The Nisi Filter System-Chinese manufacturing at its best
Homage to Timothy O’ Sullivan, Waimamaku, Aotearoa/New Zealand
Nikon D810, Tamron 15-30 VC USD.
Nisi Soft Square Grad GND 0.9 + Nisi Square ND1000 Filter
ISO 64, 15s @f5.6
I blinked when I opened the package and saw written on the box: Made in China.
Made in China? At this price?
I am often asked at workshops whether I use filters or not. Generally, my answer is: No. Well, I haven’t used them in a while. This is a result of the fact that I tend to shoot intuitively, rather than laboring with a tripod and filters. Where I have used filters, it has been a part of a process which is usually client-focused, and a more considered workflow aimed at meeting client expectations. Even then, I have avoided grads, preferring to do the work in post, and using HDR if necessary. And anyway, I haven’t had any filters for a while.
Filters tend to come in a variety of formats. On the one hand there are the circular screw- in type, which range from the truly budget-priced, suitable for an entry-level DSLR with a mediocre kit lens, up to top end products made by the likes of Singh Ray, B&W and Fujifilm. These are fine for ND and polarisers, but difficult to use for graduated filters.
The other type of filter uses a screw-in filter mount and rectangular filters which slide into a slot on the holder. Probably the best-known brand is Cokin, who make a dizzying array of acrylic filters of all types, from simple black and white filters to quite esoteric ones such as the Dreams filter, de rigeur, I would have thought, for “Impressionist Photographers”. Again the Cokin range are perfectly fine for amateur photographers, but their use for high-end work and demanding clients, while using top-of-the-line equipment is suspect. Cokin filters scratch easily and since they are surface-dyed, polishing out the scratches with toothpaste can see them losing their usefulness.
The other type are high-quality plastic filters made by Lee. Unlike Cokin, these are dyed right through and scratch removal (again with toothpaste) left them sparkling and minty-fresh. I owned a set for a time. The holder, which allowed you to combine multiple filters, came as a kitset, along with a screwdriver and comprehensive instructions for assembly. It took me 3 attempts to do so satisfactorily. Then you bought adapter rings for the lenses you used.
Where this type of filter is superior is with graduated filters, allowing you to position them precisely, for horizons and the like. In addition, you can stack multiple grads to increase the effect, and combine them with the likes of a polariser. I initially bought them for use with my Mamiya RZ 67 (anyone remember them?), and, when I moved to digital, carried them over, buying new adapter rings as I needed them. I did notice that whereas a 1-stop grad would be noticeable on film, on digital it had minimal effect, possibly a function of the digital sensor’s increased dynamic range. For that reason, I would recommend that anyone going down this road on digital BEGIN with a 0.9 (3-stop) grad.
I discovered that in spite of plastic’s supposed durability, the Lee filters weren’t crash-proof, As I watched them slip form my fingers and shatter on the ground. And, at $NZ200+ per filter, I was in no hurry to replace them. In addition, the arrival of HDR and tone-mapping meant that there was no urgency to go there again.
Lately however I have begun to feel their need again. Here is why. Sometimes you have a scene which is changing rapidly, skies in particular, and multiple shots can cause ghosting in things like waves and trees. It simply has to be a single controlled capture. That is where the grad comes into its own.
There is an underlying philosophy here. To get the best possible results, it is essential that all the work be done in-camera, and fine-tuning be done in post-production. Sometimes HDR simply will not do. A perfect capture means less work in post later, and the ability to take that file further.
So I began to think about a filter system again.
Then a chance meeting and a conversation led to me thinking about a filter system and to this review.
I was passing through Auckland on my way to the Far North of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and stopped in at PhotoGear in North Auckland, to check out the range of products and do a little tyre-kicking. PhotoGear is a relatively new player in the photographic retail market in this country. Its owner, Jay Zhou, has been building the business up for a several years. Most of his equipment is sourced from China, and he goes to quite some lengths to make sure what he carries is top-of-the-line Chinese-made. I bought my LED studio lighting kit from him some 3 years ago, for far less than an equivalent American system (2 lights plus stands plus backdrop +stands for $NZ 1300 incl. GST-what’s not to like?), and as time has gone by, I have spent more and more with him. He continues to add to the range of products he sells, making a particular point of carrying a strong range of equipment for video shooters. Just lately he has been offering Sony and Panasonic Mirrorless cameras.
There was a time when Made-in-China meant cheap-and-cheerful-crap. As it used to do with anything made in Japan, and then made in Korea. Now made-in Japan/Korea means quality. My tripod is an Induro, a fraction of the price of the equivalent made by Gitzo or Really Right Stuff, and just as well-made. Over the years, my Induro has been tortured mercilessly, left to roll around in the back of my 4WD, and yet it continues to perform.
Jay asked me if I would be interested in trialling and reviewing a new filter system made by Nisi. Of course. So he promised to send me up a system to test. I had never heard of them before, but a little googling got me very interested. It seemed like a direct competitor for Lee. However the specs really got my attention; all the filters are glassWhat got my attention was the fact that Nisi made a special holder for the stellar Tamron 15-30 VC USD lens on my Nikon D810.The Tamron has such a large, bulbous front element that there is no way of using filters on it. Jay told me that in fact they made on for both it and the Nikkor 14-24/2.8. In fact, they have specifically made a larger filter range to accommodate these huge front elements.
Nisi filters come in 4 sizes; 70 mm for mirrorless cameras, 100mm for most lenses, 150mm for the Big Boy Tamron and Nikkor, and 180mm for the Canon EOS 11-24. You examine your kit and make your choice accordingly.
The filters are, however, not cheap. A 150mm 0.9 ND Grad will set you back $NZ319.00. Then there is the filter holder for the 15-30, which is $264.99. Other filters, such as the CPL, also fit into this price range. A good system with a range of filters is therefore likely to set you back $NZ 1300-1500. It is a decision not to be taken lightly. 70mm and 100mm filters are substantially cheaper, so it obviously pays to think long and hard about your needs before you invest.
Nisi state that their filters are made from optical glass and that both sides are nano-coated to reduce flare and stray reflections. The holder is CNC-machined from aircraft aluminium. I handled a couple of the filters in the shop and everything I saw suggested a top-shelf, no-holds-barred approach to quality.
I couldn’t wait to get them out in the field.
The first impression is of high-quality packaging. The box containing the filter is beautifully printed. Open it and the first thing you see is a leather wallet, nesting in a plastic base. Lift out the wallet and open it, and you find a sealed bag, which requires a pair of scissors to open (teeth don’t work!). Inside the bag, wrapped in tissue paper, is the filter itself. Handling the filter by its edges is a relatively easy task if you have big male hands like me. I suspect, however, that people with small and/or female hands may find it difficult to avoid getting finger marks on the filter. I would suggest that Nisi might consider providing a microfiber cleaning cloth with each filter to make it possible to keep it spotless.
The grad filters (150mm x 170mm) come with graduated markings on each vertical edge, to make accurate and repeatable positioning easy. The 1000ND has foam pads to ensure there is no chance of stray light entering the lens. And, because the filters are glass, the corners have been rounded off to avoid cuts and bloodstains on the filter. Attention to detail in design and construction is utterly superb.
The holder is also beautifully-constructed, and the fit is so precise that it only requires less than a turn of the thumbscrews which fasten it to the lenshood for a snug and secure fit. The filters slide easily but not sloppily in the grooves, and there is little risk of them falling out and shattering.
An optional extra, and one I would recommend, is the NISI Square Filter Box, a beautiful leather box which holds up to 6 filters, each one separated by dividers from the others. This makes it easy to keep track of the filters in one place.
The kit I was supplied for testing included the filter holder, 150mm CPL, 100o ND, 0.9 ND Grad, and 0.9 Reverse Grad. The ND grad was of the soft variety. For a wide angle you really need to use a hard grad, since, even stooped down, it is extremely difficult to see where the cut-off occurs. Soft grads are better with telephoto lenses. Ideally I would carry both.
I was itching to get them out in the field, and after weeks of rain and gloomy, bad weather. My opportunity finally came. I took myself to a small private beach near where I live. I was particularly keen to see how the ND1000 (10 stops of exposure throttling) fared.
The initial shot was into the light, and the sun was in the shot. OK. How will you deal with this, I asked the filters?
My first step was to go manual. I fastened the filter holder onto the lens barrel and tightened it down.
I calculated the depth-of field at f8, and focussed manually. The ND passes too little light for the autofocus on the D810 to work correctly.
I set the exposure manually for the foreground, and put on the Grad filter to darken the sky (sun still in shot).
I then put on the ND1000, and manually underexposed the shot 10 stops, giving a final reading of 15secs at f5.6 at ISO 64 (it was a moody landscape).
This type of filter system isn’t for everybody, but it is essential kit for landscape and architecture photographers, where you are usually working from a tripod and in a considered way. If you are using top-shelf equipment, then it is essential to use filters commensurate with the quality of your glass. Until now this has meant using Lee filters or Lee filters, which are often difficult to obtain at the best of times and very expensive. Not only that most are plastic, and prone to scratching.
Now there is another option. Nisi filters. Apparently with the massive increase in wages in China, the Chinese have decided the answer lies in innovation and producing premium product. Nisi filters are in the same dollar ballpark as Lee filters, their obvious rival, but the people at Nisi have taken a no-compromise approach, and produced a product which not only matches Lee but, to my mind, leaves them gasping in the dust. For the same money you get nano-coated optical glass (and Japanese glass at that), along with a whole host of fine but important refinements which put the Nisi product in a league of their own.
In short, then: If you are in the market for a no-comprise filter solution, then there is only one brand to consider.