How to build a $3 Filter Holder for two dozen Filters: Tutorial

Did you ever have that situation too, where you are on a buying rampage on ebay over a few years, accumulate like 30 Photographic Filters in all sorts of sizes and functionalities, each of the filters’ original packaging is too chunky so you throw them away, and end up with a box full of filters, metal to glass, scratchy-scratch?
Well, I was in that situation. And I knew that I would be going to the desert on the next day to shoot a flower dance film, and I would need  my Gradient and ND and Polarizer filters, and I couldn’t risk it any longer to have them fly around in that box, I needed them handy and safe, quick to pick, take out, put back and store them. I knew I would use some of the shots for my cinematography reel, and without filtering, outdoor shots are just too boring for life.

The last time I went to the desert, we invented a $15 Camera Crane for DSLR filmmaking – so it was time to revive the tradition and invent something new. Teruaki, who was the 1st AC on my latest short film “Terminated” and me sat down the night before we took off to the desert. It was around midnight, tomorrow would be a long, long day and all I had prepared was to buy one of these fun foam sheets. Well, let’s roll.

$3 Filter Holder made of Fun Foam and Staples

It’s really simple, but it’s going to take you some time to do build. Think about an hour or so. If you are two people, making them together is more fun.

All you need is:

  • 1 hour of your life
  • 1 sheet of fun foam
  • 50-100 staples (stapler optional)
  • Filters, otherwise this would be useless to you (the tutorial is based around round, threaded filters, but you can easily build the same thing for square COKIN filters or whatever filters you use).

Fun foam is the stuff you remember from kindergarten – it’s soft, it’s thin like cardboard, and you probably cut out little flowers and houses and glued them on other fun foam sheets (German: Schaumgummi). You get this stuff in many convenience stores, office stores, “we sell it all”-places, party resales etc. Or you can order it online, just google it.

The basic material: Fun Foam, in this case from Creatology (brand really doesn't matter).

The basic material: Fun Foam, in this case from Creatology (brand really doesn't matter).

The Filter Holder consists of two types of parts; the outer shell and the inner separation sheets. It’s basically like stacking up your filters on top of each other, putting foam sheets between them and wrapping the whole things with a big piece of foam. To achieve that, you will have to measure out how many of these separation sheets you can make: Take your biggest filter and put it on the fun foam sheet, draw a circle or box around it; give about half a fingernail (a little more than your filters are thick) of space on the top and bottom (or left and right) side so you have an area where the separation sheet can connect to the outside walls. To understand that better, here is a schematic view of the different elements of the filter holder:

$3 Filter Holder Schematic View: The filter lie within "pockets"made up by the outside walls and the separation sheets. These are held together with staples.

$3 Filter Holder Schematic View: The filter lie within "pockets"made up by the outside walls and the separation sheets. These are held together with staples.

Cut out your first separation sheet and try to wrap it around the filter. Does it fit? Yes? Great. Use the measurement to cut out the outer shell. The outer shell is bascially just one big piece that you fold four times: Three walls for the filter holder’s outer walls, one wall as a lid on top so you can close the filter holder.

Fold the separation sheet and the outer walls at the lines where they will have corners. Either fold them really hard, or cut a tiny bit into the foam for a sharper fold. Be careful: Any semi-cutting will make the final construction’s lifespan shorter because of wear and tear. I just folded the corners as hard as I could with my hands.

Here you can see the separation walls with their wings and the outer wall sheet before they are attached to each other.

Here you can see the separation walls with their wings and the outer wall sheet before they are attached to each other.

Stapling the separation sheets to the outer wall

You will attach the separation sheets with staples to the outer wall. I mean, you can use glue, but it’s eventually going to come loose; you could use thread but I don’t have the patience for that. Staples are easy. The only annoying thing: you will have to hand-staple, because the stapler doesn’t really wrap around the the whole outer walls. Take out the staples from your stapler/staple box.

You will need four staples for each separation sheet – all attached vertically, two on each side. Put the first separation sheet at the very end of the soon-to-be filter holder (left side in the schematic view above), facing you with its open side. Penetrate the side wings of the separation sheet from the inner side, right next to the fold, then push the staple through the outer wall. Now close the staple; it’s convenient to use your fingernails for that. That way, the flat side of the staples is facing inside, so your filters are less likely to get scratched.Do the same thing three more times, and your first separation sheet is attached.

Try to put your biggest filter in – works? Perfect, now it’s time to start repeating the process over and over, until you run out of space or out of separation sheets. I recommend to now make more than 25 filter pouches per filter holder, otherwise the filter holder is going to be too long, bend while in use, and will eventually tear.  Try to leave enough space between the sheets so that thicker filters with turning elements (Gradient, Variable ND, Polarizer) fit in, but try to make the spaces tight enough so the filters don’t just fall out if you drop the filter holder by accident. There should be enough tension to hold the filters through the flexibility of the fun foam.

Using staples with the flat side facing inwards in order to attach the wings to thee side walls.

Using staples with the flat side facing inwards in order to attach the wings to thee side walls.

At some point, I figured it'd be faster if I just attachd all wings on one side and then on the other.

At some point, I figured it'd be faster if I just attachd all wings on one side and then on the other.

Remember, unless all your lenses have the same diameter, your filters will have different sizes: How can a 62mm and a 42mm filter fit in the same filter holder? You have options:

  1. If the size difference is too big, consider making two different filter holders.
  2. If the size difference is bearable, consider cutting the separation sheets customized for each filter and order them by size. You will get a trapezoid-shaped filter holder which is not a problem at all; you will just have to adjust the cut of the lid after you are finished.
  3. If you think your filters will never fall out and you have no problem with reaching too deeply into the filter holder’s pockets, just make it all the same size, and the smaller filters will just fall in deeper.
  4. Option 2 is the best.
The finished filter holder before the lid gets attached - I didn't plan ahead enough, so if you did everything right, you already have a lid there.

The finished filter holder before the lid gets attached - I didn't plan ahead enough, so if you did everything right, you already have a lid there.

Finished with the lower part – lid and latch come next

If you forgot to plan in a fourth section in the outer sheet for making a lid, you will have to do what I did – staple it to one side wall. Otherwise, your lid is basically there but doesn’t close and protect the filters. So, first, you want to reinforce all outer corners with some good old duct tape – that will protect your filter holder greatly. If you want, you can duct tape the whole outside to hide the staples and protect your other gear from them. It’s worth a shot to slightly carve in the edge between lid and wall so that it closes more precisely – then duct tape that carving to protect it from tearing later.

That's how the back of my filter holder looks like - of course I forgot to think about a lid, so I had to attach it with staples and duct tape after the holder part was finished.

That's how the back of my filter holder looks like - of course I forgot to think about a lid, so I had to attach it with staples and duct tape after the holder part was finished.

The lid will have to have some sort of closing mechanism. For that, I cut three thin stripes of fun foam, taped the one to the middle front of the lid (horizontally), then stapled and taped the second and third one to the side of the wall, one vertically coming from the top of the wall, the other one horizontally on the bottom. The latch can now be slid between these two horizontal stripes; the friction of the material is enough to hold the lid and latch in place.

The latch closing mechanism, in open and closed positions: The latch holds the lid and gets tied down by another piece of fun foam.

The latch closing mechanism, in open and closed positions: The latch holds the lid and gets tied down by another piece of fun foam.

Put in all the filters, and your work is ready – you now have a filter holder!

The finished filter holder. It holds 18 filters, the biggest one 62mm, the smallest 52mm in diameter. Did not fail me in the past 3 months of use, and didn't need any repairs so far: A sturdy piece of handwork!

The finished filter holder. It holds 18 filters, the biggest one 62mm, the smallest 52mm in diameter. Did not fail me in the past 3 months of use, and didn't need any repairs so far: A sturdy piece of handwork!

Ideas for a better workflow that I didn’t really incorporate in my prototype

After using the filter holder for a few months now (yes, that’s how far I am behind with my blog!), I noticed a few problems and propose following improvements:

  1. Making the filters stand out 5-10mm on the top
    Reaching for filters that lie too deep is a pain in the ass; if your holder is really tight, it’s very hard to pull out very small or very large filters. The small ones fall too deep into the pouches, the large ones are stuck between the outer walls. It would be a good idea to cut all separation sheets a bit short on the top, so that the filters stand out about 5-10mm on the top, so you can grab them directly.
  2. Color markings / names on filters or separation sheets
    If you have many filters – I do, I’m a hoarder – you’re going to be totally confused about which filter is which; at night, they turn by themselves, so next thing you know when you are on set and have to pull out filters quickly, you can bet your hat that the writing on the filters is going to be on the bottom, and you have to turn all of them to find that one ND-Filter. A good idea would be to color mark all filters by their category (color, polarizing, ND, gradient, Wide/closeup, star/cross screen, softening etc.) with electric tape. Another idea would be to write the filter name on a piece of tape and put that on top of a separation sheet just like you would do with a file holder in a file cabinet.
  3. Finding a better closing mechanism
    You can be sure – at some point the improvised closing mechanism is going to fail you while the filter holder is upside down somewhere, and you will have to pick them all up and risk scratches on them. Maybe you come up with a better latch? Be careful with experimenting with Velcro – the required force of opening Velcro-type latches is about as much force as you would use to rip fun foam apart. Also, a latch that is easier and faster to close would help you streamline your workflow on set.
  4. Building a hard shell around it
    Depending on the type of shoots you are on, you might want to come up with a solution to reinforce the outer walls for extra protection against rough work conditions.

More DIY Tutorials

If you are into Selfmade Filmmaking or Photography, there’s about ten more tutorials in the Tutorial section of the U, S, and Toby Blog. Even though most of my posts are in German and make fun of people who can’t speak it, all of the DIY/Filmmaking tutorials are in English so more people can benefit from my discoveries. A few recommendations:

If you built your own version of a filter holder, please post it here or email me at tobias@tobiasdeml.com and I will publish it here.

About the Author

Tobias Deml is an Austrian Filmmaker and Visual Artist. 2012 Cinematography Reel: http://vimeo.com/53973421 Tobias Deml ist ein österreichischer Filmstudent und Möchtegernregisseur in Los Angeles. Er arbeitet derzeit als Kameramann in Los Angeles und popelt in seiner Nase.