The Best Circular Polarizing Filter For The Money Is…

This is the next in my series of filter reviews.  I have spent the past few months REALLY getting to know the ups and downs of the various filters that have been provided by a number of great manufacturers.   If you are considering the purchase of some filters, please consider checking out some of my other reviews:

ND Filters 101

30 ND Filter Review

GND Filters & Holder Systems

For the Circular Polarizing Filter review, I received six submissions from four different companies,  The price below was found on either Amazon or Adorama for each product.

Manfrotto:

Essential CPL 82mm $70

Essential CPL 77mm $65

Advanced CPL 77mm $90

Professional CPL 77mm $132

Breakthrough Photography x4 CPL $149

NiSi Pro Nano 147 CPL $95 ($88 on sale at time of publication)

Lee 105mm Landscape Polarizer $335 w/ mount ($270 without the mount)

How I Tested the Filters

To test CPL filters was probably the most challenging of all of my filter tests.  The problem is, with a CPL, there is a human adjustment involved every single time, as you rotate the polarizing filter to it's relative position to the source of reflected light.  My first photo was a control shot.  This includes no filter at all.  I used f/6.3 and a shutter speed of 1/400.  There was a decent amount of wind, so I wanted enough speed to try to minimize leaves blowing in the wind, but the real detail that I am looking for is in the larger branches.  I used live view, and zoomed all the way in on the large tree to the right of the goal post.  I re-aquired focus with each image.  All of the test photos use f/6.3 and 1/400.  In order to accommodate for the difference in light entering the camera, I adjusted ISO.  The original reference photo is ISO 200, and the highest I had to go was 800.  Most of them required a 500 ISO.  I'll list the EDIF information for each of the test photos as a caption.

ISO 200, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

ISO 200, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

Manfrotto

I was provided four filters by Manfrotto for the article, but ultimately I ended up just using the three.  Originally I had planned to use a 77mm filter, and also an 82 (on a 16-35 lens.)  As it turned out, only one 82mm filter was sent, so just in terms of simplicity and fairness and common sense, I'll just be comparing the 77mm.  (and of course Lee is larger, due to the drop-in filter system.)

Manfrotto sent what amounts to a “good, better, best” series.  They have an “Essential,” “Advanced” and “Professional” tier filter.  The prices run $65, $90 and $132 respectively, so there is quite a bump up from filter to filter.  The spot that I am going to call your attention to in each sample image is actually the tree branches just inside the goal post.  The Manfrotto filters all look quite similar.  If I were looking to buy a budget CPL, I wouldn't have any problem having the Manfrotto Essential in my bag.  The other two really didn't perform far enough ahead of the Essential level to pique my interest.  Here are the three sample shots:

Manfrotto Essential CPL ISO 800, 70mm, f/6.3 1/400 sec

Manfrotto Essential CPL
ISO 800, 70mm, f/6.3 1/400 sec

Manfrotto Advanced CPL ISO 640, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

Manfrotto Advanced CPL
ISO 640, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

Manfrotto Professional CPL ISO 500, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

Manfrotto Professional CPL
ISO 500, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

Breakthrough Photography X4 CPL

The Breakthrough Photography x4 CPL is the newest addition to the Breakthrough lineup.  This is an absolutely phenomenal Polarizing filter.  This San Francisco-based company is producing the most innovative, technologically advanced filters on the market today!  What I was very surprised by was the price of this filter.  Coming in at only $150.00, it's just slightly more expensive than the other competitors in the line-up, but this filter absolutely blew me away.

First, before even looking at the image quality it produces, you can sense the pride and excellence that goes into every aspect of this product.  Everything from the packaging, to the superb quality carrying case, to the microfiber cleaning cloth that comes with each filter.  There is also the feel of the workmanship when you handle the brass traction frame.  Not to take anything away from the build quality, but the real nuts and bolts to this filter is an innovative new CPL film, called CrystalVision, is produced in Fremont, California.  The polarizing film is designed specifically for high quality optical performance, as opposed to the conventional CPL film that is used in most CPL filters.  As a result, the color neutrality is simply the best.  I was also particularly amazed by how much detail was brought out in the sample image.  It's somewhat harder to distinguish on a jpg that is adjusted for web publishing.  But inside of Lightroom, when zooming 1:1, the amount of sharpness and detail within the branches and leaves of the tree far surpass the others.

Breakthrough X4 CPL ISO 500, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

Breakthrough X4 CPL
ISO 500, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec

NiSi Nano 147 CPL

I have to say, before I even start writing about NiSi, that I was seriously debating just leaving this filter out of the review.  My last review included a NiSi filter, but there were major problems with some quality control and build issues.  As much as I was hesitant to go down that road again, NiSi had sent a CPL to be reviewed, and by all means, I do not want to leave this product out of the review, because they certainly did go to the expense and trouble of shipping some of their filters over here to the US for me to test and write about.  While my comments aren't 100% negative, I have a very similar problem with this filter as I did previously: there is a build issue.  The tolerance for the two pieces of metal that need to rotate in order for a CPL to work are simply too tight to be rotated appropriately.  At first, I thought it wouldn't rotate at all, but I could get it to spin – I just had to use all of the force I could exert, in order to make the metal frame rotate.  Clearly this is not how CPL filters work.  I have owned many, and shot/tested many, many more, and I have never seen one that couldn't be spun to adjust with relative ease.

So putting that build issue aside, the photo quality itself is not objectionable.  It is very much in line with the Manfrotto filter that is in the same price range.  I don't think NiSi quite has the build quality, nor the quality control, to be a reliable choice.  BUT, if I were at a store where they had the actual piece in stock, and I could carefully inspect it/test it before purchasing, I think it's completely possible to get a good copy of their filters.  The risky part is when you order something via mail order, and you happen to get a sub-standard copy of the filter, you then have to go about addressing it, and that would certainly take time and effort.

NiSi Nano 147 CPL ISO 500, 70mm, f/6.3 1/400 sec

NiSi Nano 147 CPL
ISO 500, 70mm, f/6.3 1/400 sec

Lee 105mm Landscape Polarizer

I was supposed to have some competition for a holder system polarizer!  I was expecting submissions from both Vu and NiSi, but neither product ever showed up.  So in one sense, Lee is somewhat in a category all on their own for this review.  As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, I really believe that a drop-in filter system is aimed at an entirely different type of photographer than a threaded version.  Using Lee drop-in filters, and their holder system, requires an extra degree of “tinkering” that a photographer is either going to love, or hate.

I personally absolutely love the “retro” or “vintage” feel of working with Lee Filters.  I love working with GND filters, which definitely thrive as drop-ins.  And I also absolutely loved their 105mm CPL!  In terms of sharpness and detail, it performed tremendously well.  This is an absolutely phenomenal filter system, and a world-class CPL.

Final Choice

If looking for a threaded CPL, my hearty recommendation is to get yourself a Breakthrough Photography x4 CPL.  Yes, it's a notch more expensive than the budget or even ‘mid-tier' CPL filters, but it will knock your socks off!  You will have it, and hold it, from this day forward.

If looking for a drop-in filter system, and a CPL to go along with it, you simply cannot go wrong with Lee.  The clarity and image quality from that CPL was just fantastic.

 


About the Author

Mark Morris

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Mark lives and works in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. While not in Pennsylvania, there is a very good chance he is shooting in their adopted state of North Carolina. Mark lives with his wonderful wife Alexis, and their English Bulldog, Lily. Follow him on Instagram @markcmorrisphotography.

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