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Our Favorite Neutral Density Filters | Gear Talk Episode 5

By Joseph Cha on August 27th 2014

Picking Neutral Density Filters

There are many good reasons why you would want to invest in neutral density (ND) filters for both stills and video. These days, ND filters are like M Night Shyamalan movies – there’s an abundance of them and most are terrible, but there are a couple good ones in there. Check out the video and article below to see what our favorite ND Filters are!

Our Favorite Neutral Density Filters | Gear Talk Episode 5

Neutral Density Filter Test

I went out to the beach with the Syrp Variable ND Filter, Light Craft Workshop Fader Filter, and 3 Singh Ray Filters. I took one shot without the filters and then 3 shots with each filter at 3 stops, 5 stops, and Max Stops. Here is the original image with no filter applied.

NO FILTER

1/8000 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

Light Craft Workshop Fader Filter Test

This Light Craft Workshop Fader Filter is the first variable ND filter Pye ever bought, and it was the last, as you can see from the results below.

Fader Filter 3 Stops

1/2500 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/2500 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

As you can see in the image above there’s a strong green tint added to the image. This is correctable in Lightroom, but it’s a huge shift into the greens at only 3 stops.

Fader Filter 5 Stops

1/1000 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/1000 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

At 5 stops on the Fader Filter, there’s still that green tint and we’re beginning to see a loss in sharpness in the image.

Fader Filter Max Stops

1/8 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/8 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

At the Max stop, we’re seeing a lot of cross hatching as well as an extreme loss in quality in the bottom right corner of the image. I would not recommend using this filter past 6 stops.

Syrp Variable ND Filter Test

I’m not a huge fan of variable ND filters because they usually cause more harm than they do good. Which is why I was looking forward to testing the Syrp Variable ND Filter, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

SYRP ND Filter 3 Stops

1/2500 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/2500 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

At three stops, things are looking good. There is, as little as makes no difference, a green shift, but it’s much better than I’ve seen with other filters variable or not.

SYRP ND Filter 5 Stops

1/1000 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/1000 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

At 5 stops, the SYRP is holding up like a champ. Usually the flaws you see in a variable ND filter will become more exaggerated when you increase the stops. Surprisingly at 5 stops there is no more green than at 3 stops.

SYRP ND Filter MAX Stops

1/8 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/8 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

At the MAX stops (8.5), this image is not only usable, but the best one in terms of color in this entire test. There’s some vignetting on the top right of the frame, which is an easy fix in Lightroom. For a filter that costs less than $140, it has performed remarkably well across the board.

3 Singh Ray Filters Test

Now on to the crème de la crème of filters.

Singh Ray 3 Stops

1/1250 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/1250 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

At three stops, the Singh Ray 3 Stop goes a bit bluer than our original image. Overall it looks great with no visible loss in quality or sharpness and minimal color shift.

Singh Ray 5 Stops

1/200 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/200 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

Now this is interesting – the Singh Ray 5 Stop becomes more warm than our original image, the exact opposite of the Singh Ray 3 Stop. At 5 stops, we see minimal loss in sharpness and quality but a noticeable warm color shift.

Singh Ray 10 Stops

1/8 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

1/8 sec at f/2.0, ISO 100

With the Singh Ray 10 Stops we’re seeing a significant shift into the greens. Other than the color shift, we have a usable image with minimal loss in quality and sharpness and only slight vignetting.

Conclusion

We can’t really recommend Light Craft Workshops Variable ND, at least not the version we have. There was simply too much color shift and loss in image quality. 

If you want the very best in Neutral Density Filters, then Singh Ray is hands down the best we’ve used, but they come at a cost of money as well as convenience.

If you want a great, affordable, and convenient ND filter, then I definitely recommend the SYRP Variable ND filter. The SYRP performs incredible well, delivers quality images (over the entire range!), and at less than $140 it’s a killer value. If you’re looking to purchase your first ND filter, or you’re looking for a great variable ND filter, then the SYRP Variable ND Filter is for you.

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About

I’m a photographer and cinematographer based in Southern California. When I don’t have a camera in my face I enjoy going to the movies and dissecting the story telling and visual aesthetics.

24 Comments

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  1. Lorenz Nedelmann

    So, functionality of variable ND filters is based upon polarization effects. At the same time, we do use polarization filters (for example in landscape photography to make the sky seem darker). I’d expect that if using both types of filters simultaneously they would somehow interfere, possibly in a way distructive to image outcome. Hence my questions:

    (a) Is this true? and therefore an argument in favour of non-variable ND filters, which you can combine with polarization filters (hopefully)? Or (b) are the instances where you want to use ND and polarization filters at the same time so rare that my question is an academic one only? Or (c) can you somehow use a variable ND filter in such a way that it will mimic the effects of a polarization filter?

    Thanks for your help and really like your episodes — keep up the good work.

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  2. Art Altman

    Question: what is the visual impact of ND filters that are not variable? Color? Sharpness? How much need to spend to retain sharpness of original and get no color shift or easy-to-fix color shift?

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  3. Colin Woods

    I have Hoya 2, 3, 4 and 9 stops and they are good.

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  4. norman tesch

    i love my 10 stop filter. my photos are mainly mulri row panos. i spend an over an hour taking 60 photos. a nodal rail is a must. but with the 10 stop you can blur water at noon. i switched from a variable to a solid because of the x pattern but i have on occasion turned it to wear i get the x back it off mark it then stack a polorizer on it..you can durring the day like noon see what you are shooting in live view

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  5. Jae Hammond

    Great Article and video. My dilemma is to either invest in Lee Filter type system or Screw in Circular ND Filters.
    I go out take photos and always find my sky is overexpose to that of my subject I photography.
    I know there’s the shots at multiple exposure and layer in Photoshop, I do lot of candid photographs.
    What do you guys think?
    Singh Ray, B & W, Lee?

    Cheers

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  6. Michael Moe

    love gear talk!

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  7. Jill Schindel

    Thanks! That was a super helpful video, and I’m really enjoying this video series altogether. You two clearly know what you’re talking about, but it’s not too much for us engaged amateurs to follow or understand.

    Quick question: If you were to get just one of the single non-variable ND filters, which (3, 5, 10 etc. stops) would you recommend? Which do you find yourself reaching for most? Just curious.

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    • Cha

      This is an interesting question because I find myself reaching for the 3 stop more often and Pye goes for the 5 stop more often. It really depends on your style of shooting.

      When it’s super bright out I’ll usually work with the sun and reflectors, but when I want to use some fill flash then I’ll use the ND filter. Also it’s much more versatile for video.

      Pye likes to shoot with day time shutter drags, and likes to overpower the sun, so he’s usually going for the 5 stop (although that’s not enough for him sometimes haha)

      hope that helped!

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  8. Mark Iuzzolino

    Very informative and helpful. I have used off brand NDs but now will try again. You have renewed my interest in using these filters in my photography. Thanks!

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  9. Rafael Steffen

    I think that if you have a great piece of glass, why use a filter, just wait for the right light or time of the day to shoot. This year a great wedding photographer told me, why would you stick a one hundred dollar filter on a 2500 lens?

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    • Vince Arredondo

      Sometimes, specially at weddings, you need to take photographs at noon or whatever harsh light time. You don’t get to choose the time, so you do what you have at your hands. At those moments is when a ND filter becomes handy.

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  10. David Lara

    Saw this last night and was so vital as I had been thinking of purchasing the Lightcraft version. Will instead be looking at the SYRP. Thanks for the in depth & non-bias review.

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  11. Wendell Fernandes

    I have to buy some for sure. I’ve had issues with some of the contrast high photos, and always trying to get a better feel to them.

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  12. Brian Stalter

    I will have to look into the SYRP ND’s now.

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  13. Jesse Rinka

    1/8000 sex at f/2.0, ISO 100….that sounds fun ;)

    Great article & video. I just actually picked up a Singh-Ray Vari-ND and now my pants fit looser. But I’ve wanted one for a long time and finally made the move to pick one up. Very satisfied with the build quality and so far with the results from the initial testing. Can’t wait for the opportunity to really see what I can do with this tool. Thanks!

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    • Cha

      very fun, almost as much fun as you’re going to have with your new singh-ray vary -nd! congrats!

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  14. Vince Arredondo

    What about tiffen Variable ND filters, do you recommend them?

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    • Tyler Friesen

      I have one and I love it. I do not use it often, mainly for video and its pretty sharp with minimal colour shifts. I was looking at the Singh Ray and Heliopan in comparison and the Tiffen won the quality value comparison by a small margin for me. The Heliopan is nicer then the Singh Ray from the comparisons I have seen.

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  15. keith craine

    Thanks for the comparison. I’d have liked to see something like the Lee filter system compared. I realize it’s a different type of product but I’d be interested in seeing how my Big Stopper compares to these systems that are substantially easier to use.

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    • Mike Lamberti

      I’d also like to hear how you guys feel about Lee or similar slide-in systems.

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    • Pye

      I am interested in the same thing, we will definitely do a comparison in the future.

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    • Gareth Roughley

      I use Lee filters as well as B&W so would be interested to see comparisons there.

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