If you are new to photography as we all once were, the idea of filters might be a fuzzy concept for you. On the one hand, filters have become known through social media as digital gimmicks that add dog ears to our selfies. While this is obviously very important in the world of photography, these are not the filters that photographers should be relying on. What I am talking about are those filters that attach to the end of your lens and provide adjustments to exposure, or color while in the field. For these types of filters, you will usually find two standard forms. The first is the screw on filter which is quite common and is designed to fit on the filter rings of your lens. They are simple and effective, but are limited when it comes to certain applications. The second form of filter addresses the shortcomings and is simply referred to as a square filter or a slot filter. These are particularly useful for ND Grads which I will get into a bit more shortly. The problem with the square filters is that they do not come equipped with a mounting surface like the screw on filters. There is no frame to the slot filters and they either have to be held in front of the lens, or mounted with a different piece of kit. For me, holding the filter has never been a good option because I don’t want to scratch the surface of the filter on the lens, and if I leave a gap then there is glare that will enter into the picture. I needed a different option. That is where the subject of this review comes into play. We are going to be looking at the Lee Filters Foundation Kit which is a pretty standard piece for photographers these days.
Before I get started with the review, I want to mention that I have no affiliation with Lee Filters, and have purchased this item with my own money. There have been no trades for the review and Lee Filters doesn’t even know I am writing this review. I am basing my information off of about nine years total of using this system. I figure in that time, I have figured out the good and the bad of it.
So, What is it?
There are no optics with this kit, and it runs around $80 in the 4in/100mm size. You can get them smaller, but for those shooting with DSLR cameras, I would suggest staying with this size. The part on the left is actually the filter holder. There are several different parts to this. As you can see, on each side of the housing there are mounting points. You can set this up however you like. For me, I chose to go with the default option where the slots are situated to let the pull pin remain on the side as opposed to the top or the bottom. From Lee, there are three slots already mounted to the piece so that you can add up to three filters. Since they are screwed on, this is another call you can make on your own. Since I was planning on using this with my 16-35mm lens, I needed to watch for vignetting at the corners. The reviews that I read stated that to avoid that was simple if you removed the outer slot from the holder. That reduced my capacity to only two filters but I haven’t found that to be a problem in the nine or so years I’ve been using this system. On the other end of the spectrum, you can also add slots if needed. You can even make the slots bigger to fit 2mm thick filters. Using Singh-Ray Filters, I have had no issues with the standard thickness.
In the slots you will find a spring that will keep your filters in place. They will make it snug so don’t think that you will just be able to work the filters around easy, but it does inspire confidence when you are mounting a $160 filter on this thing. The more you use it, the looser the spring will get, but it will never let the filter slide on its own which is good. Something else that is not shown here that you can do to personalize your holder is the addition of a polarizer ring. This is a 105mm diameter ring that will secure with the same screws that hold the slots in place. Obviously, a polarizer needs to be able to rotate to get the desired effect and that is difficult to do in a square filter. There are two reasons that I have not invested in this inexpensive option. The first one is light leak behind the filter if I am not using my slot filters. With them in place, there would be no problem as the gap would be very small. The other part jumps right on the back of the first issue. I would not use the ring unless I was already using a slot filter, so cost of admission would come into play. The Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer which I use almost exclusively runs around $800 at the 105mm size. That is too pricey for something that I would only use a fraction of the time.
You will also see the pull pin on the side of the housing which is how this thing mounts to an adapter ring (pictured to the right). This is the ring that will screw onto your lens, so you can get one for each size that you have in your kit. I carry an 82mm and a 77mm ring which covers all three of my lenses that will accept filters. After the ring is secured on the lens, you just pop the two ears of the housing into the groove and then pull the pin as you secure the housing to the adapter ring. After you release the pin, the ring is secure…simple as that! This setup makes it so easy to rotate the housing for vertical or horizontal shooting without having to change your mount. I will caution that if you are shooting wide angle, if you are at a 45 degree angle there will be some vignetting at the corners, but it is rare that you will need to operate at such an angle.
What does it do?
Now that we have the housing mounted to the camera, what exactly does it do. Well, it will hold that square or rectangle filter with ease. Here we see a square filter firmly held into place while I was shooting a 3:20 exposure yesterday This filter is a 100x100mm or 4×4″ piece. You can see that there is a slot for a second filter as well. I was shooting with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2 lens and had no issues with vignetting with the two slot version attached. To be completely transparent though, I do want to say that even with a slim line filter attached between the lens and the adapter ring, you will get vignetting at 16mm. In some situations this is not noticeable, but in my situation yesterday, I could see some darkening at the corners. Zooming into about 17mm fixes that, and if you are in the woods with no bright elements at the corners, it would go unnoticed. For what I was shooting, I needed that 16mm, so I had to strip off the polarizer which was fine. This is one of those times when I would like to have a 105mm polarizer mount on the front of the holder. That would need a lot of print sales to swing though….so I wait.
Where this system really shines is with ND Grad filters. These are filters where they are clear on the bottom half and transition to shaded top half, or possibly a colored half. In the old days of screw on ND Grads, we had to deal with the transition, and therefore the horizon being right at the middle of the frame. With the Lee Filters Foundation Kit, we are able to select a 100x150mm or 4×6″ filter. This allows us the ability to adjust where the horizon falls in the image. The extra inch on the top and on the bottom gives you extreme flexibility on where your horizon line is located. With the housing being able to rotate on the adapter ring, you can adjust to a different slope of the horizon quite easily. It just makes for a supremely flexible way to mount a filter on your camera.
I always like to talk about quality when I do reviews. This is a really simple piece of kit and the quality is there for sure. The materials used are top notch, and I like that they are slightly textured for added grip. There are really no moving parts to this piece so nothing should wear out over time. The pull pin on the side is the only part that has given me any concern in the years of ownership. It is nicely textured to provide great grip for wet hands, or possibly numb from the cold hands. It makes for a great handle to rotate the unit without touching the filter. However, since I use this pin for quite a bit of functionality of the holder, I accidentally unscrewed it…or almost did a while back. I had never realized that I was twisting it, and one day I found that it was very difficult to slide onto the adapter ring. When I pulled everything off and started to look at things, I realized that the catch wasn’t clearing the adapter anymore no matter how much I pulled the pin out. When released, the catch would actually rotate within the inner portion of the holder. I quickly surmised that it was coming unscrewed about the time the catch fell off. Fortunately, I found it in the grass and screwed it back on. This has only happened once, but now I know to check the tightness of the pin from time to time. I don’t really see this as a quality issue as much as just something to be mindful of when you are checking your equipment periodically. Overall though, I would have to say that the Lee Filters Foundation Kit gets a strong 10/10 review from me. It is just one of those pieces of kit that I rely on and know that it will always be there for me when I need it.
Now wait a minute….I just gave this thing a 10/10 review and now I’m starting to talk about the downsides? How is that possible? Well, there are some compromises to using slot filters that I really don’t see a way around, so I can’t gig Lee Filters or anyone else for that matter for having these issues. My biggest issue is the fact that none of my lens hoods work with this system in place. That might not bother anyone else, but I love using my lens hoods to shield the front element from the sun as well as from any rain or mist I might be dealing with. They are also good mechanical protection in case you bump the lens up on anything. In order to protect the filters from the elements, I will use my hat which I usually always have when I am out with the camera. I can block the sun from hitting the filters in most scenarios with my hat, or in some cases my hand. You just have to pay attention when shooting wide to avoid getting your hand in the image. You could buy a lens hood designed to go with the filter housing, but when I looked it up I ran screaming away at the cost. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was several hundred dollars and mounted to the front of the holder. My take on that was the filters were still susceptible to the rain droplets and also some light leak. It just wasn’t worth it to me as long as I had my boonie hat I was good to go.
The other issue that I have with this system is the cumbersome nature of adding a polarizer. It is expensive to do, and if you aren’t shooting with other slot filters, there is a lot of room between the front element and the polarizer. That can affect the clarity and contrast of a scene very quickly. What I have been doing is using a slim mount polarizer on the lens and then putting the adapter ring on that filter. It is not a great setup, and is a little cumbersome to use, but it is much more cost effective at this point than any other option. Again, I am not blaming Lee Filters for these problems, they are just a product of the way filters have to be attached. I will gladly trade these little niggles for the flexibility of using the 4×6″ filters that I find so helpful in the field.
Whether you are a new photographer, or one that has been at it for a lifetime, you will eventually see the need for ND Grads in your work. Using flat filters is the best way to address that need. A Lee Filters Foundation Kit is a great way to mount your filters and it should last a lifetime. Another benefit to this system is the ease in which you can put it on and take it off. As long as that pull pin is secured like it should be, you can do that operation one handed fairly easy. This is a lifesaver when using a 10 or 15-Stop ND filter where it is hard to see in order to compose an image, or focus. In a second, you can clear the lens to get your shot set up and check exposure. With a quick motion, you have your filter back in place with nothing changed and you are ready to make your shot. It just doesn’t get any better than this. For the low price of $80 plus a couple of bucks for the adapter rings this is a no question purchase. Short of dropping it off of the side of a mountain, or into a river, you will never need to replace it. It can grow with your needs and be fully customizable to suit your changing needs. I can’t recommend this system enough!