Review of Breakthrough Photography’s X3 ND Filters
“Sunglasses for your camera” may very well be the best way to describe what a neutral density (ND) filter does for your photography. They allow for slower shutter speeds to be used in lighting conditions that would otherwise overexpose your photograph.
Of course, many of you already understand this and the overall concept of ND filters. You also understand that as far as filters are concerned there is an enormous range to choose from with an equally enormous range of quality. Glass grade, coatings, frame material, and construction methods all come together to influence the quality of your filters and the final image.
This brings us to a relatively new arrival to the filter scene. Breakthrough Photography was founded in 2014 by notable photographer and travel writer Graham Clark. The company set out with a refreshingly simple idea: make the sharpest, most color neutral filters possible.
The refreshing part was that the overall user experience would be kept in the forefront of the design and development process from the beginning. It means that the design of the filters would be influenced by a group of photographers coming together to suggest features that they themselves would want in a filter system.
Did they succeed? We’re going to find out.
The folks at Breakthrough Photography sent over two gradients of the X3 Neutral Density Filters, the newest addition to their X-Series line of ND filters. The two filters, a 77mm 3-stop and a 77mm 6-stop arrived well packaged along with a step down ring to fit the smaller 67mm size of my test lens which was the Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS mounted to a Sony A7r. It’s worth mentioning that the adapter ring itself was a solidly made piece of CNC machined aluminum. It fit both the X3 filter and my lens very well with no binding or signs of misalignment.
Let’s start at the very beginning and take a look at the containers for the filters themselves. It’s a small feature to some people but I believe that packaging is always a good indicator of the effort a company puts into their product. The filters arrived housed in separate heavyweight cardboard boxes.
Inside each box is a plastic case which holds the actual filter. Breakthrough Photography claims these filters are the best manufactured and the design of the filter cases demonstrates this. The filter is nestled like a baby bird within a soft foam cutout.
There is no need to worry about the filter accidentally sliding out of the case as soon as you open the lid. Also, the foam cradle conveniently has two half moon finger recesses that make removing and replacing the filter back into its holder extremely easy. These filters were tested over a three day camping/hiking trip and the cases protected the filters beautifully.
Handle & Feel
When I first handled the filters I immediately noticed how sturdy they felt in hand. Substantial but not heavy. I suppose the word to use here would be “solid.” They definitely do seem to fit the “workhorse” designation that Breakthrough Photography places on them. The frames are manufactured from brass and there is a good reason for this. Brass is a metal that is not very prone to galling or binding.
The filters are easily stacked as well.
You commonly see brass used in parts such as bearings and bushings because it isn’t as prone to getting stuck. Aluminum on the other hand is somewhat prone to galling. This means that since the X3 is made of brass, by it’s very metallurgical properties, it is less likely to get jammed than are filters crafted from aluminum. Each X3 filter is electroplated in matte black with the filter type and serial number laser etched, not painted, into the filter metal itself for long lasting identifying of your filter.
Another great feature of the X3 is the “traction” frame concept. It’s one of those nice things that makes you wonder why it’s not present on more filter frames. The traction teeth which are machined into the outer circumference of the filter frame are there to make the removal and attachment of the filters an absolute breeze.
And below we have a filter without the traction frame. The difference is obvious.
Say goodbye to stuck filters when stacking. Fumbling around in winter with numb fingers (I’m not advocating it) trying to tighten filters is no longer problematic. These traction ridges really add a confident feeling of control during quick filter changes in the field when you’re racing a sunset.
Though a simple idea it is one of my favorite additions to the X3 ND filter.
What About The Glass?
Now let’s talk about glass. The saying goes that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
The grade of glass used to make an ND filter is the deciding factor on the overall image quality you can expect to achieve. The X3 ND filter has an optic made from Schott B270 Ultrawite glass. It is a soda-lime glass which transmits light extremely well across the entire spectrum. Knights Optical has some interesting facts about this glass where you can find plenty of science, numbers, and strange little symbols.
Not only is the grade of glass used in the X3 of superb quality, but the coatings used to tint the surface of the glass are equally impressive. Eight layers of a hydrophobic nano-coating are applied to both surfaces of the filter glass, hence the MRC16 designation (MultiResistant Coating) meaning sixteen total layers of coating. These coatings from Nanotec are a great thing. Not only do they shed water and dirt extremely well but the Nanotec coatings are also very hard… even harder than the filter glass itself. This means less ghost scratches from using a dirty lens cloth or when using the filters in particularly wet, dusty, or sandy conditions.
These coatings allow for maximum light transmission and also cut down on reflections within the glass which will preserve the overall contrast of your images.
A big marketing point used by Breakthrough Photography is the touted color neutrality of the X3 filter. In my opinion, this claim has proven to be 100% accurate. Some filters of lower quality tend to add an unwanted color cast to images. Blue or red tones are common but it varies considerably. During my time testing the X3 I observed no change in color to any of my test images whatsoever. The colors remained true to life even when stacking the 6-stop and 3-stop X3’s together.
Judge for yourself. Have a look at the images below. The first is made with no filter, the second with one of my own trusty ND filters from another manufacturer and the third is with the X3. No adjustments to color have been made to these images.
Prepare for slightly introspective thoughts in 3…2…1!
Whenever I buy a new piece of gear, however large or small, it always pays to look a little deeper into the company from which you are buying. Do they stand behind their products? Are they concerned about the customer’s experience or are they concerned with the customer’s cash? Do they have actions or just words?
Breakthrough Photography has one of the best product warranties that I have come across in a while. Twenty-five years of coverage in craftsmanship and materials. That’s a fairly tall order considering you are basically buying a piece of breakable glass!
Most companies warranty information is vague and usually elusive in regard to specificity (I’m proud of that word). Not the case with Breakthrough. Housed right in the box is a warranty card as well as instructions for registering your filters. Furthermore, remember when we talked about the serial number being laser etched into the filter? Well, that serial number is yours after you register your filter for your warranty. That means you will have assurance that your filter is protected from everything except gravity, clumsiness, or the errant Rhino.
Not only does Breakthrough Photography put their money where their mouth is as far as guarantees go but they offer an easy way for you to make the world a little brighter with every purchase. Each time you buy a product from Breakthrough, 5% of that purchase will find it’s way directly to non-profit organizations.
Breakthrough Photography is also a member of 1% for the Planet which is a coalition of worldwide business who donate at least 1% of their earnings to various environmental improvement and protection entities. This says a lot about the mindset of a company which goes far beyond any marketing or advertisement.
The Bottom Line on the X3 ND Filter
It is a truly rare happening when I run across a product and can’t seem to find anything negative to add in the review. In the course of bringing you, my fellow photographer, an unbiased and honest commentary I usually find some minute problem which I feel is worth sharing. However, I can earnestly and confidently say that I have found the X3 ND filter from Breakthrough Photography to be nothing short of exceptional.
Here are the highpoints for the X3 ND:
- A well designed and solidly crafted brass frame
- Innovative traction feature lends great controllability when attaching and removing the filter
- Highly refined Schott B270 Ultrawite glass optic offers great sharpness
- Innovative Nanotec MRC16 coatings protect and prolong the life of the filter
- Truly color neutral with no apparent color cast
- Each filter comes with a very secure case for storage and lens cloth
- Breakthrough Photography offers an unbelievable twenty-five year “Ironclad Guarantee“
Below are some additional images made using X3 ND filters and processed with Adobe Lightroom 5.7.
The X3 ND filters from Breakthrough Photography have been so far the best performing ND filters I have come across. I don’t think you will find a better ND filter for the price or a company more committed to the photographer’s experience. You won’t be disappointed with the X3 ND.
You can purchase Breakthrough Photography’s filters at B&H Photo.