It was a last minute decision to drive the 230 miles down to Andover in Hampshire from Preston in Lancashire where I live. An opportunity to visit the LEE Filters factory came up and seeing that I have been using their range of DSLR camera filters for a number of years now and being somewhat of a quizzical nature (‘nosey’ in other words), I could not resist. Their factory tour started at 11am and ran until 2pm so I arrived a good thirty minutes beforehand due to the limited parking available on the side roads of the industrial estate. I cast a glance over the rather unremarkable looking building ahead of me knowing that what they produce inside though is far from unremarkable.
I entered the modern reception area and was advised to head up the wooden stairs to the boardroom which on entering had three or four attendees already in situ, drinking coffee and having a laugh together. The first person I spotted was a familiar face, none other than LEE sales and technical support Jon Cuff, ex Robert White employee. I recognised Jon from the YouTube videos that he use to produce on a range of products that he used to sell at Robert White. A good few minutes was spent chatting about the various elements of LEE Filters as well as the photographic industry itself. Twenty-two people were due to attend the tour but only around a dozen turned up in total which allowed for us to be split into two small groups, making moving around the factory much more easier and enjoyable. Jon started off the day with a thirty-minute video presentation which covered everything from the history of LEE Filters right through to the current product range. Questions were asked by the attendees (mainly me it has to be said. Typical really) which sought to clear up any questions I had about some of the products.
The factory tour itself was led by LEE’s Technical Development Manager Adrian Marsh who has been with the company for thirty years. Adrian’s knowledge in all areas of the business is superb and his ability to explain the processes behind the products made on location were both enlightening and really interesting. The tour got underway with a request to don a lab coat and to turn off your mobile phones, not because of any secrecy issues in photographing sensitive practices but more a safety concern with chemicals being present. Because I was unable to take any photos inside the factory, LEE Filters have very kindly provided me with some.
So we made our way to the start of the production line where the 100mm neutral density graduated filters are made. We walked through a corridor that took you past the staff canteen and several offices, which had people smiling at us while working behind their desks. Walking through the double doors into the main factory had us stood around an oven where a male employee was cleaning some glass sheets. These sheets are positioned upright, one behind another with a gasket of the same thickness to that of a filter separating them. This ensures that the thickness of the filters are consistent and accurate. The liquid resin known as CR39 is then poured between the vertically positioned glass sheets and then placed into an oven where they are heated for up to 36 hours, or until they turn into a hardened resin sheet.
Once hardened, they are tested for optical clarity which as it turns out is just one test of at least twelve to ensure that they remain at the highest quality. This is done by running the resin sheet in front of a lens which is linked to a screen which in turn picks up any imperfections in the resin, should any exist. It is also worth noting that throughout the whole process, it is so important not to scratch or damage the filters. The number of waste is quite high, with a figure of around 20%-30% of filters ending up being rejected but on the plus side, very few are ever returned. The resin sheet is then passed onto the resin dyer who then repeatedly and very skillfully dunks it in and out of a hot liquid dye tank that has the appropriately coloured dye in it. It was asked why LEE Filters do not use a machine to do this task as to the untrained eye, this would make more sense but it was explained to us that using a machine to robotically dip a filter in and out of a heated dye tank would end up leaving clear lines of dye on the filter and only the slight subtle differences in the movement of a human hand could ensure that the gradation from the dark part of the filter to the clear section would remain perfectly smooth. I found this fascinating and the ‘Made in England’ statement that you see on LEE Filters products really does mean that.
Once the resin sheet has been dyed, it is walked through into another adjoining room where it is placed in a spectrophotometer which passes a beam of light through the filter to determine just how dark the dyed area is. If it requires more dyeing, it goes back for further dunking but more often than not, the resin dyer has measured it to perfection. Some of the female resin dyers and factory staff in-general have been employed by LEE Filters in excess of twenty years, one has notched up thirty years. That seems to be a common theme in the factory, people having been employed for several years which I guess ensures that the quality and consistency of the end product remains high. Once the correct darkness of the filter has been achieved, it is then covered in a plastic film and marked up ready to be cut, cleaned and packaged.
And that it pretty much what is involved in producing a neutral density graduated filter. So the next time someone mentions that LEE Filters are expensive, you can recall this blog and explain to them the labour intensive process of producing one. Adrian then went on to explain how the gel film rolls that are positioned on big studio lights to create a certain colour and feel for the movie, were produced for the movie industry. We ventured into another part of the factory to see how this procedure took place and this is definitely a more automated process with heavy machinery taking the strain. Mind you the heavy machines that applied the lacquer to the rolls of coloured gel film require comprehensive cleaning between every colour change, which could be a couple of times a week and that’s no mean feat. It’s a very dirty job to fully clean out a machine before it can be used again as you would not want traces of blue, mixed in with a roll that is supposed to be just yellow. A quick trip over the road and into to a huge warehouse where all manner of gel rolls are kept ready to be bought by big movie studios and film companies. There were two long tables upstairs that were fetchingly decorated with Christmas tinsel and the like and were manned by men who were packing metal adaptor rings into small cardboard boxes. There must have been a couple of hundred boxes stacked high.
I was impressed that the staff freely engaged in conversation and all without exception seemed to enjoy working there. I believe that they are a credit to the company and certainly enhanced my experience of the tour so a big thank you to everyone involved for making me feel very welcome indeed.
So to finish the day off we were treated to an all-inclusive buffet and drinks down at the local country pub which involved more photography related talk.
So my thoughts of the day and specifically the tour?
Well, I drove the return journey of 460 miles over nearly eight hours to attend a three-hour tour of the factory, however I really wanted to fully understand how the products that I use professionally are crafted. There is no doubt in my mind that LEE Filters have assisted me massively over the years in helping me capture some of the most amazing scenes I have ever witnessed, and that includes my recent Fogbow image in Scotland in which I used LEE’s 105mm Landscape Polariser to capture the white rainbow and the tree underneath it much more clearly.
As I ended up climbing back into my car at the end of the day, I was left to reflect on my experience and I have to say that it lived up to my expectations. I have a fresh appreciation for having seen first hand the amazingly detailed, professional and in-depth process that the products I saw being made go through. Never will I bulk at paying £85 for a neutral density graduated filter again. I found the staff very friendly and engaging, the commitment to their jobs admirable and the information given to me by both Jon and in particular Adrian honest, open and enlightening. Overall a big thumbs up from me and should you ever get an opportunity to visit the factory for yourself, jump at it.
Mike Brown visited the LEE Filter factory some time ago and was shown around. Click on the YouTube video below to be given a guided tour.