16 stops ProStop

The all new Formatt Hitech Firecrest 16 Filter review – part 1

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The new Firecrest 16 stops (IR)NDFilter is the New Black (glass).

Formatt-Hitech recently released a brand new series of long exposure photography ND filters specifically aimed at more advanced  long exposure photographers: the Firecrest 16 stops ND filter. This is a single Infrared Neutral Density Filter that reduces the light with 16 stops – which is a worlds first by the way. As per usual you have the option of a 100mmx100mm square filter or a circular screw-in (72mm, 77mm and 82mm). I’ve already mentioned the existence of this filter in the book I wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou “From Basics to Fine Art” but had not tested the filters at the time of writing the book.
In this review I will test the 77mm circular screw-in filter only and compare it with the very reliable and trusty B+W ND filter that always has been the to go filter in a time B+W and a few other brands like Hoya and Singh-Ray were leading the market. I will test the rectangular Firecrest filters in part 2 of this review when I will test the filters compared to other ND filters on typical architectural subjects. Part 1 of this review will be focused on seascape subjects.

Firecrest 16 - Front

Firecrest 16 stops circular filter, front view

Firecrest 16 Square (2)

Firecrest 16 stops square filter to be used with a holder like the one from Formatt-Hitech or the Lee filter holder.

 About Firecrest

This is what Formatt-Hitech says about Firecrest, you can read it all on their website here:

(…)
Firecrest IRND is a revolutionary new type of infrared-attenuating neutral density filter from Formatt-Hitech. Firecrest is a 15 layer multicoating process that is applied directly to the glass through a vacuum-formed, hard-coated, electrolytic process. Firecrest filters are anti-reflective and extremely flare resistant, which increases contrast and visual acuity in challenging lighting conditions. They are also hydrophobic and scratch-resistant.
(…)

A very thin 16 stops solution

The first thing I noticed about the circular Firecrest 16 stops filter is its thinness. It is only 5.5 mm thick. This means that it is thinner than the B+W 10 stops and the Formatt Hitech ProStop 10 stops IRND filter that I have been using up till now. Lee filters doesn’t produce any circular 10 stops filter, only the rectangular filters.

Firecrest vs B+WFirecrest vs Prostop IRND

On the left: B+W 10 stops vs the Firecrest 16 stops.
On the right: IRND ProStop 10 vs Firecrest 16 stops.
Notice how slim the firecrest filter is. Keep in mind that if  you want 16 stops of ND filtration with the B+W or IRND ProStop you would need to stack them, making them even wider as a whole while the Firecrest is just one slim filter.

The Firecrest 16 stops really shines when you compare it to other 16 stops solutions.

Firecrest 16 - Side

Firecrest 16 stops circular filter attached to my 17-40mm Canon Lens while shooting the first test shot. I had no issues at all screwing the filter onto the lens: since it’s thin and very lightweight it’s very easy to screw it on without unintentionally adjusting the focus of the lens.

16 stops ProStop

Formatt Hitech ProStop IRND 10 and 6 stops stacked to have 16 stops. As you can see stacking the filters makes for a much more massive whole of filters altogether and hence increasing the chance on vignetting.

 

B+W 16 stops

My trusty B+W ND 110 and ND 106 stacked for 16 stops. The same here with stacking the filters: chances of vignetting are much higher with this setup. Screwing on the two filters is a bit more cumbersome than when screwing on just one thin and lightweight Firecrest filter. Looks like a minor detail but having screwed on and off filters hundreds, maybe thousands of times, it will make a big difference in the end. Especially when it’s cold. The small difference in weight and the difference in thickness makes a big difference in the end. Chances of dropping your filters are less higher with a thin and lightweight filter like the Firecrest. And keep in mind that unscrewing 2 stacked filters can sometimes be quite a frustrating activity.

As you can see the 16 stops Firecrest is slimmer, more portable, more easy to attach on your lens (and hence reducing the chance of unintentionally adjusting the focus ring of the lens) and also more elegant than the stacked filters solution. The same applies if you would compare the rectangular slide-in filters stacked together. Very often I cover the opening between the two stacked rectangular filters to eliminate light leakage coming in from the small gap between the stacked slide-in filters. From my experience I know that the gasket on the rectangular filters can’t stop all the light from leaking in.

Stacking and vignetting – problems of the past

Those who have been following this blog and my work know that I believe that a long exposure photograph should ideally be about five minutes long. I explained this in my Ultimate Guide To Long Exposure Photography and also in my book “From Basics to Fine-art”. To achieve such a long exposure you will need at least 16 stops of filters. This used to mean that you had to stack your filters. If you are using circular screw-in filters, this would also mean unwanted vignetting. With the Firecrest 16 stops filter, vignetting, due to stacking filters, is no longer a problem. One of the main reasons I mostly use square filters, is because of the vignetting caused by stacking circular filters. I might actually reconsider going back to circular screw-in filters. One little screw-in filter is also much more portable than a set of multiple square filters and adapters and holders in your backpack especially when you’re travelling.

The Firecrest 16 is stackable though. If you are mad enough, you could try stacking two Firecrest 16 filters. An average exposure time would be around a week. Or you could just stack other filters, like a polariser, a very light ND-filter or an ND Grad filter.

Test data and testing conditions

I really love the idea of a single 16 stops filter, but this means nothing if the results are not okay. I compared the Firecrest 16 with the B+W ND 110 + 106 and the Formatt Hitech Prostop 10 + 6.

Testing conditions
Weather: cloudy, with the sun occasionally peaking through
Time slot of test shots: 19:50 – 20:27 // 7:50 – 8:27 p.m.
Sunset: 21:31 // 9:31 p.m.
Set-up: 16 stops of ND-filters
Camera: Canon 5d mark III
Lens: Canon EF 17-40 f/4
Camera settings: ISO 100, f/8, 330 seconds – I used these settings for all of the long exposure photo’s. The sun was setting and every now and then blocked by thin layers of clouds. This explains why some photo’s look darker or lighter.
Stopping light leakage: I did not use anything to prevent light leakage. ALL images suffer frome some leakage at exact the same location because I did not cover the sockets and openings on the sides of the camera, see images below. I talk more about preventing light leakage in another tutorial.

Important note regarding the exposure time:

As you can see from the data above I started shooting with the filters 1.5 hr before the sun would set. This means that you would have to take into account that light will disappear quite rapidly during the time I would need to take the test shots: approx. 45 minutes. The first meter reading without the filter at around 8pm, indicates 1/500s at f.8 and ISO 100. That would mean an exposure time of around 2 minutes and 11 seconds with 16 stops. I guessed that a last meter reading without the filters, taken after all test shots have been done, would read something like 1/100 s at f/8.0. Counting with these data I anticipated that if I would take meter readings during the test shots I would have an exposure time of between 1/200 and 1/250s without the filters. That would mean that you would need an exposure time of around 5 minutes and 30 seconds per shot with the 16 stops ND filters attached. Makes sense, right? So all shots were 5 minutes and 30 seconds with the first shot taken with the Firecrest 16 stops, more exposed to the right than the last shot with the F-H Prostop IRND filters. That’s why I took another shot with the Firecrest 16 stops as a last shot. First and last testshots therefore are Firecrest 16 stops filters shots at ISO 100, f/8 and 5min30s.

Light leakage

Photo 03-08-14 19 05 02

The socket opening on the side of the camera that I didn’t cover when taking the testshots and causes light leakage

 

light leakage covered side

Cover the sides of the camera with black tape to avoid light leaking in from the sides. Or use a hat (my preferred option) to cover the whole camera.

 

Photo 03-08-14 19 05 24

Don’t forget to tape this side of the camera as well. Light will surely leak through this opening too. See images below.

B+W-lightleak

Light leakage spots on exact the same location, indicated with the blue circles, due to not covering the sides of the camera. This is an example with the B+W stacked 16 stops ND filters. Below is an example with the Formatt-Hitech ProStop 10 plus 6 stops IRND filters stacked. Also indicated in blue. This is therefore not caused by the filters and will happen with any filter setup!

 

Prostop-lightleak

Light leakage indicated with the blue circles on a testshot taken with the Formatt-Hitech 16 stops ProStop IRND filters. Again: this is not a filter issue!

If you keep the light leakage and the cause of it in mind and try to ignore that, then let’s look at the results.

Results:

All images presented below are unaltered, unprocessed, original raw files. The horizon is a bit off, the composition is totally uninspiring but that wasn’t the objective here. You can download all raw files to play with it and to see if you like it and to come up with your own conclusions. My conclusion is that the 16 stops Firecrest filters are very neutral and are also easy to modify if you need some color correction in LR for example. 

Image 1: the scene without using any filters.

The following shot is to take a meter reading without the filters. The first meter reading for a correct exposure without the filter at around 8pm, indicates 1/500s at f.8 and ISO 100. This would mean an exposure time of 2 minutes and 11 seconds with 16 stops of ND filters attached. But please read the important note on the exposure time above.

Oesterdam - No Filter

Click on the image to enlarge or click here to download the original RAW file.

 Image 2: Test shot #1 with the Firecrest 16 stops IRND.

Shot taken with ISO 100, f/8 and 5min30s. This was the second shot right after the meter reading without the filters. Shot has not been cropped or modified in any way. Notice the neutrality of colours and the correct exposure, indicating the filters are quite accurate. Correcting the colours in Lightroom for example using the AWB feature was very easy (if needed at all since they were very neutral to me) and resulted in a very neutral looking image. This is less the case with the Formatt-Hitech ProStop IRND filters, although these filters are already very neutral. For a pure Black and White photographer, correcting colours is not an issue but this is valuable information for the long exposure colour photographer. Note also that there’s no vignetting at all in the corners of the image. Something which is very likely to occur when using circular filters. And again, note the light leakage, as explained above, as well.

Firecrest 16

Click on the image to enlarge or click here to download the original RAW file and draw your own conclusion.

 Image 3: Test shot #2 with the B+W ND 110 + ND 106 stacked

Shot taken right after the test shot with the Firecrest filters, with ISO 100, f/8 and 5min30s with the B+W 6 and 10 stops stacked. This shot has not been modified or cropped in any way. Notice the enormous and warm colour cast and the heavy vignetting in the bottom corners of the image. Something that has been anticipated due to the use of circular filters that have been stacked. I also tried the remove the colour cast in Lightroom using the AWB feature and it was much more cumbersome to get the colours right and remove the colour cast. Again, for a Black and white photographer this is no issue, but it is for the long exposure colour photographer.

B+W ND110 + ND106

Click on the image to enlarge or click here to download the original RAW file.

Image 4: Test shot #3 with the Formatt Hitech Prostop 10 + 6 stacked.

Shot taken after the test shot with the B+W filters (see image before this one) with ISO 100, f/8 and 5min30s with the ProStop IRND 6 and 10 stops stacked. This shot has not been modified or cropped in any way. Again, due to the stacked filters there’s some noticeable vignetting and the exposure is less accurate, also due to continuously changing light conditions and since it was also getting darker. Compared to the Firecrest shot this has less neutral colours but far more neutral than the test shot with the B+W ND filters. Colour correction in Lightroom using the AWB feature is far more easy than compared with the B+W ND filters but it takes a few more manual actions compared to the Firecrest filters.

Formatt Hitech Prostop 10 + 6

Click on the image to enlarge or click here to download the original RAW file. 

Image 5: Test shot #4 another shot with the Firecrest 16 stops

To make up for decreasing light and to make comparison more objective, I took another shot with the Firecrest 16 stops IRND filters. This was the last test shot with the ND filters I took in this testing session. Shot again taken with ISO 100, f/8 and 5min30s exposure time and that resulted in an image that’s a bit more underexposed compared to the first shot in this testing session with the Firecrest 16 stops but more correctly exposed than the test shots before this one with the other filters. This indicates to me that this filter is more accurate than the other filters. Notice the increased vignetting at the bottom but far more acceptable than in the previous test shots with other filters.

Shot 2 with the Firecrest 16

Click on the image to enlarge or click here to download the original RAW file to draw your own conclusions. 

Image 6: test shot #5 this final shot shows the lighting and weather conditions at the end of the shoot

The very last shot of the day after all test shots with the ND filters have been taken, without the use of the ND filters to take a final meter reading. Shot taken with 1/100 s at f/8.0 and ISO100 to have a correctly exposed image.

Final shot - no filters 

Click on the image to enlarge.

Final conclusion review part 1 – seascape long exposure images

Looking at all the observations and the test shots it’s clear that the Firecrest 16 stops IRND filter has almost no vignetting due to the thinness of the filter compared to a stacked filter setup like the B+W ND filters or the circular Formatt-Hitech ProStop IRND filters. Also I find that there’s almost no colour casting at all and if any white balance in Post production is needed in for example Lightroom, then this is a very easy thing to do but much more cumbersome with the other filter solutions. If you add to that the size,  its light weight, its usability and the user friendliness of this filter and its portability (you don’t need to carry around a set of filters and filter holders and adapters) then the circular Firecrest filters are now my preferred ND filters and I personally have never used any other ND filter solution that performed better and is allround a better choice than the new Firecrest filters. But I encourage you to download the RAW files yourself and draw your own conclusions. Next and final review will be with the Firecrest rectangular filter on typical architectural subjects.

Update:

If you’re looking for other independent reviews on the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest filters then I can recommend this review by Black and White photographer and educator Ian Barber and have a look at the feature on Firecrest filters on the B&H Photography website.

Joel Tjintjelaar

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11 replies
  1. Michael
    Michael says:

    Do you have any difficulty composing a shot with the 16 stop circular filter? I am using the Firecrest 10 & 6 and under cloudy conditions I can’t always see through the filters to compose.

    Reply
    • Joel Tjintjelaar
      Joel Tjintjelaar says:

      Michael, usually you shouldn’t compose a shot when your ND filters are attached. It’s impossible to look through 16 stops of ND filters but sometimes live-view will help, but it’s not how I would recommend doing it. First you should compose the shot and set up the camera, and then attach the filters.
      Joel

    • Michael
      Michael says:

      Thank you for the reply Joel, I always take the filters off to compose. I guess my actual question is do you find it cumbersome to remove the circular filters vs the square to re-compose? I like the idea of using the circular filters but when using the square filters, all I have to do is detach the filter holder.

    • Joel Tjintjelaar
      Joel Tjintjelaar says:

      Michael,
      It all depends on the brand of filters you use. Some years ago when I used the B+W circular ND filters, I didn’t like them compared to the Formatt-Hitech rectangular filters I’ve started using. But now with the latest Firecrest circular filters I personally prefer those filters to the rectangular Firecrest filters: easy to screw on (they’re very thin and light and for some reason easier to screw on than the old B+W NDs), no filter holders needed and you can just put it in your pocket in-between shoots. Try doing that with the filter holders! And very important (to me): it takes up less space in your bag pack.

    • Michael
      Michael says:

      I will give the circular a try. Thank you for all your advise, video tutorials your book with Julia Anna.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] filters on the Formatt-Hitech website or here in the independent reviews on my website, and in my own review which is obviously more subjective since these filters also carry my name, or in the product […]

  2. […] Long Exposure Kit with the addition of the brand new and most neutral filters in the world, the Firecrest Filters. You can order the new kit directly from their website by following this […]

  3. […] and now we do this again by reviewing these filters extensively on our sites too. You can read a review of the Firecrest 16 also on Joel Tjintjelaar’s site. Also, keeping the tradition of the book, I’m going to […]

  4. […] cast or vignetting at all, not even in poor light conditions. I’ve tested it extensively here and I was so impressed with the absolute neutrality of it. At this moment (August/September 2014) […]

  5. […] than me post pictures, Joel Tjintjelaar has a great article with picture of how you can protect overcome light leaks in your camera. I use a hat as does […]

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