(Why use) Filters, and a very quick look at the Cokin Z-Pro Landscape Kit

Filters are essential for all landscape photographers. Or are they?

The chaps over at Adobe would like you to think otherwise. They gave us the polariser (known as the de-haze toggle), they gave us the graduated mask from which we can, supposedly, replicate any graduated filter we like. Do they work? Well yes, to a degree.

But, as the old saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse from a sows ear.

You can only do things with information in the image if you have the information in the image, and this is where these things fall down. You need to have the image and that means shooting either within the confine of the dynamic range of the sensor, or, using filters at the time of shooting to adjust the amount of light reaching the sensor so that it does that. However, if you do have an image which is pretty close, then you can get away with Lightroom Filters and their adjustments.

Personally, I would rather see what I am shooting at the time, get it right in-camera, and know the image is what I wanted before I walk away from that once in a lifetime location. Because leaving it until you process the images means that you are at the mercy of the software and your own abilities, and the time you have to make those adjustments. I want to spend time with my camera, not my computer. It’s not that I have anything against my computer, we have a great relationship, but well, it’s me, not you, as it were.

The next question of course is – which filters?

Well, you need as a minimum soft graduates (if you shoots broken horizons such as mountains) or hard graduates (if you shoot a lot of seascapes or unbroken horizons), plus a polariser (because de-haze isn’t that great). You might also want to add in a very concentrated ND filter which will reduce the light reaching the sensor by a considerable amount so that you can create long exposures. How much is up to you and the effect you’re after. Personally, again, I find a 10stop ND1000 too much and very difficult to control. I also find they, very frequently, create horrible colour castes or rainbow bursts from light leaks, and you won’t know until you get home because you can’t see through them!

But whose filters do you buy? There is an argument for buying expensive filters such as NiSi and Lee because if you have spent a decent chunk of money on the lens then why put crap in front of it. However, filters get dropped, scratched, sat on, and quite abused. So, do you really need to spend a fortune on a set? Well, no, I don’t think you do.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can head off to eBay and buy a pile of nasty plastic things that will change the complete colour gamut of you camera when you least expect it, or render sharp images a bit fuzzy. But you can get some pretty decent filters for some not extreme spends.

The first issue you have think about though is – how wide is my widest lens, and how wide am I likely to go in the medium term future. I have for the last 8 months used the equivalent to the Cokin P series filters. These are 80mm square, or 80mm wide by 100mm high (which is better), and I have done so on an 16mm lens (1.5x crop sensor). At 16mm there is vignetting, in fact, I can actually see clearly the holder at the edge of some shots and so I have to crop this out.

With this in mind, I decided I do actually need a 100mm system which means looking at some very expensive filters. But, having watched a review or two on YouTube I became aware of the Cokin Z-Pro system through this guy and I also liked the fact he was comparing to the (consider masters of landscape filters) Lee Filters. Cokin have been making filters for absolutely decades, compared to them everyone else on this block is a newbie. That fills me with a feel of confidence. So yesterday I ordered the Cokin Z-Pro landscape kit and suitable adapter ring for my main landscape lens. This kit consists of the holder, three different gradated filters, and a rather nice (albeit huge) case.

Kit

I ordered mine from Premier-Ink who I have found to be very reliable on delivery and I wanted to make sure they arrived today to test out before my shoot tomorrow.

One thing you must note is that you need to order the adapter ring for each lens size you have. This is sold separately and although Cokin make their own, Kood ones work just as well and are less than half the price. It’s a metal ring that screws into the front of the lens after all, it’s not really complex engineering and doesn’t have any effect on the filters.

The advantage of this system is that you can then use the same filters and holder on every lens you have, just by having the adapter rings to fit the lenses. I also ordered a Hoya screw on ND64 lens for my long exposures as this gives me a more natural slow motion effect during a longish exposure and I find Hoya filters are the best for accurate colours at long exposures. The secret with any long exposure filter is that it fits onto the lens with absolutely no gaps, so square ones often rely on a gasket but I have found this to be very unreliable and the results have often been horrendously unusable.

So, let’s see how they perform:

Please note this is a very boring shot taking from my back yard and shot purely for this blog and test. All images are in-camera JPEGS with no work on them at all and the camera was set to Aperture priority so the only change it would make is the duration of the exposure which would be directly affected by the filter.

ST0RM-noFilter-170333
The no filter as it shot: 1/170sec at f16, ISO200, on tripod, centre weighted metering
ST0RM-Z121L-ND2-170334
With the Z121L G2 Light Grad filter (ND2) – 1/110sec (other settings identical)

So, let’s compare; the sky is noticeably bluer with more contrast, but the real difference is that by holding in the sky the camera we can get more balance between the sky and the landscape creating a more harmonious tonal range between the greens of the fields and the more detail on the trees both in the middle and, particularly, in the far distance.

Now let’s looks at the next option in our set:

ST0RM-Z121L-ND4-170335
With the Z121M G2 Medium Grad filter (ND4) – 1/70sec (other settings identical)

As you can see with this on we have an almost artificial sky now, perhaps bordering on two saturated at the top, although we have even greater detail in the trees, I don’t like the grass so much. For me, I prefer the slightly less cooked version of the ND2, however these are in camera JPEGS and the camera is set to replicate Velvia so that is as much my doing as anything else. By using Provia I would have got a more natural effect (or by shooting raw and changing this later), but I wanted to keep all the settings as they were throughout the test to show the filters effects.

ST0RM-Z121S-ND8-170336
With the Z121S G2 Soft Grad filter (ND8) – 1/105 (other settings identical)

Now logically, the ND8 would normally have a longer exposure than the ND4 but this is not the case with this particular filter because it is a very soft grad. It is designed really for use with mountain scenes where you have a dark object and a much lighter sky and would really struggle to retain detail in the mountains shadows and the skies clouds etc due to the contrast. The fact is is soft also meant it was quite hard to see where it changed and so I think I actually had it a bit too low and that is why the detail is lost again from the distant trees. If I found the ND4 was insufficient for the task I would probably stack the ND4 and ND2 together to create an ND6 in preference. This filter is for a different scenario, but never the less interesting in this context to see what you get in the kit.

For me, I can see me using it more here:

st0rm_skyetripfeb17-170224

As you can see from the dramatic light in this shot the contrast was really hard to control and the bright patches of sky are still lost whilst I desperately tried to retain the shadows. A medium or hard contrast filter wouldn’t work here because there isn’t a level horizon.

For a final comparison I thought I would put a Lightroom adjustment or two on the original shot.

ST0RM-LR-170337
In-camera JPEG, no filter, with -1.15stops exposure grad added in Lightroom, and +37 shadows to the whole image.

Lets compare that to the ND2 which I liked most:

ST0RM-Z121L-ND2-170334

The filtered image still gives me more tree detail and the sky is a nicer blue, but you could easily get away with this rather than using the filters. The question is, are you happy to sit in front of the computer for longer and take the risk that it will work, or would rather get it right and know it’s right before you leave the scene?

All images were shot on the Fuji XT2 with the Fuji 16-55/2.8 lens mounted on Gitzo BG3542 Mountaineer Tripod with Manfrotto MHXPRO-BHQ2 Magnesium Ball Head. 

I have nothing against Lee filters, except my bank balance.

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