When searching for an ultra wide angle lens for my full-frame Nikon DSLR, I had a few things on my wish list. First, I wanted the lens to have a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 so I could easily use the lens for Milky Way photography. Second, I wanted the widest focal length of the lens to be at least 16mm. Lastly, I wanted the lens to be able to accept screw-on filters so that I could use a polarizer for my daytime landscape shots. Unfortunately, a lens that fits each of these three parameters does not exist for my Nikon D750, so I settled on the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8, which is a fantastic, sharp lens. The only major “flaw” of the lens is that, because of its protruding front glass element, I need an external filter holder system in order to use a polarizer for my daytime photos. During my search for a system to make this possible, I tested out the Lee Filters SW150 Mark II filter holder system.
The SW150 Mark II is Lee’s second generation of filter holder for ultra wide angle lenses. At the time of this writing, the SW150 Mark II is available for the following lenses:
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8
Nikon 14mm f/2.8 AF ED
Canon EF 14mm f/2.8 L II USM
Canon 11-24mm f/4 L USM
Olympus 7-14mm Pro f/2.8
Pentax FA 15-30mm f/2.8 ED SDM WR
Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS IF UMC
Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 DG HSM II
Sigma 20mm f/1.4 HSM Art
Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 SP Di VC USD
Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f/2.8 PRO FX
The SW150 Mark II gives users of these lenses an option to apply the effects of a circular polarizing—one of the few effects that is difficult to recreate in post-processing—to their images.
The design of the SW150 Mark II filter system hinges on the task of fitting a series of metal rings (the front ring, compression ring, and locking ring) to your lens so that the filter holder itself can be attached. These rings are available to fit each of the lenses above and need to be selected based upon which lens you intend to use with the system with. Each ring is made from a sturdy aluminum alloy that fit snugly against the barrel of my Tamron 15-30mm once it was installed.
The actual SW150 Mark II filter holder consists of two additional pieces: a circular aluminum filter holder with slotted attachments on either side for holding the square filters in place, as well as a black rubber attachment which sits between the metal filter holder and the square filter to minimize light from leaking into the lens from between the filter and the front glass element. The filter holder attaches to the adapter rings by the simple hand-twisting of a screw knob, meaning that taking the filter holder on an off is a quick and easy process.
Overall, the design and quality of the pieces Lee uses are very solid. The front ring, compression ring, and locking ring each fit tightly to each other and to the barrel of my Tamron 15-30mm, and the filter holder itself feels equally solid.
The last and most obvious portion of the Lee setup, which is technically not part of the SW150 Mark II system, is the filter itself. The filter that I was most interested in using, the circular polarizer, is a 150mm by 150mm piece of glass (just about 6 inches by 6 inches), that slides into the filter holder. The slots in which the filter sits provide a nice amount of tension and friction to hold the filter in place, while not making the installation or removal process too difficult. Once installed, the filter holder can be rotated a full 360 degrees, meaning that, although the filter is square, it can be twisted to adapt to the current sun angle the same way that a circular-shaped filter can be. The filter also provides very nice tones and contrast with no noticeable color cast.
Ease of Use
Once the front ring, compression ring, and locking ring are attached to the lens, the SW150 Mark II filter system is very easy to use. Although the SW150 Mark II is obviously a much larger apparatus than a screw-on filter that might be used on a smaller lens, attaching the filter holder to the adapter rings takes only the simple twist of a screw knob, making the process about as easy as screwing on a standard circular filter. In fact, given that I can never seem to get a screw-on filter to thread properly on the first try, I may even say that the filter holder is even easier to work with.
The Lee system does take a bit of a hit with regard to ease of use when it comes to the adapter rings, however. Although they are described as being easy to install, I found that it took me a few tries and a few head scratches to get them installed properly, even with the illustration provided in the directions. Granted, I did try to install them on my lens after 6 hours of flying, 3 hours of driving, and setting up a tent, but I have talked to a few other photographers who had the same initial difficulty, so I don’t feel too bad admitting that the process was not a quick and easy one.
Given that attaching the lens adapter rings to my Tamron 15-30mm was a somewhat frustrating process, I was happy to see that I was able to keep them attached and fit the lens in my camera bag without issue. While this adds to the convenience of the system and minimizes setup when you are out in the field, it does cause the lens cap on my Tamron 15-30mm to fit a lot less snugly, meaning that it falls off more often and increases the chances of me either losing the lens cap or scratching the unprotected front element by accident.
The size of the filter holder system is tough to view as a positive. Simply due to the dimensions of an ultra wide angle lens, a filter system is going to need to substantially increase the width of the front of your lens in order to be able to attach filters. The Lee SW150 Mark II system is no exception to that rule. You are going to be just about doubling the width of your lens, making for a bit of a cumbersome setup for anyone looking to use the system without a tripod.
On the upside, the thin aluminum pieces are fairly lightweight, meaning that for those taking the system on long hikes, the weight added to your bag will not be noticeable unless you really count your gear’s weight ounce by ounce. And, even then, the effects a polarizing filter can have on an image can be substantial, so those extra ounces could be worth the weight regardless.
It Works – Although it may not sound like a ringing endorsement, the most obvious upside to the SW150 Mark II system is simply that is does what you need it to do. I purchased the Tamron 15-30mm with the understanding that screw-on filters would not be an option for the lens. The Lee system provides a high quality alternative that allows me to use a polarizing filter, which, in some cases, can be a make or break accessory needed to capture an image. Bottom line: it allows me to use the filters I want to use on my ultra wide lens and provides a high quality product in the process.
Customization – Since the filter holder is separate from the adapter rings, purchasing different adapter rings for different lenses allows the SW150 Mark II system to be removed and attached to various compatible lenses. In addition, if you are looking to expand your filter arsenal beyond a circular polarizer, the filter holder fits all of the Lee 150mm square filters, giving you the option of trying out filters such as a neutral density filter for additional creative effects (which has been patiently waiting on my wish list for months now…).
Cost – The most obvious downside to using the SW150 is the dent it will make in your wallet. At the time of this writing, the filter holder ($200), adapter rings ($120), and 150mm polarizing filter ($250) add up to a painful $570. When first evaluating whether I wanted to look into a filter system for my Tamron 15-30mm, I considered just trying to pick up a used Nikon 16-35 f/4 lens, which accepted the filters I already had, for a similar price. For some, this may be the route to take. However, for me, I aim to make my gear as versatile as possible, so a filter system allowed me to carry one lens instead of two, saving weight in my bag and allowing me to use the Tamron 15-30mm, which is my favorite lens that I have used, to its full potential.
Size – While this gripe is not specific to the Lee system, the size of the filter system could be a deterrent for some. If you want to use a circular polarizer on a lens like the Tamron 15-30mm, this is a sacrifice that needs to be made. The width of the front of your lens will be nearly doubled, and storing the wide apparatus will take up space in your bag.
Possibility of Light Leaking – Another noticeable difference between the Lee filter system and a conventional
screw-on filter is that a small gap exists between the square filters and the rubber light shield, allowing the potential for sunlight to shine through and cause flare patterns in your photo. While the gap is not huge and the issue could be remedied simply by holding up your hand or arm to block the sun, I would love to see Lee Filters find a way to close this gap in future iterations of the filter system.
A 150mm Square Filter is a Mist Magnet – Ok, fine, a mist magnet probably isn’t a real thing. However, when testing out the SW150 Mark II in Glacier National Park, I sure felt like it was. Simply due to the size of the filter, the surface area available for mist to collect on is much larger than a circular screw-on filter. In fact, when shooting at Virginia Falls in Glacier, the mist collecting on the front of the filter was bad enough that I wasn’t able to keep the front clear enough to get a clean shot, while a fellow photographer with a much smaller filter walked away with a great composition that I was jealous of. On a clear day, the SW150 Mark II system and square filters are easy enough to use. However, add rain or mist to the mix, and you’ve got yourself an impossibly frustrating experience.
Ultimately, the Lee SW150 Mark II filter system provides a high quality option for those looking to be able to use filters on an ultra wide lens. Due to size and cost, however, it may not be for everyone. That $570 the system costs (at the time of this writing) is money that could be put towards a new lens or other gear (or, you know a mortgage or car payment…), so it is up to the photographer to determine whether something like a polarizing filter will be more advantageous than putting that money elsewhere. If you do end up springing for the SW150 Mark II system, know that you will be getting a high quality product that does what it needs to do, albeit with a few compromises and imperfections along the way.
And, if you happen to get the front ring, compression ring, and locking ring all properly assembled on the first try, just don’t tell me about that part so I can keep up the illusion that jet lag was the reason I couldn’t put the darn thing together on the first (or second) try…