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! In this article we 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!
Let's get to it!
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 how dark you want them to get based off what environment you're shooting in.
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 on 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.
Now that we know what an ND filter is, lets 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 0-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, Pros and cons of a standard ND and how they compare to each other. This will either solidify the fact 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.
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 that are 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.
Photographers would need a variable nd filter for two reasons:
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, low shutter speeds and/or a neutral density filter was used.
Same goes for a city-scape 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 having to switch out filters.
You can checkout my article on the best shutter speeds for video - it goes way more in-depth behind the 'science' of shutter speed for video...
But, 'cinematic' video depends heavily on shutter speed. Your shutter speed settings should be double that of your frame rate.
The 'cinematic' frame rate is 24. You would want 24 fps all the time (or edited down to it if you're going for slow motion).
Your shutter speed then 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 having to switch filters (like you normally would if you were using standard, single stop nd filters).
Pros for using a VND as a photographer include:
Cons for using a VND as a photographer include:
There are many pros to using a variable neutral density filter as a videographer. Those include:
Cons for using a VND as a videographer include:
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 filters range. This eliminates questioning if you're on a certain stop, makes for being very consistent across multiple lenses/scenes, and most importantly - it 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 gone back to using them now that there's a reliable 'click' system (Polarpro).
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 i 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. You'll notice (just like we have over the years) - sometimes it past to pay a little more.
Choosing and 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.
**Image above taken with an off camera flash and a 3-stop variable ND filter**
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.
While we will give our 'best' recommendation, I thought it would help you more by including different price tiers. Price, generally, related to quality and reliability (and also warranty), so this is how it's going to go.
We will structure it in three different tiers. These will be:
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.
Let's start diving in!
If you've been on the fence thus far about an affordable monopod, with a great fluid head, you shouldn't look much further than the Benro with the S6 head.
Not only that - but if taken care of, there is no reason this combo shouldn't last you for years. A length of time that will far exceed your investment.
Nearly 9 stops of light reduction - with 9 'points' of adjustment marks on the outer ring.
This is a great lens for someone just getting started and wants to try one out without breaking the bank. Be aware of the cons/issues that come with buying one.
Gobe has recently changed their name the Urth. Supposedly it better represents what they're trying to protect and want to support.
Now, the reason I am not recommending Urth, is because the same exact same ND filter under their new name is $15 more.
If you're on the fence about an ND, and are in the entry level phase of your journey - you need to pick one up while supplies last.
Don't wait too long and end up spending $60 on the same exactly lens (instead of $45).
If you find the link has expired and I haven't fixed it yet, here is the link to the Urth version.
As far as the filter goes, here are the specs:
As you can tell, there are a few things that are very similar to this compared to the K&F version.
Again, pick this up if you're on the fence. I'm sure it won't be long before this thing is completely sold out and you'll have to purchase it at a much higher price (only because of a name change)
Don't let the name fool you, this isn't Tide detergent - and won't make your camera smell as such... lol.
Seriously though, Tide optics hit the market in August of last year. They've received relatively great reviews in the last year.
Their name is the companies passion with the Ocean, and making it a clear more inhabitable place for all ocean-life.
Let's take a look at some specs:
The 67mm is priced right under $40 - with more or less depending on the size.
A Tiffen variable ND filter is regarded as one of the best entry-to-intermediate type nd filter on the market. I'm sure at some point you have heard about them or researched them on your own.
This was the exact ND filter I had prior to taking a break from them and coming back with a pro version. I'll say, while I was using it, I had zero issues with it.
The 67mm version comes close to our entry level price limit of $100 (Priced currently around $85).
Let's take a look at the specs.
All-in-all, this filter is fantastic, regardless of it's issues. This is the filter you'd get if you weren't too comfortable stepping into the mid-tier, but wanted the most out of the entry level.
Freewell has a damn good reputation.They hit in market in late 2019 - and have accumulated raving reviews on both Amazon and B&H. It says a lot about their product.
Let's take a look at the specs and then review them:
Where do we start... well,
There's only one:
This is a fantastic company/brand and product overall. 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. You won't save any money by purchasing it, but at least the option is there as a convenience.
Moment has been around for a little while. You may have heard about them in the past when they partnered up with any and every camera related youtube channel to showcase their smart phone lenses.
Well, they have branched out and have started to sell variable ND filters (and other filters) - to those who're in need!
Let's take a look at the specs.
Regardless of the one single con... this is a great addition (or first time) variable nd filter that'll last you many many years. Moment variable nd filters are here to stay!
**This is the 77mm version -the 67mm version is backordered at this time. 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 piece of mind in knowing that what you're purchasing and bringing with you to sessions, is going to work correctly.
Here are some of the specs:
Many photographers, from beginner to pro speak of and rep Hoya filters on a daily basis. 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.
Nisi has a good reputation in the filter department. Their filters are as advertised and fall pretty much dead center in the price-range of mid-tier (about $140 each).
As you'll see from the specs (and much like Hoya) - you get what you see. There aren't any extra bells and whistles (like a travel bag, etc.). But what you do get, works.
Here are the specs:
If you can look past a couple negatives, this is a very solid, reliable option.
PolarPro is one of the most trusted brands in the world of camera filters. They make not only circular nd filters, they also make filters for drones, GoPros... basically anything with a lens.
As you can imagine, with a reputation as such - quality would match. Well, that's correct too. As would the price you can imagine for that.
Yes, PolarPro is expensive, but trust me, they're more than worth the money if you take care of them.
Here are the specs:
When narrowing down the best variable nd filters, a polarpro variable nd filter doesn't . We have another version that might be better for your needs - so stick around for that here shortly.
This VND is nearly identical to the one above - only one difference - it's the mist version.
This filter will give your images a 'mist' effect - almost a glow. Think ethereal.
Here are the specs:
As you can see, you're getting all of the perks of the regular version - plus mist. Once thing that's not really mentioned - 'click' locking stops.
That's right, this is the only filter on this list that has 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 is one of the best variable nd filter 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).
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).
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 here 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. 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 just 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) - quality of glass and parts is everything. Everything from the coatings to the quality of glass all affects the way light is manipulated when passing through.
Keep this in mind when making your purchase. 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 that of sub-par quality.
Now for a couple 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, may be too late to fix.
Like mentioned earlier in the article, this is something that I would do constantly which ultimately made me move to a fixed nd filter instead of a variable. I later purchased a PolarPro variable ND filter because love variable nd filters so much.
Be aware of how you're moving your camera. 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. You will then notice it when you offload the footage, and realize you were over or underexposed and can't save the footage. 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 pickup the camera.
Just be aware and keep it in mind.
**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 itself. 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. 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 it. Keep this in mind when using step-up rings. A small price to pay to save potentially hundreds of dollars.
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 make it a variable ND filter, 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, and/or Pinterest. We would be more than happy to help you with anything!
If you'd like to know more about us, check us out here!
Until next time, keep creating!!!
Jeff & Reyna