Firecrest – The world’s best ND Grad filter?

If you follow me at all then you will know that I use filters in my photography over using photoshop because I believe in getting it right in camera. Filters are great for digital photography but problematic for film – especially slide film like Provia & Velvia. I have used many types over the years but I have been fortunate to be testing the new Fircrest filters for the past 6 months. With hand on heart, I think Formatt HiTech’s new Firecrest filters are vastly superior to anything I have ever used. They surpass anything Cokin, Lee etc have to offer in terms of neutral density filtration.

[A FEW NOTES: Before reading, please be aware that there are key differences between testing for digital and film. When conducting a digital test, the results can’t truly be relied upon because many digital cameras will compensate and adjust during exposure; white and colur balance for example are being constantly monitored by software, so digital tests in “real world scenarios” should be taken with a pinch of salt. If you don’t believe me, look at your histogram moving up and down when a cloud passed by or you’re in front of a waterfall. Many of the tests I’ve seen have been conducted in changing light and it’s also easy to tweak digital files, so some of the tests I’ve seen leave me wondering about bias. With film however, you can’t “cheat” because the results are recorded¬† on the actual film emulsion. There’s no electronic compensation, no white balance and no computer wizardry to fool you. Instead, you have to choose a day with stable light and meter consistently. This is what I’ve done here.]

I’ve done many tests over the best part of this year and the results are consistent every time. I’ve kept this test fairly short and let the results speak for themselves. I won’t say which filter the competitor is because people have linked to my previous tests using keywords and all that does is help their Google search ranking. You can guess for yourself.

First up is how you normally see things posted in a filter test with a digital camera. It’s fairly straight forward that there is a clear difference between the filters. The camera here was a Sony A7 taken from the top of a hill. The problem with this type of test is that once you place the whole filter over the lens, there is no reference point as you are seeing the whole image with filtration and the camera will adjust accordingly to get an even exposure and colour balance across the entire image. Look at the greens in the 3rd image for example – they are slightly different. This is the camera compensating.
Firecrest vs Competitor

The second test shows the filters placed half way across the lens. (how many tests have you seen doing this?) This shows the reference of how the image looks, with and without filtration, side by side. This is the correct way to show filtration in effect rather than a whole image. The difference here is simply beyond doubt. The Firecrest is as neutral as possible. The competitor is clearly much more pronounced. Note – yes they are both 3 stop filters and the exposure was taken with a minolta spot meter. This also suggests that the competitors filters are not manufactured accurately to 3 stops – common with the competitors products.
Split frame tests

But what about film? Well, anyone that shoots film, and in particular slide film such as Provia or Velvia, will tell you that there are already colour casts in the emulsion. Provia tends to the blue and Velvia tends towards the magenta which is amplified when used in golden hour light scenarios. (Other colour casts are available). Slide films have very little wiggle room in terms of “dynamic range”. Typically 4-5 stops is all you have to play with, so filtration is the only way to balance sky and foreground. The problem with this however is that the colour casts can be severe to the point of rendering some shots unsuable, and often with 50% of a roll film wasted if you are bracketing. With sheet film it’s a massive consideration and oftentimes I’ve never taken the shot because I knew the filter would introduce such a fierce cast, that I wasn’t for wasting the film.

The Firecrest ND Grad, has simply been a revelation in this regard and an absolute relief to use in my colour film landscape photography. Since using this filter, I haven’t lost a single shot or sheet and it has meant that I can capture a much wider range of scenes in absolute confidence that the filter wont let me down. This could never be said of a Lee or a Cokin filter in some situations.

UPDATE: Ive been asked many times what the competitor filter is. I’ve kept quite for a while but it is a Lee 3 stop grad. Many Lee “fanboys and girls” rate Lee filters as the best there is. Blind tests prove otherwise and as far as film is concerned, they truly are overpriced, awful filters with non-accurate stop values and often horrendous casts. If you are considering using them with film, then be prepared to waste and awful lot of your film.

As you can see from the shots, there is a MASSIVE difference in the colour of the skies and this is often what you are up against shooting film like Velvia. Obviously, using a 2 or 1 stop filter in the 3rd shot would have lessened the impact, but the colour cast would still have been the same. Again, note that the filters were 3 stops and measured with a spot meter. The simple fact however was that the scene required 3 stops.
Velvia trial

This may look exaggerated above, but many film shooters will have expereienced this when shooting slide. There are of course workarounds and the effects can be used intentionally, but when accuracy is desired, it has been a problem we have had to live with for many years. The neutrality of the Firecrest overcomes all these problems, saves a lot of wasted film and the results speak for themselves!


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