Saturday, 31 May 2014

Lee Big Stopper: First impressions


I've been using the Lee 100mm filter system for a few years now, beginning with a Lee starter kit, a set of Soft ND graduated filters and a pair of (77mm and 82mm) adapter rings to attach onto the three main lenses I use (16-35mm; 24-105mm; 70-200mm). I then added a set of Hard ND grads for seascapes (and landscapes with flat horizons) and then a 3-stop ND filter for some long exposure work.

The great thing about purchasing such a filter system is that one can start small, and relatively cheaply, and then add new filters when the need arises and funds permit! In the field, the Lee filter system allows one to attach two or more filters at one time, such that different combinations may be used to control exposures accurately.

Up until recently, all the filters I have bought have been the resin ones; probably just as well as I have dropped a few on a number of occasions, resulting in chipping of the edges. This is no real issue, as long as the main surfaces do not become scratched.

Wonky Horizons visited Cornwall at the end of March this year and I fancied doing some seascapes with long exposures. Although my 3-stop ND filter does quite a good job for exposures of a few seconds, I wanted to expose scenes for a few minutes: enter the Lee Big Stopper.

This latter piece of kit is notoriously difficult to procure, as over recent years, consumer demand has outstripped Lee's ability to supply. A friend of mine kindly agreed to lend me his Canon 5D MkII for the trip (so that I could shoot full-frame - my 1D MkIV being a 1.3x crop) and, when I went to pick it up, he said I could borrow his Big Stopper as well. Result - thank you George!

Now, it's worth pointing out a couple of things:

  1. The Big Stopper is glass and I was going to be shooting on rocky shorelines
  2. Shooting for longer than 30 seconds requires the use of BULB mode on the camera, together with a cable release and some means of timing your exposures
I was aware of a piece of Canon kit that would take care of point 2 above: The TC-80N3 Timer Remote Control (which can also be used for time lapse - but that's another story for another time). I duly purchased the said control and packed it carefully in my kit bag for the trip.

Shooting at Porth Nanven, Cornwall

This is a location that we had decided to visit during our trip to Cornwall, with round granite boulders on the beach, other sea-weathered rock formations and an off-shore island. We arrived in the rain but persevered for a couple of hours until conditions were favourable. I spent some time finding a few potential compositions and assembling my gear, only to find that I had left my timer control back at the bungalow in Rock - over an hour's drive away - thus I would be limited to 30-second exposures maximum! A few expletives later, the photography was under way, and my favourite image from this location is shown below.

Canon 5D MkII; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 at 35mm; 30 seconds at f/10; ISO 200; Lee Big Stopper

Learning points

The trip was not a complete disaster, but I would liked to have been able to have made the sea even more 'dreamy'. There was plenty of scope as I was only shooting at f/10, ISO 200 and thus had many more 'stops' up my sleeve. Note to self: Check your kit bag before you leave!

Handling a friends £100 glass filter over rocks is a bit scary. Buy your own filter!

Furthermore, one of the first things that is apparent when you look at the rear LCD when using the Big Stopper is the profound blue colour-cast. This needed addressing.


So, I bought my own filter and based on the experience gained, I decided to calibrate it for the colour temperature and exposure before I used it.

For the colour temperature, I did some digging around on the 'net and the general consensus is to set your camera to between 8000 and 9000 Kelvin. I opted for the mid-point, and set mine to 8500K.

For the exposure, I did some test shots in the garden without the filter, stopped down 10 stops, applied the filter and took another test shot. The my pleasure, the white balance looked really good, but the image was slightly underexposed. A little tweaking and I was there, ascertaining that my filter gives a reduction in light of around 11 stops.

Next shoot

My next shoot was last weekend, when Phil and I visited the Turner Contemporary in Margate. It's not the most exciting of images but it was a valuable real world test of my technique. The shot below was processed in Lightroom, needing virtually no white balance or exposure correction. Apologies to Phil for making him wait 40 mins for a suitable cloud to drift over.

Canon 1D MkIV; Canon 24-105mm f/4 at 24mm; 148 seconds at f/20; ISO 50; Polarising filter; Lee Big Stopper; WB 8500k
As you can see from the settings I used, it was a very bright day. The polariser helped to darken the sky, increased the contrast between sky and cloud and give me 2-3 stops less light to help get to the length of exposure I was after.

I feel a lot more confident in using the filter now and there are no excuses for getting it wrong. I've got a few ideas of shots that I want to take with it, including revisiting Porth Nanven when down in Cornwall again this coming September.