Filters for digital Photography

Introduction

filter title hitech lee cokin system slot in screw polarzier nd gnd
Sony A7s with Loxia 21mm 2.8 and Hitech 67mm Filter System

In the film era a vast amount of filters was needed to alter the colours, the temperature or to add certain effects to the photos. In digital photography many of these filters have become pretty much useless as they can be recreated in post processing with the added bonus of more control over the effect without any disadvantages.
But there are also some useful filters which can’t be fully recreated in post processing and still have a place in digital photography and these are the ones I’m going to talk about.
Update 09/27/2016: at Photokina 2016 in Cologne I checked out all the big filter manufacturers and have updated some sections accordingly. I am also working closely with NiSi filters now – not just because I think their filters offer the best quality – but because they listen to their customers and I hope to be able to help them develope the first holder I find nothing to complain about 🙂

Polarizer

105mm Lee Polarizer, 77mm Hoya HD Polarizer. 100mm Lee Polarizer
105mm Sigma Polarizer, 77mm Hoya HD Polarizer. 100mm Lee Polarizer

The polarizer is by far the most powerful filter out there. It can affect polarized light in the ways of strengthen or weaken it. This may sound a little cryptic, but I will try to give some examples what that means in practice.

Reflections and the sky


Both shots were taken with the exact same camera settings and have undergone the same post processing, only the polarizer setting is different.

Reflections mainly consist of polarized light, so a polarzier has great effect on these. Furthermore you may also change the appearance of the sky by using this filter. Polarizers only work (well) at certain angles, so standing directly in front of a shop window you will have a hard time eliminating any reflections. Stay there about 30° to the window and you may be better off. Rainbows also consist of polarized light, so you can either emphasize or eliminate them.
With ultra wide angle lenses you may also run into some problems as the field of view of these lenses is so great that the polarzier might show different effects in different parts of the image.

Wet foliage

The ability to eliminate the reflections on wet foliage and rocks is invaluable for me in nature and landscape photography. Without the reflections photos look way more saturated and clean.

In this photo I used the polarzier to eliminate the reflections of light on the wet rocks and also the reflections on the water, so the stones beneath surfaced and made the photo way more interesting:

sony a7s filter voigtländer 12mm 5.6 polarizer polfilter waterfall
A7 | Voigtländer Ultra Wide Heliar 5.6/12 | f/11 |full resolution

You shouldn’t chimp on a polarizer. As the good ones are quite expensive it may be a good idea to buy one for the lens with the biggest filter diameter and use in on the other lenses with step-up rings. I can recommend the Hoya HD Polarizers*, which I have used for many years now.
Update: There are also manufactures like NiSi or Singh-Ray now offering “Landscape” or “Warming” polarizers, which have some additional effects on certain colors. I will try to get my hands on one of these and post a comparison here as soon as possible.

Neutral Density Filters (ND)

6-Stop Firecrest ND, 0.9 GND Hard Edge, 0.9 GND Soft Edge lee hitech
6-Stop Firecrest ND, 0.9 GND Hard Edge, 0.9 GND Soft Edge

Neutral density filters give the ability to use longer exposure times during daylight. This is effective for shooting waterfalls which will turn into mist or clouds to create the impression of movement in the sky. These filters come in different intensities ranging from 0.3 Stops to 15 Stops and even more. The most common I use are 6 and 10 stop ND filters.
Update: almost every manufacturer is now also offering stronger ND filters:  Lee a “Super Stopper” 15-stop ND* filter (exposure time x32.000), Hitech the Firecrest 13* (x8.000) and 16-Stop* (x64.000) ND filters  and NiSi a 15-stop* and the “Black Hole” 20-stop ND* filter, the latter increasing your exposure time by the whopping factor of 1.000.000 (2^20) which will only be useful in real bright environments, as a 1 second exposure will become a 12 day(!) exposure. It can be used to shoot landscapes wide open with a long exposure time under very sunny circumstances though.
Strong ND filters can also have a strong colour cast. When it comes to 10-Stop ND filters I have thoroughly used myself the Lee Big Stopper (100mm), the Hitech Firecrest 10-Stop ND Filter (67mm) and the NiSi 10-Stop Nano-coated ND Filter (70mm) which are all made of optical glass, not resin. The Lee filter has a very strong blue cast, which can be corrected in post, but your images will look very blue on the camera display. The NiSi and the Hitech filters show almost no color cast but the Hitech filter unfortunately lacks a foaming to prevent straylight getting in between holder and filter (this seems to be only true for the 67mm system thoug, the 100mm Hitech Firecrest series seems to feature such foaming).
*affiliate links

For the following shot I used a 10 Stop ND filter (the Lee Big Stopper*) which leads to a 1000 (2^10=1024) times longer exposure:

Nowadays you can also buy so called “Vario ND Filters” where you can change the density. This sounds like a good idea at first sight but I would strongly advise to avoid these things (except for maybe filming). They consist of two contorted polarizers so you might encounter the effect of a polarizer which you can’t control (and may not even want) and setting a distinct density value is next to impossible.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters (GND)

These filters have a gradient and come in the types of Soft Edge, Hard Edge and Reverse and also have different densities. Even with the high dynamic range of modern cameras sometimes a GND filter makes sense, just take a look at the title photo with the blown out sky.
In the following example I first took a shot without a GND, the sky is blown out in many areas. To balance the exposure I used a 3 Stop (0.9) Soft Edge GND filter:

For starters I would recommend getting a 0.9 Hard Edge and a 0.9 Soft Edge GND filter*. This gives you quite a lot of options without spending much money on not needed filters. Especially stay away from sets which include 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 GND filters. The 0.3 is utterly useless, you can correct these small amounts in post.

Slot-in filters or Screw-in filters?

Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 with Lee 100mm Adapterring and Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 with Hitech 67mm Adapterring
Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 with Lee 100mm Adapterring and Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 with Hitech 67mm Adapterring

Most common are the screw in filters. For polarizers and ND filters these work quite ok, in case you want to use GND filters better invest in a slot-in filtersystem, as you want to be able to move the horizontal line with these.
A few years ago slot-in filtersystem were really quite expensive, luckily there are some more (decent) manufacturers now so you have more options than I did. You also need adapterrings for mounting the filtersystem first. These rings have to fit your lenses’ filter diameter.
So in case you are interested in a slot-in filtersystems read on.

Which is the right size for a Slot-in filter system?

Lee 100mm Filter Holder and Hitech 67mm Filter Holder
Lee 100mm Filter Holder and Hitech 67mm Filter Holder

First you have to decide which size is the right one for you and your lenses, as these slot-in filter systems come in different sizes:
67 mm (Hitech, Cokin A)
70 mm (NiSi)
75 mm (Lee Seven5, Haida 75mm)
85 mm (Hitech, Cokin P)
100 mm (Lee 100mm, NiSi 100mm, Hitech, Cokin Z, Haida, Singh-Ray)
145 mm (Fotodiox Wonderpana)
150 mm (Lee SW150, Haida, NiSi 150mm)
165 mm (Hitech Lucroit)
180 mm (NiSi, to use Canons 11-24mm 4.0L at 11mm without vignetting)
There are probably some more and of course I haven’t used all of them myself (but seen many while holding workshops).

In case you want to use filters with lenses like the Nikon 14-24mm 2.8G, Samyang 14mm 2.8 and Tamron 15-30mm 2.8 you need 145 mm or more. To use Canons 11-24mm 4.0L black cornes due to the filter holder you even need a huge 180mm syste.
For other full frame lenses (including something like a 16-35mm 4.0) a 100 mm system will suffice.
In case you don’t need filters for your ultra wide angle lenses or you are using smaller lenses like the Zeiss Loxias oder Leica-M lenses even one of the smaller systems will do the job.

Are there any other differences?

Lee 100mm Filter Holder with GND and 105mm Polarizer and Hitech 67mm Filter Holder with GND and 77mm Polarizer
Lee 100mm Filter Holder with GND and 105mm Polarizer and Hitech 67mm Filter Holder with GND and 77mm Polarizer

One of the major differences is the incorporation of the polarizer. With the Lee System you can either buy a 100 mm slot-in polarizer or mount an 105mm polarizer in front of the slot-in filters. Both options have their pro’s and con’s:
The slot-in polarizer can even be used with some 12-16mm lenses without vignetting issues but you can’t turn GND filters and the polarizer independently. With a polarizer up front you can do that but will probably encounter black corners due to vignetting with lenses wider than 21-24mm.

nisi lee haide hitech filter polarizer
Left: Hitech 67mm System with polarizer on top | Right: NiSi 70mm System with polarizer between lens and square filters and little wheel to rotate polarizer

The NiSi V5 100mm and the 70mm system as well as the overhauled Haida 100mm System all incorporate a very slim polarizer between the lens and the slot-in filters. Both manufacturers implemented a little wheel to turn the polarizer even when mounted alongside square filters.
Hitech now uses a similar mechanism in their new 100mm Firecrest holder, but I found it to consist of too many, mostly plastic parts.

There are also differences when it comes to the quality of the filters. Resin scrachtes more easily than glass but is less prone to break.
When it comes to GND filters there are solid-colored filters and filters with just a very thin dark surface. If the latter caught a scratch it becomes pretty much useless.

The Cokin filters often show nasty color shifting which is not even across the spectrum so can’t easily be corrected.
The Hitech filters (epecially the newer Firecrest series) are usually quite good, but combining 2 or more GND filters may lead to color shifts as well.
Update: I found that with my 67mm Resin Hitech GND I get nasty green color shifts in the corners when used on the Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 (might happen on other wideangle lenses, too). The Hitech Firecrest GND made of optical glass don’t show this behaviour, but all seem to be one stop weaker than stated (many amazon reviews claimed it, nevertheless I bought a 0.9 GND which was in fact merely a measured 0.6 GND), this is one of the reasons I am now using the NiSi 70mm system personally.
Lee and Singh Ray are pretty good but also pretty expensive.
Haida filters have great value when it comes to ND filters but I have no experience with GND filters from this manufacturer.

What’s in my bag?

Mindshiftgear Filter Nest Mini and FIlter Hive
Mindshiftgear Filter Nest Mini and FIlter Hive

For my Nikon full frame DSLR lenses I was using the Lee 100mm System* which consists of a 105mm screw-in polarizer*, a 100mm Lee slot-in polarizer*, a 10-stop ND filter (Lee Big Stopper)*, a Lee 0.9 GND Soft Edge*, a Lee 0.9 GND Hard edge* as well as an 0.6 Reverse GND by Hitech* (which I rarely ever used) all stored in the MindShift Gear Filter Hive*. As of today I might go for the NiSi V5 Holder* or the Haida Holder* (which both offer a rotatable slim polarizer between lens and square filters) instead of the Lee Holder.

Update:
For my A7 cameras I was using the
67mm Hitech Holder*, a 77mm Hoya HD Polarizer*, a 6-stop Firecrest glass ND, and a 0.9 Soft Edge GND* as well as a 0.9 Hard Edge GND* which fits all together in the great Mindshift Gear Filter Nest Mini*.
(see reasons above why I am not using this setup anymore)

For my A7 cameras I am now using the 70mm NiSi holder* (which already includes a polarizer), 6-stop and 10-stop* nano-coated NiSi ND filters and my beloved 0.9 Soft Edge GND* as well as 0.9 Hard Edge GND*. To have some more space I also settled for the Lee Seven5 Pouch*.
With this setup I can use a polarizer in conjuction with a GND and ND with the Loxia 21/35 (if you turn the holder by ~45° you may get dark corners on the 21mm) as well as the Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 and the Leica 90mm 2.0(M)/180mm 4.0(R).
*affiliate links

For the Voigtlander 10mm 5.6 I now also have a lens specific 150mm holder (see review for more information). Due to it’s big size it is not something I carry around all the time, yet can yield astonishing results:

voigtlander 10mm 5.6 filter nisi 150mm
Sony A7rII | Voigtlander 10mm 5.6 | f/11 | Lens specific filter holder with 150mm polarizer (NiSi) | higher resolution

Sample images

Here you can find some of my photos where I used filters on flickr.

About me

My name is Bastian and for many years I have been mostly shooting Nikon DSLRs. As of today I have made my transition from Nikon to Sony and I am mainly using small but capable manual lenses.
My passion is landscape photography but I also like to delve into other subjects from time to time. You may follow me or take a look at my flickr-account http://www.flickr.com/bastian_k or visit my homepage http://www.fotoworkshop-bw.de  (only available in German).

Further Reading

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My name is Bastian and for many years I have been mostly shooting Nikon DSLRs. As of today I have made my transition from Nikon to Sony and I am mainly using small but capable manual lenses. My passion is landscape photography but I also like to delve into other subjects from time to time.

Latest posts by BastianK (see all)

18 thoughts on “Filters for digital Photography”

  1. Hi Bastian,

    Really nice article! I was looking into square filters as well.

    Do you have more info how the 67mm set performs on your loxia 21mm? Any vignetting (when using the polarizer), color casts or sharpness reduction? Formatt hitech seems like a great manufacturer when it comes to price/quality, though I’m not sure if i I need a more high-end set of 100mm glass filters over the 67mm resin ones. I don’t plan to use it with lenses wider than the loxia.

    1. Dear CĂ©dric,
      because of your question (and after I have seen some color casts due to filters on my recent trip) I decided to furher investigate this, which I did today.

      There is no additional vignetting (like black corners) when using the Hitech 67mm filter holder even with a Hoya HD Polarizer mounted up front (I actually had a hard time believing that myself 🙂 )
      The polarizer does not introduce (noticeable) reduction of sharpness or color cast.
      The graduated ND filters (as written above I have a 0.9 Soft Edge and a 0.9 Hard Edge manufactured by Hitech) are introducing some green color cast on the borders, a little more on the A7s than on the A7rII.
      I also tested my 100mm graduated ND Lee filters in comparison then, which also lead to green color cast on the borders to a similar degree.

      So guided by this comparison I see no reason to use or buy more expensive and bulkier 100mm filters for the 21mm Loxia.

      I hope I could help!

      Bastian

  2. Hi, I like the article. I’ve recently bought a hitech square filter system and the first time I put it on I realized that the lens caps don’t fit. Do you have a solution for that?
    Many thanks in advance,
    Flo

  3. Another type of filter is the didymium based ones like the Hoya Red intensifier. You can’t replicate this effect in photoshop because it removes very specific frequencies (mostly yellow) from the picture and once its on the sensor its impossible to differentiate between red and green combined yellow and pure spectrum yellow. It make greens greener and reds redder without affecting blue. However it will make skys bluer (as it removes the yellow haze from pollution) and can remove the orange light of low pressure sodium lamps from night photos. As a bonus it also corrects the yellow cast on incadecent lighting. Amazing once you’ve seen it work.

  4. Hi, how are you?
    I saw your review and buy the lens Zeiss 16-35 f / 4, I would now like to buy at least one filter for this lens.
    Which one would you recommend? ND wanted one for daytime photography and quisas a polarized filter

        1. As written above I would not recommend buying any of these.
          For clouds to blur you also need a very strong (10-Stop) ND filter, the variable ND filters are not that strong.

  5. Hi Bastien,

    Excellent article!!
    I’m looking a filter system for the samyang 12mm (for aps-c) with sony a6000 and this 67mm system is so tempting. The problem is that I can’t find if there is problem with vignetting.
    Any suggestion?

    1. Dear Alex,
      A 67mm System will be to small for your lens.
      67mm means here the filters have a width of 67mm, the maximum diameter you can use with this system is 62mm.
      You might want to try the Lee Seven5 System, they are not much bigger but compatible to diameters up to 72mm.
      As the 12mm 2.0 is a very wide lens you might even need an 85mm System (like Formatt-Hitech).

      1. Thanks for the answer Bastian!!
        I believe hitech 85mm system it’s safer solution (the bad is double the price of the 67mm system). I see also the nisi 70mm system, but its for lenses with a maximum thread of 58mm.
        You mention at “Photokina Highlights” about haida 75mm system. Any info about this system?

  6. Hi Bastian,
    thanks for your informative article. I’m going to buy a filter system for my trip to Italy in the summer. I’d really like to know more about the performance of Haida 100x150mm (Pro II MC) filters compared to the others you’ve already tested. From what I’ve gathered so far, they seem to be among the best you can buy and that at a fairly low pricepoint (it pains me to write low, though).
    Is there any chance you will be able to test those in the near future? Maybe even compare the “old” to the new improved “2016” version? Also interesting seem to be the Rollei Filters (if they are not the same as the Haida – both introduced fairly late into the market, both made from Schott glass), but they are a little more expensive.

    A few more general questions:
    For starters I would get a GND 0.9 (soft) and a Reverse GND 1.2 (hard) plus the filter holder and the polarizer. In your opinion: Is that enough to cover most situations?
    I have a good polarizer screw on filter and also a few ND srew ons. Would you recommend to replace those by the equivalent filters of a square system or will that not be worth it. I suspect it to be quite time consuming to handle both types of filters at the same time. Also vignetting will very likely be a problem if you stack the polarizer and ND screw on plus the 0.9 GND. Possible color shift problems, I suppose will occur with either system if you stack too many filters.
    Thanks in advance, Rolf

    1. Dear Rolf,
      I haven’t tried the new Haida filters, only their holder at Photokina and I didn’t like it very much (final production model might be better though).
      I would not buy the Rollei holder / filters. The holders are blatant copies of the NiSi products and I also compared the polarizers of both their 100mm Systems; the Rollei filter had huge problems with reflections and glare, the NiSi didn’t show.
      If you mostly live/shoot by the sea: get the Reverse GND.
      Otherwise I think a combination of 0.9 GND Soft and Hard ist most flexible.
      I don’t like the handling of step up rings so I would try replacing the screw in filters.
      Otherwise there is a huge likelihood you will be unable to unscrew the polarizer from the adapter ring some day, happens during my workshops all the time.

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