduated filter is handmade to the most exacting standards, using only the very best materials.
Interesting fact – Lee Filters employs only women in parts of the manufacturing process where colour factors are critical, because men are more susceptible to colour inaccuracies and are the only sex that can be colour blind.
The main part of the Lee filter system is ND graduated filters, but it includes a lot more than just this. This article will deal with everything that LANDSCAPEGEAR offers from this manufacturer, as briefly and informatively as possible.
We only stock the 100mm system, designed for use with 35mm DSLR camera systems. If you want the Sevenfive system for smaller cameras or the SW150 system for the Nikon 14-24mm or Canon 17mm TS, please get in touch via the contact page.
The filters are flat sheets of resin or glass, meaning it can’t screw into the lens like a polarizer or UV filter. The filter slides into a holder, which clips on to a ring and said ring screws into the lens like a UV filter. This is called the adapter ring and there are two types (normal and wide angle), available in different sizes. The only difference between the normal and wide is that the wide-angle ring has a sunken thread. This allows the filter holder to be closer to the camera body, making it less likely to pick up the filter holder in the frame when shooting with a wide lens. The sunken thread is clearly displayed below. In all cases I advise that you purchase a wide ring, but a normal ring is fine for lenses longer than 70mm.
A normal and wide angle adapter ring, showing the sunken thread of the wide ring.
The filter holder simply clips onto the ring with the use of a tensioned spring mechanism. It sits snugly, yet still loose enough to be easily rotated. Unlike most other holders, which are single pieces of moulded cheap plastic, the Lee holders are an assembly of high quality plastic and brass pieces. It can be customised for various needs and thanks to this, there is only one model of the holder. You can either buy it in the foundation kit or as part of the DSLR starter kit. What exactly to buy is explained further in this article.
If you browse through a Lee catalogue, you might be shocked at the number of filters available. This is because they offer every single colour of the rainbow as part of a product range that originated in the film days. Twenty years ago you had to use a filter to give the sky a slight colour tint, but nowadays you can just set a colour and drag an opaque gradient in Lightroom. As stated before; you don’t want the filter to change the colour of the scene, so we’re only interested in neutral density filters.
Graduated Neutral Density filters (Grads)
Graduated ND filters are available in soft and hard, which determines the distance of the transition between the dark part and the transparent part. Hard grad filters are typically for scenes with a straight and uniform horizon, like the sea. Soft grad filters are typically for scenes with a less uniform horizon, like landscapes with hills or mountains. Both hard and soft filters are available in different densities, because light is dynamic and different scenes require a different amount of ‘darkening’ of the sky. LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA offers hard and soft grads in densities of 0.3(1 stop), 0.6(2 stops) and 0.9(3 stops). You can either buy the graduated ND filters individually or as a hard or soft set. The sets offers a better per filter price.
Soft Grad Set
Hard Grad Set
Solid Neutral Density Filters (Solids)
Solid ND filters are darkened across the entire surface and are also available in various densities. The purpose of these filters is simply to achieve longer shutter speeds. LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA offers 0.6, 0.9, 1.8 and 3.0 stop solid ND filters. The latter two are of course better known as the Little Stopper and Big Stopper filters. The 0.6 and 0.9 Solid ND filters are indispensible when shooting seascapes. When the sun is still out, there is usually still too much light for a nice slow shutter speed to blur the waves. Add a solid ND to your filter arrangement and you’ll be able to create those beautiful, softly blurred waves. The stoppers are considered super-ND filters as they increase the required exposure time substantially. These are great for really long exposures to blur clouds, water or to remove traffic or people from bustling cityscape scenes.
The Super ND filters have a special seal on the back to prevent light leakage during the exposure.
Achieving a 1 second exposure time in bright sunlight, as in this image, would be impossible without a solid ND filter.
A classic long exposure image taken with the Big Stopper.
There are plenty of accessories that aid in the use of the filters. Some are simply niceties, while others are a must have. Read below to see what we offer.
The Lee filter wallet is an album with 10 velvet sleeves. It has a durable outer cover and a zip to keep out dust and dirt. Once you own more than 2 or 3 filters, this is an essential item for keeping your filters safe and organised.
Solid ND filter tin
These tins are great for keeping your big stopper or little stopper safe and easy to reach. These tins have been included with the Stopper filters since Feb 2014, so if you purchased yours before then you won’t have one.
When you’re on a shooting trip it can be tiring to attach and detach the adapter ring every time you take out the camera to shoot. These simple plastic caps fit over the adapter ring to protect the lens and allow you to leave the adapter ring attached when you pack away your gear.
The simple but useful adapter ring caps.
Wide Angle Lens Hood
The lens hood is an accessory that holds great benefit for advanced landscape shooters. The most dramatic shot is usually when composing so that the sun is just outside of the frame. This creates problematic flare because there is sunlight falling directly on the lens, even though the sun isn’t in the frame. This problem can be solved by holding an object at just the right angle so that it casts a shadow over the lens, but isn’t visible in the frame. This solution is however impractical, takes a lot of effort and distracts the photographer from focusing on the things that matter. The wide-angle lens hood is like a modern day bellows, which can be extended and shaped to keep the lens in shade. It also blocks and absorbs stray light, which improves colour and contrast. Simply adjust it to the right angle and you can focus on the composition and settings instead of waving a hand around the lens like an idiot.
The lens hood attaches to the front of a normal holder, so that you can still add a solid ND or grad ND between the lens and the hood. There is a holder included with the hood, which is a great extra. You can remove or add filter slots, depending on the width of your wide-angle lens is. The wider it is, the quicker you will pick up the edges of the hood in the frame, in which case it’s better to remove one slot.
A specialist item for preventing lens flare, the wide angle lens hood.
Brass Spring Clip
You should never turn, screw or rotate the brass pin on the holder. Simply pull it back, slide the holder over the ring and release it to snap in place. If you screw it, then you are disassembling it. Once unscrewed, the tensioned spring will make the pin jump and if you’re in a field or on a beach, it will probably be gone. If this has happened to you before, you can use this to replace the spring clip assembly.
Brass Spring Clip Assembly
What to Buy?
The ideal with Lee Filters is to have everything, but that will put you back a pretty penny. If you feel that you have the necessary knowledge to decide what you need, head to the Lee product page over on LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA. If not, keep reading.
LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA has put together four different combinations, ranging from the very basic to the very comprehensive, in order of price. This will help you choose a combination of products that suit your requirements and budget.
This post is the second of the five-part guide to buying the right Lee Filters. Part one explains the system and parts 2-5 explain the different purchase combinations. Each article is linked below.
Choosing the Right Lee Gear
Lee Filters Option 1 – Beginner
Lee Filters Option 2 – Beginner Plus
Lee Filters Option 3 – Master
Lee Filters Option 4 – Advanced