For anyone who is unfamiliar, a Graduated Neutral Density Filter (GND) is a filter that only darkens a portion of the field of view of your camera. The general purpose is to use the darkened portion of the filter to reduce the brightness of a very bright sky, while allowing your foreground to remain relatively much lighter.
It is very easy in Lightroom or Photoshop to create a graduated exposure filter, to do a similar function. So first and foremost: why use filters to accomplish what you can arguably do more easily in post-production? Personally, I have a number of reasons:
- The use of filters is a part of “getting it right in camera.” Now, that is not to say that there are no adjustments to be made in post-production, but in my opinion, the more that a photographer can accomplish in camera, the greater the possibilities for an end product.
- The process of selecting and using filters while creating an image can be a conscious part of a workflow that helps you SLOW DOWN. In my own progression as a photographer, I utilized filters extensively as a youngster, shooting film on my old Canon AE-1. As I moved into the digital domain, I moved away from them. Over the past several months, I have had a dramatic interest in creativity they unlock.
- Even the most advanced camera body is subject to the limitations of a wildly bright sky, and a relatively dark foreground. It just makes sense to correct for that. For me, the choice to apply filters while creating images is the way to go. Of course there are many that are much happier to do that in post-production, and that’s definitely another way to go!
I received three sets of GND filters, and their matching holders, for the purposes of this review. The manufacturers that will be represented here are:
Lee Filters (England) – .9 Medium GND and .9 Very Hard GND
NiSi Global (China) – IR Reverse Nano .9 and Soft IR Nano .9
Vu Filters (manufactured in China) – 1.5 & 2.5 Soft GND, 1.5 & 2 Hard GND
I noticed some fairly dramatic difference in the holder itself, so I am going to offer my thoughts on the holders first, then follow up with the samples and opinions regarding the 8 different filters I shot. In order to present these three as fairly as possible, I am going to discuss each in Alphabetical order, and then the conclusion will highlight which product(s) I would want in my camera bag for future shoots.
The Lee holder is a combination of plastic and metal. It comes with a pouch, screws for adding additional components, as well as the small screw driver needed to combine holders. You can stack multiple filter holders together, and then use one for a Circular Polarizer, or as the rotational device for applying more than one GND filter at a time. This allows a great amount of flexibility and control.
The filter holder adheres to the lens by something very similar to a “step-up” ring that one might be used to for using larger threaded filters. There is a small pull lever, which you use to release the holder from the ring. You could conceivably leave the ring mounted on a lens, if you are using the holder frequently, and in an instant, just slip the holder off and carry it in the canvas pouch that is provided
My only initial reservation or criticism of this holder is that the mechanism by which it adheres to the mounting ring allows for quite a bit of wobble. It isn’t going to fall off, but that bit of wobble made me feel paranoid while I was working with it. I felt anxious and wondered “is this thing mounted correctly? Should there be this much wiggle?” Ultimately the answer is yes… the nature of this design does allow some wiggling.
The other thing that I noticed after I compared with the other two holder systems. The base Lee holder system allows two filters to be slid into the holder. Since you can stack multiple holders, that’s not really a big deal, but the thing that caught my attention is that the spot in the track that narrows to secure the filter itself only has one “grip area” securing your filter. Both the NiSi and the Vu holders have a double grip on each side… an indentation that provides resistance at both the top and the bottom of the holder. Lee offers one source of pressure/resistance, right in the center. I definitely felt that the filters slid in and out of the holder much more smoothly with the Lee holder.
To recap the Lee, the biggest plus is the ease that filters move in/out of it. It works smoothly, and without needing an excessive amount of “tugging” and shoving.
The second holder I want to discuss is the NiSi v5 Filter Holder. The first thing I noticed about the NiSi is that it is slightly heavier than the Lee. This may or may not be a positive. My gut instinct when I first picked it up was that it is more solidly built. This is a great thing, right? It’s all aluminum, as opposed to a combination of metal and plastic. Then I got to thinking about it a bit further, and I am not complete certain that having extra weight out at the end of my lens is necessarily a desirable thing. I’m sure the lens mount on my 5D Mark III is easily capable of holding the extra weight of the heavier filter holder. This may just be me being a bit overly silly about a tiny detail. The fact is, the NiSI holder is built VERY solidly. It also allows 3 separate filters to be inserted, instead of two. This clearly allows more options in terms of how one could stack filters.
Now to my concerns with this holder: When I went to insert the first filter, I thought something was wrong. It wouldn't go into the track where it should have gone. There was so much resistance, that I took the holder off the camera, and tried it in my hands, because I didn't want to apply that much pressure while it was mounted to my lens and camera. I kept adding more pressure, and eventually the filter did slide into place. I am not at all comfortable with how hard I had to ‘shove' the filter, in order to get it into position. I think there is some serious work to be done here.
Would I use this holder? Absolutely yes. I would be very careful with it, and I think I would get in the habit of taking it off the lens to slide the filters into it. This might not be a bad idea – why take even a slight risk with your camera/lens setup on your tripod. But… I mounted Lee filters repeatedly on the camera, and I was absolutely fine doing that while mounted on my lens.
The third and final holder that I used was the Vu VFH Professional Filter Holder. This is also full metal construction, and of the three, this one is hands down, my winner. Here are the reasons why:
- The filter holder design allows you to have a Circular Polarizing filter mounted, in addition to up to three rectangular or square ND/GND filters.
- The polarizing filter can be rotated by a little grip ring in the back of the holder, while everything else is mounted.
- There are two sturdy thumb screws that affix the holder to the threaded ring that attaches to your lens. (both a 77mm and an 82mm are provided with the holder kit, and other size rings are available at a nominal cost if you need to accommodate other sizes.)
- There is a foam seal around the edges of this holder to prevent light from bleeding in from the sides. This is a great design feature.
- NO wobble. This filter affixes and feels absolutely rock solid on the lens.
- There are grips at both the top and bottom, as I described with the NiSi holder, but they didn't exert so much pressure as to make it hard to slide filters into the mechanism.
For the holder portion of this review, I would rate the Vu as a strong #1 preference, followed by the Lee, and lastly the NiSi. I think the NiSi is exceptionally solid, but it should not be hard to slide filters in and out of a holder. The more the filters provide ‘resistance' to being mounted, the more there is the chance of some sort of problem. Any of the three will do the job, but honestly, when I mounted the Vu holder, and felt how solidly it was adhered, and then how smoothly the filters mounted/dismounted, I became a fan!
Now on to the GND filters themselves:
All three of the filters are shipped in very nice carrying pouches. They each have a nice protective holding case for storage. The Lee filters come in a lined canvas pouch. A special touch, which I appreciate very much is that the pouch has a window which contains a printed card that identifies the filter. This is especially handy if you intend to grow a fairly substantial library of filters. Having a means of identification outside the pouch is a very helpful touch.
Unfiltered Reference Photo
First of all, a bit of an apology for the mundane content of the photos. Originally I had intended to shoot these filters at a beautiful pier/beach setting in North Carolina where I spend a lot of weekends. I live in Pennsylvania, and the weekend that I was going to travel down for the test shots, I had a memorial service for a student of mine, and sometimes life hands you a situation where you prioritize something ahead of a publishing deadline. This was one of those circumstances. So instead, these shots are all shot at a small football field behind the school where I teach. Not exactly striking visually, but the sky was very bright, and so it presented me with an opportunity to test the filters.
- ISO 100
- 16-35 mm lens, set at 22mm
- In-camera light meter used to expose the frame to dead center on the exposure meter
I switched from no filter, through the Lee filters, NiSi filters, and then the Vu filters, all within just a couple of minutes. Each time, I adjusted the shutter speed in order to reset the metering to exactly “center” on the grid.
Here is the reference photo, with no filter. (Obviously none of these photos have been edited at all.)
Lee’s filters are clearly made to absolutely astounding manufacturing standards. Here again – as I mentioned with the Vu holder system… you just get the sense that you are working with “the good stuff. The folks at Lee Filters sent me two different filters to use, with two different use cases. The medium GND filter is what you would generally use for something like this shot, where there are some items extending up above the horizon (buildings or trees, or whatever.) The second filter I shot was a Very Hard grad. That filter has a very distinct and defined “line” between the dark and the clear sections. In essence, the change is less gradual, the harder the filter is. I can't wait to get this very hard filter to a sea shore, where the horizon line is completely straight. If you were shooting something at the beach where your subject and the sand and ocean are all in the lower portion of the frame, and then the sky is a straight line at some point in your shot, it would be PERFECT for this filter. A big piece of using these filters successfully is getting to know the best use case for each one, and having the knowledge base of when to apply the various types.
The Lee filters are a traditional resin style GND. As you can see in both of the examples below, the Lee filters performed wonderfully. The darker trees are my fault as the photographer, what I really want to draw your attention to is the darkening and enriching qualities of the sky and clouds. To my esthetic, the added drama of the richer sky is a huge plus.
As you can see in the two photos above, I lined up the “dividing line” between clear and dark to include the part of the sky that dips down lowest. The result is the trees are a bit darker than one would want. In real life use-case, this is the wrong filter for this type of job. The medium filter is absolutely perfect for this task! This is absolutely 100% not Lee's fault – this is simply the limitations that I had given my adjusted testing schedule. But I want to write a bit more about the Medium GND. As it states, the Medium graduation makes it very good in handling the horizon line that would contain some things ‘sticking up.' Buildings, trees, or anything else that would be sticking up above the horizon line is handled incredibly well by the Medium GND.
And for the Very Hard GND… I can't wait to take this to the beach!!! Honestly, what I really want to try to do is some stacking, using one GND for the majority of the sky – perhaps a medium or even a soft, and then double up and use another Very Hard filter lined up precisely with the horizon. This would look breathtaking, I'm sure.
These two filters were FANTASTIC! You can see how much the exposure adjustment from the ND adjusted sky enriches the photo.
Relative newcomer NiSi provided their Reverse Nano IR .9 and their Soft Nano IR .9 for review. These are nano coated glass filters. This is my second shipment of NiSi filters. The first set of filters I was provided were for my ND article from a few weeks back. As I mentioned in that article, the filters were dropped from a slight height (a few feet.) They were inside the holding case that was provided by NiSi. Both of those filters shattered inside the case. I used the two filters provided by NiSi exactly ONE time each. The test photos you see below. Either during manufacture, or during the single use of this filter, there is nearly 1/2 inch scratch right in the center area of one of the two filters. I would be the first one to admit if I had done ANYTHING that could have possibly caused this. It either shipped that way, or it was done in the process of unwrapping it. I didn't bump it, tap it, jostle it… What I'm saying is that there is NO WAY this filter could/should possibly have a big scratch on it. But it does.
As you can probably tell, I will not be planning to purchase any additional NiSi filters for a while. They are available at a great price point, but not so cheap that you want to replace them after a single use.
As for the photos:
My verdict on the soft Nano is that it did a decent enough job, and the soft GND was the better option for this use case. However, the color does seem to be warmed significantly when compared against the control photo. And then we have the Reverse Nano. The darkening on the sky is clearly very dramatic here, and in the right kind of setting, it could be an interesting effect. I am suggesting that you ignore the tree line where you can see the ‘line' where the GND takes over. This again is a use case situation, which would actually not be a problem if it was a beach photo with a dramatic sky.
While I'm not overwhelmed by the color/performance of these filters, I am extremely concerned about their durability. Either their nano coating isn't adhering to the glass, or there is a quality control issue, or perhaps I just got very unlucky, and somehow got a scratched copy of the filter.
Vu Sion Filters
The Vu filters are a coated optical glass, and kudos to them – none of them are scratched! This is a good thing for a set of brand new filters. The first thing that I noticed when unwrapping the filters is that they come in a great soft felt case. The thing that I liked about this felt case is that it gave me a perfect surface to set the filter on while it was not in the holder. This really has nothing to do with the performance of the filter at all, but it's a really nice touch. I don't think the felt pouch would necessarily provide a lot of protection against any serious bumping around/backpacking, etc., so I actually opted to keep them in the cardboard cases for transport to my test shoot. That's a bit silly, and I would need to find some sort of pouch/carrier that I would feel safe keeping in my camera bag.
Let's take a look at the four sample photos:
When Looking through these four photos, I definitely see a warmer look in the two soft filters, in comparison to the two hard filters. An interesting thing, to be sure, but all four are certainly well within an acceptable range. I really feel the filters perform exceptionally well with the darkening of the sky, which is the primary objective here. The soft filters are more appropriate for this particular use, and again, I would ask the viewer to ignore the shortcomings of the hard filters in the over-darkening of the trees. I wouldn't normally chose to use hard filters here – use the soft. But when you look at the quality of the sky above the trees – it's all good.
And the winner is…
The agonizing decision here comes down to Lee vs. Vu Sion. I have no problem recommending or supporting either the Vu Sion filter OR the Lee filter. NiSi is out of the running. In fact, these filters are interchangeable with holder systems, so you do not need to adhere to only one of the manufactures. If you are willing to sink some funds into a great starter set-up, here is my advice:
Lee .9 Medium (3 stop)
Lee .9 Very Hard (3 stop)
That is a phenomenal starting setup, and from there you will want to gradually add depending upon your style of shooting.
One More Important Thing…
After publishing this article, I headed out to shoot with the Vu holder, and a combination of Lee and Vu filters. I discovered a compatibility issue with the regular ND filters (not the GND) between Lee and Vu. The light sealer on the Vu holder lines up with the light sealer on the Lee holders, and so you can't use the LEE ND filter in the first slot of the Vu holder. This is a pretty substantial issue because that is the slot where you will most likely want to have a normal ND filters. So I am going to revise my suggestions ever so slightly. The GND filters are interchangeable from one brand of holder to another. The drop in ND filters may not be. If you intend to use ND filters (which you definitely should, if you are getting into a drop-in filter system,) then you will want your holder and ND filter brands to match. It's no big deal to get a different brand of GND to add into your arsenal of filters, but stay brand loyal with your ND drop in's. They might work – but they might not, and unless you have a great camera store where you can go physically test the way in which they match up, it's probably simplest to keep the brand consistent.