Fotodiox's WonderPana 66 System Review

The problem of filtration when using ultra wide-angle lenses with bulbous front elements has been a thorn in the side of photographers wishing to take advantage of these stellar optics.  As a whole, these lenses are never threaded for filters as the front element's convex construction prohibits threads.  The hoods for these lenses are usually fixed, as well, and given their unique nature, makes it impossible for a single holder system to work on all variations without significant modifications to the holder for each different lens. 

I came across a DIY describing how an intrepid photographer was able to adapt a Lee Filters SW-150 150mm filter holder onto his Samyang 14mm ultra wide-angle lens.  (Currently, the Lee SW-150 filter holder is made only for the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8.)  The process, however, mangled the scarce and expensive filter holder and there was still the problem of there being no circular polarizer that was currently available for the 150mm system.  (Some have adapted circular polarizers meant for other applications for use with the SW-150, however.)

Formatt-Hitech make a system for ultra wide-angle lenses that have several adapters for various lenses, including the popular Samyang 14mm.  The Hitech LucrOit system looks to be a well though-out solution, but until recently it was very difficult to find the product in stock.  After playing the Lee Filters stock game I wasn't looking to double down on that particular experience.  The LucrOit system also does not allow you to mix square/rectangular filters and circular threaded filters.  In fact, there are no threaded filters available for the system, period.

Enter Fotodiox.  This American company, based out of Illinois, developed a near complete system for fixed hood, bulbous front element ultra wide-angle lenses called WonderPana 66.  Reading the description, I became excited.

 The WonderPana 66 System

The WonderPana 66 System

The WonderPana 66 uses a base kit specifically designed for a lens to mount circular, double-threaded filters which Fotodiox call the WonderPana 145 Core Unit .  Onto this foundation one can optionally install a rail kit, called the WonderPana 66 Upgrade Bracket.  This bracket allows you to install either two rectangular filters or one screw-in filter and one rectangular.  It's made of aluminum and attaches via thumb screws so you don't need tools when you're out in the field. 

Unfortunately, the thumbscrews that tension the rectangular filters in the Upgrade Bracket are of a different length than the thumbscrews that mount the bracket to the Core Unit.  This has the potential to frustrate if you are looking for one type and pick up the other, which apart from slight length difference appear nearly identical.  The longer filter tensioning screws will not work as bracket mounting screws.  The tensioning itself is not unlike the way the Schneider/Century Optics variation of the Lee Foundation Kits secure slide-in filters and it works very well.  (If only Lee would adopt something similar to their basic foundation kit, but I digress.)

 WonderPana attached to a Nikon 14-24mm and a Canon 5D Mark III

WonderPana attached to a Nikon 14-24mm and a Canon 5D Mark III

The Core Unit is novel in both its method and construction.  Other methods for attaching large filters to lenses not designed to accept filters might require the user to push on the foundation holder, similar to the way you push on a lens cap for slim filters that have no front threads.  This method can be secure, to be sure, but the Wonderpana system uses threaded collar that slides over the back of the lens and screws into the front of the unit resulting in a very positively locked system, similar to Lee's SW-150 holder.  All of the Wonderpana components, however, are made of aluminum.

 Rear view of the WonderPana system.  The red collar screws to the front of the unit clamping down on the fixed filter hood.

Rear view of the WonderPana system.  The red collar screws to the front of the unit clamping down on the fixed filter hood.

Onto this core attaches the rail bracket with brass thumbscrews.  In the above picture I used four total but there are holes for six.  The small thumbscrews are fiddly to work and would be very difficult with gloves on.  In fact, attaching the bracket is best done where you have a clear surface to work on.  Out in the field this entire operation could prove nerve-wracking - balancing the lens and collar, lining up the holes, screwing in the thumbscrews while keeping the two pieces, lens collar and bracket, from moving.  Once you get one thumbscrew in, however, the rest of that side is a piece of cake.

For scenes where you'd like to place the ND grad transition line at an angle, it is possible to rotate the bracket about the core unit but you're limited to rotating in 45° increments.  This isn't ideal, but it sure is better than having to compromise your placement by only being able to work with perfectly horizontal transition placement.  To rotate the rails you must unscrew them from the core unit and re-mount them in the angled configuration.  There are another set of mounting holes for this.

 WonderPana vs. Singh-Ray 4x6 filter comparison.

WonderPana vs. Singh-Ray 4x6 filter comparison.

The WonderPana's rectangular filters are HUGE.  We're talking 168mm wide huge.  In comparison, the Lee SW-150 filter holder accepts filters that are 150mm on the wide side.  The estimable and popular 4x6 filter, above, looks like a Cokin P compared to the WonderPana.  

Not only are the WonderPana filters large length and width-wise, but they are also thick.  Hitech's Lucroit filters are 3mm thick and that's already pretty robust.  WonderPana filters are 4mm thick and unless you hold it in your hands you might not have an appreciation for just how much filter that is.  Lee's 150mm filters are like their 4x6 filters in this regard, half as thick at 2mm. 

The WonderPana rectangular filters are multi-coated (!), which makes them unique among this large class of filter, and made from organic glass called CR-39 or "optical resin."  If you wear corrective lenses, optical resin is the material the lenses are probably made of.   Plexiglass is also a type of organic glass.  CR-39 is a high quality transmissive material that's cheaper and lighter than glass but won't (read: shouldn't) shatter when dropped.

The system comes with a complete line of standard neutral density filters, 4ND, 8ND, 16ND, and 32ND in 145mm screw-in configuration, and four graduated neutral density filters, 2 and 4-stop versions of both hard and soft graduation.  There is also a clear protective UV filter and a circular polarizer in 145mm available.  To top it off, Fotodiox include a 145mm lens cap to protect that precious front element when the system is attached without filters.  All of the components come very well appointed.  The rectangular filters come in large foam-reinforced nylon zippered pouches that are plush on the inside.  For some reason there is also a mesh pocket on the inside of these pouches.  I suppose you can keep a microfiber cloth in the pocket, but a microfiber cloth doesn't need a pocket to be stowed.  I find that the pocket catches the filter when the filter is slid in more times than not.  The internal pocket annoyance is one quick scissor procedure away from being corrected.  The screw-in filters ship with nylon pouches similar to the blue B+W pouches that Velcro close.  The hardware components, the core unit and bracket, ship in zippered hard clamshell pouches with flocked foam fitted inserts.

 WonderPana 145 2-stop neutral density filter.

WonderPana 145 2-stop neutral density filter.

Looking at the 145mm ND filters one notices that the reflected color of the filter themselves changes rather dramatically from the 2-stop to the 4-stop.  The color of the 2-stop is bronze while the 4-stop is greenish. 

 WonderPana 145 4-stop neutral density filter.

WonderPana 145 4-stop neutral density filter.

It's not clear if Fotodiox make these filters in-house or outsources some or all of them.  Interestingly, the 145mm circular polarizer is labeled "XS-Pro" on the ring.  XS-Pro is B+W's designation for their slim form digital filters that are thin for ultra wide lens use yet retain front threads for filter stacking or a lens cap.   Do B+W make at least the 145mm circular polarizer for Fotodiox?

Regardless, there is a reassuring physical quality to both the 145mm screw-ins and the 168mm rectangular filters.  There is no play between the glass and the filter ring that I could detect.  The ring of the circular polarizer rotates independently and does so smoothly but not loosely - it stays where you rotate it - similar to high quality rings from B+W and Singh-Ray.

But how do they perform? 

 Baseline Lake Image

Baseline Lake Image

Using a Canon 24-70mm Mark II mounted on a Canon 5d Mark III, here is the scene without filtration or processing of any kind.  (Was it too difficult to get some clouds?) 

 Singh-Ray 2-Stop Soft Grad

Singh-Ray 2-Stop Soft Grad

Here's the same scene with a Singh-Ray 2-stop soft graduated neutral density filter.   In attempts to create as level a playing as practical using two such different sized filters, I slid the Singh-Ray down into the scene until the meter went from 1/1250th of a second, which is where the baseline image was taken, down to 1/640th of a second and immediately stopped and took the picture.

 WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Grad

WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Grad

Using the same method, I slid the Wonderpana 2-stop soft graduated neutral density filter into the scene and stopped when the meter hit 1/640th of a second.   It's not scientific but it is illustrative for our purposes.

The scene is remarkably similarly rendered. 

 Lake Baseline

Lake Baseline

 Singh-Ray 2-Stop Soft Grad

Singh-Ray 2-Stop Soft Grad

 WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Grad

WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Grad

After a predictable corralling of the blues in the skies you can see that the filters were slid down enough to affect the greens in the trees, too.  The Singh-Ray brought more into the midtone region, note the green channel, than did the WonderPana.  Both affected the highs in much the same way if they are not nearly identical.

 Baseline Image

Baseline Image

Here's a more chaotic baseline scene.  The scene has a smattering of detail, a great area for testing the polarizer, and it blows out through the trees.  The should give us some convenient examples for comparison. 

 WonderPana 145mm Circular Polarizer

WonderPana 145mm Circular Polarizer

This is the same scene with the WonderPana 145mm circular polarizer installed.  Notice the reflection on the siding of the house in the upper left corner. 

 Baseline Corner 100% 

Baseline Corner 100% 

 WonderPana Circular Polarizer Corner 100%

WonderPana Circular Polarizer Corner 100%

I was concerned that a multi-coated 145mm circular polarizer that costs $120 would create some problems with resolution and sharpness.  After all, quality multi-coated circular polarizers in 82mm can cost over $250!  We're talking 63mm more filter for $130 less.

Mind you, this area of the image was outside of the polarized band that affected the siding reflection.  (On extremely wide angle images, polarizers cannot affect the entire image.  This usually creates a noticeable band of polarization over just a portion of the image.)  However, the lines of the leaves are well maintained with no noticeable amount of resolution lost.

This is significant because in this area of the image light has to travel at an angle through the filter that is most extreme, so light goes through more filter glass at the edges than anywhere else in the image, if only very slightly so.  If there are going to be imperfections, they should be most pronounced in this area. 

 Baseline Histogram

Baseline Histogram

 WonderPana Circular Polarizer

WonderPana Circular Polarizer

There are no painful shifts in color.  Many circular polarizers like to cool scenes down.  Not so much here.  The blues are nearly cemented in place.  Corrected for light lost, there is a general midtone drift as you might expect.

 Baseline Image

Baseline Image

Back to the baseline image. 

 WonderPana ND4 2-Stop Neutral Density Filter, unadjusted

WonderPana ND4 2-Stop Neutral Density Filter, unadjusted

 WonderPana ND4 2-Stop Neutral Density Filter, adjusted

WonderPana ND4 2-Stop Neutral Density Filter, adjusted

To bring the 2-stop ND back in line with the baseline image required just +1.07 exposure adjustment, not 2 stops.

 WonderPana ND32 4-Stop Neutral Density Filter

WonderPana ND32 4-Stop Neutral Density Filter

By the time we get to the 4-stop ND there is a very noticeable color cast.  Correcting out magenta can sometimes be quite a pain compared to, say, a blue shift.  If one has to deal with a color, pray it's of the blue variety.  Other color shifts, like bronze and magenta, can lead to hours in post, fiddling with sliders and pulling hair.  

 

 Baseline Image

Baseline Image

 WonderPana ND4

WonderPana ND4

 WonderPana ND4, adjusted

WonderPana ND4, adjusted

 WonderPana ND32

WonderPana ND32

You can see the red channel breaking away from the rest in the ND32's histogram.  For its part, the ND4 holds up well where this is concerned.  The adjusted ND4 image is a good facsimile of the baseline image, if only slightly more red.  Then again, it's not a significant deviation, requiring only +1.07 stops to compensate for.

Thinking back on the reflected color change of the physical filters themselves, going from bronze to green, perhaps whatever change to the formula that is used to create the stronger density resulting in the green reflection is the culprit in the drastically more reddish example image.   Who knows but the wizards concocting the density formulas.

 Baseline Corner 100% 

Baseline Corner 100% 

 WonderPana ND4 Corner 100%

WonderPana ND4 Corner 100%

Here again the sharpness seems nearly unaffected.  Contrast is subtly affected and now there's a visitor on the flamingo, but apart from that there is little different between the two images.  The slight red that was hinted at in the histogram can best be seen in the brickwork here.

 Baseline Image

Baseline Image

Back to the baseline... 

 WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density

WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density

 Baseline Image

Baseline Image

 WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density

WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density

After the predictable midtone drift, the WonderPana 2-stop soft grad does well with color.  Again, we have a slight reddening of the affected area, which is now the upper half of the image.

 Baseline Corner 100%

Baseline Corner 100%

 WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density Corner 100%

WonderPana 2-Stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density Corner 100%

This close-up of the corner is really only a test of the quality of the resin used in the WonderPana system.  As mentioned earlier, this area, and indeed all the corners, represent where the filter is at its thickest with regards to light travel.  The CR-39 shows how little quality resin affects the resolution of an image even at 4mm thick!  That impresses me.

After having used just about every piece currently available in the WonderPana 66 system, I feel the quality is overall better than I expected.  I was, however, disappointed with the fiddly nature of the optional bracket, but considering the all-aluminum design I'm not sure there is a practical alternative that keeps the design tool-less, which I'm sure was a major goal of the Fotodiox engineers.  The color cast of the amittedly low intensity ND filters is not without precedent, even by filters from highly reputed manufacturers, like Formatt-Hitech and Cokin, but it's unfortunate that the cast wasn't blue.  At least it's not bronze.  /shudder

Also, I would have liked to see a more convenient way to rotate the rectangular filter rails for scenes where you'd like the transition line for the grad filters to be at an angle.  A clip-on rail bracket, similar to what's employed by the Lee Filters Foundation Kit would have been preferred.  This design change might also alleviate the need for the user to juggle two different length thumbscrews.  This, of course, could have made the bracket more cumbersome in packing and carrying, but the trade-offs, at least on the face of it, seem to be worth it.  Unlimited angle choices isn't a minor thing.  For some, though, angle options at 45° intervals might be just fine.  

Attached to the lens, the system seems bulletproof.  It's going to last quite a while if you take care of it, so as a long term investment the WonderPana should satisfy there.  And since Fotodiox include high quality pouches for all the pieces, protecting the components shouldn't be a problem.

Best of all, the system is nearly complete.  Hitech's LucrOit system may have more slide-in options, like alternate colors or the very popular reverse grad ND, but LucrOit doesn't have a convenient polarizer, nor can you use screw-ins, which don't have a habit of falling off when you're moving about.  Were Fotodiox to come out with a reverse grad and a 10-stop ND there wouldn't be much reason you'd ever have to leave the WonderPana system.

Speaking of completeness, Fotodiox now make a series of step-up rings that allow you to attach the 145mm screw-in filters onto conventionally threaded lenses.  It's possible that you could take to the field and only have to carry one set of filters!  You cannot, at this time, connect the Optional Bracket for the slide-in rectangular filters to the step-up rings, however.  (This would be another limitation that could potentially be avoided with the aforementioned clip-on style bracket design.)

The Fotodiox WonderPana 66 system cures just about everything that ails the ultra-wide angle landscape photographer. 

 EDIT (9/24/13):  Fotodiox have upgraded the WonderPana Core so that it now allows the Upgrade Bracket to rotate.  You can now set the graduated NDs at any angle you need.  That's great!  The new Core Unit is now branded FreeArc, but is currently only available for the Nikon 14-24mm.  Hopefully, Fotodiox won't waste time getting FreeArc support for the other UWA lenses like the ubiquitous Samyang 14mm.

-JD

Serk Filter Adaptor Rings for Lee's Foundation Kit

It's a story as old as auto focus.  Someone orders a piece of Lee Filters gear to fill a hole and ends up spending better than half a year on the wait list.  In the not-too-distant past photographers had little recourse apart from waiting and, presumably, missing shots.  I knew this could happen to me when I decided to purchase a new walk-around lens that required 82mm filters as I had no adapter ring in that size with which to mount a Lee Filters Foundation Kit.  For clarification, Lee makes a filter system that uses a filter holder into which you place your 4x4 or 4x6 filters, but this whole assembly requires a lens adapter mounted onto your lens.  Anticipating this new 82mm filter thread equipped lens, I ordered the appropriate Lee filter adapter in what I thought was well ahead of time.  It wasn't.

I received my Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II but still had no way to attach my Lee filters.  With no end to the wait in sight I came across Chinese knock off seller Hody_CameraParts and their Serk Adaptor Rings.  Thankfully, these filter adaptors are priced at about a fifth of the Lee counterpart and all are in the maximally recessed "WA" (wide angle) configuration.  More importantly, the Serks are available for immediate shipping. 

Serk Filter Adaptor Ring with Lee Filters Adaptor Ring

It took about two weeks for the ring to make it from Shanghai to me.  The adaptor ring arrived in a generic plastic bag with no markings.  Apart from an ink stamped size on the face the ring had no markings either.  There is a 77mm Lee adaptor ring in the above image for comparison and it's clear the coloring is the same.  What isn't clear in the pic is that the Lee feels noticeably weightier and more solid than the Serk.  The Serk is made of a slightly smaller gauge aluminum.  The Lee is made from two pieces glued together whereas the Serk is one machined piece.  (Note:  Recently, Lee has moved over to a one-piece design, as well.)  This is where the story gets slightly humorous...

Serk and Lee Filter Adaptors. Notice the gap in the Lee (bottom) where the glue seam is visable.

The people at Serk were so intent on cloning the Lee part they added the glue seam to their design!  Of course, the Serk ring is one piece - it does not have glue anywhere in its design - and the seam plays no part in the operation of the ring but the people at Serk were leaving nothing to chance!

Canon has designed the incomparable EF 24-70mm f2.8L II with polycarbonate filter threads.  While I appreciate the benefits to polycarb here when it comes to galling and thread locking (don't we all have stories of filters getting stuck?), I was nervous about using a relatively cheap knock off filter adaptor in this situation.  What if the filter adaptor wasn't pitched just right and it ended up keying the threads on my brand new lens?  I screwed it on slowly, minding any resistance.  It went on smoothly, at least as smoothly as the Lee.  Historically speaking with regards to Chinese knock offs, it's probably a good idea to assume the manufacturing tolerance on these rings isn't up to Lee's standards and you should always test a new Serk ring by mounting it slowly at first.  As expected, the Lee Foundation Kit snapped on without a fuss and held securely.

After using the Serk Filter Adaptor for some time now I feel confident in recommending them as a replacement for the Lee Filter Adaptor.  Spend less on adaptor rings and buy filters with the savings instead.

Estes Park, Colorado. f/11 @ 1/400th sec, Singh-Ray G. Rowell 2-stop SS Graduated Neutral Density Filter.

In this age of multi-exposure HDR I still enjoy the organic experience of using neutral and graduated neutral density filters.  Anything that allows me to spend less time in front of a computer is like chicken soup for the soul.

And I'm still waiting for the Lee Filter Adaptor to arrive.  I'm off to go cancel that order.

-JD

The eBay Beauty Dish

A rather recent phenomenon, the beauty dish has made quite a large name for itself in glamour, fashion, and portraiture photography.  This simple modifier can create complex lighting effects that tend to be harsher than softboxes yet softer than direct flash. 

I've become something of a lighting modifier junkie so luckily for me there exist stores located in China who sell all manner of modifiers, in decent quality at exceptional prices.  This last bit is key - there are countless types of light modifiers which all do very specific things to light and playing with them all could cost a Scrooge McDuck-type fortune.  The Chinese vendor, Studio-98, offers a large selection of mid-quality photography accessories at prices that can't be much more than material cost.

Studio-98 Beauty Dish and accessories

Studio-98's Beauty Dish kit is comprehensive.  While many sellers offer beauty dishes and beauty dish accessories, the Studio-98 kit includes just about everything you'd want in one economical package.  It contains a 22" stamped aluminum beauty dish (in either white or silver), 3 center deflectors (in white, silver, and gold), 3 white diffusion socks, 30 degree honeycomb grid, and a mount of your choice (extra charge may apply).  At the point of checkout you have the option to include, for $19, a handy carry and storage bag.  Consider picking up the bag now since apparently Studio-98 does not sell it separately.  It's also well made and offers a slot to store and protect the delicate honeycomb grid.  The bag will allow you to conveniently manage all the little bits in this kit.  It won't be easy to find another storage solution as capable as this for less than $20!

As mentioned, there are 2 flavors of beauty dish available (4 if you count the 16" model), white and silver.  I chose the silver version as I wanted maximum specularity.  White beauty dishes tend to create a softer light, where the shadows fall off in a smoother way.  Besides, you'll always have the option to sock the dish which can go a long way in softening the shadow transitions.

Flash Shoe Bracket

You can choose a mounting style from a long list of supported standards, like Elinchrom and Profoto speedrings or flash shoe mount bracket, to name some.  Since I shoot Canon 600EX-RT's I opted for the shoe bracket.  It's nice to know that my investment will not become obsolete if I choose to migrate to a Profoto kit - I would just pick up the available Profoto mount and keep on rocking this beauty dish.  The shoe mount bracket has a shoe to hold the flash and another to mount a trigger, like a PocketWizard.  Since moving to 600EX-RT with their integrated radios, I have nothing to populate the second shoe, but those of you still living in the stone age will appreciate this thoughtful inclusion.  (Okay, admittedly, it's more like the bronze age.)

I'm not overly impressed with the fit and finish of the bracket.  The dish mounting ring is secured to the bracket by two small screws and there is just not enough surface area at the meeting point.  When you mount the dish and its substantial weight comes to rest, it will bend slightly at this point.  I can only imagine that over time, with bustling about a shoot or outside in the wind, this could become a real problem.  I'll be looking into ways to fortify the bracket there.  Also, the whole assembly isn't centered.  My bracket sits off to the left of center and I see no easy way of bending back in line.  However, apart from what was mentioned earlier, the rest of the bracket is robust and solid.  Oversized knobs allow for making adjustments and retightening a breeze.

Notice the down rail that raises and lowers the beauty dish relative to the bracket?  It sticks down pretty low in the picture above, which is sized up for a 600EX-RT Speedlite.  The rail will bottom out on the bracket before the dish would bottom out on the flash stand, so soft box solutions like the Manfrotto 042 Extension Arm, Paul C. Buff Baby Boomer, and the like might not allow for any more downward movement.  Still, you do get a decent range of motion, but if you want more perhaps you could shave off the excess.  With a flash stand boom I don't think this would be a concern, and without a boom only rarely.

Bare Beauty Dish, 1/4 Power

Socked Beauty Dish, 1/4 PowerBeauty Dish with 30 Degree Grid, 1/4 PowerBeauty Dish with 30 Degree Grid and Sock, 1/4 Power Westcott Apollo Orb, 1/4 Power

Above is the output of some of the configurations you can do with this, or any, beauty dish.  I included a Westcott Apollo Orb 43" soft box for comparison.  Those are quite varied output profiles from essentially one modifier in your bag. 

I find the Studio-98 Beauty Dish easy to setup and use.  The included socks won't win any awards but you get 3 of them in case one blows up on you.  They are, after all, single stitched and made of thin material.  But they work and work well.

If you are looking to get a well-made, aluminum beauty dish on the cheap, I recommend the one sold by Studio-98.  Compared to other 3rd party solutions, like the Kacey Beauty Reflector, the Studio-98 is of comparable quality, yet much more economical.  Compared to first party solutions, like the ProFoto Softlight Beauty Dish, the dish itself may not be as robust or last as long, but you could buy 3 sets of the Studio-98 Beauty Dishes for the price of the ProFoto and that's before you accessorize with grids and socks!

Compared to a traditional soft box the beauty dish can be more of a pain to lug around (consider again getting the optional bag!) as soft boxes, especially umbrella-styled, are far more packable and portable...

85mm, f2.0, ISO 100, 200 sec, Canon 600EX-RT with Studio-98 Beauty Dish, 30 degree grid and sock

...But the quality of their light is, ahem, beautiful.  And you can't beat perfectly round catchlights!

-JD