Last week, I shared my first impressions of a filter system that NiSi had asked me to test. As promised, here is the second part, with my experiences of using the individual filters. NiSi sent me three slot-in ND (neutral density) filters: a .9 (3-stop) soft grad, a .9 reverse grad and a 10-stop long exposure filter.
I was particularly looking forward to trying out the reverse grad, as this is one filter I did not already have in my kit. This filter has its darkest area in the middle and is useful for sunrise and sunset shots when the brightest part of the scene is on the horizon. I headed down to Selsey for dawn at the RNLI Lifeboat Station. The first shot below was taken without using filters.
The foreground is too dark because I have exposed to make sure the highlights aren’t blown. The dynamic range is just too high for a really nice even exposure straight out of camera without using filters. So I reached for the stalwart of my existing filter kit, the .6 (2-stop) hard grad.
.6 hard grad.
Now the sky is darker and the foreground lighter but it still doesn’t look right and the horizon and the light area of sea near it are close to being overexposed. This is where the reverse grad comes into its own.
NiSi reverse grad.
The exposure looks more balanced across the whole image, even though the sun has now appeared over the horizon.
I know some photographers like to create the effect of graduated filters in Lightroom. Personally, I much prefer to achieve a balanced exposure in camera. I don’t like sitting at a desk so I want to get as close as I can to the final image while I am out in the landscape. I will tweak exposure in Lightroom, but I prefer to start from a RAW file as close to the finished result as I can. I also enjoy the process; using filters forces one to slow down, encouraging a deliberation that often results in better images overall.
Yes, it is true that image quality can be degraded the more layers of glass or resin you put in front of the lens, just as it can the more you change it in post-production. This is why it is important to choose really good quality filters. I was impressed with the quality of NiSi’s filters. They are made from glass rather than resin. While this makes them easier to break if you are clumsy, they are also easier to clean. Speaking of cleaning, NiSi also sent me this nifty little device:
It comes with changeable ‘heads’, slips easily into pockets and cleans filters brilliantly. My only suggestion for NiSi would be to consider making one with a round head so that it is easier to clean into the edges of the polariser.
Back to the filters. While I was at Selsey, I decided to take the 10-stop filter out for a spin and this is what I got:
NiSi 10-stop ND filter and reverse grad.
The filter slots very closely into the filter holder (see review part I for more information on the holder), which is useful for those photographers who have problems with light leaks. Unlike my existing Big-Stopper, the foam on NiSi’s is cut so that it must be inserted the right way up. Avoid my mistake; as I am used to using a 10-stop that is symmetrical, I absent-mindedly forced the NiSi filter in the wrong way round and the foam came unstuck from the glass.
One of the oft-cited drawbacks of extreme long exposure filters is that they tend to introduce a colour cast. It hasn’t bothered me particularly as I adjust the white balance in camera to allow for it. However, I know it is an issue for some, so I was interested to compare NiSi’s colour cast with that of my old faithful LEE Big Stopper. My next location was that great favourite of landscape photographers, Dungeness. As the sun set behind me, it was casting a warm glow over some fishing boats. I set my white balance to daylight and got started. First, a shot using just the polariser:
Next, I used LEE’s Big Stopper. You can see that the image has cooled down considerably:
Polariser and LEE Big Stopper.
Being a fan of blue, I quite like the look, but for those seeking verisimilitude, it’s a drawback. So I was interested to see what NiSi’s 10-stop filter would look like:
Polaiser and NiSi 10-stop.
As you can see the colours are much closer to the original scene. Other tests have confirmed that there is a warming cast with NiSi’s 10-stop filter (see below), but it is slight.
The third filter NiSi lent me is a .9 (3-stop) soft grad. I will admit straight away that I rarely use soft grads. Most of my landscape locations suit a hard grad. On my workshops, I sometimes encounter people who have only invested in soft grads because they imagine that hard grads will leave a hard line across all but the flattest horizons. In fact, this is not the case and there is a drawback with soft grads in that the change is so gradual they do not actually offer much stopping power overall, making them less useful for balancing exposures. Having said that, woodland is one situation where a soft grad can be useful, so I popped down to one of my local woods and a favourite set of beech trees.
In the first shot, taken without filters, the brighter area to the right of the scene is overexposed.
I added the circular polarizer, which effected a subtle improvement to the exposure and also boosted the colours.
Finally, I inserted the soft grad diagonally across the top right corner; this improved the exposure without affecting the darker parts of the image too much. The effect is subtle, as soft grads always are, but it is still significant.
Polariser and .9 soft grad.
Graduated filters are not only for balancing exposures; they can also be a creative choice. For example, when faced with a dull sky, I sometimes like to use a soft grad to add a subtle gradient to the top, to hold the image in. In this next and final set of before and after shots, taken at Winchelsea Beach, the first is taken using just the polariser:
I then added the 10-stop filter and soft grad at an angle to darken the top and draw the eye to the area where the light was hitting the bottom of the posts. You can also see the slight warming effect that I mentioned above.
Polariser, 10-stop and .9 soft grad.
I have really enjoyed using NiSi’s filter system. NiSi’s filters are a high-quality product, firmly placing them among other manufacturers at the pro/enthusiast end of the market. For me, the real joy of the system is the way they have incorporated the polariser into the lens adapter ring (see part 1 of this review). It is a pleasure to use and even after I had taken the images I needed for this review, I still found myself reaching into my bag for the NiSi kit.