Fstoppers Reviews Formatt-Hitech Firecrest Ultra ND Filters: The Sharpest Filters I've Ever Used

Formatt-Hitech is a company that's been making ND filters for quite some time now. There are a large number of photographers that consider them to be the only choice for them and Formatt has worked hard to develop that reputation. With several new companies entering the market recently, I wanted to see how Formatt-Hitech filters performed. 

The Holder Kit

Almost all 100mm square filters require a holder system to work effectively. The Formatt-Hitech system isn't much different and their holder system is mostly quite simple when it comes to the design. The simplicity of the design is by no means a negative issue; if anything it's a very positive thing. The reason I say this is because of how easy it is to set up and use. Nothing is overly complex and this I find helps with speed of operation. Construction wise, the holder is mostly metal and has a good weight and feel to it; for the most part, the build quality is excellent and very premium. The polarizer that comes with this system works as part of the holder and connects to the 82mm adapter ring. The only noticeably unique thing about the Formatt holder system is the fact that they offer an outer shell.

The Outer Shell

As described above, this feature is relatively unique to the Formatt-Hitech filter system. The great thing about this is that if you're shooting in tougher lighting scenarios where the direction of light could cause light leaks, the outer shell can provide extra protection to prevent this. The only issue with the outer shell is that it limits usability slightly in that you cannot remove or add filters once it is attached. Having said that in practice, you would only be applying the outer shell when you have decided on all the other aspects of your shot; so it doesn't really impact the usability in real-world use. For the majority of the images I have taken, the outer shell was not required. The reason for this is because the actual holder itself offers more than sufficient protection against light leaks for most situations. It's only needed in tougher lighting scenarios where you may need that extra protection. Effectively, although it's not a requirement in most cases, it's extremely useful when the situation calls for it. 

Another great thing about the outer shell is that it significantly improves the handling of the holder system. It's far easier to hold the system with the outer shell as you have a greater surface area for you to comfortably hold the system. The other feature is that it does offer some physical protection when storing the holder with filters.

In the video I discuss how you can't adjust the polarizing filter when the outer shell is attached, this is not the case at all. Even with the outer shell attached you can still adjust the polarizing filter without any issues whatsoever. The correction has been added to the description of the video. 

Usability

The Formatt-Hitech Firecrest holder system is by far the easiest to use filters system I've experienced so far. I absolutely love the usability aspects of this system more so than any other I've used. The simple design is one of the aspects that make it so pleasing to use and it's simply a joy. Simple can sometimes mean lacking, but, that's definitely not the case with the Formatt system. My favorite thing about the Formatt holder is that it fits perfectly in my coat pocket. I can have two ND filters and the CPL in the holder with the outer shell and all of it fits in my pocket ready for it to be attached on to my lens. This is great if you're on the move and speed of operation is important to you. In situations where the light is changing fast due to clouds, or the sun setting, the Formatt holder system really helps with setting up quickly. Essentially, before I go to the location I'm shooting, I will have the holder system already set with the ND filters I intend to use. Once I have the settings ready on my camera I can take the holder out of my pocket and simply attach it directly on to the lens in a matter of seconds. The outer shell is extremely useful because while the holder sits in my pocket it offers that extra bit of protection; I'm not concerned about the filters getting scratched. Sure this may not be how many landscape photographers work but when I'm photographing architecture I'm not simply after one angle or one type of shot. When the sun is setting I need to be able to move fast and get multiple angles quickly without being hindered by the gear I'm using. 

When it comes to attaching filters into the holders, it's very intuitive in that it simply slides into one of the two grooved sections. The polarizer also sits in the 82mm adapter ring and can be controlled with the geared mechanism. In short, the usability of this system is fantastic and probably the best when it comes to many other systems currently on the market. 

Image Quality

This is probably the most important thing many photographers look for when it comes to deciding between filter manufacturers. Formatt-Hitech filters are definitely up there with the best when it comes to performance. Suffice it to say they do not disappoint and might just be one of the best on the market. As with most of my previous filters comparisons and reviews, I used the Canon 5DSR and the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II to test the filters. Many photographers tend to use an ND filter with a polarizer and that's exactly what I did for many of the shots I took for this review. Looking at the first couple of images below you may notice some differences between the shot without any filters vs the one with the Formatt filters. 

 

The filters I used for the above image are the included CPL that comes with the holder kit and the Firecrest Ultra 10 Stop ND filter. Both images have had some of the highlights and shadows recovered. The white balance is exactly the same at 5500k to ensure consistency. There is a very noticeable difference in colors especially when you look at the grass. Greens are far more pronounced which might be a good thing if you predominantly shoot landscapes; although I personally prefer a more neutral image. There is also a noticeable amount of glare in the filter image and this is with the outer shell attached. Unfortunately, no matter what filter system you use, there will be certain occasions where you will find some glare or unwanted reflections appearing in the image. This is purely because you're placing extra pieces of glass in front of your lens. My guess is that this is appearing due to the gap between the CPL and ND filter in the holder. The gap isn't significant by any means and about the same as any other system, however, it's enough to cause some issues. It must be noted that this is something I experience with every filter system I've used and this was a relatively tough lighting scenario. The color shift, however, is very noticeable and although you can correct it, for the most part, there is a noticeable increase in both saturation, contrast (in some areas), and the shift in colors. I find that for this particular image, adding +14 to the tint does fix much of the color shift, but, certain issues still remain. 

For the second comparison below I decided to shoot when conditions were overcast. The reason for this was to prevent any issues occurring from drastic changes in lighting conditions. The images below also demonstrate a noticeable color shift. Speaking with Formatt-Hitech, they explained that the majority of this shift in colors is more than likely coming from the CPL as opposed to the ND filter itself. Personally, I find that when I shoot architecture, a CPL is normally required. This is the primary reason I shot these particular images with the CPL. The other reason is to ensure some level of consistency as all other filter reviews I've conducted included the CPL as part of some of the tests. 

 

Once again, these images have only had the exposures corrected slightly. The white balance for both images have been set to 6500k and a clear difference can be seen in colors. For the most part, colors can be corrected with some very simple adjustments and I believe most people won't find this to be much of an issue.  

 

Simply by using the eyedropper tool a neutral area I was able to get the colors very close. The new white balance readings for the non-filter image is 7900k and +5 on the tint. The corrected white balance for the filtered image is now 6750k and +18. 

Unfortunately, there are still some issues that remain in the image. For example, the building on the right-hand side has a very noticeable blue shift, and these aspects may require more work to correct. 

I also tested the filters in a more controlled environment in order to compare the color shifts of each filter individually. All the test images are available to download using a link found in the description of the video above. 

 

The above comparison is of just the 10 stop filter by itself without the CPL. There's a noticeable shift in colors and after correcting the white balance, I found that it was one of the highest shifts I've personally noticed in any filters I've used; although we're talking about very minor differences. The total difference was -500k  and -1 on the tint. 

Sharpness

Formatt-Hitech filters are without a doubt the sharpest filters I have ever used and I've used some very high-quality filters. I am genuinely impressed and properly surprised at how well these filters perform when it comes to detail and clarity. Some photographers may value sharpness and detail over colors because colors can be adjusted, whereas lost detail may not be recoverable. This is where the Formatt-Hitech filters really shine and hold their own against every other manufacturer I have tested and reviewed. If you want the sharpest filters, then these just might be the ones for you. 

Looking at the images above, to my eye the image with the filters actually looks better because it has more contrast. 

Most other filters I tested in the "real-world" demonstrated very little to no perceptible loss in detail. The difference was mostly found when testing in a controlled environment with a high-quality lens. The tests below were shot with the Zeiss 135mm f/2.0 and the Canon 5DSR. The Zeiss 135mm is known for being one of the sharpest lenses currently on the market and it's this lens that generally finds the flaws in many other filters. 

Looking at the controlled test above of the 10 stop filter, I find it very difficult to notice any significant loss in detail. This is exceptional because I have always found a very noticeable loss in detail with every other filter system on the market. The Formatt-Hitech filters perform at an extremely high level; one I have not seen any other system match yet. There are some manufacturers that claim to have the sharpest filters in the world, however, when put to the test they fall short. Formatt-Hitech seems to have somewhat of an understated marketing technique, but, the results are the best I've ever seen. These are without a doubt the sharpest filters I have ever used. 

What I Liked

  • The outer shell is very useful in some lighting scenarios.
  • The compact simple design of the holder system is very useful. 
  • One of the simplest and easiest to use filter systems. 
  • The sharpest filters I've ever used, performance is incredible. 

What I Didn't Like

  • Formatt filters suffer from a very noticeable color shift
  • The adapter rings felt a little cheaply made to me. 
  • All other points a minor nitpicks and not worth mentioning. 

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right filter system can be a difficult task and quite the investment. Unfortunately, there is no perfect system currently on the market. Every system I've tested and reviewed had their own respective advantages and disadvantages. Essentially it comes down to what you value the most and what aspects you're individually looking for. The Formatt-Hitech filters are fantastic and I truly do enjoy using them. The ease of use makes an incredible difference and usability is a huge point for me. Sure the colors could be better and the shifts in colors may not be for everyone, however, the way these filters retain detail is exceptional. If you value having super sharp filters the Formatt-Hitech filters might just be the perfect system for you. I highly recommend them. 

You can purchase yours using the links below. 

Formatt-Hitech Holder Kit

Firecrest Ultra Filters

Log in or register to post comments

33 Comments

Previous comments
Paul Lindqvist's picture

Sure thanx, send them to plp[at]me.com

Hello,
very interesting review.
I wish to know if what you are reviewing is the Firecrest Ultra filters as specified in the title, since during all the text review and inside the video you are just saying that "Formatt-Hitech filters are the sharpest you have reviewed", generically. Talking about ND, there's a great difference in price between the Firecrest Pro version (starting from 99 £) and the more expensive Firecrest Ultra version (starting from 165 £).
(let go their resin filters of course).
I am trying to figure out what to buy now and I need to know in what exact consideration to keep your words, if they are for the version I could never afford.
Again, if I will end up buying this system, can you suggest me what better brand for step down rings you were referring to I should buy?
Thank you very much.

Usman Dawood's picture

These are definitely the Firecrest Ultra filters that I reviewed.

Breakthrough make much better step down rings in my opinion.