BATTLE OF THE BIG STOPPERS – LEE vs. HI-TECH PRO 10 STOP ND FILTER SHOWDOWN

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.

London Bridge

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 +4

LEE Big Stopper White Balance as shot: 6450 -4

HiTech 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.

12 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I stumbled across this when doing research on the Lee Big Stopper.
    This article was very helpful even if I am committed to using the Lee system anyway.
    The 21mm is a brilliant piece of glass.
    Thanks for this blog post.
    FYI, Josh your 1D mkIV is doing well.

    Regards,

    Cameron

    • Posted September 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Cameron,

      Glad the MKIV is going well! I felt sorry to see it go, but was sure it was going to a great home.

      Just a follow up to the High-Tech. They have sent another filter out and initial tests show it is better than the sample I had on hand. However, the LEE is still significantly more neutral.

      Cheers,

  2. Posted July 20, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink | Reply

    I ordered the Hi-Tech Pro directly from the manufacturer mostly because of availability, but also out of concern for breakage of the glass Lee filter. Hi-Tech verified which holder (Lee) I would be using the filter with and it arrived at my home in the US in about 10 days. I was aware of the color cast, so I ordered a small WhiBal card at the same time. Before I make an image with the Hi-Tech, I shoot the scene with the WhiBal card somewhere in the frame. Normally I just hold it a couple of feet in front of the lens, where it isn’t even in focus. Once I’ve done that, I go ahead and take the long exposure without the card. When processing the raw files, I pick the gray blob that’s the WhiBal card and copy that to my settings. I then paste that setting into the official image, and like magic, the color balance is perfect. I hope this helps anyone who may be having color balance issues.

  3. Posted June 25, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Mark
    Interested to know if you have the older Hi-tech 10 stop filter or the newer Hi-Tech pro 10 stop filter as the other blog that I referred to seemed to see a marked improvement in quality with the Pro series.
    Rob

    • pointsinfocus
      Posted June 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I’d be interested to know if there’s a way to tell the difference between the two.

      I bought a Hitech largely because I couldn’t find a Lee for love or money. When I was doing my research the articles I found that compared them has the two vary close in terms of color casts (including the ones you linked previously). In practical terms I see a situation that’s much closer that’s much closer to the what is shown here (13750K +128m to get a neutral WB in a daylight exposure for example). While it’s recoverable, it severely limits the latitude for color related tweaks.

      I’m guessing that I got one of the old ones though the retail channel I went thought given what I’m seeing here.

      • Posted June 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Visually the two filters are very different since the HiTech is Resin and the LEE is glass. I would regard the HiTech I tested as unusable for any sort of work that involved colour.

      • pointsinfocus
        Posted June 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        @jholko,

        To be clear, I wasn’t asking if there was a way to tell the Hitech apart from the Lee, but rather the different formulations that are supposed to exist between old Hitechs and the supposedly reformulated new ones. If you note the links in Rob’s post #3 there is a marked difference in the results between what you’re seeing and what Robert Strachan is showing/seeing.

      • Posted June 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        Understand. I cannot account for Rob’s test. I can tell you that the results I see with the hi-Tech are repeatable and unacceptable. My understanding is that the difference between the old and new hi-techs is the gasket to prevent light leakage. To be clear, we tested the new Pro version with the gasket. I have no bias toward either LEE or Hi-Tech (although I use LEE filters) per se. I am just reporting the results of a completely fair test that show the Hi-Tech to be atrocious. I do think its likely the a result of a and batch. I will be testing the replacement when Hi-Tech ship it and will report the findings.

      • Posted June 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Hi pointsinfocus
        Actually, there is a way to tell the difference between the old Hi-Tech and the newer Pro 10 Stop. As the reviewer mentions in his review
        “as both the Big Stopper and the Pro Stop have gaskets which completely stop the light leakage from the sides and top of the filters.” The older Hi-Tech 10 Stop did not have the gaskets to stop light leakage.

        I do’t doubt that the Lee is a better filter but getting hold of one is near impossible so I thought I would give the Hi-Tech Pro a go.

        Rob

      • Points in Focus
        Posted June 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        @jholko,

        If it helps any re. the bad batch theory, my 10-stop Hitech was sourced from B&H in New York about 6 months ago; and has a gasket.

        @Rob,

        Likewise, I have a 10-stop hitech instead of the Lee I wanted because I couldn’t source a Lee for love or money.

        Then again, I’ve already dropped my Hitech 2 or 3 times 3-4 feet to concrete which is something I’m pretty sure the glass big stopper wouldn’t have survived any of that.

  4. Posted June 25, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink | Reply

    As an owner of both (Lee and HiTech) 10 Stop filters, I can wholeheartedly concur with these tests !

    Sadly, the HiTech does indeed have a horrendous blue colour cast.

    The Lee however is exceptional filter, almost perfectly neutral.

    Regards

    Mark

  5. Posted June 25, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink | Reply

    Ah, what a pity you had not written up this review a few days earlier :)

    I was trying to decide on which 10 stop filter to buy to use with my Canon 17mm TS lens (with the filter holder setup you blogged about recently) and found this link http://blog.robertstrachan.com/archives/1314/hitech-pro-stop-review/

    This was a follow up to his original test of the Lee and the first Hitech 10 stop filter http://blog.robertstrachan.com/archives/844/lee-big-stopper-hitech-10-stop-nd-filter-review/. His conclusion was that the new Hitech Pro 10 stop filter was well matched against the Lee which is at least twice the price here in Australia (if you can get one).

    As a result I ordered a newer Hitech Pro 10 Stop on Friday.
    Thanks for taking the time to review though.
    Rob

One Trackback

  1. By Hitech/Formatt Pro Stop 10 Stop ND filter | Points in Focus Photography on June 28, 2012 at 5:35 am

    […] same ballpark. As I was in the process of writing this J. Holko posted his comparison between the Hitech and Lee filters, which added a data point I didn’t previously have, the color temp the camera came to using its […]

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