When the Lee Big Stopper came out around 4 years ago, it took the photography world by storm. Incredibly positive reviews did the rounds followed by absurd waiting lists as demand outstripped supply, but for the early adopters amongst us, the Big Stopper meant new possibilities for photography and in my case, new possibilities for workshops.
The issues with supply was a real problem for me because with workshops already advertised and no photographers able to get a Big Stopper, I was forced to cancel or run limited workshops using my loan filters. That was nobody’s fault but my own though. I shouldn’t have put the cart before the horse as the saying goes. Anyway, after some time people were soon able to pick them up on the auction site (more about that later) and things improved.
Despite the glowing reviews however the Big Stopper wasn’t really that great. In fact, for a very expensive piece of kit, it was far from accurate when it came to exposures and the horrendous blue cast is the main reason I’m sure most of them went up for sale on the auction site. These same idiosyncrasies are echoed online by many highly skilled photographers but it was the offhand dismissal on the Lee customer feedback page that annoyed many, myself included. Numerous complaints appeared online and the response from the company was “Big Stopper – Blue cast?…we do pre warn you…”. So, in other words you have to put up with it whether you like it or not.
Unfortunately, putting up with the Big Stopper is something I’ve had to do for the past 3 or 4 years. The BS brand was so succesful that it was the only filter photographers who turned up at my workshops had so I’ve had to reluctantly work around its problems. And this is where it costs unsuspecting photographers money. They buy a BS then, struggle with colour casts, then exposure and then they have to go on a course or sell the filter. This of course is my experience and because I do workshops I’m bound the encounter this on a regular basis, but I do feel for those who feel they bought a product that they didn’t get on with.
Thankfully, other manufacturers have brought their alternatives to the market and the competition has been a great thing. Companies such as B&W* and Hitech Formatt have developed ND filters that surpass the Big Stopper and by some considerable margin. In particular, Hitech Formatt brought out the IRND range and more recently, the new Firecrest 16 stop filter – which has literally been a game changer for me. No horrible colour casts and accurate exposures are now the order of the day and with 16 stops to play with, the Firecrest IRND opens up many possibilities for long exposures in bright daylight. What’s not to like?
(*Note: I have yet to work with the B&W range of filters so I cannot give any opinion or review, but when I get a hold of one, I will sure to do so.)
The Firecrest IRND 16 stop works by eliminating infra red light from reaching the sensor but keeping all the visible colours the same. I won’t rehash the technology but you can read about that here and this is a good video for the cinema version of the filter where you can actually see it in a video test.
Given my experience with Lee’s BS over these years, I’ve put very little trust in its ability to produce consistent results, so I was a touch apprehensive that the Firecrest IRND would be much better. But, I was pleasantly surprised from the outset and massively impressed as time went by. In the couple of months that I’ve had been using the Fircrest IRND, I’ve had virtually no colour cast in any of my images and the exposures have been bang on 16 stops. I’ve put it through a variety of different lighting scenarios and it’s been consistent in all cases, which is highly confidence inspiring. But lets look at some test images.
This test was done in the late evening on a very still night. The tide was moving in, the sun was from the right and there were lots of reflections around. Typically, these were difficult conditions for any ND filter but the Firecrest coped extremely well. It is important not to pay too much attention to the smooth clouds or the water, and it is very important to note that this test is colour – not mono. The bridge is where you should to focus your attention. The blue cast is definitely evident in the 10 stop because the cast appears across all of the image and is therefore a cast.
In the case of the Firecrest, the image is neutral and if you place an eye dropper over the areas on the bridge you will see there is very good neutrality. However, it is important to remember that surface reflections will alter the light hitting a surface and alter the image. This has been in part responsible for a myth being put around by early adopters that the Firecrest filter has a green cast. I examined many of these images with these claims and in each case it was a case of either a light leak or myriad reflections or the light changing in a very long exposure of up to 16 minutes. In 16 minutes, towards the end of a day, the light will change so this has to be factored in. The middle image above “appears” to have a greenish cast but again, I stress very much, that light was changing many times – over a very long exposure. In addition, there are other factors to consider such as most sensors (e.g. bayer) have 2x as many green sensors as red and blue on the chip and there’s a reason for this. The human eye is most sensitive to green and we are surrounded by a LOT of green – which can be responsible for any green-ness in an image. I’ve also put this green cast anomoly to the test over a long time and I’ve tested this with both digital and film. In every instance, the “green” has been a light leak or reflected light over the long period of the exposure.
Note: The alert reader or conspiracy theorist may point to the fact that the Firecrest is 16 stops and is being compared to a 10 stop filter, but this has little or no bearing. We are comparing colour casts and exposure. In any event, you would need to stack a 10 + 6 stop filter from Lee which has an air gap and introduces the possibility of reflections in that air gap as well as light leaks. There would also be variances in the coatings of different batches in two filters.
The above test was posted on my Flickr page and it’s clear that there’s a blue cast in the 10 stop. It is important to note though that this is a landscape image and I’ve had some absurd comments from photographers who really don’t know what they are talking about (or know much about photography). Typically, ND long exposures are taken for the milky water effects by the sea. Landscape long exposure photography is less common because the landscape has much more variables and colours to deal with than seascapes. Some people look at the images and presume this or that but this was test done as accurately as possible. This was a very still bright sunny day. The reason for choosing a day like this was based on the sunny 16 rule. This is a highly accurate method for obtaining correct exposure. The intensity of the sun’s light is at it’s strongest and light is constant. The method for testing was to expose for the highlights, and in this case the clouds to the left of the mountain. This is the most accurate way as they were being lit from the sun throughout the all three exposures. Measurements were also taken from the same point of the foreground rocks in full sun for comparison. Shadow readings are less accurate for obvious reasons. The camera’s meter was not used for any readings. Two separate light meters were used which were a Minolta spotmeter and a Sekonic. During exposures, EV was recorded and monitored during the long exposures. Readings were constant for all three exposures. I repeat, readings were constant.
From comments on my Flickr post, it’s been said the 10 stop image is under exposed and the shadow across the mountains would affect the image. The shadow comment is nonsense and has no bearing on the image whatsoever because the images were metered for the highlights. I repeat the image was exposed for the highlights. The clouds are exposed correctly in all three shots from the metering point. It should be noted that as in black and white photography, adding a coloured filter can increase contrast or make certain parts look dark by filtering out certain colours of the light spectrum. The 10 stop has a blue cast and would therefore filter any browns and reds from the foliage undergrowth. This can fool photographers into over exposing their image which in turn burns out the sky, then they add a grad to balance the sky which ultimately exacerbates the problem. Far too many photographers do not understand how to expose an impage properly or how to use their camera’s meter and the aforementioned problem is something I encounter frequently. Shots are often missed as a result.
For this shot above, I chose not to bother with the 10 stop filter for comparison as it was evident in every test that there was a blue cast, so why waste time. What the test above shows is just how good the Firecrest is. at being neutral. Blurry water aside, this is a quite fantastic result given that it was a dull overcast day and the exposure on the right was for 240 seconds. Typically on dull days like this using an ND filter you would get all manner of colours in the water and the shadows can often appear maroon. The colours in both these images from the heather to the rocks are almost identical. This clearly shows the Firecrest IRND is extremely neutral.
I’ve done a series of these tests and repeatedly, I am extremely impressed with the consistency of results. Suffice to say though that there are limitations with a 16 stop filter and there are things to watch out for. In particular, low light photography is pretty much out the window. A normal exposure of 1/3oth sec will take 32 minutes. A one second exposure will require 18 hours so it’s not practical in low light. In bright light however you can obtain a 32 minute exposure and the effects in such an image can be remarkable. There are endless possibilities for new and exciting images in such light. The other thing to look out for is light leaks when conducting long exposures in bright light. I have experienced these myself and wrongly thought it was the filter but was in actual fact due to light coming in through the eyepiece ,or from the rubber covers being open with the cable remote. Rather than me post pictures, Joel Tjintjelaar has a great article with picture of how these occur and how you can protect your camera to overcome these light leaks. Interestingy, I read that Joel uses a hat as do I. 🙂
The Firecrest ND is only a few months old and reviews are few at this moment in time so hopefully this will help if you are considering an ND filter. I have spoken with several other photographers who concur with me and are finding the results to be extremely good, surpassing all the problems that occur with the Lee BS. All have told me the is no colour cast in their images and the exposures are consistent with 16 stops of light reduction. This is good news for photographers who want to explore new possibilities without having to work around problems of other filters.
At the time of writing I read that the Firecrest IRND first batches have sold out but Hitech are on the case. Lets hope they are available very soon for it truly is a big improvement in traditional ND filter technology and I am now using this line exclusively in my workshops.
I hope you find the above interesting and feel free to leave any comments.