Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I currently carry a circular polarizer and a screw-in 4X ND with me in the field. I've decided it's time to upgrade my filters, because there are too many times when I really need an 8X ND (or more) and even though you can stack the polarizer, that's not a perfect option.

So I'm looking at what I should be doing in terms of carrying filters in the field. I'm currently leaning away from screw-in filters and towards the 100mm square (aka "Cokin P") filter sets for the NDs, because as you get it darker and darker, focus is an issue, and the square filters are easier to attach after you set up without affecting the rest of the setup.

The other option is the "vari-ND" style of screw in filters. I know the Singh-Rays come highly recommended, but are beyond what I want to spend right now.

So do you carry screw-ins or square? What mounting system do you use? Which brands do you use and recommend? Cokin is decent, but I'm thinking I want to use glass squares and a higher quality than the Cokin filters. Is there a vari-ND in the $100-150 range that is worth evaluating?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think you can only get subjective answers on this, different things will appeal to different people. I'll give you my experience.

  • I have a polarising filter on my main lenses rather than a UV. If it's low light, or I otherwise don't need it, I remove it temporarily, but it always goes back on. I use the polarising filter all the time, so I don't like to fumble around for it. I don't think I could get used to using Cokin style polarising filters, as often as I use my screw in ones, because it would slow me down I think.

  • for ND filters, I do use the 100mm Cokin style. I find they scratch pretty easily, and so I've bought inexpensive chinese ones (Tian Ya). Unless I'm set up to do a lot of images in one spot, I rarely bother to put on the holder - instead I usually hand hold the filter over the lens. The one Cokin style filter than I think is indespensible is the grad ND. It's just not very versatile in a screw in form - graduation is dead centre and you can't move it if your horizon is 1/3 from top or bottom for instance.

  • I have considered buying an inexpensive vary-ND. I don't have high hopes that the quality will be that good. Even with Singh Rays you can get vignetting and funny color shifts at extreme densities and with wider angle lenses.

  • I find the Cokin style filters are bulky, awkward to carry in my bag, and as a result (apart from occasionally pulling one out and holding it over the lens) they don't get as much use as I'd like. I tend to do a lot of walking/hiking, so I don't tend to take a tripod and take the time to set up properly, so maybe it's just me. If I try to use the Cokin holder and filters I end up fumbling and dropping them, getting finger marks all over them, scratching them. Something to think about before you buy expensive glass ones - all depends on you and how/where you work.

  • I have a thin holder on my 12-24mm and I get very slight vignetting in the corners at 12mm. If you do a lot of WA shots, you may want the larger format (170mm?).

  • a lot of people I know think Lee make better filters and holders, but I've not tried them out myself.

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1  
Great answer. Agree about everything. The cumbersome is the biggest stopper from going square and seen many people just hold them by hand. –  Zak Feb 6 '12 at 3:51
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+1 for Cokin bulky and awkward. –  Johan Karlsson Feb 6 '12 at 7:28

I would look into the Lee Filter Foundation Kit, based on the needs you specified. Lee makes a very solid, and less bulky, filter system similar to Cokin's, and it will more than adequately accommodate your need for LOTS of ND filtration, 100mm filters, graduated neutral density, and if you don't mind spending the money, glass and high quality glass (rather than resin) filters also in the 100mm (4x4) format.

I think the Lee filter system is a bit more expensive than the alternatives, like Cokin's, however its pretty versatile. I've been using it for a couple years now, and it was one of my best purchases for landscape photography. The filter holder is completely customizable, so you can adjust it down to hold only one filter or up to 4, and if you need the ability to independently rotate different sets of filters (i.e. one set of ND/GND and one containing a polarizer), you can use the tandem adapter to connect two holders together with independent rotation. That, combined with their circular filter holder and custom hoods, and you have one of the most flexible filter systems on earth. Its a breeze to use, too...the whole filter holder contraption, along with whatever you may have attached to it, clips on and off in one swift little motion, making it easy to meter unfiltered exposure, add the filters again, and take a shot without messing with composition, focus, etc.

Lee offers more filters than I've ever browsed through, as well...including all the important ones: Neutral Density & Graduated Neutral Density (both hard and soft) on .3, .6, .9 and 1.2 (1, 2, 3, and 4 stop) variants, Colored and Graduated Colored filters (really only necessary for film...there is a HUGE variety of these), Glass Linear and Circular Polarizers, even the 10 stop "Big Stopper....a single filter ND filter designed for those extreme exposure scenarios lasting minutes (only problem is it is EXTREMELY hard to find in stock...I've been after it for a year, and still haven't seen it available at any time I've looked, however its been insisted on multiple occasions that they are available and in stock at times...its just in high demand with not enough supply.) All of the 100mm Singh-Ray filters are compatible, although some may need shim adjustment in the Lee mount if they are too thick or thin (which, conveniently, is possible...the Lee filter mount is amazingly flexible, and can take filters from 1mm to 4mm thick.)


While versatile, there are a couple of key drawbacks with Lee filters: the price and availability. Price-wise, it can be expensive. The best way to start is to get one of the starter kits, which usually comes with the mount capable of holding three 100mm (4x4") filters, some kind of solid ND, a hard edge 4x6" ND grad (probably .6/2 stop, but there are a variety of kits), and a filter pouch. That will probably run your around US$200-300. The filter holder runs about US$90 on its own. You'll also need an adapter ring for each filter thread size, and those tend to run anywhere from about US$40 to US$80 or more for the larger ones. Filter holder parts can be cheap or expensive, depending on what you get. You can expand the filter holder to support four filters at a time with more slide guides, get additional screw lengths to support anywhere from 1-4 filters, replace the 2mm slide guides with 1mm or 4mm ones for filters of differing thickness, buy another filter holder and a tandem adapter to support up to 8 concurrent filters in two sets of 1-4, with independent rotation, etc. This stuff ranges from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars. Filters themselves can cost anywhere from about $50 each to as much as $200 each, depending on whether they are resin, glass, or proglass. The good 4x4 Solid ND glass filters tend to cost about US$170 each, and the resin 4x6 Graduated ND resin filters tend to cost about US$100 each. The CPL is pretty expensive at $300, but it is essentially a universally compatible polarizer, and its nice, high quality, sturdy glass...so its kind of worth it.

Beyond price are the occasional supply problems. Right now actually seems to be a good time to buy...the filter holder (foundation kit), starter kits, and most of the key ND/GND filters seem to be in stock at most of the key providers (B&H, Adorama, etc.) The more specialized items, like polarizers, the Big Stopper, etc. are currently out of stock at most places. It is kind of a hit and miss game with Lee...sometimes there are weeks where trying to get any one of their ND filters is impossible, and it takes weeks more for the product to arrive in stock, after which it tends to sell out VERY quickly. Sometimes its really hard to find adapter rings or kit parts, dashing your plans to expand the filter holder from 3 to 4 filter slots. Many of Lee's filters regularly require 7-14 day shipping periods, and usually ship directly from Lee (which I believe is based in Europe...so US customers tend to pay more for shipping and have to wait even longer.) The supply problems have really been the only negative aspect of owning the Lee filter system. I could care less about the price most of the time, if I could just get a hold of the filters I need (I've been trying to get my hands on the 10-stop Big Stopper ND filter for far beyond too long now...and despite the fact that its mostly my fault for not getting on the ball when I'm notified of it being in stock, its still kind of annoying.)

So, while I highly recommend Lee's filter foundation, it can be a bit of an ordeal outfitting yourself with a decent kit. As an example, here is my landscape kit and roughly what it cost:

 Item              | Quantity | Price 
 ---------------------------------- 
 Foundation Kit    |    2     | $165  (one as starter kit)  
 Tandem Adapter    |    1     |  $28 
 Adapter Ring 72mm |    1     |  $52  
 Adapter Ring 77mm |    1     |  $60  
 Adapter Ring 82mm |    1     |  $64  
 GND Soft .3/.6/.9 |    1     | $175  
 GND Hard .3/.6/.9 |    1     | $175  
 GND Blender .3    |    1     | $100  
 GND Hard .6       |    1     |   $0  (part of starter kit)  
 ND 0.3 Glass      |    1     | $170  
 ND 0.6 Glass      |    1     |   $0  (part of starter kit)  
 CPL Glass         |    1     | $300
 Accessories       |    N     | ~$30  (alternate screw lengths, holders, shims, slide guides, etc.)
 -----------------------------------
                      Total:   $1319
    Rough cost per purchase:   ~$100
            Time to acquire: 2 years

I am still missing a couple key filters as well, including a Solid ND 0.9, and the 10-stop ND "Big Stopper" (which always seem to be on backorder, out of stock, etc.) Tack those on, and the total price is up to about $1500 for a full "Landscape Photographers Godly Filter Kit w/ Epic 10-Stop ND". ;)

Seems really expensive, although it breaks down to about $63 a month savings, and you really don't have the option to buy it all at once anyway given supply quirks. In the end, once you have the filters and kit parts you need...it should literally last forever. You can adapt the kit to work with pretty much any lens from 105mm filter thread down to 30mm filter thread, probably even smaller than that if you really wanted to. If you really wanted your own vari-ND filter, you could grab the $300 CPL and $150 LPL glass filters (VERY nice, HIGH quality), and have something just as good as if not better than the much-vaunted Singh-Ray VaryND, and usable on every lens you now- or might-possibly-one-day own, regardless of angle of view (excluding any specialty lenses that don't support filters to start with, like say Canon's TS-E 17mm or a fisheye.)

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You probably meant lenses that don't support front filters won't take Lees - I suspect lenses accepting only drop-in (e.g. Sigma 300-800 f/5.6 and other superteles) or screw-in-the-back (e.g. Zenitar 16) filters are not compatible. –  Imre Feb 7 '12 at 20:34
    
B+W make a 10-stop filter too. –  James Youngman Apr 9 '12 at 23:39

You might also want to consider the operational options when choosing between round screw-in or square: if you shoot a lot in very cold areas (probably not in California, but hey, you never know!), you may have trouble removing a round screw-in filter if you want a different effect. On the other hand, a square filter provides less lens protection in a harsh environment.

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Do you use more than one filter size?

To me, that's the biggest reason for going with systems like Cokin P. I have numerous lenses, and they each have their own filter size. I would go broke trying to duplicate all my filters for all my lenses!

Or, a different way of looking at it is that if you get a new lens that has a different filter size, for the cost of one adaptor ring, you get all your old filters for free!

I tend to leave the adaptor ring on the lens at all times, switching the filter holder as I switch lenses. Of course, this is cumbersome compared to just switching lenses, but chances are that when I switch lenses, I want to be using the same filter that I was just using on the other lens, so it's actually less cumbersome than switching lenses and finding and attaching (and paying for) the other filter.

Finally, if you're handy and like to hack around, the square system is much easier to attach things to. I like to play around with front attachments, like arbitrary magnifying lenses, sometimes mounted at an angle, or shooting through hunks of stained glass or old "ripply" glass. I even mounted a round fluorescent tube to use as a ring-light!

So to me, it all comes down to having more than one lens and more than one size filter thread.

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