As impressive as modern post-processing apps like Lightroom and Luminar are, there are still some things they can't replace an old-fashioned lens filter for. An obvious example is a standard neutral density filter. The kinds of things you'd use an ND filter for really can't be handled in post. And a properly used graduated ND filter will often provide better exposure results from bright skies than applying one in post and trying to recover detail from the highlights.
Often the most convenient way to add a filter to a lens is to use a screw-on filter. But that's not always the best option. Using larger plate filters and their holders are more cumbersome, but they're also more flexible. You can use them on a wide range of lenses, including some that won't take conventional screw-on filters. You can stack filters to mix and match or intensify effects. And some of the glass filters can potentially offer higher quality.
There are several makers of filter holders. Cokin and Lee are some of the better-known brands that have been around for a very long time, and those are the ones I've tended to use. But recently been trying out some from Formatt Hitech. They're a small Welsh company (hence the dragon in their logo) that focuses on making high-quality photography and videography filters.
B&H Photo sent me one of their holder and filter kits to try out. The name of this one is quite a mouthful: Formatt Hitech Firecrest Patrick Di Fruscia 100mm Signature Edition Pro Essentials Kit with 100mm Firecrest Filter Holder. It's worth breaking that down.
Formatt Hitech is the company name/brand.
Firecrest refers to their propriety way of applying the shading to the filters. Rather than coating the outside of the glass, the coating is sandwiched between the glass. One advantage of that is that it makes the filters more durable, which is a definite plus in the field. They also claim that it results in a much more neutral filter without the color cast that many filters have.
100mm doesn't refer to the lens diameter, as you might expect if you're used to using screw-on filters. In this case, it refers to the width of the glass plates. Many filters, like a typical flat neutral density filter, are square (100mm x 100mm), but not all of them. In this particular kit, for instance, there's a round polarizer and a rectangular graduated neutral density filter. But they're all designed to work with the 100mm filter holder. 100mm is big enough to work with a very wide range of DSLR and mirrorless lenses.
And, finally, Di Fruscia Photography Signature Edition refers to landscape photographer Patrick Di Fruscia. You can find examples of his stunning work on his website.
What Makes It Different?
There are several makers of square filter systems. Cokin and Lee are among the better known. Formatt Hitech is another of the major players in this space.
There are some notable things worth pointing out about this one.
Aluminum Holders. Some manufacturers make plastic holders. The Formatt Hitech ones are aluminum. So they're stronger while still light.
Anti-Light Leak Covers. This particular holder--the 100mm version--comes with snap-on covers for the top and bottom. These are designed to prevent light-leaks, and it's an approach I think is quite clever. It comes in especially useful when shooting long exposures with neutral density filters, but anything that helps the wrong kind of light hitting the sensor is a good thing. The covers simply slide on an off and are held in place with friction. They're not essential to the operation of the filter, but they are a nice touch. And it's only a minor hassle having a couple of extra pieces to juggle when out shooting, but the system will still function perfectly well without them.
The fully enclosed covers work well for 100mm square filters, but what if you want to use something like a rectangular graduated ND filter that you need to be able to slide through to position the horizon? They've thought of that. The covers have small slot covers (or vented, if you like) that can be swapped out. One is fully enclosed, to be used with standard square filters. The other has a narrow slot to allow a filter slide through. So you still get the benefit of minimizing light leaks even with these rectangular filters.
Firecrest. This is the name of Formatt Hitech's proprietary method of constructing their glass filters. As they explain it:
Firecrest were the first photographic filters to use carbon neutral coatings to bring unprecedented neutrality to the market. To ensure the filters were as durable as possible, we bonded the coating in the centre of two pieces of optical grade polished glass (using a very precise amount of an equally neutral bonding agent, developed in-house.)
Clip Attachment. One of the things I particularly liked about this filter holder system is that it can clip on and off. That mightn't sound like a groundbreaking innovation, but it's something that can be hugely convenient when actually using them. There's a small part that screws into the lens, and there's a good chance you'll also be using a step-up ring as well (a few different sizes are included; more on that below). Those parts are slim and can stay permanently attached to your lens, if you like. The main holder part can then simply clip on and off to those rings. That means that you can compose, meter, and focus your shot without any filter attached and then easily and quickly attach the filter with greatly reduced risks of bumping the focus or composition. Because one of the challenges of using a strong ND filter is that you can't use the usual through-the-lens focusing and metering simply because they're too dark. It's not much of an issue with the 3-stop ND filter included in this kit--my Nikon D810 was able to focus and meter right through it with no problem--but it does become an issue with stronger ND filters. I've been also shooting with Formatt Hitech's whopping 16-stop ND filter as well (not included in this kit), and there's just no way to focus and meter with it attached. So being able to focus, meter, and compose without the filter and then simply clip on the holder and filter without rotating the lens and messing up focus is a really handy thing.
Attaching the Holder to the Lens. The holder attaches to the lens using a standard filter thread. The native diameter of the holder is 82mm. If your lens comes with a more commonly used smaller diameter, the kit also includes three slimline step-up rings to 82mm: from 67mm, 72mm, and 77mm. If you're using a lens with a different diameter, you'll need to pick up a standard step-up ring separately (it doesn't have to be a Formatt Hitech brand).
Installing the Glass Plates. Once you have the holder installed on your lens, the filters themselves simply slide in and are held in place with friction. There are two slots, so you can stack two filters if you like. Using the light-leak covers is optional, but they're simple to install by just snapping over the top and bottom.
Polarizing Filter. The circular polarizing filter is installed a little differently, and it's not necessarily immediately obvious how. The polarizing filter is a round screw-in filter that installs into the holder. But it does so in the central part of the holder. The internal ring clips out using the spring-loaded clip with the grip marks. So you remove the internal ring and attach the polarizer filter to that, and then insert both back into the holder.
The advantage of doing it that way is that it takes advantage of a built-in rotation mechanism. The holder's internal ring has small cog teeth, and there's a dial on top of the holder. Rotating that dial rotates the ring and, therefore, the polarizing filter so that you can align it with the direction of the sun or light source to get the desired effect.
Extreme Wide-Angle Lenses. I've been using this on 24mm lenses without any vignetting issues. Some users using wider lenses of, say, 18mm, have reported some vignetting. For very wide-angle lenses that don't have a flat front and therefore can't accommodate a traditional filter system--like the Nikon 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G, for instance--Formatt Hitech offers a difference range of holders such as the 165mm Lucroit Holder.
This particular kit comes with three glass filters included.
The first is a ND 1.2, which is a flat neutral density filter that blocks 4 stops of light. It's the same power as a 16x, ND 104, or ND16 rating that some other manufacturers use). There are several ways a 4-stop ND filter can come in handy. You might want to use a large aperture for shallow depth of field in bright conditions. You might want to drag the shutter to smooth out some movement in the frame, perhaps in a still photo or perhaps when shooting a timelapse.
The Firecrest system is supposed to be very color neutral, so I was curious to see whether it was in practice. Here are some shots to compare. The first is without a filter; the second is with the ND1.2 filter attached. Both are shot with the same aperture, ISO, and white balance, with only the shutter speed being adjusted as appropriate.
The second filter included is a ND 0.9 Grad. At its darkest, it blocks 3 stops of light (the same as an 8x or ND8 rating some filter manufacturers use). That's a graduated neutral density filter, which means its darker at one end and clear at the other. A typical use for this type filter is darkening bright skies to better match the exposure of the ground.
Some grad filters have a fairly sharp gradation; this one is very smooth and subtle, and when you're shooting with it it's not necessarily obvious. But it's there--here's an example I shot by rotating it around. The first shot is the typical way with the dark at the top; for the second the filter is rotated 180° so that the darker end is at the bottom.
82mm Ultraslim Firecrest Polarizer. The third included filter is a circular polarizer. The other filters slot in, but this one works a bit differently. There's a mechanism in the holder where you can turn a dial to rotate the filter to match the angle of the light. As far as polarizer filters go this one is quite subtle, but it's also smooth and effective. Some polarizers can be too harsh on clear blue skies for my tastes, but I found this one to be nicely balanced.
The booklet that comes included in the box is more useful for its sample photos shot by Di Fruscia than as a practical guide for assembling, attaching, and using the holder system. Don't get me wrong--they're beautiful photos--but they're more inspirational than practical. For the nuts and bolts, you can find better information on their website. Especially good are some videos they've created that show how to assemble and use the holder system. Here's the first one:
What's in the Box?
There are various kits. The one I'm referring to here is the 100mm Pro Essentials Filter Kit Di Fruscia Photography Signature Edition.
- Firecrest 100mm Filter Holder
- 100x100mm Firecrest ND 1.2
- 100x100mm Firecrest ND 0.9 Grad
- 82mm Ultraslim Firecrest Polarizer
- 82mm Rotating Adapter Ring
- 67-82mm Step Ring
- 72-82mm Step Ring
- 77-82mm Step Ring
- Patrick Di Fruscia Essentials Booklet
- allen key
- 2 x slotted (vented) end caps
- 2 x solid end caps
- filter pouch
- holder pouch
Other Filters & Accessories
The kit contains the basics that will get you started, but the whole point of a holder system like this is that it's modular. So you might well find yourself wanting to use other filters in it.
It's compatible with all standard 100mm glass filters with a 2mm thickness. Some I'm particularly interested in are Formatt HiTech's two very strong neutral density filters: a 13-stop, and a 16-stop. They're not the only very strong ND filters available--Lee also make a 15-stop, for instance. Formatt Hitech claims that they're "the most neutral ND filters in the world!" (They're now using a newer manufacturing approach that results in what they call Firecrest Ultra, that they claim has improved clarity and sharpness and lower reflectivity but fundamentally the same neutrality.)
And if you're using it for the ND filters, there's another kit that's worth looking at. The Formatt Hitech Firecrest Elia Locardi 100mm Signature Edition Travel Kit with 100mm Firecrest Filter Holder includes a 10-stop ND 3.0 filter as well.
You can also get other graduated ND filters that are stronger and have sharper or smoother gradations.
If you're using a lens that doesn't have a 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, or 82mm diameter, you can pick up step-up rings for other sizes.
Formatt Hitech has a reputation for making very high-quality filters, but I hadn't tried them before. I'm impressed, and as the weather becomes more photogenic in coming months I'm looking forward to exploring the possibilities of this system even more. The 4-stop ND filter is a useful practical filter. The graduated ND filter is quite subtle but definitely has some effect for darkening skies. And the polarizer is a useful addition that is in some ways more convenient to use than a traditional screw-on circular polarizer if you're already using the Formatt Hitech mounting system. My three favorite things about the kit are that the ND filters are, indeed, exceptionally neutral; that the glass filters are sturdy and strong with reduced risk of them snapping; and the thought that has gone into the holder system. It all adds up to a top-shelf filter kit particularly suited to landscape photographers and travel photographers.
You can find the Formatt Hitech Firecrest Patrick Di Fruscia 100mm Signature Edition Pro Essentials Kit with 100mm Firecrest Filter Holder at B&H Photo for $399.