Product Reviews: Lee 100 System

· Reading Time: 20 minutes

Welcome back for another product review here at Greg Kiser Photography.  I really think that it is important to share my experiences with other photographers on the equipment that I use.  For the most part I have been very selective on the equipment that I choose to work with and have very rarely been disappointed after the research that I have put in before making the decision to buy something.  Occasionally, that isn’t the case and unfortunately I am going to be talking about one of those purchases that I regret (in a way).  We are going to be talking about the updated Lee 100 filter holder system along with the 105mm polarizer ring which is the replacement for the Lee Foundation Kit that I have used for many years with my setup.

Before I get into the review, I want to get a few things out of the way first.  I have no affiliation with Lee Filters, and have not been in contact with them at all in regards to this product or previous reviews.  I have purchased both of the pieces (Lee Holder and Polarizer ring) from B&H Photo with my own money at full retail.  I will not be receiving any compensation for this review.  Now that I have that out of the way, lets get into the review and my thoughts.

This system has been heralded as an update for the venerable foundation kit.  There have been many reviews on it and honestly they are a bit mixed.  It seems that the good points are that the release knob is much safer so that you don’t accidentally loose the holder which I have never had a problem with.  It is lighter, and more modular in design which makes it easier to modify for your needs.  There are less moving parts which makes it more reliable as well.  One of the biggest benefits that I could see was how the polarizer adapter ring worked.  Theoretically it would allow me to leave the polarizer screwed onto the ring and pop it on and off as needed which would be so much easier than having to wrap my hands around 105mm of slimline filter to unscrew it.

On the other hand, there have been some negatives mentioned with the system that seemed to be primarily opinion issues.  One of the ones that kept coming up was that it wasn’t made as well as the original one.  It felt flimsy and not as substantial.  I also read that not all 105mm polarizers would fit the threads which made very little sense to me.  It seemed that the vignetting reported was the same as with the old setup showing up with the ring and polarizer attached on a 16-35mm lens at anything wider than about 19mm using a slim polarizer.  The negatives didn’t seem all that bad to me, but at the same time, I wasn’t jumping up and down about the positives either with the exception of being able to leave the polarizer attached to the ring to be clipped on and off.

The decision to purchase this kit came after getting the filter assortment from Singh-Ray for my workshops.  With that kit, I had several 4×6″ filters and they needed a holder.  I had been using my existing holder for the participants of the workshop, but that wasn’t ideal as I don’t like lending my equipment out like that.  I knew that I needed to get another holder for the workshops, but really didn’t want to spend the money on getting a new one.  However, looking at the chance to upgrade and make life easier for myself in the process seemed like a good idea.  With the year coming to a close, I saw the opportunity for a business expense to order the new system so that I could relegate my original kit to the workshop bag for others to use.  I made the purchase for $96.00 for the holder, and $48.00 for the ring as the last days of the year were upon us.

 

What’s in the box…

Lee 100 Filter System

The filter holder itself comes with a lot of items, kind of like the original one.  You get the holder which is prebuilt to carry two flat filters, but you have other pieces that can be swapped in to allow for either a single slot (to avoid vignetting completely on that 16-35mm lens) or for three slots for stacking even more filters.  There is a small tool (in blue) that you use to remove the gray clips that hold it all together.  There is also a bag that you can carry the holder in, which was a nice touch.  The holder is made of fiberglass it would seem, or possibly plastic.  It is noticeably lighter than the original one as expected but doesn’t feel any less substantially built.  It actually fits on the lens adapter (sold separately) better than the original without any excess rattling or movement which was a nice surprise.  I’ll get into more of how it works later in the review.

Lee 100 105mm adapter ring for a polarizer

The second item that I purchased was the ring adapter for the polarizer so that my 105mm Singh-Ray Color Combo polarizer would fit with the new system as it did with my previous one.  This was a no frills piece of equipment when compared to the original version.  When I added the original ring on, there was a matter of unscrewing the four screws in the holder that held the slots on and using longer screws to mount the ring on top of those channels.  It was a secure method of mounting the ring, but a permanent one, and one that involved using tools.  This ring had two ears on it that just clipped to the filter holder and that was that.  It also included a nice round semi-soft, lined case for the ring.  It seemed to be much deeper than needed, but it was a nice addition for the price of the ring.

 

How does it work?

Fundamentally, this system works the same as the previous one in that you simply slide the flat filters into the channels where they are held by friction.  They hold the filters plenty secure and actually more secure than the original version.  I left the holder in the native two slot configuration since that was what I was used to and routinely use multiple filters anyway.  The biggest difference for me was that I was able to screw in the 105mm thin polarizer which fit well unlike the reviews had said before.  Now I will say that it was a little difficult to screw the filter fully onto the ring as it kept binding up on the fiberglass or plastic threads.  It was not a big deal as I wasn’t planning on removing this filter once it was on.  With the way that the ears are positioned, it does make gripping the filter difficult so I would suggest that if you have multiple 105mm filters that you get a separate ring for each of them for ease and simplicity.  It is a pain to unscrew a filter that by its nature rotates freely when screwed on.

Once you have the polarizer screwed on, you just simply snap the ring onto the filter holder.  It really is that simple.  When you are done, you unclip it and store the polarizer away for later.  The modular design works as advertised in regards to straight functionality.  I was looking forward to seeing how this was going to work in the field and it wasn’t long before I went out to give it a try.  I did have a couple of things to figure out before I was able to take it into the field though.  I had to work on how to store it all in my bag which had precious little space left in it.  I wasn’t really expecting any problems since the holder is roughly the same size and shape as the previous one.  That was easy, I just slid the holder into the slot in my bag where the old one had resided.  It went in much smoother than before since I didn’t have four tiny screws poking out of the back of the holder to snag on the lining of the bag.  It was the polarizer that I ran into trouble with.

When the filter is screwed onto the ring, the filter case that I had been using was no longer big enough to hold it.  I had to work that little issue out.  My first thought was to go to the large vinyl pouch that Singh-Ray supplied me with when I purchased the filter.  As much grief as I give them about those pouches I was about to be very happy that I had it for this setup.  It did fit the mounted polarizer and I thought that life was going to be good.  I was able to slide it into the bag in the same place that my polarizer had gone before, but there was very little protection for it in the soft case.  I worried about something putting pressure on the center of the polarizer and causing it to break.  I started to look for other alternatives that would be safer.

I ended up using the round semi-soft lined case that came with the ring.  It provided much more protection, but allowed the whole assembly to flop around inside as it was much too deep for what was in it.  There was enough depth to hold the entire filter holder, but there was nowhere for the pin to stick out which made it less than satisfactory for holding the entire thing.  I just decided to let the filter flop inside.  At least it was cushioned and soft so there shouldn’t be any damage to the expensive filter.  It did take up a lot of room in the bag and forced me to get creative with another one of my filters which was loose up in the top section of my Lowepro.  But I did have it all stored and all of it was safe for transport.

105mm Polarizer ring mounted to holder

Once I got out into the field I was able to see how this would work in a real world setting.  My first experience with it was using the polarizer which should come as no surprise.  It clipped on just as advertised and there was enough lip of the filter available to rotate it without a problem.  The only issue that I had here was the same as with the other holder, and that was the glare hitting the back of the polarizer.  With this system, it is very important that you shade the filter from any sunlight or other stray light which might hit the back of the filter.  I have gotten used to this characteristic with the other holder, so I don’t have a problem with it other than it just being a nuisance to deal with.

As with the previous system, when it came time to switch lenses, it was as easy as pulling off the entire holder and swapping it over to the new lens.  It really was that simple.  The difficult part comes into play when you are done shooting and want to put it all away.  Getting that polarizer ring off of the holder is quite a bit more difficult than it should be, or that I had been under the impression of.  Supposedly, you are able to hold the holder in one hand and use your other hand to squeeze one of the ears on the ring and disengage it.  Physically, that is all that needs to happen, but this is entirely too stiff for this to be an easy process.  In fact over the dozen or so times I removed the ring from the holder, I found it to take longer and cause more cussing than unscrewing the filter from the old ring.  I honestly was worried that I would break the filter or it would fly off causing it to bounce on the rocks below.  I found that the best way to pull the ring off was to press the holder on a firm surface and use two thumbs on the opposite ear to press.  That seemed to get it to disengage the easiest out of all of the methods I came up with.

New design pin for the Lee 100

It is worth mentioning a little about the redesigned pin for mounting the whole system to the adapter rings for the lenses.  This is a nice change and one that I really liked.  I didn’t have any problems with the old pin except that if I wasn’t careful it would gradually unscrew itself and prevent the holder from sliding onto the lens.  This pin has less parts to it and doesn’t unscrew from the holder which is nice.  It is also beefier and easier to grab with gloved hands which is also nice.  The blue trim under the knurled knob is a lock.  In one position, you can pull the pin and mount or remove the holder.  If you rotate it one direction, you will lock the pin preventing the holder dropping off of the lens (again, I never had that problem with the old system).  If you rotate it the other way, it will lock the pin as well, but it will also lock the holder so that it doesn’t rotate accidentally.  I wasn’t aware that this was a problem that needed to be addressed, but I guess it could come in handy.  Regardless, this new knob worked as advertised and had no issues at all.

The holder mounts to the lens in the same fashion that the previous generation did and will use the same adapter rings that you were using with that system.  I have read that third party rings do not work with this holder because of the tolerances built in to allow for the locking of the holder position.  I can’t confirm nor deny that claim, but I can say it works seamlessly with the original Lee designed lens adapters.  This was a good thing since these rings are a little pricey, especially for the wide angle versions which allow the holder to sit closer to the front element on wide angle lenses.

On an early trip with the new holder, I used my Singh-Ray Galen Rowell ND Grads often and they went in with no problems.  Well, they were more snug than in the other holder and a little harder to fine tune, but I wrote that off as the retention pieces hadn’t been broken in yet like with my other holder.  I did’t see that as a problem at all, and was actually pretty happy with the whole setup.  I even used the locking knob to see how I liked that.  It made it easier to hold the horizon level when adjusting the grad filters which was a nice feature.

After that initial use I was pretty happy with the system and was starting to get comfortable with how it all fit in the bag and was used.  It wasn’t a huge upgrade from what I was used to, but I was happy with it thus far.  It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to use a long exposure for an image that I was wanting to capture that I ran into a problem with the system.  I found that the Singh-Ray Mor Slo ND filters didn’t want to fit into the holder.  Well, they fit, but the gasket ran aground on the inside opening of the holder which caused it to bunch up and bind.  There was no way to get the filter into the holder short of using the outside channel which would have let too much light in between the filter and the lens.  I’ll get into more of that later, but I was unable to get the shot that I was after due to this.

 

The good….

There is a lot to say about this system when it comes to the good aspects.  It is well built and seems just as sturdy as the original one to me.  The knob is a nice improvement and addresses many of the faults that were mentioned by other reviewers over the years.  Personally, I shared none of the issues that they had so I was not looking for an improved design.  I did like how they executed this one though.  The modular design was a very nice addition and a definite improvement in my mind.  Before, I was stuck with having to deal with four very small screws and several loose pieces to change the configuration of the holder.  Not something that I would want to do in the field.  With the new design, and simple change options, I would have no problem doing a swap in the field to adjust to my needs should those needs arise.  There was even a small tool bag that was included which would hold all the pieces.  That was a welcome addition to the design.

I did like the ability to leave the polarizer mounted to the ring as it should have been much easier to swap that in and out as needed.  Most importantly though, it removed the ring when it wasn’t in use to get it out of the way.  That made working with the flat filters much easier to deal with and less likely to bump the ring and get scratched.  It was the polarizer option that was the most important part of this contraption for me and the decision to make the switch.  It was cumbersome to remove, but I was hoping that with time and wear that the mounting would become easier and less problematic.

I also liked that there was a semi-soft case that was included with the polarizer ring.  It seemed a little over the top when I first opened the package, but after trying to figure out storage options I was very thankful that it was included.  It became my best option for storing the polarizer when mounted to the ring.  I would have liked to have seen it a little less deep so that there was less flopping around when the polarizer was inside of it, but with all things considered, I was happy with the case.

 

The bad…

Getting used to this holder, I really thought that the only bad thing that I would have to say about this was the fact that the polarizer ring was extremely difficult to remove.  It mounted with no problem, but to remove it require two hands and a solid surface.  Since I use a polarizer for the majority of my images, this was going to be a nuisance for me to say the least.  I could see myself breaking the ring, or worse yet the expensive polarizer.  That is a bad part of this kit, but it is an aspect that I was working on living with and I was making out pretty well with it by the end of my evaluation period.  On this topic it is worth mentioning once again that unscrewing a polarizer from this ring is an exercise in frustration.  It is very difficult to grip and then it doesn’t track in the treads smoothly at all causing you to have to continue to find good grip on the filter to remove it (should you need to).

Another aspect that I would consider bad is the vignetting that is present with a 16-35mm lens on a full frame body.  This is really kind of a moot point though as it is a similar gripe to the original design and is no worse or no better than before.  You will get vignetting with a polarizer (slim line) attached on that lens below 20mm when it is mounted on the double channel setup which I prefer to use.  You could go with a creative crop and eliminate the corner issues so it is not a huge deal, but it is a point to consider if you like shooting wide angle shots and keeping the 3:2 ratio of the camera.  You can opt to go with the single slot which will also eliminate the vignetting on the wide end as well.

 

The ugly…

Showing the gasket on the rear of the filter. This needs to be towards the lens when used.

I was fully prepared to deal with the negatives that I have mentioned with this system, but when I came across the fact that my Mor Slo ND Filters were binding up in the holder, that was something that I couldn’t deal with.  I took some time to really look at this issue, and it seemed that the interior opening has a much sharper edge to it, and the tolerances are tighter for the filter channels.  This all works together to grab at the corners of the gasket material  on the backs of the filters.  That corner, now lifted from the filter will crumple up and bind the filter.  It was a slight problem with the old design that caused me to learn to wiggle the filter in which made it work smoothly.  I wasn’t able to do that with this system at all.  There was no amount of manipulation that would allow the filter to slide into the holder without damage.

For me, this was a knockout punch for the new Lee 100 system.  I rely on my Singh-Ray filters and have no want to switch up to another maker based on a filter holder issue.  I swapped back out to my original kit and went back to the old way of doing business.  I also reached out to my contact at Singh-Ray and advised them of the problem.  Here is where it gets interesting.  Despite me having a great relationship with Singh-Ray, I fully expected the response to be something along the lines of…them hating that another filter manufacturer’s mount didn’t work with their filter, but that wasn’t their primary concern.  I was pleasantly surprised when their response was one to the exact opposite.  They said that they were ordering one of the holders to do some evaluations on their own to figure out a fix.  They were committed to making a product that worked in all possible mounts.  This is why I love Singh-Ray, and have no desire to go elsewhere for my filter needs.

I am sure that the fix will be a slightly thinner gasket material which will make it fit even better in the original Lee holder and hopefully will allow them to work in the new filter holder.  It would be easy to say just get one over the other if you are a Singh-Ray user, but it just isn’t that easy.  Lee is no longer making the original kit and they are getting hard to find which means that the new Lee 100 system will become the industry standard.

 

My conclusions….

It is not often that I come away from a product review with a negative opinion, but this is one.  I like the concept, and I like the workmanship.  Outside of your filter maker choice, there are some problems which I really don’t like about this new system.  The very difficult nature of removing the polarizer ring is not only a nuisance, but it is potentially dangerous for the filter that is attached on the front of it.  Nothing like having it pop off with high pressure and launching across the rocks to bounce and break.  I really liked the included semi-soft case, but it was too deep to really be the perfect holder for the product it came with.  The case is bulky and hard to store for what it is, but does offer good protection for the filter inside.

The biggest issue that I have though is the ND filters that I use not being able to be used without damage.  This is not an issue to blame Lee on, but it is an unacceptable compatibility issue for me.  Because of this fact, I am unable to use this filter mounting system and have reverted back to my original setup.  I’m really not out anything but the $48.00 for the polarizer ring which I won’t need with the workshop filter kit.  I will be able to use all of the flat filters in that kit with the new Lee 100 system so I will get use out of that fortunately.

There are two things that would make this system usable for me, and much more convenient in general.  The first is for the interior opening to be beveled slightly to allow for a gradual ramp up for the gasket material in the high powered ND filters. This would allow for the same tolerances to be used for the filters themselves which is a very important thing for decreasing stray light between the filters.  The friction bands could also be just a little looser as they are much tighter than they really need to be in my opinion.  I’m all for secure filters, and love that they are taking that seriously, but this is twice as retentive as the original one and I have never had an issue with a filter slipping out of the old rig.

Secondly, I would like to see the case redesigned slightly.  It is deep enough to fit the entire assembly with a polarizer mounted, but just needs provisions for the knob to fit in the case as well.  I would much rather store the entire rig assembled and just remove the polarizer on the rare occasion I am just using a flat filter.  Most of the time, I have the polarizer attached, even with the flat filters, so this would be a time saver for me, and allow it all to be stored much simpler.  Had I kept the system in use, I was going to find a way to store it just like that which would have made this a beautiful piece of equipment and very useful.  Sadly, the ND filter issue killed the whole thing for me unless Singh-Ray can adapt their filters to the holder.

This system is an improvement over the old one, but the improvements weren’t needed in my use.  There were too many negatives that went along with the improvements for my tastes and this just became something that didn’t fit into my needs or routines.  If you are shooting with Lee filters, I would assume that the holder works perfectly with those, and that would leave the only issue being the polarizer ring.  With that knowledge, you should be able to make your own decisions on whether or not this is the right setup for you.