I bought my first set of LEE filters away back in 2003, but they sat largely unused in my studio for a number of years as I rarely shot landscapes. Then, a few years later, I decided to make a serious effort at landscapes and the filters were suddenly an essential piece of equipment.
The filters comprised a set of neutral density graduated filters in 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9, along with the requisite holder. Later, I added a Big Stopper, then a Little Stopper and finally a Super Stopper when it was launched just under two years ago. I felt I had everything I needed for my landscape work, and I just replaced the occasional filter if I damaged it. However, like all things in photography, there’s always something else to add to our kit, but first a little bit of information about these LEE filters will be helpful in understanding the features of the filters I’ll be discussing later on in this review.
LEE have been producing filters for 50 years now, so they should know a bit about filters and how to make them. In fact, I first came across LEE in the 80’s when I worked for the BBC and we were using their colour gels and filters when making television drama programmes for BBC1.
The original resin filters such as the neutral density (ND) graduated filters are hand made. I understand that the base resin is an optically correct polycarbonate of the very highest quality. I’ve always wondered at the fact that the filters have a low reflectance, which apparently is due to the compounds selected for the resin base, meaning no anti-reflection coatings are actually needed. I often come across poor imitations, which some people believe will do the job just as well. My question to them is always, why would you put a cheap piece of plastic in front of your expensive lens and expect to maintain image quality?
I also always wondered why they didn’t use glass as their base and they tell me that when they’re dyeing glass filters, it’s more difficult to precisely control the graduation or transition line between the dark and the light parts of the graduated filter on glass.
On the other hand, when it comes to the original and hugely popular ‘Stopper’ range of filters, these long-exposure filters are manufactured using molten glass with an added colourant to achieve a suitably deep colour and density that reduces the amount of visible light that can pass through them.
As anyone who has used the Big Stopper and, to a lesser extent, the Little Stopper will know, they can give quite a strong blue cast to the images, as well as some vignetting. What many people don’t know is that this colour cast is added to the filter intentionally, in order to reduce the problem of infrared light pollution, something that causes problems with digital sensors. The alternative is a brown cast on the image, which is almost impossible to remove.
As the dye is added to the molten glass, rather than coated onto the filter surface, a natural optical vignette is created in the corners of the Stopper filters. This is especially noticeable when they are used with wide angle lenses. This vignette, along with the blue cast, gives images that ‘classic’ Stopper look that is recognised by photographers worldwide and has redefined the look of long-exposure digital photography.
Over the years, I had not only got used to these ‘features’ but had grown to really like the effect they created. Especially as it’s so easy to remove some or all of the blue cast, with a simple adjustment of white balance or colour temperature, in Lightroom or Photoshop. Anyone who knows my work will know that many of my images have a subtle blue tone, often the result of only partially removing the blue cast from images where I’ve used one of the Stoppers.
Let's now fast forward to earlier this year when LEE told me about the new Pro Glass filters they were launching.
These Pro Glass filters were described to me as totally colour neutral and they also apparently had no vignetting. In fact, they were designed first of all for the film industry, as Panavision, the company which owns LEE, needed very high quality filters with no colour cast for their movie cameras, as colour grading video is a time consuming and costly business. As is so often the case, such technologies tend to ‘filter’ down into the stills camera market in due course.
I understand that these Pro Glass filters are vacuum evaporated onto glass using ultra thin layer technology (no, I don’t know what exactly this means either!), which nor only reflects unwanted light away from the lens, but it also gives excellent control of infrared and UV light, along with neutral colours.
So, with this information fresh in my mind, I was really keen to try these new filters out in the field. It’s always easy to make big claims for a manufacturer’s product, but as a professional landscape photographer, I simply need equipment that works, with no ifs or buts.
With a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides already planned to capture some stock images, as well as run one of my workshops, I reckoned this would be as good a place as anywhere to try these new filters and see if they lived up to all the hype.
The remainder of this review is the result of using these filters extensively over a two week period. When I was capturing an image, I would often use the Big Stopper or Super Stopper first and then do the exact same shot with the equivalent Pro Glass filter. My objective was to compare the resultant images on my large colour balanced monitor back in the studio and evaluate whether I believed LEE had made something worth purchasing and therefore, were they worth the price premium over the Stopper series.
You can see from the images above, with the one on the left being the Big Stopper and the one on the right being the Pro Glass 10 stop, the difference between each filter in these RAW files. Before we go any further, all of the images in this review (unless stated otherwise) are straight out of camera, with no post production, with the only exception being where exposure varied between shots (the light often changes between each of my long exposures, often between 4 and 8 minutes long), I have therefore ‘matched’ them with a simple exposure adjustment, usually no more than 0.5 a stop. In each image, the camera settings for shutter speed, ISO and aperture are also identical.
While I tend to stick with equipment and accessories that I know and trust, I will also consider any product that makes my life as a professional landscape as easy and efficient as possible. So, what’s my thinking on these new Pro Glass filters and will they make their way into my camera bag as a permanent fixture?
Well, the interesting thing for me, and surprising as well, is that I don’t automatically prefer the images produced with the Pro Glass filters. There are still many instances where I actually prefer the Stopper version, which I really wasn’t expecting. You could say that this is simply because I’ve used the Stoppers for so long, that I’m simply used to them and how they perform. That may well be correct, but I don't think that's the whole answer..
So, the bottom line is, would I recommend going out and buying one or more of the Pro Glass filters. As you can probably guess by now, I’m going to say it depends. It depends on whether a totally neutral image is important to you or not. I’m sure I’m not the only person who likes the effect created by the Stoppers. Yes, there are times when I want a totally colour neutral image, and this is more likely to be the case when the light is already quite blue, such as the so called ‘blue hour’ after the sun has set. I certainly like the fact that the Pro Glass filters show no vignetting, as I would always prefer to have control of any vignetting in post production. It’s not particulary easy to remove the vignette caused by the Stoppers, and while a tend to like a little bit of a vignette, sometimes it’s a little heavier than I would have chosen myself.
The two images below were a case of where I liked the effect of the Big Stopper, on a cold dull evening here in Ireland. On the left is the RAW file and on the right, a processed example of the image, using the 'normal' adjustments that I would do in Lightroom and Photoshop.
In the end the question must be, would I swap my old Stoppers for a set of the new Pro Glass filters? The answer is a definite no. If I could only have one or the other, then I would probably choose the older Stoppers, as it’s so easy to remove the blue cast and get a neutral result if that’s what I want.
However, in the real world of landscape photography, there's room in my bag for both. There will be times when I use the Stoppers by choice, as often happened in the Hebrides, but other times when I want a neutral result straight out of camera, at which point I’ll turn to the Pro Glass filters. I’m fortunate that I can justify the cost of both, but if you have to choose, well that depends on what you want your images to look like, and only you can decide this. I do know one thing for sure, thats that the Pro Glass series are the usual LEE quality and you won’t go wrong with either these or the original Stopper series.
If you are interested in buying any of the LEE filter range, I have arranged a deal with Linhofstudio, whereby readers of my newsletter will get a 10% discount on the full LEE filters range, plus free postage in the UK for any order over £60. Just mention my name when you contact them to avail of this offer.
Until next time, keep exposing.