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Did you ever wish to use neutral density graduated filters on the excellent Canon TS-E 17mm f/4 L lens? Many say that it is impossible. Well, it is not!
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Canon TS-E 17mm f/4 L with Cokin X-Pro ND grads

Using ND grad filters on Canon TS-E 17mm? YES!

Using ND grad filters on Canon TS-E 17mm

One of the very best Canon ultra wide angle lenses in terms of image quality is said to be the TS-E 17mm f/4 L. For landscape photography with full frame cameras, where (corner) sharpness really matters , it sure beats both the EF 2.8/16-35mm L and the EF 4.0/17-40mm L, although it clearly lacks the zooms' versatility and speed of handling.

However, there is one major backdraw: there is no possibility to use neutral density graduated filters (ND grads) with the TS-E 17mm to balance the exposure difference between a bright sky and the foreground in landscape pictures since the lens does not have a filter thread and the front glass element is extremely bulbous.

DSLR users may solve this problem by simply taking different exposures of a scene and blending them together in postproduction to create a balanced exposure for both the sky and the foreground. It works most of the time.

Old fashioned photographers however wish to get the shot right in-camera and absolutely need to use ND grads. I am one of those and have been thinking about a solution for some time. Good news is that I found it! And it works very well!

Here is what you need:

- a spare Canon lens cap 17 (the original cap for the TS-E 17mm)
- a Cokin B100 X-PRO Series Filter Holder
- a Cokin X499 Universal X-PRO Series Adapter Ring
- one or more Cokin or Lee ND grads in the 130x170mm size
- a few tools and a bit of time

First, you have to dismount the lens cap which is made of 3 different parts. Don't loose the small spring that will jump out as soon as you loosen the 4 screws to take off the bottom ring. You will have to put it back in place afterwards - the hardest part of the whole operation, at least for me.
Second step would be to unscrew the top of the cap (3x4 screws) and remove it. You won't need it anymore.
Then I reassembled the shiny inner ring and the external, bottom ring (don't forget the little spring) and fix them with the 4 screws.
Now, you'll have to cut off the part of the shiny ring that extends above the bottom ring. I used a Dremel to do this. The result will look quite ugly, but if you don't do this, you'll get very strong vignetting and the whole system won't work.
I applied some kind of black silicon to the ring to fill the gaps and because I thought it would look better, more nicely finished, but I guess it still won't win a beauty contest.

The last step is to drill four 4mm holes in the outer plastic ring only, where the four screws of the Cokin universal adapter ring will fit in. Just fix the metal Cokin ring to your newly built Canon adapter and you are ready to attach the filter holder to it.

The whole system is attached to the lens just like you would attach the normal lens cap and is now ready for use.

In order to avoid any unwanted reflections on the ND grad filter (especially if the sun is in your back), I drap a black cloth (a neck gaiter) over the lens and around the filter holder.

(I am very sorry that I didn't take any pictures during the whole process. It would have allowed me to illustrate a step by step how-to-do-it guide, but with a bit of dexterity, it should not be too difficult to do it yourself.)

The big question is of course: How about vignetting?

Well, you can shift approx. 8mm and tilt about 3 degrees without any vignetting at all, maybe even more. For my landscape work, that is more than enough.
This solution works perfectly well for me and probably will make the TS-E 17mm my most used ultra wide angle lens.

Finding a way to use a polarizer on the TS-E 17mm might be a bit more difficult, but I am open to suggestions…

IMPORTANT UPDATE 2013/09/21

It's been 3 years now that I have been able to use ND grads on the 17mm TS-E.
Finally, everybody can do it, without having to built their own filter holder. LEE Filters are now offering an adaptor ring for this specific lens that allows the 100mm filter holder to be used. Excellent news! Think of all the new options like the Big Stopper and the polarizer.

For further details, please see the LEE Filters website:
http://www.leefilters.com/index.php/camera/system