Landscape Photography: Filters on a budget

 Meander River  D800, Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 28mm@f11 61secs ISO400 - Lee Big Stopper

There's no mistaking the lure of filters for landscape photography.

The first time you see silky water on the back of your camera there is an instant and natural attraction. More often than not, however, as you progress along the road to better landscape images the way is dotted with struggles between compromise and results.

Many who become serious about landscapes eventually end up on Lee's brilliant (though expensive) 100mm system. In part for uncompromised sharpness but mostly it comes down to one thing; colour.

The question is, with so many filter makers out there, whether it's really necessary to move to Lee or Singh-Ray where you'll be spending $900+ (not including filter holder/adapter rings) for a full set of grads and solid NDs (usually 3x soft grads, 3x hard cut grads and 3x solid ND). Add to that a nice 10-stop ND and you're into serious money.

The most popular higher-end alternative to Lee/Singh-Ray would appear to be Hitech, a British filter manufacturer. Their 10-stop ND filter is an amazingly good alternative to Lee's Big Stopper and their reverse grads are something not even featured in Lee's system at this time.

But Hitech aren't exactly colour neutral. Not an issue with solid ND but a devil for grads, especially if the colour cast you have to deal with is the dreaded magenta..

And so, ignoring cheap Chinese brands, we're not left with much choice.

Enter UK-based filter maker Kood International. They're incredibly cheap but how do they perform? Is it really possible for filters costing 1/5th (or even less, depending on where you find them) that of Lee to deserve space in your camera bag?

Build Quality

Kood produce filters for a number of systems starting from Cokin A size (67mm). From a landscape perspective, the nine filters most photographers would probably want are covered; 1/2/3 stop solid ND, 1/2/3 stop soft-cut grad and 1/2/3 stop hard-cut grad.

The Kood filters look quite a bit more blue than Lee's and the grads are an inch shorter. Regarding transition zones, Kood's soft grads are about the same as Lee but do take longer to reach full darkness at the top. Lee's hard grads are definitely harder.

Kood's build quality is quite decent, especially for the price. The corners are more rounded than Lee's, the edge finish on Lee is a little nicer and the Lee filters are maybe 0.1mm thicker. The only real gripe with the Kood filters is that they're an inch shorter than Lee but this is probably only going to be an issue for those who like to hand-hold their filters.

Overall, the Kood filters look and feel more expensive than they are. They don't play in the same ballpark as Lee, of course, but they're certainly very well made.

Solid ND

Colour Cast

It's there, it's a cool blue, it takes 5 seconds to fix. Of course, this depends on how many filters you're stacking but does illustrate that these filters are far from neutral.

 Low Head  D800, Nikon 16-35 f/4 16mm@f/14 1 sec ISO100 - Kood ND4+ND8+ND4 Soft - Manual WB
The blue cast may be extreme but there is no magenta to be seen. Particularly in the sky, where the soft grad is doing two stops of work over a further five stops of solid ND, there's no hint of magenta. White balance was manually set before filters were added but the blue cast still appears when letting the camera choose white balance with the filters in place.

Even when really pushing things by stacking filters in low light, mere seconds with the white balance tool in Lightroom sorts things out completely. Anybody who's worked with a Lee Big Stopper will be in familiar territory as the colour cast is very like that of Lee's 10-Stop sweetheart.

 Low Head  D800, Nikon 16-35 f/4 19mm@f/8 30 secs ISO64 - Kood ND4+ND8
Given how uniformly blue images are, and how simple it is to fix by setting white balance in editing, it's certainly easy to live with.

Light Stopping Ability

Throughout testing, Kood's ND rating turned out to be quite accurate. All three solid NDs show that Kood have their formula right.

As expected, while shooting during a bright day around 2pm, stacking all three of Kood's solid NDs failed to produce any silken water effect. Replace all three filters with Lee's Big Stopper and we start to see results. Add Kood's ND8 to the Big Stopper and we're there at 60 seconds. Currently, Kood don't offer a 10 stop 100mm filter, more's the pity.

It takes a full 13 stops to create silky water in these kinds of conditions. Kood's filters complement Lee's Big Stopper rather nicely
Looking at a more clouded scene, the effect is fully within the capabilities of the Koods alone. Using all three solid ND filters we end up with a 6 stop effect to match the unfiltered exposure. Nice to have filters capable of performing as advertised.

Kood ND2+ND4+ND8 produces 6 stops. Bang on the official rating
Overall, fatastic results. Though it would be nice to have a cheap alternative for a 100mm 10-Stop ND, it's very nice to see Kood's filters play well with Lee's Big Stopper. Hitech offer a great 10-Stop ND, though it's not much cheaper than Lee's. 

10-Stop NDs tend to be a special case requiring an expensive glass fabrication process, so it's no surprise a cheap alternative doesn't exist for 100mm systems currently.

Colour cast aside, no real negatives could be found. It's certainly advisable to shoot RAW with these filters, particularly if you need to stack them, in order to be able to colour correct without issue.

There are sharpness issues when shooting long lenses, which we'll address a little further on, however the majority of photographers are unlikely to be shooting focal lengths where this issue might arise.

As far as solid NDs go, there's very little to complain about here.


Colour Cast

 Lilydale Road  D800, Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 28mm@f/8 1/200 sec ISO100
Left Cokin P121M - Right Magenta Removed
ND Grads are where the problems usually occur.

Cokin's P System is often the first one we try when moving into filters but the first experience with Cokin's infamous magenta colour cast ends up being a frustrating dance in editing. It's fixable but it's tedious work and often leads to colour shifts we might not necessarily want.

It's really only when stacking two or more of Cokin's P sized soft grads that you can appreciate how offensive it can get.

 Lilydale Road  D800, Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 28mm@f/8 1/200 ISO100 - Cokin P121M+P121S

So how does Kood fare in comparison? Rather well, actually.

Images stay pleasantly magenta-free, even with multiple grads stacked
Uneven colour casts rarely appeared no matter what combination of grads were used. In fact, the only time it appeared was with long exposures and not shuttering the viewfinder on the D800 and D700. In this situation, no matter how good the filters, magenta is likely to appear.

Even when deliberately leaving the viewfinder open magenta cast was quite minimal and, once again, Kood were right on the money with their strength ratings.

As with the solid ND filters, there's a definite blue colour cast. In a lot of cases this actually works to enhance skies but it also makes lens vignetting more prononced.

 Deviot  D800, Nikon 16-35 f/4 16mm@f/16 1/8 sec ISO100
Left Unfiltered - Right Kood ND8+ND8 Soft+ND4 Soft

Transition Zones

The gradiation area on the soft grads proved to quite subtle, making them particularly good for shots with a lot of foreground and horizon interest. In fact, on a full frame body, it's so subtle that sometimes you may have a little trouble working out exactly where the grad line is. Particularly when using the 1 and 2 stop soft grads alone. In practise this works out to be an advantage as there's no obvious transition zone. 

Due to the nature of crop sensor bodies, and given how gently Koods soft grads transition from clear, you may find these filters too soft. This is also the case for Lee's soft grads so not something you could consider a negative against Kood. 

 Low Head  D800, Nikon 16-35 f/4 35mm@f/16 1/8 sec ISO100
Left Unfiltered - Right Kood ND4 Soft with transitiona zone marked
The hard grads have a very obvious gradient line, making them excellent for shooting flat horizons. It's not as hard as Lee but they still require a lot more care with placement. As the line is so distinct on full frame, it's hard to hide but when shooting. With a crop sensor body the line is a lot less distinct and they perform closer to the soft grads on full frame. 

Care must be taken with placement when using hard grads
If you have a need for them, Kood's hard grads are difficult to pass up.


Crop areas - Kood ND4+ND8+ND4 Soft
From 16-35mm, the impact on sharpness with the Kood filters was imperceptible. Heading towards 200mm, the situation changes but the difference is negligible until around 120mm. Once at 200mm, softness does becomes an issue. Probably not a problem for most but perhaps something to consider.

In the test shot at left, using a triple filter stack (solid ND4+ND8 and 2-stop soft grad), sharpness in Lightroom was set to zero with only basic colour correction applied in order to match the non-filtered to the filtered image.

Examining a worst-case scenario where three filters are stacked, the sharpness degradation is impressively low. 

The following screenshots are 100% crops from a 16mm shot as seen in Lightroom's Compare view (1:1 zoom). The filtered image (right) compares very favourably indeed with the unfiltered version (left).

Impressive performance, particularly when considering the image was shot with a D800. In every shot taken with the same combination of filters the story was the same all the way from 16mm to 35mm. Switching to a 28-70mm produced the same result and it was only when testing with a 70-200mm that a difference was visible above 120mm.

Example 1 -  Very little detail loss, perhaps most visible in the rocks. Click to enlarge
Example 2 - Maximum detail appears to be retained, even when stacking three filters. Click to enlarge
Example 3 - Loss of detail above 120mm with three filters stacked (bottom) becomes quite pronounced by 200mm 

So what does it boil down to?

Results with the Kood filters were quite a surprise. Sure, the blue colour cast others have talked about is there in spades but a simple white balance correction is all that's required to remove it.

Overall, if you're looking to buy into a filter system, Kood is a brilliant way to do so. There are certain filters not currently offered (Reverse Grads, Medium-Cut grads, 10-Stop ND) but of these only the 10-Stop ND is likely to be missed. 

There's no doubt Lee is still the system to aim for if you're serious, however Kood's lack of magenta colour cast certainly puts them ahead of Cokin and Hitech with regards to colour. 

There are sharpness issues in certain situations and build quality is generally above Cokin and on par with Hitech. It would also be nice if the grads were 4"x6" instead of 4"x5", as you're pretty much forced to use a filter holder at anything wider than about 20mm (though Kood do have upcoming products addressing this and more)

Kood's filters have a lot going for them and certainly give you results approaching that of Lee under most circumstances. If you have your heart set on building a full set of Lee filters, filling in the gaps with Kood is an excellent option while you do so. 

Even if you're well on your way with Lee buying a set of Koods for use in situations where you might be wary of exposing your Lees is a great idea.

It's unfortunate that Kood have no distributors here in Australia. Lee, Cokin and Chinese brands are readily available here so at the moment, Kood are somewhat of a hidden gem in my country. 

Kood International have a huge list of stockists listed on their website but, being Australia-based, I found the easiest route to be eBay. I ordered a couple of Kood filters from Crooked Imaging's eBay store and they arrived from the UK within 10 days. Not too shabby!

So really, if you're in need of certain filters and budget doesn't allow you to cover those requirements with Lee, it's absolutely worth giving Kood a try. To be able to build a complete set of common landscape filters, whether temporary or not,  for the price of about two of Lee's grads is just unbeatable!

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  1. The filter holder called Novignett will eliminate all vignetting. Check out and search “per johannessen”. Look at the pictures and read the description. “freephotoguides” has this on their forums under Gear Talk.

  2. Hi:

    As owner of Nikkor 16-35 lens myself, I would like to buy a bigstopper. But not sure if screwing ones such as B+W are good enough (quality and vignetting). Currently I use Cokin P filters for ND Grad and they give terrible vignetting even when I handhold them. As the result, quality suffers a lot.

    Can you please share what type of bigstopper and ND Grad you use with this lens without sacrificing a quality, especially at wide angle?


    1. This is an old question (oops), but I'll answer anyway for anybody else who might be wondering the same sort of thing. I HIGHLY doubt you're going to see any quality issues with any B+W filters. I've no experience with any of their filters so couldn't say whether there's a vignetting issue around 16mm. If you're shooting a lot of landscapes with sky, it's not the greatest idea to use a CPL anyway as you'll see a lot of uneven polarisation in the sky. As for which bigstopper and ND grad I used on the 16-35, they're all 100mm (or 105mm for the CPL) mounted on a Lee holder.

  3. Edan, have you tried the Kood circular polarizer that is designed to go with these filters? It too seems too inexpensive to be any good but now I am curious given you findings with the ND filters.

    1. I haven't, no. Since I wrote this, it looks like Kood have added to their filter line but with a combination of the filters used in this article, the few Lee filters I have and my Sigma 105mm CPL all bases are covered (I actually haven't replaced the Kood filters used in this article). Looking at what few reviews of Kood's CPL I can find, and the fact Kood's larger CPLs seem to be made in China, I'd also be interested in seeing how well they do.

  4. Hello
    Could you be so kind of recommending what set should i buy the hard or the soft kit. I want on a low cost buy some nd filters but dont know what to buy. Kood seems to me to be a good choice on a low budjet but dont know if buy seperatedlly some soft and hard filters or if buy the nd2,4,8 kit they have on soft or hard.


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  6. Is optical quality sacrificed kood vs lee?

  7. is optical quality sacrificed between the lee and the kood

    1. I know this is almost a year old.. but absolutely. But the Kood filters are a great cheap option until you can afford Lee.

  8. Hi! Does the kood filter fit the Lees holder?

    1. Oh man.... Didn't see this question.... For anybody else wondering the answer is yes, they do fit the Lee holder. However the Kood filters used in the article are quite a bit shorter so less versatile than Lee filters.

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