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A variable ND filter is a must-have for any photographer and videographer. These filters help you shoot in both bright and low light conditions, are easy to carry around, and can be adjusted on the fly! This article will cover what they are, what they do, and ultimately which is the best for your needs.
Stick around to common mistakes made by those purchasing a variable ND filter, entry, intermediate, and pro-level recommendations (broken down by price/quality), and ways to save money!
This article will be everything you need to know in 2021 about purchasing the best variable nd filter!
I thought I would start by explaining (in a nutshell), what an ND filter actually is, and then go from there.
ND stands for Neutral Density. This reduces the intensity of a light-wave across the entire surface, while not altering the color values within the image.
An ND filter blocks light from entering through the lens to affect exposure time - this could be shots taken outside on a sunny day or inside with studio lights.
Think of ND filters as Sunglasses. It's literally a sunglass for your lens.
You might have seen these filters before, as they are usually circular screw-in-type attachments that attach right onto your camera's lens. They commonly come in various densities like 0.03 (~ND0), 0.06~ND64+, etc., depending on how dark you want them to get based on what environment you're shooting in.
What Do The Numbers On ND Filters Mean?
These are the numbers we were referring to in the last section.
The number before 'mm' is the size (or diameter) of the filter/lens you're putting it on.
An ND filters number (ND2, ND4, ND64, etc.) - actually referred to the denominator (bottom) of a fraction. It's super easy to understand and grasp, so bear with me here.
The fraction represents how much light passes through the lens.
Example: if you have an ND2 - in fraction form that would be 1/2 (because 2 is on the bottom, on is always one top) - this would mean that an ND2 filter would only allow in 1/2 (half) the amount of light than without it.
Another example: ND64 - 1/64 or 1/64ths of the normal amount of light. ND1000 - 1/1000ths of the light (or 10 stops).
I'll leave a chart below so you can save it. It shows the numbers that their corresponding light stop reduction.
So What Is A Variable ND Filter?
Now that we know what an ND filter is let's discuss a variable version of one.
Variable ND filters are a step up from normal ND filters as they allow you to change the level of darkness, depending on what environment you're shooting in.
A typical variable ND filter is a circular filter attachment that screws onto your lens and has an outer ring with marks at different intervals (such as ND 64+) where each one corresponds with a given setting. Each marking usually represents a stop of light.
We will discuss the pros and cons of a variable ND filter, the pros and cons of a standard ND, and how they compare to each other. This will either solidify that you need a variable nd filter, or you may find you can use a standard nd and be just fine.
Stick around for more juicy bits.
Why Should You Use A Variable Neutral Density Filter?
There's a need for a variable neutral density filter (VND) in both photography and videography.
That's right. Photographers and videographers can benefit from using one (we will go into the pros and cons for each here in a bit).
Videographers use them to create a smooth video when filming with shutter speeds too fast for the camera to compensate.
Photographers use them to get evenly exposed shots in bright and low light conditions -- or any situation where you need it darker than what you can achieve in the camera.
Let's talk about photographers and videographers for a little bit.
Why Would A Photographer Need Variable Nd Filters
Photographers would need a variable nd filter for two reasons:
to get evenly exposed shots in bright and low light conditions.
to create the effect of motion blur
to balance ambient light with flash (mostly outdoors)
Motion blur is the most common use of nd filters for photographers. To achieve this you need slow shutter speeds. The slower the shutter speed, the more blur you'll have in your image. But we know that the slower your shutter speed, the brighter your image will become (your sensor is exposed to light longer, making your image brighter).
To negate all of that extra light, that's where neutral density filters come into play.
Take landscapes, for example - anytime you see a waterfall or the ocean, and the water is super milky and smooth, they used low shutter speeds and/or a neutral density filter.
The same goes for a cityscape where the people and cars are just a blur, but the buildings are crystal clear.
Now - a variable ND filter makes this even easier by having the power to adjust exposure by spinning the outer ring instead of switching out filters.
But, 'cinematic' video depends heavily on shutter speed. Therefore, your shutter speed settings should be double that of your frame rate.
The 'cinematic' frame rate is 24. So you would want 24 fps all the time (or edited down to it if you're going for slow motion).
Your shutter speed would have to be 48 (or more commonly, 50).
In most cases, a shutter speed of 1/50 would cause most scenes and environments to be blown out. This is when you would need a variable ND filter.
The fact that it's variable allows you to adjust your exposure without switching filters (like you normally would if you were using standard, single stop, and filters).
Pros And Cons For Using A VND as a Photographer
Pros for using a VND as a photographer include:
The ability to adjust exposure without having to switch filters
It saves money by not having to purchase the same filter in different strengths
Cons for using a VND as a photographer include:
They can be large and cumbersome; depending on size, they may take up significant space in your camera bag
They are usually expensive at around $150-$250 per filter
Pros And Cons For Using A VND as a Videographer
There are many pros to using a variable neutral density filter as a videographer. Those include:
Being able to adjust exposure 'on-the-fly' and when you need it.
It saves money by not having to purchase the same filter in different strengths
Cons for using a VND as a videographer include:
It can be challenging or require an assistant to help remove/attach the filters often during shoots
When shooting outdoors with strong sunlight, it can block too much light from entering, causing reduced image quality
Also fairly expensive at around $150-$250 per filter.
Something to consider when purchasing a VND (for both photo and video)
In recent years, companies such as Polarpro and Hoya have created hard-stopping VND's. This is essential to avoid the dreaded black X. This happens when the filter goes past the maximum or minimum points of effectiveness. Hard-stopping filters eliminate that.
They've also created 'click' positions based on f stops. This means that the filter will click into place for every stop in the filter's range. This eliminates questioning if you're on a certain stop, makes for being very consistent across multiple lenses/scenes, and most importantly - stops the filter from turning by accident.
This was the main reason why I stopped using VNDs for photography. I would constantly bump the filter when putting my lens down at my waist - I have since used them now that there's a reliable 'click' system (Polarpro).
What Makes An ND Filter High Quality (Or Very Expensive)
It's simple, really. Craftsmanship.
With a $200+ filter, you'll get glass optics (versus resin/plastic on cheap models), thicker/more effective coatings, and a better image overall.
Chromatic Aberration is a major concern with cheaper lenses. You'll notice it from time to time in really bright environments... it'll paint the edges of your subject - and before long, you'll be looking for a better filter.
Generally speaking, we don't recommend anything below $70 - for this very reason. But, you'll notice (just like we have over the years) - sometimes it passed to pay a little more.
Above: Notice the purple fringing around the leaves and edges of everything.
How To Choose Which One Is Right For You
Choosing an nd filter that works for what you need isn't very difficult. You only need to make a 'decision' on one thing - what do I shoot the most?
Here are a few tips we'll give you when choosing the right ND filter for yourself.
If you're a photographer and shoot a lot of long exposure pictures... Get an ND filter that hits 10 stops (ND1000). You may never need it (typically under 10) - but you never know, it'll always be there if you need it.
If you're a photographer shooting with off-camera flash - you'll most likely never have to go above 5 stops (ND 32), your camera can stop down the rest if need be (with shutter speed/below 100 on ISO/shoot in HSS if you need to).
If you're a videographer shooting at 24 fps, you'll, again, probably never got above ND32 or ND64 - or 5 and 6 stops, respectively.
How We're Going To Determine The Best Variable ND Filter
While we will give our 'best' recommendation, I thought it would help you by including different price tiers. Price, generally, is related to quality and reliability (and also warranty), so this is how it's going to go.
We will structure it into three different tiers. These will be:
Affordable/entry-level ND filters (>$100)
Mid/intermediate ND filters($100-$200)
High end/pro level ND filters($200+)
Each will have 3-5 filters that we recommend for each - along with their pros and cons. Most of the links below will be for 67mm filters. Check your lens to see what filter size it takes.
The big difference between this filter and the ones we've talked about previously - is 18 layers of coating (versus 9 in the others). This will yield better images overall (at least on paper and in theory).
Something else that may tip the scales in Tides' favor - is that 1% of all sales go to an Ocean charity - to help make the Ocean a better place for all life that lives within it.
'Travel-case' they advertise as a selling point is nothing more than a small, thick, plastic sleeve. Not a hard case.
The 67mm is priced right under $40 - with more or less depending on the size.
Tiffen's coatings are top-notch for this price point
Wider viewing angles (for wide-angle lenses)
Made completely in the United States (good for those who live in the USA)
No hard-stop. At all. You will 100% run into the black X issue until you get a feel for the filter and know its limits.
The filter is smooth - meaning there isn't much resistance when turning it. Want to lay your camera on its side? I wouldn't. When you go to pick it up, the teeth on the filter will grab the surface, moving ever so slightly - and ever so slightly altering your exposure.
For the price (just above $100) - you're basically stealing this thing...
Hard stops to eliminate overturning
18 layers of AR coatings on premium Japanese optical glass
Hard travel case
Hard lens cover (if you want to leave the filter on your lens)
Anti-dust, scratch, and weather sealed.
There's only one:
No 'click' positions within various stops.
This is a fantastic company/brand and product overall. However, you get all of this for slightly more than a Tiffen standard - so is it a better buy than a Tiffen variable nd filter? Honestly, it probably is.
You can't go wrong - and there's even a 2 filter bundle. It's the 2-5 stop and 6-9 stop filter combo. Of course, you won't save any money by purchasing it, but at least the option is there as a convenience.
'Push bar' screwed into the side of the filter to make turning easier (not seen in the other filters).
Stop range is lower than others seen on this list.
While the filter is high-quality glass, the housing is plastic. This isn't a big deal until you cross thread and re-work new threads into the plastic, eventually making the filter unusable (over a long period of time). This isn't guaranteed to happen, but it's possible.
If you can look past a couple of negatives, this is an excellent, reliable option.
**This is the 77mm version -the 67mm version is back-ordered at this time. It should be back up soon!**
I have used Hoya many times in the years I have been a photographer. They're an excellent company with top-notch products.
No- you won't get all the little bells and whistles you would get out of other lens companies... But what you will get is a piece of mind in knowing that what you're purchasing and bringing with you to sessions will work correctly.
Top-notch quality (glass, coatings, filter threads, filter ring grip, etc.)
Equally as good of results because of coatings and quality.
Made exclusively in Japan. This is where some of the best glass for optics is made in the world—a plus for Hoya (and you, if you decide to pull the trigger).
No hard stops or 'click stops.'
Many photographers, from beginner to pro, speak of and rep Hoya filters daily. They have had a following for years - and it's clear why. They care deeply about quality and attention to detail. We, as consumers, benefit greatly from that.
High-quality materials and glass. The metal frame, along with the highest of coatings and glass. Let's be honest; filters affect image quality. Don't worry; this filter will not affect it negatively.
Thin metal travel case
Hard stops both ways
When narrowing down the best variable nd filters, a PolarPro variable nd filter doesn't disappoint. However, we have another version that might be better for your needs - so stick around for that here shortly.
As you can see, you're getting all of the perks of the regular version - plus mist. However, one thing that's not really mentioned - 'click' locking stops.
That's right; this is the only filter on this list with everything that would make a filter great—hard stopping ring, forward and backward. 'Click' activated stops, so you know when you're perfectly dialed in - and premium materials and glass.
The con(s) are pretty much the same...
This wouldn't work for someone who doesn't want the mist effect.
This is one of the best variable nd filters with mist on the market. Don't hesitate if this is something you're on the fence about but can afford.
More so, get them while you can. They're constantly sold out. At the time of writing this article, they're currently out of stock. Bookmark this page to check to see if it's in stock (the links here are active and pull data in real-time, everyone you look at the page).
Common Mistakes People Make When Choosing...
There are a few mistakes that people make when choosing/purchasing a variable nd filter. Let's go over them now, so you don't fall victim to these mistakes (like I did over the years).
Choosing The Wrong Size Variable ND Filter
This is quite common, believe it or not.
You'll want to check the thread size of your lens to get the correct thread size. Check this article to learn how to check your thread size if you don't know how to already.
Keep reading to learn how ordering the wrong size can be a good thing and save you money in the long run (even though I wouldn't recommend choosing the wrong size on purpose).
Remember, the number after ND indicates the strength of the tint.
Generally speaking, a good place to start (if you aren't sure) would be 1-5 stops.
This would be ND2-32. You could go for ND2-4 to ND64 if that's the only option you have. 5-6 stops of light reduction is plenty for everyday average use (for both photography and videography).
You'll find that you will only need a 6-10 stop ND filter is for long exposure photography. You'll be hard-pressed to find a situation where you'd ever need that strong of an nd filter in videography.
Stick with 1-5 stops to start if you aren't too sure.
I know that everyone has a budget. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford top-of-the-line equipment. Hell, some can't justify purchasing a lens for more than $300, let alone a filter.
Believe me; I get it.
But, refrain from expecting the best from inexpensive equipment.
If you're experimenting and starting out using filters, purchase an inexpensive K&F Concepts filter and experiment and learn from it. If you want better results, upgrade to something of higher quality.
Because when it comes to filters, lenses, teleconverters.. etc. (basically anything with glass) - the quality of glass and parts is everything. Everything from the coatings to the glass quality all affects the way light is manipulated when passing through.
Keep this in mind when making your purchase. First, purchase the best you can afford. If you can't afford it now but need something better... save up for it instead of settling for something of sub-par quality.
Common Mistakes People Make When Using...
Now for a couple of mistakes when using the nd filter. These are common for the idea that you're in the middle of a session. Your mind is running... thinking of so many things at once... these things can be overlooked - and once noticed, maybe too late to fix.
Be Aware Of How You're Holding And Putting Your Camera Down
Like mentioned earlier in the article, this is something that I would constantly do which ultimately made me move to a fixed nd filter instead of a variable. I later purchased a PolarPro variable ND filter because I love variable nd filters so much.
Be aware of how you're moving your camera. For example, if you have a filter with a smooth turning ring/adjustment (with little resistance), it will not take much for the filter to move and change, thus adjusting your exposure.
In the middle of a shoot, this change could be minor and not really noticeable. However, you will notice it when you offload the footage and realize you were over or underexposed and can't save it. Not saying you can't save anything... but this has happened to me, and I don't wish it on anyone.
The same goes for putting your camera down on its side (with the end of the lens touching a surface. The same thing can happen when you pick up the camera.
Just be aware and keep it in mind.
Over Or Underexposing When Using An ND Filter
**Image above: I barely got away with the highlights in the background. Even though I was using a VND, it helped but almost destroyed the photo (other photos in the series were completely blown out)
This is common among beginners.
But keep your exposure meter in mind when adjusting the filter. Your exposure should touch 0 or neutral. A slight under or overexposure won't hurt much but don't go extreme with it.
There are limits to what you're able to recover from both shadows and highlights - don't push it too much.
If you find yourself with a variable nd filter that's too large for a lens you have - don't worry - step-up rings can help you with this.
Step-up rings are rings that thread into themselves. For instance, if you have a 67mm lens but a 77mm filter... you would thread a 67mm step-up ring onto your lens, then a 72mm ring into that, then the 77mm ring into that. You'd then be able to thread the 77mm filter into the 77mm filter ring. Simple, right?
This can save you heaps of money. In addition, these allow you to thread filters onto a lens that you'd normally have to purchase an entire separate filter for.
The only problem with step-up rings is the inability to use traditional lens hoods while using them. Keep this in mind when using step-up rings—a small price to pay to save potentially hundreds of dollars.
That About Does It!
Whew! That was a long article. If you made it this far and read everything, I applaud you. It's a lot of information to take in, and I hope you took notes of anything that didn't make sense to you.
At this point, you should know what an ND filter is, what makes it a variable ND filter, the pros and cons of each, and the best variable ND filter based on price/budget. Lastly, what you should keep in mind when purchasing and or using one, you're all set!
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us or follow us on Facebook, Instagram. We would be more than happy to help you with anything!
Until next time, keep creating!!!
Which Variable ND filter is best?
The best variable ND filter will depend on your needs. Generally speaking, a ND2-32 (1-5 stop) variable ND filter will work great for most. Anything denser, and you'd probably not be looking for this answer and know it already. The best brands include Tiffen, Hoya, B+W, and PolarPro... to name a few.
Which brand of ND filter is best?
It's hard to say which one is 'best.' Each popular brand has its pros and cons... but generally speaking - Tiffen, Hoya, B+W, and PolarPro are all great brands. Personally, I like Hoya the most for their reasonable cost and build quality. However, others claim PolarPro is the best - it's up to you to figure out what's best for you.
Is a variable ND filter worth it?
A gentleman from New York discovered what he calls an “oversight” on the part of 99.9% of all marketers that allows him to get otherwise paid-for advertising at Google and all other search engines that allow sponsored ads.
What size Variable ND filter should I buy?
The size is strictly determined by the thread size of the lens you're putting it on. You can find this by looking at your lens element (the front of your lens)... your lens thread size will be there (I.E., 49mm, 67mm, 72mm, etc.). That number is the size of the variable ND filter you'll want to buy.
2022 marks our fourth year in business and my 8th year in photography. I have learned so much about not only photography, running a business, and everything web-related... I've learned so much about myself. Truly determining my passions and constantly learning and improving has gotten me to where I am today.
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