LEE Filters are a UK based company in Andover Hampshire. They are the leading producer of top quality photographic filters for professionals and enthusiast photographers worldwide. They also produce lighting gels and filters for the film industry including Panavision and many others. For an in-depth look at LEE Filters and their core business please see their website.
One of the benefits of the photographic profession can be meeting interesting people. As many will know I have hosted photography workshops for many years, welcoming photographers from all over the globe. Like any job involving the public it can be an eclectic mix of personalities from good to uniquely different – with diplomacy being a necessary attribute on my part! Of course I also meet people from within the trade. This too can be a veritable mix of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ depending on their background and bias.
I am glad to say one of the good guys from over the last 10 to 15 years is the legendary Jon Cuff. Jon was formerly part of the Robert White Photographic team in Poole. I have lost count of how many lenses and accessories this guy made me believe I needed – a great salesman!
Jon is now a very valuable cog in the sales team at LEE filters in Andover. I have to say he is probably one of the most affable people you could ever meet – a top bloke and the kind of person most people would want as a friend. During a chat at a photography event earlier in the year I managed to cash in on our friendship of yesteryear (I had lots of credit based on how much money he had extracted from me over the years) and arrange a personal visit to the LEE Filters factory in Hampshire.
Jon welcomed me with the offer of a coffee straightaway, itself something totally absent from previous encounters! LEE Filters are obviously having a good influence on him 🙂 We sat for a while chatting informally and putting the photography world to rights before donning an appropriate visitor’s badge and overall for the pending LEE Filters grand tour. I might add at this stage, I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas of how the personal tour would pan out. I just knew it would be interesting and would ultimately arm me with some valuable knowledge I could pass on to others in the course of my work.
First up was the manufacturing department of lighting gels. This was intriguing and very informative. However, I am aware it is a separate side to their business and probably not that relevant to most of the readers of this post. So I will skip over this section and move on to the photographic filters section. I will mention that the attention to detail and quality control of their lighting gels is exceptional. I was blown away by the manufacturing process and scale of production.
We entered the area for making the 100mm neutral density resin graduated filters. I have to confess at being a little surprised by the smaller size of the room and manufacturing area. I also wrongly assumed the resin filters were made off site and possibly even imported; how wrong I was. The liquid resin (CR39) is formulated and poured in between two sheets of glass, the glass being separated by spacer gaskets a consistent distance apart.
Every filter is hand made to exacting tolerances for consistency; after all, they all have to fit perfectly into the filter holders afterwards. Each pair of glass sheets is large enough to house three 100mm x 150mm filters side by side (approx 15″x 12″).
Once a sufficient number of glass sheets have been prepared (with the liquid resin poured between) they are all placed into a large commercial oven, then heated for between 36 & 48 hours until the liquid resin has set hard. Each resin sheet goes through many tests for any optical blemishes and quality issues. This quality control is carried out individually in front of a lens that is connected to a screen. Very time consuming, but highly accurate! At this stage of course the resin sheets are completely clear.
Images courtesy of LEE Filters
Reasons to buy LEE Filters
The next stage of the process is absolutely fascinating, mainly because it is so labour intensive. Each filter is hand made and requires the utmost skill of the small team of specialist technicians. Each hardened resin sheet has markers placed in the positions where the graduation begins and finishes so that when the resin sheet is dipped, the technician knows exactly where the dye needs to start and finish. Teams of 8 work around the clock in shifts, manually dunking the clear resin sheets into small vats or tanks of dye. This method is preferred over machine methods as it guarantees the dye is applied perfectly without any anomalies. As I said, this is so labour intensive and very skilful, there is very little room for error. Indeed, I watched intently as one lady technician tested her resin sheet three times, muttering a few choice words in between dips and tests, before finally perfecting her dip! Did I mention they are very skilled workers?
I have seen and carried out personal tests on (NON LEE) cheaply produced graduated filters in the past and have found crooked dye lines, inaccurate density levels (i.e. 3 stops instead of 2) and uneven densities across the filter – not to mention the magenta colour casts when stacking!
See post Filter Accuracy
Back to LEE Filters
The last part of the LEE filter making process involves final density (of dye) checking. The dyed resin sheets are then cut into the correct (100mm x 150mm) size filters and then get transported into another room to be etched with the markings that tell photographers what strength they are. i.e 0.3 = 1 stop, 0.6 = 2 stop, 0.9 = 3 stop & 1.2 = 4 stop.
I suggested to Jon that when using these filters it can sometimes be hard to see the markings and that it would be useful for many of us to have a more luminous colour etched into the filter – I have for years used small labels attached to my filter corners to help my ailing eyesight – he was naturally kindly in his response and said he would pass the idea on for consideration.
Each filter is carefully packed with protective tissue to prevent scratching before being placed in boxes for distribution. I was then guided over to a separate packing and stores warehouse that felt massive. The film industry gels occupied the lion share of the warehouse with hundreds, if not thousands of large rolls of coloured gels ready for distribution. The LEE photographic filter store was a lot smaller but reflected the intricate and high standard of production. Nearby was a small assembly team of three or four technicians quite literally hand building each filter holder. So when you next look to buy a LEE filter holder and wonder why they don’t always come pre-assembled or why the assembled ones are more expensive, you will appreciate they do not use machines, they use skilled human beings.
I was very impressed by the design, the manufacturing methods and attention to quality that LEE Filters apply to every individual filter made. Jon also informed me of their international distribution standards and how they are very particular about which retailers they allow to sell their filters worldwide – which is why online auction sites cannot get their hands on LEE products (unless second hand I guess).
The final part of the tour involved getting into an official LEE company vehicle and driving a mile or two to try out the local amber nectar and cuisine over what can only be described as a rare business lunch for me. 🙂
My sincere thanks to LEE Filters for accommodating my visit and of course, a special thanks to Jon Cuff for making the tour so informative and interesting. After years of LEE filter usage I will continue to endorse and recommend the LEE filter products as nothing but exceptional quality and great value for money. At the end of the day you get what you pay for! As a landscape photographer I strongly encourage all photographers to buy a set of LEE filters … you will not be disappointed!
Happy New Year!