The LEE 10 Stop Neutral Density Filter, which is affectionately known as ‘The Big Stopper’, has been a staple part of my filter and photographic kit since it was released by LEE back in 2010. I was fortunate to receive one of the very first production units and have subsequently found ten stops of neutral density extremely useful in the creation of dramatic landscape photographs. The ability to slow shutter speeds down to minutes instead of seconds can really add a lot of drama to fast moving clouds and flowing water. It’s addition to a photograph can often be the difference between the recording of something otherwise banal and the creation of something truly extraordinary.There are a number of different options from which to choose for photographers looking to add ten stops of Neutral Density filtration to their filter kit. As well as the LEE ‘Big Stopper’, there are options available from B+W, Sing Ray, Hoya and Hi-Tech (and there may well be more I am not aware of). Each of these is designed to achieve the same thing – provide ten stops of ‘neutral’ density (emphasis on ‘neutral’). It turns out however, that at least one of these filters (sample as tested) is anything but ‘neutral’.*
One of the participants on my upcoming expedition to Iceland in a few weeks time recently contacted me and asked if I would mind doing some testing with them of 10 Stop ND filters before we leave. They had been experiencing a severe (and virtually uncorrectable) colour caste with their brand new Hi-Tech Pro and were concerned that the filter may be faulty. Never one to shy away from an invitation to play with camera gear I quickly agreed and we set up a time to test the LEE Big Stopper against the Hi-Tech 10 Stop ND filter in a head to head comparison. We also had a B+W 10 Stop screw in filter for the Leica M9 and took the opportunity to also compare it. For our subject we had to hand a factory car park – crude, but nevertheless convenient. The day was overcast so no shenanigans were required to obtain acceptable exposures.Control – No Filter White Balance as shot: 5350 +4LEE Big Stopper White Balance as shot: 6450 -4HiTech 10 Stop PRO Filter White Balance as shot: 7800 +80
In order to make the comparison fair we used the same camera and lens (my Canon 1DS MK3 21.1 mega pixel camera with a Zeiss 21mm lens on my Gitzo GT3530 LSV tripod with a RRSBH55 ball head) to test both filters. Although its somewhat irrelevant the photographs were taken with the mirror locked up with 2 second self timer at F5.6. We then proceeded to take three photographs. The first is our control without any filter. The second is with the LEE Big Stopper in place and the third is with the Hi-Tech 10 Stop filter. The results are inarguable and consistently repeatable regardless of the exposure time or aperture. The LEE Big Stopper provides outstanding performance in terms of neutrality as can be seen in a direct comparison with the ‘control’ image. The Hi-Tech on the other hand is nothing short of a complete disaster. It is in fact more ‘blue’ than an equivalent exposure with the LEE Sky Blue Graduated filter and its performance is simply unacceptable. Even on the LCD screen on the back of the camera I could immediately see that there was a major problem with this filter.
In order to ensure that we were not actually seeing things or that something went wrong during our test we repeated the test with both a Leica M9 and Nikon D800E (each with an equivalent lens) with the same results. In both cases we used the same camera and lens for comparison and only ever varied the filter. I suspect that the particular sample we tested may have come from a bad batch and that there may well be others out there with defective copies. Hi-Tech have subsequently offered to replace the filter (which was actually brand new and purchased less than a month ago).
As a side note, the LEE filter is glass (sometimes referred to as Black Glass or BG) and the Hi-Tech is resin and the procedure for adding neutral density to these surfaces is very different. Resin filters are dipped in a dye bath where as glass filters (according to my understanding) use a glazing process. In the case of the sample Hi-Tech we tested I suspect that something has gone wrong during the dye process giving the filter a blue caste. It is worth noting that LEE’s Graduated Neutral Density filters are also resin (as are Hi-Techs) and effectively exhibit no colour caste.
I also took this opportunity to test the new LEE 3 Stop Pro Glass Neutral Density filter I purchased last week and its performance proved excellent. It is well worth taking the time to test any new piece of photographic equipment before an expedition. Time invested before hand can save many hours of work and frustration down the line. In this case it has saved this participant what would have been many hours of possibly uncorrectable post production work.
* Footnote: In my experience all ten stop filters have some degree of colour caste. The idea however is to be as close to neutral as possible.