Let’s start with this image.
I really do empathise with this image. It makes me smile because – for me – it’s so true. The fact that it is quite widely propagated around the web makes me think it’s true for other photographers too… So why is this diagram here? Well it’s here because of the “HDR Hole”. What does that have to do with filters? HDR can replace filters – specifically graduated filters.
I’m getting ahead of myself here though. Why do you need any of this stuff anyway? Let’s go back to basics with the eye. Most people have more than the average number of eyes, and our heads are wonderful cameras in a way. Light enters the eye and is processed by the brain into an image that we see in our head. Look at any landscape on a bright day and you can see the clouds in the blue sky as well as the detail in the shadows under the rocks. The amount of bright light and deep shadow we can see in the same scene is called dynamic range. Eyes have a great dynamic range. Cameras don’t. In order to reproduce a scene (in a camera) that has a high dynamic range (brightly lit areas and deep shadows in the same scene) one needs to use HDR techniques or turn to graduated filters.
HDR techniques are very good. However they require an amount of time spent post processing, and require multiple images of the same scene. My “What is HDR” post explains this in more detail, but suffice to say that you probably need to spend a few minutes in post production exporting your images, importing them into your HDR tool of choice, making the HDR, then re-importing back into your photo library. With the use of graduated filters, this can be reduced down to one photograph. Some scenes really don’t benefit from HDR. Street scenes with moving traffic or people, for example can be quite tricky to HDR-ise, as well as windy days with moving tree branches that end up being in a different place. This “ghosting” can cause some software problems and may require a bit of extra intervention.
Graduated filters typically come as shown here. You get the filter itself which is usually a piece of glass (usually square or oblong). This sits in a holder which is attached to the camera lens by means of an adapter. You get adapters of varying sizes that match the filter diameter of your lens.
There are several manufacturers of filters – as you’d expect from cheaper brands such as Cokin, through to more expensive brands such as Lee. I have owned the Cokin system and now own the Lee system and can say without doubt that the Lee filters offer better build quality and general photographic quality. Research on the internet will allow you to make the decision yourself, because Lee filters are quite expensive, but having moved to the new Seven5 system for my Fuji X-E1, I’m very happy.
A graduated filter starts off dark at the top and fades through to clear at the bottom. The effect of this is to darken part of the frame. Now I deliberately avoided using the word “top” there as the Lee system rotates on the adapter allowing you to put the graduation at any angle. You can also move the filter within the holder up or down to place the graduation at any point in your scene. There are generally two type of graduated filter. A “Hard” grad and a “Soft” grad. The difference between the two is the degree of transparency change. A Hard grad changes from dark to clear quite dramatically. A softer grad has a much more gradual change throughout the filter. Lee starter kits ship with a hard grad, and various internet sources seem to prefer them as the amount of light blocked by the darker part of glass is available across more of the filter. Grads are graded in terms of “stops” of light filtered. So a “0.6 ND” will block 2 stops of light in the darker part of the frame. The filter holder has two or three slots so you can “double up” filters for more of an effect. Stacking a 0.6ND and a 0.75ND for example will give you 4.5 stops worth of dynamic range across your scene.
Be aware though, that the harder you filter your landscape, the more likely you are to see a dark “band” across the frame if you’re not careful. On horizons with features that stick out, you may end up losing detail. I currently just have the 0.6ND though and have only noticed this on one image and this was more likely down to user error!
The Seven5 System is smaller than Lee’s standard square filter system… 75mm in fact… One of the main aspects of downsizing to the X-E1 was to reduce the carry weight, and the smaller aspects of the Lee Seven5 system seem to work well here. The holder fits neatly into a side pocket of your camera bag, and the filters themselves stow away quite easily. I’ve been using the system on my Fuji X-E1 with the 14mm f2.8, and the addition of the filter holder, adapter and filter itself doesn’t add much to the bulk of the camera. Of course it is impossible to use the standard lens hood with this system, but Lee helpfully make their (rather expensive!) version here.
In terms of buying the system, Lee filters historically have been hard to obtain, with UK suppliers often “Awaiting stock”. I bought my set from Wex Photographic as they showed it in-stock at a competitive price. Lee filters are unlikely to be sourced cheaper from elsewhere as they are a British product. Still – it’s always worth checking around before buying.
Using filters rather than “in-computer” darkroomery has also slowed me down and made me consider my composition and lighting before shooting. One other benefit to this is that my hard drive is no longer filled with many images of the same scene to be used for HDR post-processing. I also feel like a proper photographer!