Graham Harris Graham | Filters

I'm going to upset some of you because we all find a way to emotionally justify our illogical reasoning. And I'm no exception. But I don't use filters. I've never owned a UV filter & I don't use a polariser. I don't even use one of those inexplicably expensive ND (Neutral Density) or GND (Graduated Neutral Density) filters. I did once but not any more.

Some years ago during a moment of retail therapy weakness, I was persuaded by some marketing guru & bought a set of rectangular GND filters which in this instance were made by a Lee GND filter setThis is what spending nearly £400 on some plastic stuff made by Lee looks like. A 600mm wide, standalone dishwasher manufactured by Bosch in Germany costs less than this. company called LEE Filters.

They could have been made by that other French company whose trademark is annoyingly suggestive instead, of a class B drug but they are all basically the same.

They were made from an optical grade monomer called CR-39®. The proper name for this monomer is Allyl Diglycol Carbonate & it was patented decades, yes decades ago, by a company called PPG Industries out of Pittsburgh, PA in the good ol' US of A.

How Much?

Retailers in "Rip-Off" Britain sell this brand of filters for around £75 each. The industry consensus seems to suggest that you "need" at least three of them. But having tried them, I suggest you don't "need" any. 

Right now, I can hear some of you screaming that you would never have been able to get that "killer" shot without them. Perhaps but we might all agree that they are awkward to use without the £60 filter holder & the £40 lens adaptor ring. So a GND kit will set one back somewhere around £375. Sure, one can buy the whole set at a discount on Amazon but one will still spend the best part of £400 for a bag of plastic strips, a clip & a threaded, thin metal ring. How is this possible?

History of Plastic

CR-39® has been around since the 1940's when it was first used in military aircraft applications when it was called Columbia Resin #39 after the title of the research project under which it was invented. It was originally laminated with glass fibre to form fuel tanks for the Boeing B-17 bomber. And it is still widely used today to make for example, lenses for eye glasses because it is transparent in the visible spectrum & weighs about half that of optical glass. It also enjoys very low dispersion, similar to crown glass which is itself a high grade optical silica.

Singh-Ray soft edge GND filter & pouch3G means that the dark region will reduce the light transmitted by 3 stops. Measuring 120mm x 84mm, it fits the Cokin P series holder. But honestly, who cares? Plastic & Photography

Its introduction to photography is hardly novel either. The resin's use as a graduated neutral density filter was popularised by Californian adventurer, Galen Rowell (1940-2002). He had his own brand made by Singh-Ray in Arcadia, Florida which is still in business today. But the price of their filters really isn't any more comforting.

The one on the left was spotted on e-Bay selling second-hand for £53. But a new one, even if you got it from the world famous discounter B&H in New York City, a GND filter from Singh-Ray costs about $160 each!

So, it is a mature technology still in common use today yet the photographic market (you, me & everyone else with a camera) permits companies to charge eye watering prices for a plastic that's older than your granny.

As Tough As ... Cheese?

Maybe they are expensive because they are really durable? Well, despite the resin's high cost & military grade roots, after only occasional use & delicate handling, all my filters got badly scratched. Without a protective surface coating like RLX Plus®, they are prone to damage & I suspect that most of them don't have this feature because it can only be done in super clean rooms.

Too Busy To Notice

On the rare occasions when I did use them, some contre-jour shots were ruined by a purple/magenta colour cast on half of the image where the grey tones blocked out some of the light. And sometimes, I missed the shot entirely because I was instead, fumbling with adapter rings & an awkwardly stiff filter holder. So I quickly lost my patience & threw the whole kit in a box of scrap photographic parts where they lay for about a year.



An StoirNo filters used here despite Skye's famous black basalt rock. And a GND filter would surely have ruined it anyway by creating an unnatural dark shadow across the pinnacles.


Then one day, with apparently nothing better to do, I decided to find out if the grey tones on the filters were laid down on the surface or if they were all the way through the plastic. So I polished one using a power drill, buffing cloth & some T-Cut. Very quickly the coating came off so my curiosity was satisfied.

The grey tones on my LEE filters were laid down on the surface. I assume other resin filter manufacturers do the same. That's because a lady (possibly from Eastern Europe & on minimum wage, poor thing) sits on a chair all day in front of a bath of dye where she dips them & then hangs them up to dry, just like you would if you were making a smelly candle; hardly rocket science then.


I suspect however that I would have reached the same conclusion regardless of who made the filters. You see, as my style developed, I realised that I didn't really need them after all because a lot of time is spent researching, analysing & approaching subjects to photograph. And if there's one scenario that I avoid like the plague, it is high contrast, contre-jour scenes, especially near shorelines & beaches at dusk/dawn.

Perfect Light

In Scotland, we are blessed with low angled sunlight for much of the year & our maritime climate means that skies are invariably cloudy. Sure, we get those Mediterranean skies from time to time but on most days it is partially or completely cloudy.

Bhaile MheadhanachDespite the dynamic range, no filter was needed here either. This means that the dynamic range (from the brightest elements to the darkest) is narrower than it might be in other countries further south. But some of you reading this page will be keen to demonstrate that certain types of images can't be captured without them even in Scotland.

But consider this; there are so many situations where one just doesn't need them. So you'll forgive me if I regard these types of filters as a solution looking for a problem.

Productivity Matters

I have found that fiddling with inexplicably expensive plastic filters I don't really need just gets in the way. And there's surely something more useful one could spend £400 on, isn't there? What's wrong with a decent second hand lens? Or a new fridge?