Welcome back for another product review here. Every so often I will write about my experiences with my gear so that you might benefit from my time spent with certain products. I’m going to be talking about a filter today. This filter is a little bit of a specialty filter and will appeal to a certain group of photographers which seem to be getting more and more prevalent these days. If you have spent any time on social media, you are seeing that astrophotography is becoming more and more commonplace as cameras are getting cleaner at higher ISO’s. Landscape photographers are starting to see the possibilities of shooting nightscapes to broaden their portfolios. The filter that I am going to be reviewing here is the new Singh-Ray Astro Vision Filter. As of this writing, this is the only dedicated night filter that they offer which goes to show you just how specialized this field of photography is, and how new it is.
Before I really get into this review, I want to be very clear about a couple of things. First of all, I have only dabbled in astrophotography a few times, so this is not my specialty. Please keep that in mind as you are reading the review and viewing the attached images. Second, I am a Singh-Ray Affiliate, and while I am not getting paid for this review, the filter was loaned to me for the purpose of evaluation and review. Their conditions were simple, I had to give a fair and honest review, even if it was negative. I was happy to work within those terms because I really feel strongly about sharing my thoughts, good and bad, with the products that I use. So, with that out of the way, let’s get started with the review.
This review has taken place over three different nights where I have learned quite a bit about the night sky, and about this filter. Looking at the description on Singh-Ray’s Website, it seemed pretty straightforward in its purpose:
“The Singh-Ray Astro-Vision filter was designed to give you a more realistic image when photographing night skies or near cities and only adding a ½ of a stop of density to your lens. It will help reduce the mercury vapor and/or sodium light that you often get in your images when shooting night sky images in the city or in rural areas where there is a yellowish orange light glow from the city lights. If you’re looking to take images of the milky way, this is an excellent choice for astro photography when you need to reduce the light pollution in the range of 570-600nm.”
To be honest, I didn’t really understand much of what it said other than “realistic image” and “reducing…yellowish orange light from city lights.” Apparently, this filter is all about reducing light pollution from your night sky images. I do know that this is an issue with this type of photography based on my first real attempt at it. I had been out in the mountains which are famous for not having city lights and had still captured a glow on the horizon when shooting the Milky Way. I had embraced the light pollution and made it a valuable part of the image, but that was not the ideal way of handling it for a real astrophotographer.
What’s in the Box?
Something that I like to do in my reviews is talk about what is included in the package. This is pretty much standard issue for Singh-Ray. The filter will arrive in the mail in a package which includes a nice pouch that is a textured vinyl that resembles leather. There is an identification etched into the surface that tells you what the filter is. The inside is padded and nice. The actual filter is protected in a clear bag with pieces of tissue paper on either side of the filter. This is fine for shipping, but I would not recommend that you try to keep the filter in this baggie for regular use. It becomes very cumbersome to use the baggie and paper while the padding and materials on the inside of the pouch do a fine job at protecting the filter surface. For my use, I have moved it over to a hard case to keep the filter surface from clouding as it will tend to do in the Singh-Ray pouch. I have mixed feelings about this honestly. I like the idea of the pouch, but it makes storage difficult for my tastes, and I much prefer hard cases for my screw-on filters, and wallets for my flat filters.
The filter itself is pretty standard with a proper label on the ring identifying the size and type of filter that it is. You can see in the two pictures here the slight tint to the filter surface. That is what combats the light pollution that they have referenced and that I will be working with. It is mostly clear and almost looks like a skylight filter, if not a tad darker. It was going to be really interesting to see if a filter that looked like a pair of fashion sunglasses would do what they said it would. I was hoping to find out.
The Astro Vision Filter is designed to reduce that haze at the horizon and that seemed like a good thing to me. I went into this review hopeful, but really kind of clueless as to how it would work out. I developed a roughly scientific test to help me determine the effect of the filter by reducing the variables down to just the filter itself. Each test included a series of three images shot within a very short time frame, usually just enough to make the needed changes. I was shooting in manual mode, so I could lock the exposure values easier. The white balance was set to “daylight” in all cases so that the color rendition would not be altered between frames when the filter was on or off. I had originally thought that two images would be enough, but I realized that there was a noticeable exposure difference with and without the filter so I added a third image to the test where I dropped the exposure by 2/3 of a stop which appeared to make the exposures equal according to the histogram. The images that I would be evaluating would be the untouched RAW files with no added contrast, or correction added. This is what you would be inputting into your own editing software after capturing the image.
I would have loved to have used this filter to shoot the Milky Way as I think that will be the main use of it by the majority of the photographers who would consider this filter. However, that was not going to be visible again until next Summer, so in order to do the review, I had to rely on a regular night sky, which wasn’t bad at all. On the first night, I decided to shoot a video that explained my procedures as well as some of the thoughts behind the test. You will notice that I had confirmed the slight light loss that Singh-Ray had mentioned in their description. They have reference it at a 1/2 stop, but my testing showed that it might be closer to 2/3 of a stop, but honestly a difference of that would be so minuscule as to not matter at all.
My idea was to shoot in three different locations to test this filter out. The first location would be the biggest test as the video showed. I wanted to try to do some astrophotography where nobody would want to do it because of the light pollution that was present. I’ve always heard that when you go to shoot stars, you want a nice dark place. There are many reasons why this might not be possible, and if this filter could make it easier for those to get the images that they wanted within a big city, then the filter would be as billed. I wanted a test away from the lights to see how it worked in that situation as well. This would be a likely use of the filter for most. At least that was my thought process. The main test I wanted to do was one that would be in the outskirts of the city where the light pollution was at a distance, but relatively close by. I was thinking that this would be where the filter should excel if it was true to the description. All of these tests would be compiled in this review.
Test #1 (Downtown Winston-Salem)
So, these are the images that I shot on the first night in the sequence that I shot them. The first one was with the filter screwed on, with the filter coming off for the second one, and then the third image showing that -2/3 adjustment to compensate for the light loss of the filter. What I noticed almost immediately and referenced in the video was that the color of the sky changed dramatically, and the same color that was filtered out of the sky was also filtered from the building. That only made sense with the lighting on the building coming from the same source as the light pollution that the filter was trying to correct. Paying attention to the stars at 200% magnification, there is a slight elevation in contrast by removing the yellow tint in the sky. I don’t think that this counts as adding clarity to the stars as much as allowing them to show up better by removing the light pollution. My early test was actually pretty successful considering I was shooting from under high pressure sodium lights right in the middle of the source of the light pollution in my area. Based on the bit of the building that I captured, I can also say that by removing that yellow glow from the side, the true colors of the bricks started to come through and looking at the first and third image, you can see a noticeable difference in color contrasts. Keep in mind that these are untouched RAW files which are notorious for having very little contrast to them.
Test #2 (Blue Ridge Parkway)
This was supposed to be my totally dark test of the filter, but I actually learned something with this experience. It is very hard to get a dark sky in the mountains when the moon is full and in the direction you are trying to shoot. My original composition of Fred and Ethel in Blowing Rock wasn’t going to work with the moon right at the top of the frame. I was getting all kinds of ghosting whether or not I had the filter on. I had to move to a less picturesque side of the trees where I was finally able to get a composition that would work. There was a lot of light on the landscape, in fact, I was seeing shadows from the moon. Ideally, the Astro Vision Filter would not affect that light, but only the yellower tones in the distance at the horizon that I wasn’t able to see with the naked eye, but I could see them through the camera. I did the exact same routine as I had established before with the three exposures and have shared the RAW files here to look at. One thing that jumped out with the comparison, is that the -2/3 compensation that I had used for the last image actually made it a tad darker than the filtered image I started with. That supports the claim that it is only a 1/2 stop difference. With the more natural light, it was easier to determine that difference with this test. You can see an obvious brightening in the second image when the filter was removed.
Now, how about that light pollution? As seen in the lower images, there was very little pollution present to begin with and the sky looked pretty natural. However, with the filter added on, there is a very noticeable change. The blue tones are richer in the sky, and the horizon isn’t nearly as warm toned. Keep in mind that this is a location with very little light pollution to begin with, so I wasn’t expecting much in the way of that effect at all. It depends on the look you are going for as to whether or not you will want to use the filter in this type of situation, but I do kind of like the added punch to the night sky. With that added punch came a slight increase to the clarity of the stars. It wasn’t anything grand, but enough to mention in this review. It would help with the post processing of the image so that you don’t have to add as much clarity which would increase the noise. The filtered image actually turned out well enough that I have gone through the processing of the image and will include it here for you to see the finished product.
Obviously there have been some color shifts and tonal adjustments here, but the part that I really liked was the overall balance of the colors in the sky thanks to the filter. The stars had a good deal more pop to them with the filter. Considering that this was not really shot with the idea of print making, I am actually pretty happy with how it turned out. Would it have been different without the filter. Yes, the transition at the horizon would have been more abrupt and would have lost the complimentary tones with the rest of the sky. There is definitely a benefit to the filter for this application, but keep in mind that there is very little light pollution in the mountains to have to deal with.
Test #3a (Salem Lake)
This test was done at a local lake which is fairly large and tucked away from the city lights. It is about 10 miles from downtown, and about seven miles from the small town of Kernersville. I figured that this would be a great test of what the filter would do for the majority of those who might be interested in it since there is a good bit of light pollution that is visible from here. I’ll go ahead and start off by saying that the exposures of the first and third are very close to being equal, so I think that depending on the situation, you will lose between 1/2 and 2/3 of a stop of light with this filter. When you compare the close exposures though, you will see a definite color cast change and a much different look at the horizon. Not only was the color made more natural to the night sky, the stars showed up better and clearer at 200% magnification. I think that this is the situation that you will want to use the filter above all other times. You can still see the light at the horizon, and I don’t think that there is anything that can be done about that, but from a natural point of view, I think that the colors of that light really fit with the night sky much better. This will keep me from having to do anything “artistic” to make the colors work when there is light pollution included.
Here you see the edited version of the image with the filter attached. You can see how with just a little bit of tweaking, the colors that are captured work so well with the night sky. The yellows and oranges are gone, and you are left with white and a pink glow. This is all to taste, but I think that these colors fit the scene so much better and I didn’t have to do anything at all in post to get it to look like this. The stars come out crisp in the night sky which is so important with astrophotography. Even near the horizon, you can see the pin pricks of light in the sky. Something else that you should notice here are the trees to the right. They were actually illuminated by the high pressure sodium lights over the playground. In the second image, you can see the warm glow that they are putting on the branches. That is actually not present in the filtered shot, even when the exposure is brought up slightly. It is a small thing, but it is nice to know that ambient light can also be cut out with this filter to a point. The idea with this image was to give the illusion that the photographer was in perfect darkness which wasn’t the case at all.
Test 3b (Winston Salem Commercial Area)
I wanted to get one more test in place before finalizing my review. I wanted to see what this filter would do in a mixed condition where I had a foreground lit by artificial light. I wanted to know just what the filter would do with the colors involved. I had passed by this church on the way to Salem Lake and thought that it would be a fine subject to work with. I stopped and set up a shot with a different lens than I had been using just to get the composition that I wanted. I framed up the shot and dialed in the exposure with a slightly narrower aperture so that I could get more in focus. I was going to do this the same way, so I didn’t add any lighting to the scene to keep it scientific, but I did embrace the spotlight that was on the front of the church. You can see the three unedited RAW captures here and see that the tradition holds true. There is pretty much an exact 2/3 light loss with the filter in this condition. The sky renders very similar between the two but there is an obvious cooling of the sky with the filter which was what I expected. There was no horizon here to have that large glow of light pollution, but there was some ambient pollution to cut through by shooting into the sky. The filter did a great job with this by removing that yellow/orange cast from the sky. Oddly enough though, you can tell that this is not just a cooling filter because the warm light on the church is still there. It changed slightly as some very narrow wavelengths have been removed, but the warm glow is still there. For me, this is very desirable and shows me that this filter can easily be used in other night photography situations such as light painting.
You can see in this processed image that the crispness of the church is still in place, and the colors on it seem very natural for an artificial light source. The stars are still showing up in the sky and even though the focus is not on them specifically, they are reasonably sharp and have a good contrast to them. This was not an easy scene to capture when you really think about it. The steeple is white, so you want to make sure that the white is maintained. If you look at the RAW files, the one where the white is the truest is actually the filtered image. With a little post processing that white absolutely pops. The warm spotlight on the front of the church maintains the desired hue through processing. The sky is very neutral here, and I will say that there were no local adjustments to this image except for the stained glass window in the front. The rest was left to the global edits for fairness and continuity for the test.
In the end, what are my thoughts on this filter? I tested the most expensive option that they have currently as an 82mm filter for $189.00. A 49mm would be $160. This is not really an expensive filter, but you will have to weigh what it will do for you to see if the price is justified. For my use, it is right in that sweet spot for what I would consider a fair investment. I have shot some astrophotography without this filter and have been pleased with the results. I had no intention of buying this filter even after shooting my first night shots in September. Now that I have used the filter, I can see what I have been missing. The description that Singh-Ray gives this filter is accurate in what it actually does. It does remove the yellow and orange light from the sky which is caused by light pollution. It is a subtle change, but one that will make your night skies look much more crisp and natural.
They say that you can achieve this with only a 1/2 stop of light loss to your images. I can support this claim but feel that in most situations you will actually see a real world 2/3 loss of light with the filter. Does that really matter? Not at all, with such a small difference depending on the situation. However, any light loss is a potential concern when shooting a night sky. That can mean the difference between a 6 second exposure and a 10 second exposure. Maybe as much as 13 seconds to 20 seconds. If you are not using a fast lens (f/2.8 or faster), you may find yourself having to increase the ISO more than you are comfortable in doing to get the images that you are after. It is a point to consider when thinking about this filter. Is it a deal breaker? I don’t think so, just a consideration.
I would have liked for this filter to be able to do something about the sharpness of the stars as that is always a difficult part of this type of photography. I have heard of a filter that will help you focus on the stars which would be a nice additional feature of this filter, but I don’t know how good that is in practice. I can say that the Astro Vision Filter does a reasonable job at adding to the contrast of the sky by removing those wavelengths of light which does make the stars pop a little better. That is a nice side benefit and will help with the presence of the stars in your composition.
For me, the most important part is that this filter works with mixed light, so if you are wanting to include foreground elements in your scene, you will not have odd colors showing up because of the filter. If anything, it will make artificial light more pleasing to the eye as seen in the church images at the end of the testing. I can see a number of applications here for those who want to do some light painting or use mixed lighting sources while still capturing the night sky.
This is a very subtle filter I think over the scope of the full image, but you can really tell a difference at the horizon when you are shooting close to a city. Most of the users of this filter will appreciate this aspect because it will save you travel expenses. No longer will you have to drive hours away to get to that deserted location like the beach, or off in the middle of nowhere. You can just drive down the road until you find a clearing that you like with no lights in the frame and get your shot. This will undoubtedly open up new compositions for night sky photographers. It will also save you time on the back end when it comes to editing the images. The image that I opened the review with that was shot without a filter took me a lot of time to edit because I was having to deal with the colors in the sky. By using the Astro Vision filter, the editing has become very simple and requires nothing special when it came to color rendering through the image. Time is money, and this filter is saving me money.
For me, I would like to have it remain in my bag for those occasional nightscape images, but since I am primarily a daylight photographer it would have limited use. Would I have spent the money on it before testing it? I can say that I would probably not have bought it. I didn’t see enough benefit for me. However, after testing the filter, I think that I would happily invest the money for it, even if for just a few images here and there. I have a lens that costs about a hundred dollars more than this filter which I use only occasionally and feel it is a good investment. I have already had in inquiry to purchase the print of the image shot on the Blue Ridge Parkway with this filter. That means that it is helping me create commercially viable images which will always make a product worth the investment. If astrophotography is your thing, I can say without hesitation that this filter needs to be in your bag.
I’m still on the fence about the pouches that Singh-Ray includes with their filters. They look nice and add to that boutique feel of the company so it really does help their image. However, I have found that these pouches are not good for functional storage of the filters. As I mentioned, I much prefer hard cases for my round filters for that added protection. These are easy enough to get your hands on though. More than likely, if you are used to shooting with filters, you have a storage system that works for you, and this filter will mesh right in without a problem. I would rather have it as a 100x100mm flat filter, but currently that is not an option. I suspect that as sales are generated by this filter, that will be changed. For me, the flat filters are much easier to deal with and use.
Don’t forget though, if you feel that this is a worthwhile investment for your kit, you can save 10% on the sale price through Singh-Ray by using the promo code “KISER10” at checkout. The $189.00 filter that I have been testing would be $170.10. That might be enough to swing your decision.
I hope you enjoyed the review and learned a little about a filter that is kind of hard to explain unless you have actually used it. I’ve found that it is as advertised, but it is not a magical filter that will produce a finished image on its own, or make stars visible that aren’t there. It will enhance what is in front of your lens, and isn’t that the only reason we buy filters to begin with?