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Full disclosure: Breakthrough Photography sent me these filters to review and the links in this post are affiliate links that I make a small profit from if you purchase through them. I can assure you that I keep my reviews unbiased, I honestly love these filters and they are the only ones in my bag!

Recently, I posted a guide to solid ND filters and mentioned Breakthrough Photography Filters after hearing about them through colleagues. I decided it was time to test them for myself to see if the claims of no color cast were true. I was getting sick of the blue cast of the Lee filters, but I really enjoyed the drop-in system vs. the screw on filters.

Taken with a Breakthrough ND filter

Super short review: These filters are incredible, no color cast even with the 15 stop filter! Do not hesitate to buy them.



Image above: Left is only polarizer, right is with the polarizer and a 15 stop filter.

X4 Circular Polarizer

Before jumping into the ND filters let's do a quick review of Breakthrough Photography's X4 Circular Polarizer. I have been through many polarizers over the years and I am finally happy with the X4 CPL. It is made from solid brass with big knurled edges that make it easy to turn. The filter is what I would call a 'thin-mount' where it does not cause vignetting with wide angle lenses, but the front does still have a few threads to allow additional filters to be put on the polarizer (or a lens cap). This is unlike other thin-mounts which have no threads on the front. They use a specially designed film that has the least amount of color cast on the market, you will be hard-pressed to find any color cast in the real world. I found there to be about 1 stop of light loss with this polarizer, which is very good.

The only con I can come up with is that it can be hard to get off at times, with the knurled part to remove it being less knurled than the area to turn the polarizer, to me it seems they should be reversed. This is especially true when using a step up ring, they will get stuck together often. To overcome this I also purchased a rubber coated filter remover, which works great!

X4 Neutral Density Filters

On to the meat of the review! Solid ND filters are an essential piece of gear in any photographer's bag, but they tend to come along with a nasty color cast especially when working with 10 or 15 stop filters. Those days are gone. Breakthrough Photography has blown my mind with filters that have nearly zero color cast.

Testing

For the test, I used my cameras meter to take a base exposure without any filters, which was ISO 200, f/8, 1/250 sec. in midday light. I then used PhotoPills to calculate the exposure for each filter. 

  • 3 Stop - 1/30s
  • 6 Stop - 1/4s
  • 10 Stop - 4s
  • 15 Stop - 2m 11s

I then evaluated the luminance and color values using the LAB color values  (right click on the histogram to enable LAB) along with the Reference View in Lightroom. Using the L value (luminance) I found the 3, 6, and 10 stop filters were actually 1/2 stop darker than advertised. The 15 stop was nearly exactly 15 stops. Not a problem, just something to take into consideration in the field. 

To evaluate the color I used the A value (balance of green and magenta) and the B value (balance of blue and yellow) to determine if there was any color cast. I found the 3, 6, and 10 stops to have a very slight warm cast (about 500 Kelvin, which is next to nothing), and virtually no green or magenta cast. The 15 stop had a slightly warmer cast (1000 Kelvin), and a slight magenta cast which was easily removed by taking the tint slider down 10 points in Lightroom, which again is nearly no cast as you can see from the image below.

I corrected the exposure for the 3, 6, and 9 filters by 1/2 stop for this comparison to only evaluate color. The white balance is set exactly the same on all images, unbelievable results!

I could find no degradation of sharpness with any of the filters. Below is an extremely zoomed crop with no filter on the left, and the 15 stop on the right, any difference you see is simply lighting, not sharpness.



Conclusion

Positives - Almost zero color cast and exceptional sharpness which is the most important aspect when evaluating ND filters, I can confidently say that you will not be disappointed. The construction is top notch using brass rings and exceptional quality glass. They have been incredibly durable, showing no signs of scratches after over four months of use despite being covered in sand and water.

Negatives - The polarizer can be hard to get off at times with the thin knurled area, but the ND filters are very easy to use with big knurled edges. 3, 6, and 10 filters are 1/2 stop darker than advertised. Currently they are only available as screw on filters, but the drop in filters are coming very soon. Personally, I enjoy using the screw-on filters more now that I have a complete set.

The negatives are quite minimal and the positives outweigh them massively. I can confidently say these are the best filters on the market and you should not hesitate purchasing them. If you plan on stacking the filters get a size bigger than your lens takes and use a step-up ring to avoid vignetting. 

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We have had an incredible year teaching our fellow photographers and helping them to find their creativity. 2018 is going to be an even better year! We have added locations to our previous workshops and added new workshops that we are extremely excited about. This year we will be adding a deeper educational component to help you succeed well into the future.

Check out our testimonials from our awesome clients!

Death Valley Photography WorkshopFebruary 16-20, 2018

It may be hard to believe, but Death Valley is one of our favorite National Parks. We will be photographing the locations we love in this incredible landscape, a mix of icons and locations off the beaten path. 

Learn MoreDeath Valley Backcountry and Eastern Sierra WorkshopFebruary 27 - March 4, 2018

A truly unique experience to photograph the most remote and nearly untouched locations in Death Valley. We will be camping the entire trip to be in position for the best light!

Learn MorePage and Lake Powell Slot Canyons WorkshopApril 18-22, 2018

This is not your typical workshop with only the icons. Yes, we will be going to Antelope Canyon, but the real fun begins when we take a boat to a remote slot canyon on Lake Powell that very few photographers have seen!

Learn MoreGrand Staircase-Escalante Photography WorkshopMay 16-20, 2018

Grand Staircase is an overwhelming area with endless photo opportunities, let us show you what this amazing place has to offer! There will be lots of hiking, and plenty of learning.

Learn MoreColorado Wildflowers WorkshopJuly 20-28, 2018

Colorado in the summer is a photographers paradise. On this trip, we will visit two unique areas of Colorado, one of which can only be accessed with a Jeep. We will also have two days dedicated to only post processing!

Learn More

 

Colorado Fall Colors WorkshopSeptember 27 - October 1, 2018

The San Juan Mountains in Colorado are a sight to behold in the fall. Dramatic snow covered peaks with blazing yellow aspens make this our favorite location on earth.

Learn MoreSouthwest Slot Canyons WorkshopNovember 7-12, 2018

If you are looking for adventure, this is the workshop for you. We will hit a wide variety of unique slot canyons all over the southwest. You will be tired, and it will be so worth it.

Learn MoreDeath Valley WorkshopDecember 5-9, 2018

We love Death Valley so much that we have to do three workshops here! In December you tend to get dramatic weather conditions without the crowds. 

Learn More
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For years The Photographer's Ephemeris has been an indispensable tool for landscape photographers. It has helped us plan many shoots to understand where the sun or moon was going to land on the landscape, or where the sun/moon/milky way would be in the sky. TPE has always been 2D map based, while useful, it was limiting for truly visualizing how the scene would look. I would typically use TPE in conjunction with Google Earth to understand how the light and shadows would look on the mountains, but Google Earth's representation leaves something to be desired as well. Along with this, the display of the milky way is incorrect in Google Earth making it useless for planning night shots.

Obviously, Stephen Trainor (the developer of TPE) saw this gap in the market and grabbed the bull by the horns. Stephen's latest game changing app is TPE 3D, a revolutionary piece of work that allows you to fly around the earth with three-dimensional terrain similar to Google Earth. The fun begins when you change the time to be near sunrise or sunset, suddenly the 3D landscape transforms with beautiful shadows and glowing peaks.

Planning out a night shoot is now a breeze using TPE 3D. Select a location, place a pin by long pressing, then double tapping the pin to fly to it. You will now be at ground level and in enhanced mode. Slide the time slider so it is night and you will see the sky transform to be filled with stars, constellations, milky way, and the moon. Change the time and the date until you find the correct position for the milky way or another subject that will align with your land subject. You can then change your focal length by pinching to zoom in or out, no more guessing what lens to bring!

 

A planned shot of the milky way over Swiftcurrent Peak in Glacier National Park

 

Drone photographers rejoice! You now have the perfect tool to plan out drone shots. In TPE 3D you can see what elevation your camera is positioned along with GPS coordinates. With an app like Autopilot or Litchi, you can pre-plan your shoot and then enter the exact location for the drone to fly to, saving precious battery life finding a composition. Of course, it's not perfect, and you will likely have to do some exploring/tweaking to get just the right location in the field, but this should save you a lot of time.

Stephen has put together many tutorials, and video tutorials below.
Flying Mode Tutorial
Enhanced Mode Tutorial
Map Pin Basics 
Timeline Basics

The app is not perfect of course, the detail of the topo and overlaid satellite imagery in Google Earth is light years better, but it is not intended to be used in this way. In my view it is best used when you already have an idea of where you want to shoot, but you want to better visualize how the light will land on the landscape prior to your shoot, or find out exactly where the milky way will be in relation to the landscape. This app has become an indispensable tool in my planning kit, I highly recommend it!

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This summer I have been testing out the new Mindshift chest pack called the Mindshift Multi-Mount Holster, I chose the 10 Model which is the smallest, and fit my Fuji X-T1 like a glove. I primarily wanted this pack for when I am backpacking and would not normally have quick access to my camera like I do with the Mindshift Horizon 34L, which I use on day hikes. For backpacking I use a pack that is built for carrying heavy loads, the Gregory Baltoro 75. Which has incredibly good lumbar support, but no easy way to access my camera. 

The Mindshift Multi-Mount Holster 10 solves this by securing the camera firmly to your chest using a suspension system that attaches to the shoulder straps of your backpacking pack, along with two straps that go around the lower webbing of the shoulder straps, which keeps the pack from bouncing on your chest. This may sound awkward at first, but I found by moving the weight of the camera off your back and onto your chest actually helped to even out the weight distribution, I felt more balanced wearing this!

   

The amount of gear you can fit in this pack will of course vary with the size you select and how large your camera and lenses are. For me, I found the 10 to be just the right size for the Fuji X-T1 with a lens like the 10-24, or 18-135 attached. Even with this combination there is a bit of extra room for another small prime lens on the bottom of the pack using one of the padded dividers, or one of the longer 2.8 lenses if the divider is removed. If you are using a DSLR, the 20 model will likely suit your needs with a wide angle or standard zoom.

The front pouch is meant to hold items like SD cards, etc. I found the best use for this was to store my Lee Filter Holder, Lee Big Stopper, Little Stopper, and a Lee square polarizer. My entire camera kit for backpacking fits in this tiny package which is always at my fingertips while hiking. 

This chest pack is not just for backpacking, if you prefer to use a hiking pack rather than a dedicated camera pack which typically do not have the best padding or design for hiking (Mindshift packs are designed very well though), this is a great option to have your camera easily accessible and protected from the elements, a rain cover is even included.

My only complaint is the difficulty of taking the pack on and off, I did not find it annoying enough to not use it, but I do wish it was easier. The upper shoulder straps have a clip with a hook that I presume is meant for security, but it really just made it hard to remove the pack when your tired and want to get the heavy pack off your back quickly. 

The stabilizer straps are fairly easy to remove, but attaching them is another story, the top of the webbing where the hook slides in is a bit too small, plus the rubber on the hook catches on the webbing which makes it challenging to insert at times. Overall these are pretty minor gripes, and I was very pleased with the pack. 

I did receive this from Mindshift in exchange for a review, but I hope you can tell that opinions are not biased from this, I really do like this and used a ton this summer! If you want to support our site so we can continue bringing you quality content, please consider purchasing from the affiliate link below, this costs you nothing extra, but we get a little back from referring you.

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This website contains affiliate links, which means David and Jennifer may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles. You will pay the same price for all products and services, and your purchase helps support our ongoing work. Thanks for your support!

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Landscape photography invokes wanderlust in the majority of us, we see a a location on the Internet we want to visit, or a friend tells us about a new place that we must go. For me, seeing and exploring new places goes hand in hand with my photography; but my memory is not always the best, I need to save these ideas somehow to review at a later date. I formerly had a scattered system of bookmarks, written notes, dog-eared guidebooks, notes on maps, and pages torn out of magazines; when it came time to find something, it was a hopeless endeavor. 

 

Ughh.

 

I can finally say that I have found the near perfect solution for keeping all my scouting ideas in one central location:

To some of you this may seem very obvious, but read on as I will show you all the different ways I use it that you may not have thought of. 

Saving Websites

Let's say you learn of a location, you google it to find more information, you find a website that has details on the hike, etc. If you were to simply bookmark this page, there is no guarantee that it will still be there a year down the line when you finally need the information, as websites come and go (I've learned this the hard way). The solution is to use the Web Clipper extension for your particular browser. When you click the clipper you can choose to clip the whole page, a simplified version of it, or just whatever you have selected. This will save the page into your Evernote forever. Once you have this saved into Evernote you can then highlight important text on the page so it easy to find that information later. You can also add tags, or more notes to this note.

An example from Road Trip Ryan using the Article options, set to the notebook of San Rafael Swell which coincides with this area

 

This website also has a gpx file associated it with it that I want to import into my preferred GPS app on my iPhone, Gaia GPS. Rather than email this file to myself, I can attach it to my note in Evernote, you do this by downloading the gpx file to your computer, drag and drop the resulting file into your note, now that file is also saved forever. I can then open Evernote on my iPhone, go to this note, click on the gpx file and copy to Gaia GPS

 Saving pages out of guidebooks or magazines

Evernote has another companion app, Scannable that works exceptionally well for taking photos from guidebooks and saving them in Evernote. The app quickly and easily identifies documents, which includes pages from a book. It automatically straightens the pages and makes the text clear, below is a screenshot taken from John Fielder's excellent book The Complete Guide to Colorado's Wilderness Areas

  Ideas from social media

When you see a location on social media that you want to research more, it can be challenging to save this information due to the way smartphone apps work. Facebook and Instagram want to keep you inside their app, so they do not let you export to Evernote. Albeit crude, the best solution I have come up with is to take a screenshot of your phone's screen (click home & power on iPhone, sleep & volume down On Android), now go into Evernote, create a new note and insert the screenshot you just saved, add notes, etc. 

Screenshot of Instagram user @moonmountainman, follow him to see some epic locations!

 

To simplify the process further, I have created an IFTTT recipe which saves any screenshots I take on my iPhone to a notebook in Evernote called 'Scouting - Unsorted' that I can go through and organize later, you can use my recipe here

Pictures of maps

Saving maps into Evernote is as simple as using the camera function inside the app, after the note is saved you can add markups like text, arrows, and highlights by tapping on the photo to bring up the markup tools. The map below is a screenshot from a Latitude 40 map of the Ice Lakes Basin area in Colorado.

 Use with TPE

Most landscape photographers are familiar with The Photographer's Ephemeris which is infinitely useful for planning out shoots, you can save your plans inside the TPE app, but I find it useful to save the plan in Evernote as well since this is where I always refer back to for scouting. Just tap on the export button inside the app, but rather than selecting Evernote, select 'Email Shot', now you can email to your Evernote email, which can be found in your account settings, the email is usually {yourusername}@m.evernote.com. This note will include details about the shoot, an image from TPE, and links to open the plan in the app or your browser.

Resulting note in Evernote, full of information and links to open in TPE again later

On location scouting

I use the app Theodolite in the field to quickly capture information about the scene. When you point your camera at the landscape you get an augmented reality view with a heads up display that shows your bearing, azimuth, altitude, etc. When you click on the MAIL button in the upper right corner you can mail this to your Evernote email, which will save a detailed note with all the bearing information, links to open the location in other apps, along with a screeenshot.

Organization

I have gone through many different iterations of organizing my scouting locations in Evernote. Initially I tried to sort everything by tags, and have all the notes in one notebook called scouting. This worked great on a computer, but failed on the smartphone due to limited tag sorting functionality. Finally I settled on a system of notebooks grouped by specific locations. This may get a little messy if you are already using Evernote for other tasks. I used to use Evernote for everything, it was my brain dump, receipt collector, recipe collector, etc. It became a cluttered mess, so I moved everything else to more specific apps (IQBoxy for receipts, Paprika for recipes, OneNote for more general note keeping and brainstorming). Now my Evernote account is specifically for scouting, it does not have to be this way, but it's what works for me. 

An example of my notebooks of Colorado

 Tagging and searching

This is where Evernote shines. When I create a new note I put tags on it that will help me decide where to go later. For example if I know based up the research that this location will have good wildflowers in July, I will add the tags 'wildflowers' and 'july'. now in the future when I look at this note I know when the best time to go is, or I can filter by month, etc. For example if I'm not sure what to do in March, I can quickly filter by the tag 'march' and see I have two things that would be good in March

 Offline use

If you have the space on your phone, I highly recommend turning on offline notebooks. This will download all of your notes (or selected notebooks) so you always have your information available offline. No longer do you need to carry around a heavy guidebook for information on one hike.

Conclusion

The most challenging part of using Evernote, is of course the initial pain of saving everything. Mine is still a work in progress, saving websites, moving things over from OneNote, saving hikes from guidebooks, tagging notes, etc. It will take time, but it will be a beautiful system when completed. Please share any other ways you use Evernote for scouting in the comments!

 

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Solid ND filters are an essential part of my landscape photography kit, yet I come across many photographers that do not use them. Put quite simply; ND filters are a dark piece of glass or resin that you put in front of your lens to let less light into the camera. What this achieves is a slower shutter speed without having to change your aperture.

What is wrong with stopping down your aperture to f/22 to achieve a slower shutter speed? Diffraction.

Diffraction is caused by light bending around an object. In this case, the small hole of the aperture at f/22. This bending of light causes softness of the image throughout the entire scene. To maintain image sharpness, you should not stop the aperture down past f/13 (f/9 on a crop sensor). Below is a crop of the same scene, f/8 on the left, and f/22 on the right. You can clearly see the loss of sharpness and lack of micro-contrast.



These ND filters should not be confused with graduated ND filters, graduated filters are dark on the top and gradually become clear at the bottom. A solid ND filter is completely dark and intended to change the exposure by letting in less light throughout the frame.

Solid ND filters come in a variety of darkness values and are labeled in different confusing terms. The most commonly used term is 'Stops'.

3 Stops = ND8 or ND0.9

This filter is often used when you need to slow down your shutter speed slightly. When shooting a scene with a river you may want to have texture in the water rather than a smoothed out cotton effect, to achieve this you need a shutter speed around 1/4 of a second. For example, if you were shooting at f/8 ISO 200 and your meter read 1/30s without a filter, putting on a 3 stop filter would give you the desired shutter speed of 1/4s. You could achieve the same shutter speed by stopping down to f/22 and avoid using the filter, but this would also increase the diffraction by using such a small aperture, causing your image to be soft. Using the 3 stop filter in this instance allows you to keep the sharpness of f/8 while getting a slower shutter speed.

   6 Stops = ND64 or ND1.8

This is the most useful filter for grand landscapes. When you use it during golden hour or at sunrise/sunset you will have an exposure anywhere from 30 seconds to 4 minutes. This will cause any moving clouds to blur and streak across the sky, showing interesting movement. The longer shutter speed also captures more colors due to the changing colors in the clouds.

  10 Stops = ND110 or ND3.0

When skies are brighter than sunset, like overcast conditions or just dense clouds, a 10 stop can be very useful. I would not start out buying this filter unless you have money to spare or know you want to do a lot of very long exposure photography. With a 3 and 6 stop you can stack to create 9 stops and then decide if the exposure times are long enough for what you want to achieve.

 16 Stops = ND 4.8

This is the filter you need for shooting in mid day light when you want to streak the clouds, usually in black and white. A typical mid-day exposure is f/8, ISO 200, 1/800s, adding a 16 stop filter would extend the exposure to 1min 22s while maintaining sharpness at f/8. If an extremely long shutter speed is desired, you may add a 3 stop filter to achieve an 11-minute exposure. Adding a 6 stop would give you an 88 minute exposure (not recommended)!

 Stacking Filters

Stacking multiple filters can be a great way to save money when more ND is needed. For example, you can stack the 10 and 6 stop filters together to achieve 16 stops rather than buying a 16 stop. This does have some downfalls, for example, the Lee Big Stopper and Little stopper each have a blue cast. When combined, the blue cast becomes stronger and harder to correct. I generally use this combination for black and white photos. If you use screw-on filters, another issue caused by stacking may be vignetting.

Variable ND Filters

These filters allow you to change the amount of ND with a simple twist, ranging from 2-8 stops. These are great in theory and can work well for many situations, but the reality is they only cover up to around 4-6 stops. When you go above that you will get banding where some areas are dark, and others are not. They also cause vignetting with ultra wide angle lenses. I would only recommend this filter if you do not shoot ultra wide, and only need 6 stops of ND. These can be great for waterfalls when you need to dial in a particular shutter speed. If you really want this flexibility on an ultra wide, get one that is bigger than your lens and use a step-down ring to avoid vignetting.

Filter HoldersLee

For the money, you cannot beat the Lee holder. This is what I use and have had no issues with it over the years. The only downfall is the wide angle adapters are incredibly over-priced, but you should only need one for your wide angle lens, and the other adapters can be standard.

 Formatt Hitech Firecrest

This holder is designed for exceptionally long exposures; think 20, 30 minutes, 1 hour, etc. It will prevent any light leaks around the filters themselves, which is only a problem for very long exposures. It also has a built-in mechanism to turn their specially designed polarizer without turning the holder. You can use this holder without the light blocking cover and it is just as easy to use as the Lee. Overall the best design on the market. On the surface it appears to be more expensive, but it includes a polarizer which it makes it cheaper than the Lee.

  Cokin

This holder is another standard out there, I personally do not like the design and would not recommend it.

  Wine Country

Probably the most beautifully designed filter holder ever, this is made to impress. It has a built-in mechanism to turn the specially designed polarizer without moving the holder. It is beautiful, but bulky and expensive.

Screw on or slide in?

There are two distinct styles of ND filters; each has their benefits and downsides.

Screw on filtersPositives
  • Cheap
  • Simple
  • Do not require an expensive, bulky filter holder.
Negatives
  • The filter size must match your lens, if you have a lens with a 77mm filter size, and another with a 67mm you would need two filters. If you go this route, I would consider purchasing an 82mm filter and buying a set of step-up rings which will adapt this large filter size to any of your lenses. The 82mm will largely future proof you from future lens purchases which may have a larger front element than you currently have.
  • Cannot stack filters to achieve more ND due to vignetting, it may be possible if you are using 82mm filters on a lens with a smaller diameter.
  • It is challenging to use a 10 or 16 stop filter because you cannot see through it; therefore, you must unscrew the filter each time you need to re-compose or take a new meter reading. This involves risk of changing the focus while unscrewing the filter as well.
  • Cannot use a polarizer with the ND due to the same vignetting issue.
Drop in filtersPositives
  • The filters are only one size for the system you purchase; typically this is 4"x4" (100mmx100mm), one filter for all lenses, you only purchase different adapter rings for each lens.
  • You can easily stack three filters to achieve as much ND as needed without requiring extra filters.
  • Easy to slide in and out to change composition quickly.
  • Polarizers can be used, the type of polarizer will depend on the system, which is covered below
Negatives
  • Carrying around a bulky filter holder
Filter Brands

There are a variety of brands to choose from with varying qualities:

LEE

Has a strong blue cast, which is relatively easy to correct with a white balance adjustment. This is what I currently use, but am considering a move to Firecrest.
Little Stopper 6 Stop
Big Stopper 10 Stop
Super Stopper 15 Stop

Firecrest

In my tests the 16 stop Firecrest has the least color cast of any filter out there (Breakthrough was not tested at the time), the others should be no exception. If you are in the market for drop-in filters right now, this would be my top choice.
Firecrest Slide-In 3 Stop
Firecrest Slide-In 6 Stop
Firecrest Slide-In 10 Stop
Firecrest Slide-In 16 Stop

Breakthrough Photography

Possibly the most color neutral filter on the market, a test between these and Firecrest is in order. Currently they only have screw-on filters, but square filters will be coming later this year.
Breakthrough Photography 3 Stop
Breakthrough Photography 6 Stop
Breakthrough Photography 10 Stop

Singh-Ray

In general Singh-Ray has always been the top quality in the market for filters, but I cannot recommend their ND filters due to a strong color cast in my tests, and this has been confirmed by others.

B+W

I formerly had a screw-on B+W filter which had an extreme magenta cast that was difficult to correct in post processing.

Polarizers

Yes, you still need to use a polarizer when using an ND filter! The same reflections still exist and must be cut out to create clean photographs. You should not use a polarizer for every photograph, but when shooting water or leaves it is a necessity. Each system has their unique way of handling polarizers. The LEE system uses an expensive 4x4 polarizer, and you must rotate the entire assembly to change the amount of polarization. Wine Country uses a special round polarizer that can be turned with a geared mechanism. Formatt uses a similar system and the polarizer is included with the filter holder. Breakthrough photography is coming out with the 'Dark CPL' which combines their X4 ND filter with the X4 CPL which will not vignette at 16mm on full frame, a 6 stop version of this would be incredibly useful.

My Recommendation

Currently I believe the best system on the market is the Firecrest. The ND filters have little to no color cast and have the most complete lineup, the filter holder is well designed and easy to use. It is a complete system that anyone would be satisfied with. I would start with the filter holder which comes with a polarizer. I would recommend a 3 stop ND, and a 6 stop ND. You can then stack these and reach 9 stops, combined with the polarizer you will be near 10 stops, which is all that most photographers will need. If you really want to streak clouds, add the 10 stop.

AFFILIATE DISCLOSURE

This website contains affiliate links, which means David and Jennifer may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles. You will pay the same price for all products and services, and your purchase helps support our ongoing work. Thank you for your support!

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Author: David Kingham

When people think of landscape photographs, most will associate using a wide-angle and standard focal length lenses. Wide angle lenses create dramatic effects when placed near a subject of interest, but not all landscapes are created equal as Jennifer demonstrates with this stunning photograph.

Jennifer Renwick - sand dunes glowing after sunset- Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm on D500 (Equivalent focal length of 900mm), ISO 640, f/8, 1/640s

Extreme telephoto lenses have become an essential part of our landscape photography kits, we did not know what we were missing until they were in our bags.

I often ask my clients during workshops 'what is the subject of your photo?', it is often a challenge to place focus on one subject using a wide angle lens. With a telephoto, you are forced to pick a subject and create a compelling composition around it.

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 138mm (Equivalent focal length of 207mm) , ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/240s

When creating landscapes with telephoto lenses, it is important to have a stable foundation, meaning a solid tripod. The tripod you use for your wide angle may not be sturdy enough to hold a big, heavy telephoto lens. I have found that I can get around this by using proper long-lens technique and a fast shutter speed. The technique involves draping your left hand/arm lightly over the barrel of the lens to stabilize it, combine this with a shutter speed that is equivalent to or faster than your focal length and you will come away with keepers. If all of the subjects in your frame are close to the same distance away, you can get away with an aperture of f/5.6 to let in more light. You do have to be careful with telephoto because the depth of field is very narrow; if the subjects have a fair distance between them, you may need to stop down your aperture or focus stack. You can also raise your ISO to achieve a faster shutter speed. While this will introduce some noise, it is better than the alternative of a blurry image.

Finding Compositions

Composing a telephoto scene can be more challenging than photographing a grand landscape. The subject is not obvious, and you must do the work to find it on your own. This can be creatively fulfilling finding a non-obvious subject that is unlikely to be re-created. On the other hand, it can be frustrating for those new to the technique.

Positioning yourself at the right location can be an important first step to finding compositions. Placing yourself higher than your subject is one way to find a subject with a telephoto, this gives you a clear view of distant subjects. Think of high mountain roads with clear views, etc. Another option is to shoot up, for example photographing mountain peaks from below allows you opportunities to create unique photographs, especially with dramatic weather.

In the examples below I used a mixture of patterns, light contrast, color contrast, curves, and empty space to create compelling compositions.

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 124mm (Equivalent focal length of 186mm), ISO 800, f/8, 1/150s
Composition - Use of zig-zag curving lines to create movement and depth, along with the literal contrast of life/death with the few remaining leaves on the aspen trees.

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 373mm (Equivalent focal length of 560mm), ISO 200, f/8, 1/900s
Composition - Negative space gives foreboding scale to the mountain cliff

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 347mm (Equivalent focal length of 520mm), ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/420s
Composition - Contrast between cold, cloud shrouded mountain with the warm light of sunset

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 252mm (Equivalent focal length of 378mm), ISO 200, f/5, 1/4500s
Composition - Negative space gives breathing room for the immense mountain peak

Jennifer Renwick - Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm on D500 (Equivalent focal length of 900mm), ISO 640, f/8, 1/1250s
Composition - Contrast between light and shadows

Lens Recommendations

You may be ready to dive into the world of telephoto but have the belief that the lenses are out of your price range. Most likely this is not true! There are great options available now that do not require you to shell out 10k on a 600mm lens. I limited the options to lenses that reach at least 400mm, are relatively lightweight, and affordable.

Fujifilm

Fujifilm 100-400 - The only super-telephoto option available for Fujifilm users, thankfully it is a superb lens with sharpness throughout the frame. This is the lens I used on all of my photos in this post. When used with the cropped sensor this is an equivalent focal length of 150-600 and only weighs in at 3 lbs.
 

Canon

Tamron 150-600 - The sharpest lens from edge to edge, which is the most important aspect to consider for telephoto landscapes. I would highly recommend this lens if weight is not an issue as it weighs nearly 4.5 lbs.
Canon 100-400 - Currently one of the best 'lightweight' options, but when the Sigma 100-400 comes out there will be little reason to get this lens considering it weighs 1 lb more.
Sigma 150-600 - From the reviews I have read this lens has superb sharpness in the center of the frame but falls off around the edges. A good choice, but for landscapes, I would recommend the Tamron.
Sigma 100-400 - Sigma has released a new lens (available in May 2017) that will be a fantastic option for those wanting to use telephoto while hiking. It is 2 lbs lighter than the Tamron, of course you lose 200mm in focal length, but it only weighs 2.5 lbs.
 

Nikon

Tamron 150-600 - Jennifer uses this lens on her D500. This is an incredibly sharp lens all the way to the edges and great for telephoto landscapes. I would highly recommend this lens if weight is not an issue as it weighs nearly 4.5 lbs.
Sigma 100-400 - Sigma has released a new lens (available in May 2017) that will be a fantastic option for those wanting to use telephoto while hiking. It is 2 lbs lighter than the Tamron, of course you lose 200mm in focal length, but it only weighs 2.5 lbs.
Sigma 150-600 - From the reviews I have read this lens has superb sharpness in the center of the frame but falls off around the edges. A good choice, but for landscapes, I would recommend the Tamron.
Nikon 200-500 - A fantastic lens that is quite sharp, but is heavy at 4.6 lbs, considering it weighs more than the Tamron, and has less focal length, I would not choose this lens.
Nikon 80-400 - Currently one of the best 'lightweight' options, but when the Sigma 100-400 comes out there will be little reason to get this lens considering it weighs 1 lb more.

Sony

Tamron 150-600 - Tamron makes the only super-telephoto lens for Sony; it is only for A-mount though, so you will need the adapter. This is an incredibly sharp lens all the way to the edges, great for telephoto landscapes.

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Years ago I reviewed the first generation of the revolutionary Mindshift 180 bag, it was my favorite bag yet. At the time I could not have imagined how they would improve this bag, how wrong I was. Mindshift has outdone themselves with their new series of camera bags. Mindshift sent me the rotation180° Horizon 34L and the rotation180° Trail 16L to test out, I have put them through their paces and ready to make my recommendations. I keep my recommendations unbiased despite getting free bags, if they are crap, I will tell you!

 rotation180° Horizon 34L Review

In short, this is the best camera bag I have ever used, by a long shot. I have used the f-stop Loka in the past along with Tamrac Expedition bags, the f-stop was the only bag that comes close to this. I will start by saying this is not the pack to carry all of your gear, just what you need. I generally carry my camera with lens attached, along with 2 additional lenses, lee filter holder, filters, shutter release cable, and extra batteries. This all fits into the belt pack which rotates around. I have a smaller Fuji mirrorless camera and there is extra space, if you have a DSLR it will fit the body with a standard lens attached, like a 24-70, along with one other standard size lens. With a Sony a-series you may be able to fit 3 lenses.

If you want to carry extra gear or a larger lens like a 70-200, you can purchase the padded insert separately. I do not use this as I try to minimize the amount of gear I carry to not be weighed downed by all the extra 'stuff', keeping my kit simple has really helped to extend my creative vision. I carry a first aid kit, coat, gloves in the upper compartment instead.

The idea behind this backpack is truly elegant, your necessary gear is kept in the belt pouch which spins around your waist and out of the pack itself, so you never have to take off your pack to access your gear. It is not only conveineint, but downright necessary at times when you cannot put your pack down. For example in the Zion Narrows (that's me in action below, image credit to Jennifer Renwick of Above the Timberline Photography there are times you cannot lay your pack down, or you have to go out of the way to find a dry spot. This was fantastic to have while shooting waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, and water covered salt flats in Death Valley.

The quality of this pack is fantastic, I have been abusing it for 4 months now and I see no signs of wear. I am confident that this will hold up for a long time. There are tons of pockets for additional storage, like a map pouch on the side, a pocket on the front where I carry the Rain Cover, which can be purchased separately. There are also loops to lash on extra gear, and a tripod holder on the back of the pack. If you want your tripod to be accessible without taking the pack off, the Tripod Suspension Kit can be added to this pack. These are straps that attach to the shoulder straps, these clip on to a strap around the tripod, and the legs of the tripod slip into a elastic band on the side of the pack, this is a great feature.

Nowhere to put your pack down here!

Comparison to the rotation180° Professional 38L

After using the rotation180° Professional 38L for years I found a couple problems that bothered me. First, the fit was not exceptional as you would get with a real hiking backpack. It was okay, but I could not get it adjusted properly to get all the weight on my hips, the shoulder straps were not contoured to follow your body and the weight tended to go back and pull on your shoulders. With the new Horizon 34L I feel like I am wearing a high end hiking pack, the comfort is exceptional. You have all the adjusters that you would find on a hiking pack. The other annoyance with the Professional 38L was the swing around hip belt/fanny pack, The materials it was made of were...floppy. There was no stiffness to the side walls, so it was easily compressed, this was a problem when swinging the hip pack back into place in the pack, it would get smashed when pushing it in, you can see how I struggled with this a little in the original review video. The Horizon 34L has been completely redesigned with stiffer materials for the side walls, along with new materials on the exterior that slide smoothly against each other.

The best part is the price, the Horizon is much more affordable than the Pro, which was a big barrier for most photographers.

Cons

The only con I can think of is the side pouch for holding your water bottle. Because it uses the same slick material, and has no cinch or elastic at the top, your water bottle can easily fall out when you take your pack off and place it on the ground. I found this out the hard way when I was atop a massive cliff, I took off the pack to get my tripod, and as soon as I set it down my water slid right out and went flying down the cliff getting mashed by rocks. It now lives in the wilderness.

rotation180° Trail 16L Review

I have been using the Trail off and on for about a year, I failed to do a review on it because I could not find a good use for it personally. I thought it would be the perfect backpack for my Fuji mirrorless system, unfortunately it failed to meet expectations because of the tiny size. My camera with a lens will just barely squeeze into the belt pack, try adding additional lenses and you are out of luck. Also, there is nowhere to hold a tripod, major deal breaker for me. This backpack is really meant for trail runners who want to carry a small camera with only one lens along with their coat, food, etc. After taking up fly fishing this summer, I finally found a good use for this bag. I now carry my Fuji X-E1 with a prime and my limited selection of fly fishing gear in the hip belt, and carry my Tenkara Rod in the outside pocket. All my gear can easily be accessed while in the river, it works quite well for this.

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I have been a user of Tony Kuypers luminosity masks for many years, back when they were just actions creating channels. Luminosity masks have come a long way since then and have been adopted by a large number of photographers now that they are more accessible with these advanced panels. I had heard of other panels and being a geek, I wanted to see if these other panels would potentially improve my workflow, but I found that there were no good reviews out there comparing the panels. Lumenzia and Raya Pro were the only other panels I knew of at the time; then I started down the rabbit hole when I learned of ADP and Zone System Express, at the same time Tony had just released version 5 of his panel, I was in for a lot of learning. I created a spreadsheet to track all the features, which I go over in detail in the video.

Note: The spreadsheet below is more up to date than the video after making revisions based upon comments from the authors of the panels.

 

Comparison Matrix - click to see large

 

For my testing I spent lots of time with each panel to learn the nuances, I watched most of the training videos so that I could judge the quality of the materials as well. The video review ended up being over 1.5 hours, which is kind of ridiculous, but it is thorough! I even edited out the silence when the processor was working, but it still ended up being absurdly long. I can almost guarantee that you will learn many techniques from watching the video through.

Please see the notes below for a few updates on things I missed in the video.

Luminosity Mask Panels Review - YouTube
ConclusionsTK Panel v5 by Tony Kuyper

The TK Panel is the most powerful panel out there; Tony continues to innovate making the panel faster and more powerful. I use the panel on every image I process and cannot imagine being without it now. The transition from v4 to v5 was painful initially, but once I understood how to utilize it I would never go back. Sean Bagshaw's training videos are fantastic, the only issue is that the 'Complete Guide to Luminosity Masks' was recorded with the v4 panel. While you can still learn a ton from this video series, it will be a bit of a challenge for the beginner to translate the techniques to v5, watching the additional videos for v5 from Sean will be critical to translate to the new panel. I am beginning to work on my own series with the v5 panel, so be sure to sign up for email notifications below. For those of you already familiar with luminosity masks, I highly recommend this panel, especially if you are on an older version of Tony's panel, this one blows them all away. If you are a beginner to luminosity masks, I do not necessarily recommend starting here unless you are committed to learning and want the best quality possible, then give it a shot.

Update: A few things I didn't mention in the video; the speed of panel is incredibly fast, overall I believe it is much faster than all the other panels. The TK panel creates luminosity masks using Photoshop calculations rather than curves layers like ADP and Lumenzia, this does give you better results, especially for extreme adjustments, in most day to day processing you will not notice a big difference.

ADPpanel+Pro v2 by Aaron Dowling

I was pleasantly surprised by this panel, Aaron has created a very clean and intuitive panel that I can highly recommend to users of all skill levels. The panel is not quite as powerful as the TK Panel, but it makes up for it with the training materials. Aaron has a fantastic set of videos that not only show you how to use the panel, but how to apply it in a workflow that is perfect for landscape photographers. Because the videos were based upon the current version of the panel, and the ease of use, this is the panel I would recommend to those just getting into luminosity masking.

Update: Aaron gave me a tip to make the panel work much faster, keep the properties window closed. Because the panel runs through a bunch of adjustment layers during mask creation, it has to refresh the properties window each time which slows it down massively. Below is an image of Aaron's recommended setup (click to see large) with ADP above the layers panel, and properties next to ADP. The panel is blazing fast now.

 Lumenzia v3.0.2 by Greg Benz

This panel was beautifully designed, it is simple and elegant with great features. If you are not interested in all the extra features of the ADP panel and just want a simple panel for luminosity masks, I would take a long look at this panel. The way you can create luminosity masks using colors is much better than ADP but is very similar to TK. For pure luminosity mask creation, I believe Lumenzia is better than ADP overall.

Update: Somehow it completely slipped my mind that Greg does have a user manual that comes with the panel, in it are links to private YouTube videos (35 of them) which are fairly comprehensive. They were created with an older version of the panel, but it has not changed too much. With this update it is really hard to pick between Lumenzia and ADP for beginners, I would say the panel and training materials for ADP are targeted and better suited for landscape photographers, whereas the training materials for Lumenzia use many architectural photos.

Update 2: As noted above with ADP, if you keep the properties panel closed Lumenzia runs much faster!

Update 3: I mentioned the zones were pixelated or had artifacts, but I realized that I was comparing to the TK panel which works differently, TK is not as targeted and only partially selects a zone while feathering it out quite a ways, whereas Lumenzia is more targeted and feathers less, but is still effective. I do not consider this a negative anymore. For Photoshop shortcuts Greg has his Basic panel which is free that adds many of the shortcuts that the TK panel has, plus some additional tools. Lumenzia also has a 'Live' mode which is similar to the 'Auto-Apply' in the TK Panel, this immediately applies a clicked mask or zone to the selected layer so you can immediately see the results of changing a mask.

Lumenzia also has tools that none of the others do that I failed to mention:

  • Split Screen Masking allows you to see the mask and the image at the same time which is very useful.
  • Lighter/Darker Masks lets you select tones based upon the tones that surround it, click the link and it will make more sense, this is an extremely powerful tool!

With these revisions I find it exceptionally hard to pick between TK, ADP, and Lumenzia. If Greg can better organize his training materials he may be able to hold the top spot, this is really a fantastic panel.

Raya Pro 2.0 by Jimmy McIntyre

I had high hopes for Raya after hearing from many people how much they enjoyed using it, but I was disappointed. If these other panels were not available, I am sure I would put Raya to good use, but I now know the difference between a good panel and a great one. Raya is good, but the prior three panels are great. Using Raya feels like stepping back in time before panels became refined, it simply feels clunky in its design and programming. Jimmy does have great tutorials that you can learn a lot from, and the panel does have some useful tools that may help some people with exposure blending. Personally, I cringe every time I open the panel knowing I have to go on a mission to find what I am looking for, wait for all the channels to be created, not being able to visualize what the masks look like, etc. I am sorry Jimmy, but I cannot recommend the panel. See major update below about InstaMask...

Update: Jimmy has let me know in the comments that I missed a few things. Raya does have general sharpening under the Finish tab called 'Sharpen Full Size' and 'Sharpen No Edge' which work decent. It also has a blend if function under Blend>Quick Blending>Rapid Blend If, this is a pretty basic way of exposure blending using Blend If, Lumenzia still has a much more powerful implementation of Blend If. It also has a gradient mask (different from the gradient in ADP), which is a simple way of using a gradient to exposure blend two images with a flat horizon. There is also a tool to find dust spots which works well. Jimmy mentioned that it does have a live preview of masks, but as I showed in the video it is very limited and you have to turn it on and off every time you make a change. Jimmy does include free updates for life, so when you purchase the panel that will be your last purchase ever. I still cannot recommend it even though Jimmy is obviously a great guy, I hope that he can re-design and catch up with the newer technology to make Raya a viable competitor.

Update 2: Jimmy has stated in the comments that the Luminosity section is now considered legacy and superseded by the Precision Masks. The precision masks are really only intended for exposure blending, which is obviously the direction he is taking the panel. The Precision masks are a slight improvement as they do not leave channels behind, but they are very limited. Again, you can achieve the same thing with the other panels in a more elegant refined way, if you know what you are doing. The Raya Pro panel is for the beginner to exposure blending that does not want to dive too deep into luminosity masks and wants the process fairly automated for them.

Major Update: Jimmy has released InstaMask which is an all new panel that he is including for free with Raya Pro. This panel is a vast improvement over Raya Pro for creating luminosity masks. It is much faster and only creates one channel, masks are visualized in a black and white manner just as many of the other panels do, with sliders to refine the masks (which is just a different way to show the levels dialog like the other panels use to refine masks). You can also start with the Red, Green, or Blue channels similarly to the TK panel, unfortunately these require you to create all of the channels, so they are a bit slow and bloated. You can also start with colors similar to the other panels, along with a unique feature to combine masks by adding and subtracting other masks to create highly complex selections. This is a very well done panel that many Raya Pro users will greatly appreciate, I still would not recommend it over the TK panel which it most closely resembles. The functionality is quite similar, but the the TK panel is simply faster and more refined.

Zone System Express v3.6 by Blake Rudis

If you are considering this panel, I would not base your decision purely on this review. It was a bit unfair to include this panel considering it is not based upon luminosity masks, Blake agreed to have it included as it is often mentioned when talking about luminosity mask panels. Blake has created a unique workflow that you must adapt to in order to use his panel. It is very specific to his style of processing that uses a lot of color grading and slightly grungy HDR looking styles. If you are looking to re-create a film-style look, etc. then I would highly recommend this along with Blake's fantastic video series. For the traditional landscape photographer, I would not necessarily recommend this panel because the training videos are targeted towards a specific look using color grading, etc. The panel could certainly be put to good use by a landscape photographer, but the training is not targeted towards landscape photography in the way the TK or ADP panels are. Blake is certainly a master of Photoshop, and you should definitely check out his videos at f64 Academy, even if you do not like his style there is still plenty to learn from him.

Update: Blake was gracious enough to comment despite a bit of a harsh review, I have updated the description above to better reflect my opinions on this panel. I have also updated the spreadsheet to reflect some of his comments, there is a color zone picker, but no luminosity zone picker. You can use the color zones to change the saturation of colors, but this is not quite the same as the saturation masks in the other panels, as they select only the most saturated colors to adjust them specifically, with the color zones you would have to work with each color individually. I was mistaken in that there is a live preview, you do have to turn it on first, but then when you adjust the blend if it will update in real time.

MASK Equalizer 1.1 by Know How Transfer

I received a request to add this panel after I had done the video review, they were kind enough to send me the panel to review. It is well designed and simple to use, and cheap at $33, it is a bare bones way of creating luminosity masks that could be great. I cannot recommend it because of some severe limitations; first you cannot create a mask on an adjustment layer, you must first create the mask on a duplicate layer and then move the mask to your adjustment layer, a painful workflow. You cannot create a selection directly from the panel either, you would have to create the mask on a duplicated layer and Ctrl+Click the layer mask to activate the selection. They only have a simple user manual with four basic videos for training. I cannot recommend this panel based on these major downfalls. Portrait photographers may consider looking at their full suite of plugins.

Would love to hear what you use and why in the comments!

Update: I forgot to mention in the video another factor, support and adoption. Do these guys get back to you when you ask them a question? I have heard Tony and Sean are extremely responsive and helpful when posed with a question. Aaron has been very responsive with me on the ADP Panel and has a private group on Facebook to share images and ask questions which is currently around 500 members and fairly active. I have heard Greg is very helpful with Lumenzia, and he has a group on Google+ sharing/support which is currently over 1500 members and fairly active. From what I hear Jimmy only provides short answers to questions, but this may be an isolated incident. Blake seems very helpful but I have no experience beyond that.

The other consideration is adoption, what are the vast majority of people using? My guess would be the TK Panel by a long shot, all of the well known photographers I know use some version of it, yet I know of nobody personally that uses any of the other panels. In my workshops I demonstrate using the TK Panel, and my next video series on luminosity masks will be based upon TK.

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UPDATE: I have since abandoned Lightroom for a large part, and now process all images in Capture One Pro, which recently began supporting X-Trans files. The results are incredible and much better than what I was achieving with Iridient or ON1.

In my review of the Fujifilm X-T2 I remarked that the files were extremely sharp, while commenters pointed out that if you zoom in closely, there were worm looking artifacts and blotchy areas, especially in foliage. I failed to adequately examine the files at more than 100% zoom, which at this zoom level the files looked fantastic, at 300% it was a different story. 

The 'worm' problem is a common one with Fuji raw files processed in Lightroom or Camera Raw; Adobe has failed to fine tune their raw processor to work with X-Trans files properly due to the different sensor array than most cameras, which have the Bayer array. 

Once I identified this problem, I went on the hunt for the optimal Lightroom settings to get a clean raw file. Previously with the X-Trans II sensor (X-T1, X-E2, etc.), it was common to use a small radius of 0.5 and a high detail of 100 which produced relatively good results. With the X-Trans III sensor (X-T2 and X-Pro2) a Detail setting of 100 produces massive amounts of worms and artifacts when zoomed in farther than 100%. After hours of testing I finally settled on the following settings: Amount: 60, Radius: 1.0, Detail: 5



I was surprised to see that I had to change the detail from 100 to 5, but this adjustment was where the worms were coming from, any amount over this instantly creates a nasty mess. The results with these settings are not great, but it is the best I could muster out of Lightroom with the limits on the Detail slider. To put it bluntly, Adobe sucks at sharpening X-Trans files. After deciding that Adobe was to blame, I went on the hunt for a raw processor that could handle X-Trans files properly.

The most common raw processor recommended for X-Trans files was the Iridient Developer, the only problem with this is that it was limited to Mac, and I am on Windows. I finally decided to borrow my girlfriends Mac and play around with Iridient, I was immediately impressed with the incredible detail in the files with no worms, it seemed glorious, and I thought about buying a Macbook. Then I quickly realized that I could not get the same colors and contrast that I was used to in Lightroom, I conceded defeat and went back to Lightroom, and did additional sharpening in Photoshop in the meantime.

A New Solution: Iridient X-Transformer   

Recently, I was very excited to learn the developers of Iridient have released a new program called Iridient X-Transformer which is currently in beta and for Windows only, but there will be a Mac version in very soon according to the developer. This program allows you to process the raw file using the Iridient engine for sharpening, noise reduction, and lens corrections only. You end up with a 'raw' file that is properly sharpened with Iridient, but without the color adjustments, you can then bring the new file into Lightroom for all your other raw adjustments.

Iridient achieves this by interpolating the .raf file into a full-color RGB image, it is not quite as 'raw' as the original .raf, but it still has the same latitude as a raw, it is somewhere between a .tif file and a raw. The resulting file is a standard .dng file, so most raw converters like Lightroom treat this as a raw file, you can still change your white balance, and recover highlights and shadows in the same manner you would a .raf file. I have done extensive testing to ensure there is still plenty of data to work with, and I can see no difference in the .dng file and the original .raf when recovering highlights or pulling shadows.

Below is an example zoomed in at 250%, on the left is Lightroom complete with worms, and X-Transformer on the right, lots of detail with no worms. Keep in mind that this is RAW sharpening and zoomed in very tight, you should not see incredible amounts of detail at this stage of sharpening in either case, but the sharpening should be clean.



Iridient X-Transformer is a dead simple program, you only have a few settings to choose from, the primary setting to pay attention to is RAW Process, there are two settings to choose from (More Detailed and Smoother), either works very well. For landscapes, I lean towards More Detailed most of the time and have found the default settings for everything else to work very well after extensive testing. The Sharpening amount of Default seems to lie somewhere between Medium and High, which I have found to be the perfect amount of RAW sharpening for landscapes. Using an amount of High is too much for most images and leaves no latitude for later specific sharpening for creative sharpening, print sharpening, or web sharpening.

   

The lens corrections seem to work well most of the time, but Lightroom does seem to handle chromatic abberation better on some images. Occasionally I found some Axial CA which shows as red fringing on certain images, a simple adjustment in the Lens Corrections panel of Lightroom fixes this easily, under Manual > Defringe set The Amount for Purple to 2, and the Purple Hue to 60/100. I would not apply this to every image, only when the fringing appears.

Below is the final web sharpened version at 2500px, click to see large.

There are different ways to use X-Developer in your workflow; you can choose to keep your current workflow of importing .raf files into Lightroom and process each file individually in X-Developer. (If you use Lightroom there are instructions in the help file of X-Developer to add a new external editor which will automatically process your files in X-Developer and re-import them back into Lightroom with two clicks.) The other option is to download your .raf files onto your computer, batch process all of them in X-Developer, and then import the resulting .dng files into Lightroom. If you are working with a lot of images, the second option is your best bet, but keep in mind that the processing is baked into the new .dng file, there is no going back unless you keep the original .raf file. I have chosen the first option since I tend only to process one image at a time and spend a lot of time on each image. 

Another example of foliage from a different image zoomed in to 300%:



I highly recommend Iridient X-Transformer to all Fuji shooters, it will dramatically improve the sharpness of your photos, with minimal disruption in your workflow. The software is well worth $30 to me, it is free to try but the file will be watermarked.

Another Option: ON1 Photo RAW

Another option that has just appeared is the latest version of ON1 Photo RAW. Finally, in the most recent update they have added support for compressed .raf files and it will properly sharpen X-Trans files. The sharpening is exceptional using the Progressive setting, but I personally do not like all the other aspects of processing in this RAW converter. I was unable to achieve the colors, contrast, etc. that I am used to in Lightroom, plus it feels clunky to me. Between the disruption of workflow this would cause, and the overall feel/usability of this software, I will not be using it. Try the demo yourself and come to your own conclusions.

ON1 on the left, X-Transformer on the right:



If you would like to take a closer look at all the sharpening methods used, you can download a full resolution .tif file that has all the files layered into one document, open this is Photoshop and turn the layers on and off to see the differences.

In a future post I will cover sharpening for web, print, and creative sharpening so be sure to subscribe below.

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