Taking full control of exposure is one of the joys of photography. And one of the best ways to have the freedom to control exposure as you wish is through filtering. While you can sometimes get away using a small aperture and low ISO, those alone aren’t always enough to achieve the proper exposure. And that’s when a dedicated neutral density (ND) filter comes into play. Not to mention, neutral density is the only way to shoot long exposures during the day. Plus, they’re the ideal way to create silky smooth water and capture stunning light trails. Without it, there’s typically too much light in the scene for these effects. Thus, the right ND filter is a must in a photographer’s bag.
But, most photographers find them slightly confusing, clunky and don’t understand their practicality. And, sadly, manufactures also have varying practices in naming filters, further adds to the confusion. With so many options in various sizes, prices, names, and strengths, it can be quite overwhelming to choose between options. So, we’ve created a helpful guide on how to access ND filters. We will cover what to look out for and how to pick the best options. We’ve also compiled a list of the best ND filters in today’s market.
5 – NiSi ND-VARIO
NiSi’s ND-VARIO series is their variable ND range. Released in 2018, they offer this range in two varieties either 1.5-5 stops or 5-9 stops with 12 sizes ranging from 40.5-95mm.
The 1.5-5 stop variable ND range, in particular, is their nano-coated ultra-slim filter that provides a variable exposure reduction. And you control their degree of density by rotating the silver knob, which is intuitive and straightforward. The transitions between density occur smoothly and are entirely free of the X blackout effect that occurs with too much reduction. And the thin filters profile ensures minimal loss in detail and definition. These glass filters are also both waterproof and oil resistant. And as a whole, they’re well suited for both photographers or videographers wanting precise control over exposure and perfect for maintaining the desired frame rate and aperture while filming.
Overall, Nisi’s ND-VARIO series offers an ultra-compact design with compatibility with a massive array of lenses across all manufacturers. Plus, it provides a useful exposure reduction range that replaces five separate fixed ND filters without the need for adapters or holders. And with its sleek low profile design and excellent build, it impresses and provides fantastic value as a mid-range ND filter.
4 – Cokin Nuances Extreme
Cokin’s Nuances Extreme series is their high-end range of square filters. Released in 2018, they offer these filters in three densities ranging from 3- 10 stops and three sizes.
The ND1024, in particular, is the strongest and darkest filter they offer. And this 2mm thick square filter provides 10-stops of reduction. It fits into Cokin’s P-series holder, which supports a wide range of lenses and attachment thread sizes. And the holder has an optional inner pad to prevent light leakage. Cokin redesigned this lineup with a new type of tempered glass, which is 4x more durable than their previous series. And it also makes the filter fully resistant to ghosting or flare and free from vignettes. Now, it’s perfectly equipped to take on the most intense conditions.
Overall, Cokin’s Extreme series is an excellent option for budget-friendly photographers looking for a robust system. It provides outstanding performance at a competitive price compared to rivals in a similar size.
3 – PolarPro Variable ND (Peter McKinnon Edition)
The Peter McKinnon Edition is a new series in PolarPro’s Variable ND range, specifically engineered to tackle the failures of this segment. Released in 2019, they offer this lineup in two densities ranging from 2-5 or 6-9 stops and three sizes.
Their 2-5 stop filter, in particular, uses a fused quartz and aluminum build. This construction results in an ultra-low profile design that minimizes the vignettes and cross polarising when using wide-angle lenses. This filter is ideal for videographers wanting to shoot down to 1/60 second, for 30 fps videos. It’s also entirely silent and smooth, perfect for making adjustments while recording. They’ve also laser-etched stops, to quickly adjust the exposure by specific amounts or for quicker setups. And PolarPro includes a filter cover that acts as a lens cap for protection and a carrying case.
Overall, the Peter McKinnon series by PolarPro is the ideal choice for those who shoot ultra-wide-angle lenses. It’s a high-quality design that specifically removes artifacts and maintains maximum details. And with a 2-5 stop range, it is a suitable choice across a wide range of lighting conditions.
2 – Lee Filters Stopper
The Stopper range is Lee’s most famous series to date. Released in 2011, Lee offers this range in three densities ranging from 6 to 15 stops and three sizes.
The Big Stopper, in particular, sits as their medium-strength option of the lineup. It’s a 2mm thick square filter that provides a 10-stop reduction, and it fits into Lee’s 100mm filter holder. The holder has an inner seal to prevent leaks and flares during long exposures while maintaining easy insertion. Lee even has an Android and iOS app that you can download to calculate the exposure time, removing any guesswork. And they also include a protective poach, to protect the filter.
Overall, while pricier than rivals that use resin constructions, the quality speaks for itself. It’s an excellent choice for those looking for a robust option for mid-day photographs and a more professional system than most.
1 – Breakthrough Photography X4 ND
Breakthrough Photography’s X4 ND range is a favorite amongst the industry and for a good reason. Released in 2015, they offer this range in four densities ranging from 3-15 stops and 12 sizes.
The 10-stop filter, in particular, uses nanotec glass with eight coats of multi-resistant coating, reducing glare, increasing contrast, and protecting the filter against dirt or debris. They also redesigned the filter frame, which now uses their traction design with brass construction. This design prevents slipping and creates a more secure connection. Together, they deliver outstanding performance in the most rugged environments with little vignettes or color casts and excellent sharpness. And Breakthrough offers a class-leading 25-year warranty to back it up.
Overall, Breakthrough Photography’s X4 ND remains one of the sharpest and most color neutral filters around. And they’re the ideal choice for discerning landscape or architectural photographer wanting maximum detail. For the money, it couples excellent design and performance that appeals to a wide range and offers best-in-class support to boast.
What is a ND filter?
A Neutral Density (ND) filter is essentially a grey filter that reduces light transmission entering the lens. And they vary in strength. Generally, you’ll find options ranging from 1-stop to upwards of 24 stops. And they block a set percentage of incoming light that hits the sensor. By doing so, these filters effectively let you extend your exposure times, allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds or wider apertures. They’re particularly helpful if you want to shoot long exposures or wide-open during the day, as you’d overexpose otherwise.
Unlike polarizer filters, which selectively reduce polarizing light from a scene such as reflections or glare, ND filters control all light entering the camera. And they control the entire exposure. Think of them as sunglasses for your camera. But glasses that don’t alter the color of the light, just the brightness.
Why Buy an ND filter?
Since an ND filter helps reduce ambient light, they’re ideal when shooting outdoors, even more so under bright sunlight. On a particularly sunny day, the only way to get proper exposure is to use narrow apertures and fast shutter speeds. But, shooting at narrow apertures generally reduces image quality due to diffraction. So, it’s not ideal. Attaching an ND filter gives you more latitude in adjusting the exposure by darkening the entire scene. And this, in effect, opens more creative flexibility.
They’re especially helpful if you want to shoot cityscapes, street, or architectural photography since long exposures blur moving subjects. You may also want an ND filter when shooting landscapes when you want a smooth milky sea effect or to flatten the waves. They’re also the best way to create high dynamic range (HDR) images without in-camera JPEG engines. And they’re also ideal for shooting portraits during the day when you want to shoot at wide aperture settings, without overexposing. Quite frankly, you’ll likely blow your exposure without an ND filter shooting wide open during the day.
How are ND filters notated?
ND filters come in a variety of different strengths or darkness. It would be perfect if ND filters indicated the number of stops they darkened the exposure. But, that’s not always the case, as optical engineers, not photographers, design them. With that, they have several numbering scales, usually the filter factor number or sometimes the optical density number.
These indications include, for example, ND 1.8 or ND64. Both of these describe filters that cut light transmission by 6 stops (a.k.a EV), allowing you to set your shutter speed six stops slower. In contrast, ND 3.0 or ND1000 filters deliver 10-stops of density. But, neither of these terms indicates the number of stops reduced. So, for this post, in particular, we will address ND filters by the stops. We won’t refer to them in these other terms, as it’s confusing.
What type of ND filters are best?
Today, there are several types of ND filters. Below are the types and a summary of their ideal use.
Fixed ND filters use a single layer of glass that provides a set amount of reduction. The benefit is that they’re immediate and easy to set up. They also don’t suffer from artifacts as shooting through a single layer of glass maintains image quality. And they come with superior strengths, ranging up to 24 stops of reduction.
Pick a fixed ND filter:
- If you want to maintain maximum resolution.
- You want a more straightforward setup process.
Variable ND filters use a pair of polarizing filters that rotate against one another, providing variable density across a set range. And they allow you to adjust the strength and the thickness of the filter, typically by twisting an external ring. This gives you the flexibility of switching between high or low filtering, depending on the scene. However, since they stack layers of ND together, low-quality designs can quickly result in softer images. Some filters also suffer from cross polarising, an X blackout effect that occurs with too much reduction.
Pick a variable ND filter:
- You want more control over the filtering.
- You want a more compact, all-in-one solution with a range of different densities.
- You’re a videographer who wants to change exposure but maintain the same depth of field seamlessly.
For this, the best ND filter comes down to the mediums you plan on shooting. If you plan on shooting dusk or dawn in low light conditions, then a 3-6 stop filter is sufficient. And if you plan on shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, a 10-stop filter is recommended. Now whether this filter is fixed or not comes down to personal preference.
Overall, photographers are best getting fixed ND filters while videographers and journalists are better off getting a variable ND filter. Fixed ND’s deliver slightly higher quality images, but variable NDs offer more speed and convenience. And they’ll also save money long term.
Square or Circular ND filters?
ND filters come in two varieties based on how they connect to the camera, which is either slot-in or screw-in.
Square (Slot-in) filters attach to filter holders, which then connects to the front of your lens. The benefit here is that even though they require filter holders and rings, you can use a single filter with multiple lenses. And you can easily find the appropriate size adapter for virtually any lens. Square filters are also easily stackable, so you can use various 3-stop filters to replicate 6 or 9-stops, adding flexibility. And since they’re square, they’re larger than most lenses, which reduces any signs of vignetting in the corners. The only downside is that if they’re not attached properly, they’ll leak light.
Circular (Screw-in), however, attaches directly to the front of the lens. Circular ND filters are great, but you can only use them with a specific lens thread diameter. Thankfully, you can use a stepping ring adapter to attach a large filter to a smaller lens, but this doesn’t work in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, circular filters are far more convenient than squares. And a well-designed filter shouldn’t suffer from light spills and leaks. Some manufacturers also design their filters so that they’re stackable. But, stacked setups are prone to vignettes in the corners.
Choosing either style ultimately comes down to personal preference. Square filters are easiest to set up on a shot by shot basis since you can quickly calculate the required exposure settings. But circular filters are less bulky and more streamlined, making them the better portable option. So there are trade-offs here. Overall, If you don’t mind the extra setup time, square filters are the ideal choice. But, if you only plan on using the ND filter with a handful of lenses, circular is better.