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Gear & Apps

Neutral Density Filters Aren’t So Neutral At Anything Else

By Kishore Sawh on February 10th 2016

ND filters are a part of photography that used to, and to some degree still, baffle me. We as photographers obsess over light; We plan our shoots around specific times of day to enjoy the fruits great light can produce; we drop stacks of flow on speedlights, strobes, and reflectors, and even more on fast glass. Have that Canon 50 1.4 for $350 that works perfectly for anything you throw at it? Of course, you do, but you try to reason with yourself to get the 50 1.2 for $1k more. As much as I like that lens, the vast majority of photographers I meet won’t actually see a higher ROI on the 1.2 than the 1.4, but we’re obsessed, absolutely mental, about light.

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So why would we pay hundreds (possibly) of dollars, rupees, sterling, whatever, for something to cut down on that light? Actually, on that note, we spend lots of money specifically for high-quality lenses, so what sense is it to drop a cheap piece of glass in front of it that likely degrades the IQ of the lens? Well, you wouldn’t necessarily, and that’s why we can be found paying significant amounts for ‘good’ ND filters. But how do you know which are good? What characteristics make of measurement can be used to define a ‘better’ one from a ‘lesser’ one? Well, we’ve done our own gear tests on ND filters before in our Gear Talk series which you can find the video of right below, and the full article here. Check it out to see our results:

Similarly, Patrick Hall from neighborly Fstoppers has run his own studio testing of various ND filters in a controlled environment, and the results are all at once surprising and not…if you’ve ever used them. The filters used cover a good spread of popularity, cost, and quality, and here are the ones he worked with in cost ascending order:

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It’s well thought out and carried through, and worth the watch. You can see the full written breakdown here in the original post. To be clear, there are many circumstances under which you’d want to cut down the amount of light, and it depends on what you shoot, but no matter what you shoot, it’s likely you’ll find yourself in need of them. Shoot landscapes and want the silky water and sky effect or to blur out tourists? You’ll need them. Similarly, if you’re a wedding shooter, and you’re outdoors on a bright day but still want some razor thin DOF, you’ll benefit from them.

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[REWIND: NIKON D750 REVIEW | IT’S ACHILLES, LESS HIS HEEL]

Unknown to many, they are also often used in the studio for similar reasons. I’ll drop them in front of an 85 1.4 or 1.8 or 200 @ 2.8 depending on the power of the strobe being used. If you want to take those pretty headshots with shallow DOF, and you’re using strobes, you’ll often need them. That said, they can also be a bit of a pain in that environment because anything past a 2 or 3-stop ND filter, maybe 4, will cut down light to a point where what you see in your viewfinder is black. This means you’ll need a modeling light on your strobe, and one that doesn’t turn off after a few seconds – though higher-powered strobes tend to have them anyway. Also, they can wreak havoc on your camera’s AF system. So it made sense that Patrick used a D750 for this test, given I’ve always found that camera to have exceptional AF in low light for a moderately priced FF shooter. You can see my full review on the D750 here, and here’s Patrick’s video below:

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Gerald Balaka

    I was lucky to assist Joel Grimes when he was visiting Austin TX. He did a photo shoot of a lovely model in an evening gown. She was in the water, Joel was in the water and the guy holding the lighting was in the water. A good thing was that I did not drop any of the lenses when he changed them. I was passing them from dry land, and I shot the behind the scene photo. He was using a 6 stop ND filter. Heavy flashing and the ND filter gave her a soft look. He told me that he sometimes uses an 8 or 10 stop NDs. Here are the impressive results (with more explanation of his technique):
    https://joelgrimesworkshops.com/getting-your-feet-wet/?v=7516fd43adaa

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  2. Badiane Ka

    I have a low priced one which leaves some artifices on the background and I have a Zomei which is much better. Interestingly, the Zomei if placed before my CPL it colors everything purple and after it no artifices.

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  3. Brandon Dewey

    I use B+W, ND and CP filters and I love them. I have never had a problem with any of them and the love the the ring is made out of brass which makes it less prone to corrosion and oxidation.

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  4. Unknown Unknown

    Too bad they didn’t test any real cheap ones like the secret tipp Fotga. I have one of their variable NR filters and I’m really amazed by the quality they offer for the cheap price.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Honestly, if you’re not shooting anything for a client, or if just for kicks, it’s probably ok with the cheap ones, but I just have a hard time justifying putting crap glass in front of great glass. Then again, the tests prove price isn’t the ultimate definer of quality…

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  5. William Irwin

    ND filters are great for Landscape photographers to get that nice creamy smooth waterfalls. You can also use them for locations which have a high amount of people you want to get rid of (such as popular tourist attractions). Making a really long exposure in broad daylight is simply not possible without ND filters.

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  6. Stephen Jennings

    Curious as to why Breakthrough won? It doesn’t seem to have reduced light much. BW seems to have the best effect to me. I’ve only used them for landscapes, to capture motion in clouds or water, or for better exposing shooting into the sun.

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