Neutral density (ND) filters are like the hammer of the photography world. They should be a staple in every photographer’s camera bag. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional photographer having and knowing how to utilize an ND filter is essential for taking your images to the next level.
However, learning about ND filters can be intimidating. Manufacturers tend to bounce between their preferred labeling systems making it a bit confusing to know exactly what you are getting out of any specific filter.
Further, there are a multitude of filter variations, each having their own strengths for certain subjects, environments and lighting elements.
You will also need to consider the various features outside of the filter itself to make sure it fits perfectly with your other gear and intended purposes.
While this may seem like a lot to take in at first, don’t worry. We will be breaking down everything you should know before purchasing your first ND filter.
Top 5 Best ND Filters
|Cokin NUANCES Neutral Density Filter 3.0 |
-Schott Glass Filter
-Removable foam mask
-Minimal image degradation when stacked
-Available in 6 different densities
-High transmittance & low reflection
|B+W F-Pro 110 3.0 E Neutral Density Filter |
-Repels dirt & moisture
-Wide range of density & sizes
-Provides a 10 stop exposure reduction
|Firecrest Neutral Density Filter 4.8 |
-Schott Superwite glass
-Available in square & circle
-Wide range of densities & sizes
|Hoya ProND 64 Neutral Density Filter |
-Densities from 1 stop to 16.6 stops
-Negligible color shift
-Black frames to minimize reflection
-ACCU ND metallic coatings
-9 filter options
|Lee Filters ProGlass 100mm IRND 3.0 ND |
-2mm optical glass
-Wide range of density options
-Versatile filter size
-Super dark 15 stop variant available
Quick Answer: Best Neutral Density Filters
- Best on a Budget: Hoya ProND 64 Neutral Density Filter
- Best for Weather resistance: B+W F-Pro 110 3.0 E Neutral Density Filter
- Best for Landscape: Firecrest ND Neutral Density ND
- Best Graduated ND Filter: LEE Filters 100mm Graduated Neutral Density Soft Edge Filter Set
- Best Variable ND Filter: B+W 77mm XS-Pro Digital Vario ND
- Best Central ND Filter: Vivitar VNDX67 67mm
How to Choose the Best ND Filter
What is an ND filter and What Does it Do?
First things first. What is an ND filter and what exactly does it do for your images? This filter when placed in front of your lens or dropped into your filter slot will reduce the amount of light that can find its way to the camera’s sensor.
Similar to polarizing filters, an ND filter can be thought of as a pair of sunglasses for your camera. This will have a few effects on your camera and therefore your images.
When you want to shoot with a wide-aperture lens in bright light without overexposing your pictures, this is where an ND filter is useful.
Even with the lightening shutter speeds of today’s professional cameras there are still times when the lighting conditions will exceed what the capabilities of the shutter.
Using an ND filter will allow for a shallow depth of field and selective focus in these conditions.
Slowing Your Shutter
Slowing your shutter speed is the original purpose of ND filters. The slower shutters speeds attained while using these filters will allow for moving objects in the frame to become blurred.
This adds a layer of motion to your image which is great for photographing active waterfalls or cars against a city-scape.
To properly gain this effect you will also need to use a tripod to get the crisp lines of the buildings while capturing the movement of the cars.
Types of Filtering Labels
ND filter labels can be extremely confusing. That is because manufacturers use labels based on their personal preference rather than an industry standard. Luckily, there are only 3 main labels to learn.
The f-stop ND filter label is the most straightforward on the market. The f-stop in its normal context is a feature on your camera that regulates the amount of light that can pass through a lens at a given shutter speed.
The higher the f-stop number the less light is allowed through. ND filters labeled as by their f-stop reduction give you a fairly exact idea on the amount of light being let in. ND filters range from 0 to 20 f-stop reduction.
The filter factor is a popular label used by many manufacturers to represent how much the filter reduces the light coming into the lens. It is represented as ND2, ND4, ND8 all the way to ND 1048576.
However, this does not mean that an ND2 filter reduces the light by two f-stops. Instead, it is portrayed in the equation Filter Factor=2x.
So, for example, a filter labeled as ND8 would be (2x2x2=8) which means that it has a 3-stop reduction in light. The math can be annoying at first, but as you are exposed to these filters enough you won’t even have to think about it.
The optical density label for ND filters has now become the most common, but it is also the most confusing to understand. It is represented as 0.3 (1-stop reduction), .06 (2-stop reduction), 0.9 (3-stop reduction) and so on.
Rather than laying out the extended equation used to come up with these numbers, it generally best to use a simplified overview like the one we will go over below.
This will help you to know how much of an f-stop reduction you will receive with each ND filter.
What Stop Variation To Use
It can be difficult to decide what f-number you will need based on what you will be shooting. Here is a breakdown of a few stop variations to use in different settings.
6-Stop ND filter
If you are into landscape photography and want to get that perfect golden hour shot at sunset or sunrise you should consider a 6-stop filter.
These filters allow for a 2-4-minute exposure range which is ideal for shooting in these environments. 6-stop filters are also perfect for shooting waterfalls, ocean tides, desert sunsets and mountain sunrises.
10-Stop ND filter
10-stop ND filters are a great choice if you plan on shooting in bright afternoon light. The recommended hours for this filter are between 10am and 4pm when the sun is directly overhead and flat.
This will reduce the “washed out” effect that harsh light can create and reinvigorate the colors in your setting.
This is one of the most popular for those just getting started in the world of camera filters as its results are dramatic immediately grabbing your attention.
3-Stop ND filter
The 3-stop is the most useful when utilized for wedding photography, portraits or any other environment where you want to accomplish a shallow depth of focus.
When you combine the 3-stop filter with the lowest ISO you will create magnificent sharpness and saturation that will bring your images to life. It is best used in lower light or right before the sun sets.
Other Types of ND Filters
Outside of the standard f-stop reduction there are also specialized ND filters that offer a bit more. Here are a few more ND filter types you may want to consider.
- Graduated Neutral Density Filter: Also known as a GND filter, these balance exposure in a picture that has a darker foreground with a bright background. These are used mostly by landscape photographers.
- Variable Neutral Density Filter: This filter allows you to transition the amount of filtration you need by turning the outer ring of a dual-ring filter. Each filter has a differing stop variation range but the most popular fall between the 2 and 8 stops. This gives you the ability to easily change from a bright to darker environment without having to carry additional gear.
- Central Neutral Density Filter: These filters have a darkened center and lighter edges. They are specialized for wide angle lenses to ensure the exposure is balanced across the entire frame.
- Polarizing Filter: While polarizing filters are in a class all their own, they still fall under the ND filter category. The majority of polarizers give a 2-stop reduction while also greatly reducing glare and increasing color vibrance.
Features to Consider
The construction of your ND filter is just as important as the effect it can produce. Cheaper quality glass, large frames and ease of use can all change how you feel about a certain filter. Here are a few features to consider before you purchase an ND filter.
- Thin rims: Thinner rims on your filter will help to reduce the vignette effect that can occur with larger profile filters.
- Multi-layer coating: this is a great addition to any camera filter. The additional coating help to prevent damage from scratches and repels dirt, oil and moisture. It also makes your filter highly anti-reflective giving you the best quality shot every time.
- Brass mount: Some of the plastic mounts found in ND filters can be flimsy and easy to break or bend. Having a brass mount will give you a sturdier filter that can take a beating even in the harshest environments.
- Filter size: the importance of your filter size is to make sure that it fits onto your lens. However, just because you have a 67mm lens does not mean you need to buy a 67mm filter. Instead, it is better to buy larger filters that match in size and then getting a thread adapter to help them fit each size lens you may have. This is because larger filters will help prevent the vignette effect and can be used even with the widest of lenses.
- Screw-on v. Square/Rectangular filters: Deciding between screw-on or square filters is really just a matter of personal preference. However, there are a few main differences to understand. Like their name, screw-on filters are threaded directly onto the lens of the camera. These allow the filters to fit securely to the lens preventing potential dust and debris from touching the lens itself. The only downside to these is you will also have to purchase a thread adapter to fit your filters to multiple lens sizes. Square filters on the other hand usually fit onto a bracket in front of the camera lens and can be added to any lens size making it easily transferable. The downside is they tend to be more fragile and take longer to set up.
Neutral Density Filter Recommendations
Cokin Nuances Neutral Density Filter 3.0
The Nuances neutral density mineral glass filters introduce an innovative technology of filter making. A nano metallic alloy is applied on both side of a highly resistant tempered Schott Glass B270, renowned for its high transmittance and low reflection.
The result is a stunning neutrality, completely free of infrared pollution. Multiple filters can be stacked without color cast.
They can be combined with other filters from the CREATIVE Filter System range for unlimited creativity. These filters are dedicated to long exposure outdoor photography or depth of field reduction, especially in film-making.
- Schott Glass Filter
- Removable foam mask
- Minimal image degradation when stacked
- Available in 6 different densities
- High transmittance & low reflection
Check Cokin Nuances Neutral Density Filter 3.0 price at Amazon
B+W F-Pro 110 3.0 E Neutral Density Filter
With a light intensity reduction of 10 f-stops, this B+W neutral Density filter has a slightly stronger warm tone. Its principal field of application is for capturing photos with extreme brightness, such as steel furnaces, incinerators, glowing filaments in halogen- and other bulbs.
Quality of this filter is good, based on a the brass mount with a black anti-reflective coating. Five stop filters are available, mostly with attachment threads ranging between 25.5mm and 122mm.
- Repels dirt & moisture
- Anti reflection
- Scratch resistant
- Wide range of density & sizes
- Provides a 10 stop exposure reduction
Check B+W F-Pro 110 3.0 E Neutral Density Filter price at Amazon
Firecrest ND Neutral Density ND 4.8
This filter is a solid neutral density filter providing a 16-stop reduction in exposure. This 4.8 density creates a darkening of the entire image, allowing you to photograph with a wider aperture or longer shutter speed than normally required.
By slowing your exposure time or increasing your aperture, you are able to control depth of field and convey movement more easily.
Applied to the outside of the Schott Superwite glass construction is a 15-layer Firecrest multi-coating, which helps to minimize reflections and flare in order maintain truer colors and contrast.
- Hydrophobic filter
- Scratch resistant
- Schott Superwite glass
- Available in square & circle
- Wide range of densities & sizes
Check Firecrest ND Neutral Density 4.8 price at Amazon
Hoya ProND 64 Neutral Density ND Filter
Typical of the company’s output, the ProND range of filters is well crafted from high-quality materials, and features black frames that help to minimize unwanted reflections.
The range has grown to include nine filters which give reductions of between one and nine f/stops, most with a variety of thread diameters from 49mm up to 82mm.
For really high stopping power, there’s a 10-stop ProND 1000 filter in 46-95mm sizes, and a 16.6-stop ProND 100000 in 58-82mm sizes.
- Densities from 1 stop to 16.6 stops
- Negligible color shift
- Black frames to minimize reflection
- ACCU ND metallic coatings
- 9 filter options
Check Hoya ProND 64 Neutral Density Filter price at Amazon
Lee Filters ProGlass 100mm IRND 3.0 ND
The Lee Filters have been optimized for use with digital sensors and to promote nearly flat attenuation of visible and infrared light, resulting in a perfectly neutral image.
When shooting digitally, light at the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum can be problematic. The ProGlass IRND 3.0 filter has been designed with this in mind, as they absorb more infrared and ultraviolet light than traditional ND filters. The result is a clean, punchier image, with no color cast.
- Scratch resistant
- 2mm optical glass
- Wide range of density options
- Versatile filter size
- Super dark 15 stop variant available
Check Lee Filters ProGlass 100mm IRND 3.0 ND price at Amazon
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