guide to graduated neutral density filter holders

The Ultimate Guide to Grad Filter Holder Systems

0 Flares Facebook 0 Twitter 0 Google+ 0 Pin It Share 0 Reddit 0 0 Flares ×

Some of the most satisfying photographs that you can take are the ones that you take of stagnant things like landscapes. They are large and flowing and ever changing unlike portraits which are fairly much the same. You can look at the same piece of land several; times during the day and it will likely look completely different each time that you do because the changing lighting will affect the way tat the land looks. Shadows and highlights can dramatically change the appearance of what you see and can capture via your lens.

The types and the style of filter that you are using can also have a great impact on the final result. That ends up on your film or your memory card.

For most portrait work I prefer the standard glass screw on filters. They are quite good and it is very rare that you will find a need to swap out filters when you are shooting a person. You will look over the subject and the lighting (which is generally in a studio) and select a single filter to handle the job. However when you are shooting a landscape you might need to readjust and swap out several filters rather quickly in order to make the image you capture with the camera match or exceed what you have seen with your naked eye.

If you are going to stick with the screw on glass style filters then you should have, at a minimum, a good polarizing filter, a UV or ultraviolet filter and a Neutral Density or ND filter. This combination will allow you a great amount of latitude in capturing great photos without giving you a lot of limitations that may hold you back. There are certainly other filters that may be desire able for this type of shooting but these are the core three that every camera buff should have in the camera bag and ready to use.

Square Filter Systems

In a case where you might need to be able to quickly and effectively swap out filters in order to capture the images correctly, you may wish to look into a square filter system such as those offered by companies such as Cokin or Lee.

Theses systems offer a mount that attaches to your screw mount lens where any normal round filter might go and then you apply new filters to this by simply sliding them in the mount. You can add several filters in a matter of seconds making it quick and easy to add on filters or remove them as the light changes on your scenic vista.

One disadvantage to this type of system is that they are a lot larger than a standard filter and as a result there is a lot more storage and carry space needed. That is not a large problem but you do need to budget your space for the filters especially when you are traveling and could be doing a lot of walking. They are bulky although not particularly heavy. So while it might not break your back it might add a lot of bulk depending on how many creative filters you carry.

A huge plus of the system is that you simply buy a rather inexpensive adaptor ring for each size of lens that you own and then your system can be used on every thing that you own. This can be a huge plus if you own a lot of lenses or lenses that end up with a varied array of filter sizes.

Since it is so easy to change filters it will give you a larger palette of tools form which to work, some of the filters that you simply need to carry with this system are:

You can get the following as square filters which fit into the square filter systems:

  • Polarizers
  • Neutral Density Filters (ND’s)
  • Graduated Neutral Density Filters (GND’s)
  • Color Filters

A polarizing filer and a Neutral Density Filter are absolute must owns in any system so those should be the first on your list. Keep in mind that as of this writing, Cokin ahs well over 140 different filters in its line up so it would be impossible to elaborate on anything but the more needed or most wanted filters.

You will want to add some of the graduated filters depending on what you anticipate you will be shooting. They are available in a plethora of colors and can change a dull and lifeless sky or sunset into a breath taking work of art simply by putting it in front of the lens.

There are some other accessories that may be useful:

  • Filter Hoods
  • Wide Angle Adapter Rings (to cut down on vignetting on wide angle lenses — a must if you shoot 10-17mm lenses). Both Lee and Cokin offer these special rings
  • Circular Polarizing Filter

Cokin Filter System

This is the cheapest system on the market (about 80 bucks) but probably the one with the most components. There are 4 different sizes.


A Model. This size will fit lenses from 36 to 62 mm is size.


P model. Covers the 48 to 82mm range. This is the most popular size and will cover most camera lens ranges except for wide angles.



Z Pro Model. This model will cover the bigger square filter size (4×4 or 4×6). It supports cokin, Lee, Hitech, and Sing-Ray filters. The Z Pro model are suitable for wide angle lenses. If you opt to use a super wide angle, you may want to look at the single slot holder version with the wide angle ring adaptor instead of the 3 slot version (which is fine for non-wide angle lenses for stacking).



X-Pro Model. This is the really BIG size that covers 62 to 112mm. Good for medium format cameras. It will support 130×170 mm filter sizes.





The Cokin filter system allows you, in most cases, to combine up to three filters in the same housing quickly and easily so that you can try out different combinations of what you might want so you can crate some unusual and unique special effects without the aid of Photoshop. Another thing that is of great advantage to you is the ability to physically rotate the filter to get what you envision. This is especially helpful when dealing with the graduated style filters since you can line up the darker section exactly where you need it to be.

A cokin system also has a lot of filters that creative in nature. In other words they take reality as we see it and then they rearrange it so that you get something that Mother Nature never intended to be. They offer star bursts, double exposure, mirrors which give you the illusion of seeing things as a mirror image of its self to name but a few. It is really quite amazing the many different filters that they offer to help you make the best of what your eyes see.

Cokin also offers a variety diffusers and pastel filters which can help you turn an ordinary shot into one that actually creates a nice mood making a boring shot much more interesting and these should be added to your tool kit if room and budget allow. Warm up filters are another great tool for the photographer. It can take a scene that is more sterile and cold and bring depth and warmth to it to the point that the photograph comes to life rather than fades into the background. Color correction filters, although not a have to have item for outdoor shooting, can certainly add a little intrigue and mystery to a shot and can turn an otherwise ordinary scene into a memorable one quite easily.

Lee Filter System

There is also a company on the market called Lee Filters that offer a flat filter system similar to the Cokin System.

Lee is a rather upscale version of the Cokin system. Cokin are more of an entry level one size fits all system where Lee offers a much more expandable system. Instead of being limited to a pre determined number of filters like three with Cokin, Lee allows you to expand upon that and lets you grow as your needs grow.

There is a basic foundation kit which you can then add to until you have reached the capacity of your needs for the system. All it takes is to purchase a pack to add on and a screw driver to add the new slots for the filters. It is quite simple and very quick to do.

Another big difference between the two is that Cokin filters are 2.5 inches square where the Lee brand filters are either 4 inches square or even 4 by 6 inches depending on the filter. Lee brand filters are also a much higher optical quality than the Cokin filters so you can expect to spend a bit more money for the better photo image quality. You can use Lee filters with the Cokin Holder, but since Lee filters are 4 x 6 inches (which are big enough for wide angles), you’ll want to use the Cokin Z filter holder system.

Another issue with Cokin when compared to Lee is that filters such as the Neutral Density filter in the Cokin line is not completely neutral but rather offers a bit of a gray tint that can be disconcerting to some folks. The Lee ND filter however is totally neutral and will not add any color what so ever to the final photo. And of course this is exactly what you would expect from a professional graded system filter.

Other Filter Systems

There are a few other filter brands of note, though these filter companies don’t make filter holders but only filters.


These are premium resin filters. They are arguably the best quality filters you can buy (at least on par with Lee filters) and feature a host of specialty filters such as the Reverse Grad Filter, the LB Color Combi, and the Vari-ND-Trio filters. You’ll pay dearly for these filters, however. A basic 4×6 2 stop grad filter will cost you nearly $200 dollars — double the cost of the Lee filter, and over 4 times the price of the Cokin version. If you want the absolute quality system, go with the Lee Filter System and Singh-Ray filters.


These filters don’t have the slight color cast the Cokin filters have and they are slightly bigger than the cokin P size (about 4×5). However, they are the best quality vs price ration of all the filter brands. If you are budget minded, we recommend you buy HiTech filters with the Cokin Z filter system.

Combining Filter Systems

You can swap different filter brands with different systems. You can use Lee filters with the Cokin filter systems and you can can use Cokin filters with Lee filter holders. You can use HiTech and Singh-Ray filters with either Lee or Cokin filter holders.

Wide Angle Lenses, Full Frame Cameras and Filter Holders

You should note that you’ll need to pick your filters and filter holder systems very carefully if you want to use wide angle lenses. Wide angle lenses are apt to vignette and capture part of the filter holder in the picture IF you don’t get the right system.This is even more true if you use full frame cameras (5D Mark 2, Dx3, etc), which will vignette at a higher lens mm than crop cameras.

Wide Angle and Cokin Holders

You’ll need Cokin Z Pro, the wide angle adaptor ring, and 4×5/6 filters. Lee, Hitech, or 4×6 Singh-Ray filters will work. The Cokin X holder will also work, but that’s overkill.

Wide Angle and Lee Holders

You’ll need the Lee Foundation Kit Holder, wide angle adaptor ring, and 4×5/6 filters. Lee, Hitech, or 4×6 Singh-Ray filters will work. Note that adding the Lee Filter Hood to the mix WILL vignette on ultra wide lenses.

Point and Shoot Digital Photography with Filer Holders

The folks at Cokin have taken a look at digital cameras and have come up with a way that even the most modest point and shoot style camera can benefit from the Cokin system of filters. The new system that they developed allows the user to mount the Cokin holder to the camera via the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. Since most cameras, event he most moderately priced point and shoot camera typically have a tripod mount screw so there is no excuse for not taking advantage of all the special effects and creativity that the company offers.

The down side with a point and shoot is that you are not seeing the result through the lens as you would with an SLR style camera but you snap a shot and can redo it after rearranging the filter if you need to in order to get what you are after.

Another thing that is nice is that certain effects can not be recreated in software. Even the state of the art industry standard Photoshop can not duplicate the effect of a circular polarizing style filter. That means that if you want to take advantage of the effect that a polarizing filter such as this can give you, then it is necessary that you use a filter of some sort and that can only happen, at the moment, in a point and shoot camera by using the Cokin system that was specially designed for this purpose.


What is the best System for Me?

That certainly is a question that a lot of folks have been asking and rightfully so. I mean the last thing that you want to do would be to invest hundreds of dollars of your hard earned money into a set of circular filters or a filter system and find out that you made the wrong choice at the end of the day.

While the round screw on filters are certainly a popular type of filtering process and most likely the one that most of the world is using, it may or may not be best for you. Remember that you need to keep the size of your lenses in mind when purchasing and but the filter large enough for your largest lens and then use step down filters for the others in your collection of lenses. This will allow you to use only one filter of any given type for every lens that you own. Of course if you but another lens with an odd filter size then you need more step down rings.

The Cokin system allows the average photographer to be able to interchange filters on different lenses by purchasing an adaptor ring to fit the filter. You have access to a lot of rather good effects filters as a fairly inexpensive price. The biggest down side is going to be that they are fairly bulky for carrying around.

The Lee filters are the best optical quality that you can get in the flat filter system and will rival the glass circular filters in that area. These filters are designed for the professional and the cost and size reflect that. You also need a lot more room to carry these since they are even larger than the Cokin filters. Another option are the Singh-Ray filters, which are the same quality as Lee, but twice the price.

For price minded folks, look at crossing the Cokin P Holder (if no wide angle lenses to be used) or Cokin Z (if wide angle lenses) Holder with Hitech filters.

The answer is that the best system for you is likely to be either the standard filter s or the Cokin system simply from the stand point of the convenience and the cost factor. There is not a bad answer for the best for anyone here because they all offer a wide variety of effects and corrections.

It may well come down to the amount of room that you have in your camera bag or case and how much of that room you want to take away from your cameras and dedicate to the addition of the filters that you are going to use when taking the pictures.


  1. Steve Coleman

    Natural density filters are such an important part of my kit as a landscape photographer. I shoot Velvia film on a Mamiya 7II camera and keeping my exposures in balance is important given Velvia film narrower dynamic range. This has been an excellent post. Thank you. I will share it on Tweeter for you. Cheers Steve Coleman

Leave a Comment