Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fun with Filters

As a serious landscape photographer you'd think that I'd have an equally serious arsenal of filters. A polarizer, LEE Big & Little Stopper (-6 and -10 stop neutral density filters), plus a good selection of hard and soft graduated ND filters - at the very least!
Cokin 'P' Series Holder with Graduated ND filters
Well yes, I do have a polarizer, and a 0.9 (-3 stops) soft grad - both of the Cokin 'P' variety. But that's it. And if I'm honest, I don't even use them very often either! And that's generally down to laziness. Yes folks, I admit it, I'm a fairly lazy photographer. If I can get away with it, I won't use a tripod. I won't use a filter. Heck, I will even try not to use any accessories (like remote releases). I won't even use a polarizer even when I know it would be beneficial for the final image! Why not? Because, well, it's just too much of a hassle. You've got to get it out of the bag, set up the filter holder, fiddle around with adapter rings, etc... You get the point.

Laziness aside for a moment, the 'other' issue I have with filters is the expense. Have you seen the price of the LEE Big Stopper! Over $200NZ for one filter! Buy the Big Stopper, Little Stopper and a couple of hard and soft grads, plus the filter holder and adapter ring for your lens and your looking at well over $1000NZ. And I'm not just picking on LEE. Filters from Cokin and NiSi are similarly priced. When we start talking that amount of money, I start thinking of lenses not filters.

Yet having said all of that, I've been thinking very seriously lately about using filters a lot more in my photography. Why the change of heart? Well, it has a lot to do with the landscape photography vlogs I've been watching on Youtube lately. They all - and I mean ALL - make great use of filters (as well as tripods and cable releases), and I'm beginning to think there might just be something to all this fiddling about before you taker a photo (I jest - but just a little).

So I'm turning a new leaf this year. No more lazy landscape photographer. I've already got a Polarizer and a soft grad ND, so I'm halfway there with the filters. I'm seriously considering getting a 10 stop ND filter to go with them, for long exposure photography (probably a Cokin 'Nuances' 1024), but in the meantime I've dipped my toe in the water already with a recent internet purchase.

A whole set of 'ND' filters for the Cokin P system
If you use the Cokin 'P' (for Professional - I kid you not) square filter system like I do, then you will find a lot of cheap Chinese rip-off filters for sale on the interwebs. You will, of course, get what you pay for. And for practically a tenth of the price of the 'real deal', you can't really expect much. But then again, they must do something - right? If I'm going to pay $200+ for one filter down the road, then I'm going to damn well make sure I like using it! So what better way to practice than on the cheapy stuff first. And you can't get much cheaper than $25NZ for 7 no-name ND filters that a guy was selling recently on Trademe. I snapped them up, knowing full well that they were going to be flimsy, plastic (the more expensive filters are made from either resin or glass), horribly inaccurate in terms of neutral colour, and probably worse than useless. But I also figured that if I enjoyed using them, and wished I had better ones, then I would know that any serious money spent down the track would be well worth it. That's the theory anyway.

Long exposure with ND16 + ND8 + Polarizer. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 30secs @f11, ISO 100
Long story short - I've only had them for a couple of days, but I'm having a blast! And surprisingly, the results actually aren't half bad (with a couple of caveats). The above image is a 30 second exposure made in the middle of a very bright day, and the cheapo plastic ND filters combined with my Cokin P circular polarizer have done a decent job. And the colour cast is actually pretty minimal - especially compared to a 'Tian Ya' ND filter I also have which has a horrible brown sepia cast to it.

Cobden Beach at Midday. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/250th @ f11, ISO 100. No filter
Above is the 'control' image - the shot of the beach with no filter. This gave a reference point for how the colours should look once I started adding filters.

With Polarizer. 1/60th @f11. ISO 100
Simply adding the Cokin circular polarizer improves the image dramatically. It also has the added benefit of slowing the shutter speed by 2 stops.

With ND16 (-4 stops). 1.6secs @f11, ISO 100
Adding the ND16 neutral density filter has again slowed  the shutter down, now to the point of blurring some of the movement in the waves. In terms of a colour cast, it's introduced a very slight magenta tint to the white clouds, but overall not too bad.

With ND16 + Cokin 0.9 (-3stop) soft ND Graduate. 1.3 secs @f11. ISO 100
Adding the Cokin 3 Stop soft grad has helped to lower the density in the highlights, especially in the clouds (obviously) - but hasn't effected the overall shutter speed too drastically. Again,colours are looking pretty good.

ND16 + ND8 + Polarizer. 30secs @f11, ISO 100
Remember that caveat I mentioned earlier. Well, here it is in all its glory! That's some pretty serious flare spots. And they were present on quite a few of the images I took using the plastic ND filters. A lot - but not all. This was a very extreme torture test, in very bright conditions, at the time of day that I wouldn't normally be shooting at. So the nasty flare stuff doesn't really surprise me at all. Also, on closer inspection, lots of tiny bits of fluff and lint had adhered themselves to the plastic filters which probably didn't help matters.

Same as above, yet without the strong sun flares....
A quick clean, another shot done with the same settings - and viola, a different result. To be honest, I did clone out one lone flare spot in the sky, and a few are creeping into the top of the frame, but it's nowhere near as bad as the previous shot - with a simple clean!

So did I have fun with my new plastic ND filters? You betcha! Will I use them again? You betcha - can't wait. Except next time I won't try them under such torturous conditions. This lazy photographer may be turning a new leaf. Watch this space...

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