Battle of the 10-stops
A 10-stop ND filter is a piece of kit that will transform your photography whether you like it or not. Photography is no longer just about capturing what's there, but about creating a piece of art, and using a 10-stop ND filter will certainly boost your artistic ability almost more than any other piece of kit.
If you're unfamiliar with ND (neutral density) filters, they are basically dark pieces of glass you put in front of your lens that reduce the amount of light available to shoot with. This means, as compensation, the camera will have to use lower shutter speeds to get the required shot. These shutter speeds will therefore allow you to blur water or clouds, or remove people and moving objects from your shot. ND filters range in densities, but a 10-stop ND (also known as ND 3.0 or ND1000) will reduce the amount of light by 10-stops depending on how much light is available.
That's about as technical as I'm going to get with ND filters, as this post is about the difference between my old LEE Big Stopper (10-stop) and the NISI 10-stop which is a new player in the game out of China.
I was out shooting on a beach a few months back when I saw the moon starting to line up with the triangular roof of an old lifesaver tower. In the panic that ensued with me venturing into the surf whilst carrying my shoes and a number of other items, I took my LEE Big Stopper off the front of my lens and dropped it in the ocean. I picked it up and had nowhere to put it except my back pocket which immediately became a poor decision when I crouched down to shoot at a lower angle. There was a rush of emotions when I heard the 'snap'... anger, sadness, hilarity and then a quick acceptance that I learnt a good lesson, albeit an expensive one (The Big Stopper costs $250 in NZ).
As I use my 10-stop ND for a huge number of my shots (especially around water), I needed to get a replacement quick smart. So I took the opportunity to see what else was out there and how it compared to the LEE Big Stopper.
I had seen a lot of recent posts about people using the NISI range of filters and the reviews seemed very positive. They were also slightly cheaper than the LEE 10-stop coming in at $215 NZ so I took a leap of faith and purchased one.
The NISI 10-stop filter comes in a stylish brown wallet (see below), but as pretty as it is, I really needed a more solid case to protect the filter, so I had to put the NISI in my old LEE filter's tin.
It's very similar looking to the LEE filter, but has slightly rounder edges. On the back is a similar foam gasket to the LEE which helps it block out the unwanted light at it's edges.
Looks aside though, the important thing was how did it perform?
The NISI filter slotted fine into my LEE 100mm system, however after a few photography trips, the filter slowly slipped out! Luckily it was only onto sand and wasn't damaged but it made me realise that the NISI filter doesn't quite sit as snuggly as I'd like.
You can turn the filter around 90 degrees and it does fit tighter but it was almost too tight and it was at risk of breaking when loading it in and out each time, and the tighter fit also threatened to remove part of the foam gasket, which was not ideal. So I had to come up with a make-shift solution and add two small strips of black insulation tape down each edge of the glass (where glass extends beyond the foam as seen in photos above). Again this wasn't ideal for aesthetics, and no doubt would require changing every so often, but it seemed to work and now I had a suitable fit in the LEE system.
Now onto the photos...
Here is a comparison of the same scene with my old LEE big stopper (glued together in corner) and the NISI 10-stop straight out of the camera (SOOC):
And then both images with the same RAW editing and white balance, (same white point picked in scene):
It is well known that the LEE big stopper has a far colder (blue) tone and therefore SOOC the images appear like the top image above. This colour tone can easily be corrected in post-production, but it is nice seeing what the image is likely to look like on the back of the camera and correcting colour tones can have it's issues in post, so I far prefer the tone of the NISI filter.
Foolishly (and as a scientist I should know better) I didn't take a control photo to compare the colour of the NISI filter to the scene without a filter, but I can confirm that the NISI filter does warm the scene slightly as is stated in other reviews, but it's a nice warming.
The other major difference between the two was the greater vignetting with the LEE over the NISI. Again you can correct this is post but it's better if you don't have to, and there will be greater noise in those vignetted regions. The corrected NISI image is far more balanced and pleasing to me than the LEE one.
Despite the issues with the NISI filter not fitting snuggly in my LEE 100mm adaptor (no doubt the NISI fits better in it's own system), and the lack of a more solid storage container, the images the NISI 10-stop filter creates are a lot nicer than the LEE Big Stopper. There is far less colour cast, which requires less tweaking in post, and the reduction in vignetting is far preferred.
It's not that I wouldn't recommend the LEE Big Stopper, it treated me to a new world of photography and provided me with some great images. But if you can get your hands on the NISI 10-stop, I'm sure you won't regret it for a second....