The Big Black Box - Everything You Need To Know About The LEE Filters System

The Big Black Box - Everything You Need To Know About The LEE Filters System

I get asked day in an day out; "What is that big black box on the front of your lens?" Well, it's a matte box that mounts glass filters in front of your lens... the LEE Filters System. In attempt to cover the question I recieve so often, I wanted to address it all and explain the system, but my friend and fantastic photographer Dave Kai Piper beat me to the punch! So, instead of writing my own article on the matter, I thought it best to simply share his article...

What is a Matte Box? 

In still photography and film, a matte box a.k.a "the big black box" is a device used on the end of a lens to block the sun or other light source in order to prevent glare and lens flare. It performs essentially the same function as a lens hood and also mounts in front of the lens, but usually includes adjustable fins called French flags. In short, it is a big lens hood.

Below: The Matte Box sitting on top of the Sigma 35mm Art. The hood is fully extended.

Below: The system fits on the end of the lens using adapter rings that you must purchase to match the lens you want to attach. Because these adapters can screw on, you can still use the screw-on filters if you wish. For example, I often use a Polarizer on the Sigma 35mm if I am shooting at f1.4, which provides even more control in very bright conditions. 

Below: The pin that holds the system on the lens and the grips that hold the hold the filters in place.

Below: The filters come in protective bags that have markings, so you or your assistant can grab them in a hurry. I also like the way the markings are bright so you can see them in low light conditions.  

Starting Points

  • Many photographers shoot with Filters for landscape or on-location photography
  • A ‘hard’ filter is a glass filter that mounts in front of the lens
  • Up to two 100mm Filters can slide in between the lens and shade hood
  • Filters are not cheap, but a very wise investment. Each filter is hand made and takes a few days to produce.

Shooting WIth The LEE Filters System

There are many advantages to shooting with the LEE Filters System and being able to control ambient light is one the most important thing a photographer has to do. One can use flash to add light in but unless a filter is used, there is no way to take away light in a creative way. I think of it this way, using a filter is like adding negative light into an image.

We are very familiar with using flash to add light into a shot, so using LEE Filters to block light and remove light in an image is just the opposite. In my eyes, this opens up a whole world of mixing, Negative, Ambient and Additive light. Once we have the idea of playing with negative light, we can then look at using color filters to remove, add and shape the color of light.

Below: The filters are set up to give a long thin strip of light from top to bottom of the image. 

Below: I have stacked two color filters, but at 180 degrees to each other to give a lighter band across the middle of the image.

Below: With filter applied(left) and without filter(right).

Below: Filters applied to the final image.

Below: I used two ND Grad filters to enhance the ‘pool of light’ effect produced by the speedlights. The negative area in the bottom of the image leaves a dramatic effect. To increase or decrease the effect, it is just a matter of sliding the filters in and out or using different filters. The image as created using two Soft 0.9 ND filters.

Soft Filter vs Hard Filter

This refers to the amount of graduation that effects the filter. A soft filter has a longer transition, where a hard filter has less area of transition. Each filter gives different effects.

Above: The image shows two soft filters, this lets the different light blend together.

Below: The image below shows a 0.9 ND hard filter on the very top being used to create a vignette effect, while another 0.6ND is across the whole image to help hold back the ambient light.

Back To The Matte Box, Just For Show?

Shooting with a large matte box and large filters can be a hassle, however the system serves a great purpose. The matte box lets me control flare and due to the design of the shade hood, I can tilt it to let flare in when I want or remove it. It should be noted that when using filters like these, they don’t screw in, so, you can not attach a stock lens hood. Stacking filters greatly increases the chance of flare as the you are adding layers the light has to go though, so the matte box prevents that from happening.

Above: This image was created using the sunlight coming down casting flare across the multiple colored filters in the stack.
Below: Flare was controlled using the large matte box providing a very flat image in to very bright sunshine.

Model: Orthodoxia Panagi, Dresses : Panteli Pantelis ,Styling : Andrea Christophi, Creative Director: Andreas Ayre


Also, the matte box over the lens is very useful in wet conditions as the box provides a rain cover keeping the lens dry and free from rain drops.  From sunshine to rain, the matte box has a use protecting the lens.

Photographing People with Filters

LEE Filters and the Matte Box are amazing tools for all types of photography where controlling light is key. Whether it is using the filters to create a quick vignette or giving interesting color tones. You can shoot faster and spend less time editing. Also, using graduated filters mixed with color can give wonderful effect and provides a great way to control the sky in bright images, in turn using less artificial lighting.

Once you have invested into system like this, you'll constantly find new creative ways to put it to use. Any system with so much versatility is good in my eyes.

Filters can add some great subtle vignetting for when you need soft tones & balance (D800, Sigma 35mm / Model: Emily Darcy Adams)

Mixing fill flash with the ND grad filters (D800, Sigma 35mm / Model: Emily Darcy Adams)

Read more of Dave's blog here

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12 Comments

Edward Porter's picture

Thanks for sharing Clay! It would be nice to see how filters, in general, compare to post-processing filters for artistic purposes. (ignoring discussion about the practical purposes like ND filters for long exposures or graduated filters for landscapes)

Dave Piper's picture

Cheers for reading - I am big fan of using filters and digital filters too though.. its about the right tool for the right job for me. If you are talking about direct artisic colour use of filters.. have a look at this set of images - they were all photographed on a Fuji using the Lee Seven5 System to colour tone the images (NSFW) http://ideasandimages.smugmug.com/Client-Images/Lingerie-Insight-Magazine/ - Also... there is a blog about this set of images - http://ideasandimages.co.uk/the-reawakening/

Michael Rapp's picture

Thank you for sharing, Clay!
Although I don't use filters for people (yet, I just saw a video that made me rethink), for me the ND Grad filters are an indespensable for the occasional landscape shot during the golden hour.
For me (and this is *my* workflow, ymmv), bracketing wouldn't work because there's just too much stuff happening in between shots- you wouldn't know how much tree leaves do move until you'd have to ghost them out in post. Also, the mood of the rising sun does change by the minute; and now you have to bracket a 20 sec - exposure: you'd get at least three very different shots.
At least, I do.
And I only notice that after the fact, when I'm home, at my computer and a reshoot is not a practical option. At least, not if I want to stay married...

Laurence Pierce's picture

I have got the Lee 100 x 150 kit with Soft 0.6 ND, Hard 0.6 ND and an 81B warming grad, after watching the Fstoppers video , I can now understand why each filters costs £75 each , because it takes 2.5 days to make a filter and every step in manufactured by hand

I also have a Cokin kt, and the LEE kit is FAR better, with the Cokin grad kit you can always tell that you used a Coking grad, but with the Lee kit, it looks so natural , Regards www.onesnap.uk

Jesse Yuen's picture

thanks for yet another awesome read, It's always a pleasure to see what your sharing Clay!

Tony Roslund's picture

Great post Clay. I use the LEE filter system with Linear Polarizers as well.

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks Tony, I figured you used them! They are a great tool.

Ross Jukes's picture

I'm just about to invest in a filter kit and was taking a long look at the LEE system, I think I will need to save a bit longer but it seems worth the extra cash - Might have to be a little 'Christmas present' for myself....

Dave Piper's picture

They are an investment, but they are so much fun and can add so much to your images. Which size system are you looking into ?

I have a sincere question--nothing harsh intended. When do you decide it's better to post a short blurb and then the link to the original author's post vs displaying most of their post on your site with a small link at the end? Is that something you work out with the original author?

Dave, great post! Very informative and great examples. I do appreciate Clay posting at least a link here-- I would have missed it otherwise.

Thank you both.

Dave Piper's picture

Clay came to me a while ago and asked to use the the content, I trust him and F-stoppers to wrap it up in a nice way to suit the readers of the forum. When I first posted it was on my website ( http://ideasandimages.co.uk/lee-filters/ ) and is a little different. It is annoying when people just lift content though, but here I think I might of even sent the link to Clay or another writer.... I am very happy to have content shared though f-stoppers. :)

Kendrix Thomas's picture

I recently invested in the 82mm Lee Landscape Filters Kit. It costs a lot more than I originally planned on spending on filters but after doing much research I decided it was best to invest in the Lee Filter System. I'm in Southeast Asia now and its already bought, delivered, and waiting for me when I get back to the US and I can't wait to use it! Reading this article makes me more comfortable with my $1300 filter investment. Thanks for writing!