August 16, 2013
Although I like HDR as much as the next guy, I still use graduated neutral density (Grad ND) filters often. In the right situations, Grad ND filters give a more natural look and require less software processing once the file is downloaded. I also use straight ND filters to adjust shutter speed when necessary (smooth water, etc.).
For many years, I have been using the Singh-Ray ND filters in the Cokin P format (84mm x 120mm). I’ve got the Galen Rowell ND Grad filters in 2 and 3 stop versions with both hard and soft grad. They work well with my Nikon D200 as well as my Olympus OM-D. I also have the 4-stop ND filter. Admittedly, they are a bit large for the micro four-thirds format, but they do work. Although they are sold as neutral density filters, I find that the Singh-Ray filters give a slightly warm cast to the image. Since I use these filters mostly for landscape photos, this is not much of an issue. The warm cast is slight and generally pleasant for these applications.
Although I have a four-stop ND Singh-Ray filter, I have wanted a 10-stop filter for some time. The Lee Big Stopper was the only game in town for quite a while in modular format, but now Singh-Ray also offers a 10-stop filter (more on that later). Unfortunately Lee does not offer the Big Stopper in the Cokin P format. Until recently, the offerings meant I would either need to convert to a larger system (100mm wide) or carry two systems (Cokin P and 100mm) with their attendant adapters, holders, etc. Enter the Lee Seven5 system…
The Lee Seven5 filters are smaller (75mm x 75mm) and designed to work with newer mirrorless cameras. The adapters and holders are well constructed and the adapter rings are available in the smaller diameters (e.g. 49mm and 37mm) present on micro four-thirds lenses.
One current problem is with the distribution of Lee filters in the U.S. and elsewhere. The Lee Seven5 system is not widely available. You can get it from the major New York dealers, but you’ll probably have to sign up for the e-mail in-stock notification and wait several weeks. I had to wait almost 3 months for the polarizer to become available.
I use the system on an Olympus OM-D EM-5. One distinct advantage for the smaller (yet high quality) Seven5 filters is that they are cheaper than their larger competitors. For example, the 10-stop Big Stopper in Seven5 format is significantly less expensive than the Singh-Ray Mor-Slo filter in Cokin P format ($80 versus $400).
All the filters discussed here block the amount of light they promise. The real question concerns the neutrality of the filters. What kind of color cast do they introduce to the image? For example, the Big Stopper has been criticized for a significant blue shift.
To see for myself, I took a series of images using a color chart. You can’t really use flash to test this, so I did the test outside in the shade. I set a custom white balance on my Olympus OM-D and took a calibration image. Then I took a series of images using the various ND filters and the custom white balance set without a filter.
The resulting images are here:
I’m sure that there are ways to more carefully control for color calibration, but these shots present the relative performance of the filters. You can see from the results that the “neutrality” of the filters is not all it’s cracked up to be. The Lee Seven5 3-stop ND is pretty neutral, but the Singh-Ray 4-stop ND has a distinctly warm color cast. As predicted, the Big Stopper gives a distinctly blue rendition. One can see from this result, why so many of the images taken with this filter are presented in monochrome.
Just for curiosity, I then let the OM-D’s auto white balance take over with the Big Stopper. Here was the result:
The image still has a color cast, but it is a bit more natural.
If the light is changing rapidly (around dusk for example), a custom white balance might not be practical. After messing around with the settings, I found that setting AWB +5 on the OM-D gave me reasonable (but not perfect) results:
1) The Lee Seven5 intermediate filters (up to 3 stops) give a more neutral rendition than the Singh-Ray filters.
2) The Lee Seven5 Big Stopper gives a distinctly blue cast to the image that must be corrected either through the use of a custom white balance setting or post processing.
3) The Lee Seven5 filter holders and adapters are more solid feeling than the Cokin P holders and adapters.
4) The Lee Seven5 filters are significantly less expensive than the larger Singh-Ray filters in the Cokin P format. Examples:
Lee Seven5 Grad ND – $68 versus Singh-Ray ND Grad (Cokin P format) – $99
Lee Seven5 Big Stopper (10-Stop) – $80 versus Singh-Ray Mor-Slo (10-stop/Cokin P) – $400
Lee Seven5 1,2,3-stop Kit ($180) – $60 per filter when purchased together.
5) The Lee Seven5 filter does not vignette at 9mm with the Olympus 9-18mm wide angle lens.
6) The Lee Seven5 system includes an available circular polarizer. The polarizer is quite expensive ($240), but you only need one polarizer instead of many dedicated filters in various sizes.
7) I was able to autofocus with the Big Stopper filter on my Olympus OM-D.
For reference, both of the images from my blog post about Hanging Lake in Colorado were taken with the Lee Seven5 3-stop ND filter.
Although the Lee filters are difficult to find, availability for this relatively new product is improving. If you already have the Cokin P filters, it would probably be cheaper (but not by much) to spring for the $400 Singh-Ray 10-stop version rather than convert to the Seven5 system, depending on your collection. The Singh-Ray 10-stop filter in Cokin P format had not been introduced when I started my conversion, so the point was moot. Nevertheless, I’ve been very happy with the Seven5 system. It is just the right size for my m43 equipment. The filters fit perfectly in the Lowepro Filter Pocket.
If you are starting from scratch, or just like the Singh-Ray look, Singh-Ray has now introduced their Grad ND filters in a 75mm x 90mm format which will work with the Seven5 system. Unfortunately, the price is the same as the larger Cokin P format and there is no 10-stop Mor-Slo filter in this size. The Singh-Ray filters can be purchased from the Singh-Ray website.
You can purchase Lee Seven5 items from Amazon/Adorama with the links below: