The never ending quest for decent photographic filters
About a year ago I made my first serious move into using filters in my photography. At that point the furthest I had gone down that route was a few cheap screw in circular polarisers, ND8’s and UV filters, which were fine for what they were but the more I read about filters and seen what other people were doing with them the more I wanted to stick a toe in this whole new world of photography.
Cost was an issue, isn’t it always, so I lowered expectations and bypassed the pro systems like Lee or Cokin Z and stated to look at a P series system, the 85mm slot in filter range. This seemed perfect as the filters were reasonably priced and there was a huge range to choose from. After some initial research I discounted Cokin’s range of ND filters as they got a terrible feedback online with dozens of complaints of purple colour casts on shots taken with the Cokin ND’s.
Eventually I settled on Formatt Filters Hitech range which seemed to be a decent alternative and bought a set of 0.3. 0.6 and 0.9 ND filters and a set of 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 ND soft grad filters. Throw in a P series holder and a 77mm and 67mm adapter ring and I was no more than £75 out of pocket for a basic setup. I quickly also added a Kood 85mm slot in circular polariser to this line-up and for just under £100 I was ready to go.
The journey though, was a rough one. I learned a lot about filters and found that Hitech filters did indeed colour cast, especially with more than 2 stacked together. A 0.9 on its own was fine. A 0.9 soft grad on its own was fine. Stack the 2 and purple skies all round. At this point I nearly gave up, disheartened by the new purchases as they seemed to be a step back rather than the step forward I had hoped for.
In this situation, rather than throw in the towel it’s better to try and understand what is actually happening and how you can best avoid it. To this ends I started to see which conditions the filters worked best in and also figured out how to remove the worst of the cast in Photoshop so it was less of an issue. I soon stated using them all the time and was getting some reasonable results.
By this time I had added a cheap sunset grad, Kood red soft grad, Kood light tobacco soft grad and a Cokin 81A warm up filter to the collection and found that each of them worked best in certain situations. It took a lot of trial and error but once the understanding was there it made the frustration a lot less. Once you understand that in the middle of the day a red grad will give a shocking false image and used on a sunset it will work nicely you can really move on!
The next step was delving into long exposure photography. Initially I done this by stacking a screw in ND8, first then attaching the p series holder fitted with the Hitech 0.9 ND, 0.9 ND soft grad and 0.6 ND soft grad. Colour casting was horrific but I was able to get exposures up to long enough to streak clouds and flat out water, although the shots could only be used as mono conversions.
The solution to this was to invest in a proper 10 stop filter. Some research suggested that screw in types were best as they avoided light leak so I attempted to get a B+W ND110, which was the first time I came up against the difficulty in getting good filters. These were nowhere to be found, most places were quoting 6-12 week lead times which were no good to me, I wanted it now! Another quick Google and it seemed that the Heliopan ND3.0 was as good as the B+W and luckily, there was a stack of new 77mm versions on EBay at £95 a go. Cheaper than the B+W but even better, available now.
The Heliopan changed everything. Long exposures with no cast were now possible. Even stacking one 0.9 grad in some situations was possible but it still gave horrible casts from time to time. Not the Heliopan, it was perfect but the Hitech was no doubt the cause of the problem.
This got so frustrating I ended up buying the Lee filters foundation kit with intent to move to Lee filters, no matter what the cost. I got the holder at a decent price and it lay there unused as I had no 100mm filters for weeks on end. The problem this time was the lack of Lee filters anywhere. There are just none for sale, or at least for delivery this side of Christmas it seems. Some places are quoting 16 week + lead times for any Lee resin filters and as a result of this the 2nd hand market for them is nuts. 2nd hand Lee grads are going for silly money with this shortage and the “Big Stopper” even worse!
Eventually out of frustration I looked again at Hitech filters. Some recent blog comment seemed to suggest that the company had a new resin it was using and the results were near comparable with Lee filters for a fraction of the cost. This was based mainly around the Hitech equivalent to the Lee Big Stopper but there was also a new range of 100x150mm Hitech filters.
A quick search on eBay shows these filters going for around £40-£55 but in one of these rare moments where you get an actual bargain on eBay I found individual 0.6 and 0.9 soft grads for sale, made an offer and now own both for less than the cost of a single filter from some of the other sellers, both brand new and unmarked!
A quick test with these in conditions I would have normally expected to see colour cast produced no colour cast at all. Even a 30s exposure in tandem with the Heliopan 10 stopper produced no cast which is an encouraging start. Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll try these in a variety of ways and conditions and report back what the overall impression is.
If it’s good then an investment in a Hitech 0.9 reverse grad may well be in order and I’ll have to possibly consider the new version Hitech ND3.0 as well. The screw in Heliopan is a terrific filter but screw in and out in cumbersome if you need to recompose. A slot in option might well be handy but only if it performs as well.
I’m not discounting a switch to Lee in the future but for now while there is no availability there’s nothing to lose in trying the Hitechs, if nothing else it’s letting me use that nice new Lee filter holder at last!