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- the best ND filter is the Cokin Expert Creative Kit
- the best variable ND filter is the PolarPro Variable ND Filter – Peter McKinnon Edition
- the best graduated ND filter is the Cokin Creative Kit Plus
Neutral density filters (or ND filters) are an invaluable tool for creating special effects in a wide range of style of photography, from landscape to portraits and for cinematic video, but they come in a wide range of types and brands, from solid to variable neutral density filters, and so it can be difficult to know which one you might want.
In this article, I want to help you understand what is a neutral density filter, and provide suggestions for the overall best ND filters, including the best variable ND filter, following extensive research and testing.
I encourage you to read the ND filters explained section below, to discover the best lens filter brand, and also take a look at the ND filter chart, so you can see exactly what situations each filter is suitable for.
The types of ND filters that we will be looking at are below, with a full explanation of each, and reviews for the best filters for your camera at the bottom of this article.
- Solid ND Filters:
- Circular ND Filters
- Square ND Filters
- Variable ND Filters
- Graduated ND Filters
The Best ND Filter
The Best Variable ND Filter
The Best Graduated ND Filter
The Best ND 10 Stop Filter
The Best Solid Circular ND Filter
What Does a Neutral Density Filter Do?
Before we get into what does a neutral density filter do, we need to know what is an ND filter?
It is simply a piece of glass that covers the end of the camera lens to reduce the light that reaches the sensor. Ideally, there should be no shift in tone or hue of the color – the only thing that should be affected is intensity, or luminosity of the light. Some brands of ND filter are not good at attenuating all wavelengths of light equally though, meaning that they do exhibit an unfortunate color shift. Read the full reviews below for more on this.
Therefore, using neutral density filters means that you can extend shutter speed; prevent the sky in a bright image from being overexposed; or allow you to use a wider aperture in a bright environment, as well as many more types of special effects.
ND Filters Explained – What are the Types of ND Filters?
There are so many types of neutral density filters that it can be difficult to know which you want for your style of photography or videography, but you can use this ND filter guide to help you understand ND filter photography.
Types of ND Filters:
- Solid ND Filters – These reduce the light by a set amount of light (measured in f-stops) equally across the entire filter. It’s possible to find these from a single stop filter up to a 10 stop neutral density filter and beyond, which are the best ND filters for waterfalls and smoothing water. They can be divided into:
- Circular ND Filters
- Square ND Filters
- Variable ND Filters – These are only found as circular filters.
- Graduated ND Filters – Primarily only found as square filters.
Circular ND Filters
These screw onto the front of your lens, into the filter thread. They do not require any additional equipment to use, but you will likely need different sized filters for each lens that you own, increasing total cost, as the size of filter threads (eg. 52mm ND filter, 58mm ND filter, 49mm ND filter) varies depending on lens type (although companies like Breakthrough photography make excellent step up adapters). They are also harder to switch as they must be manually unscrewed and screwed in each time, but the same size of circular ND filters can be stacked on top of each other.
Square ND Filters
These fit into a holder that is attached to the front of the lens. This setup is more expensive due to the holder, and because these filters tend to be of a more premium design, but the advantage is that filters are easily changeable by sliding in and out of the holder and stacking can be accomplished with much more precision.
Variable ND Filters
Variable, or adjustable ND filters are found only as the circular type, and consist of two circular polarizing filters stacked on top of each other. (A single polarizing filter on its own is a type of solid ND filter, although it reduces light by blocking certain polarizations, rather than by simply having a dark coating).
The inner filter is fixed, while the outer filter can be rotated. As the filter is rotated and the polarization planes diverge, the light being blocked increases by several stops. Most variable neutral density filters work over a 4 – 5 stop range (although many quote a range higher than is usable in practice).
As the amount of light blocked can be easily changed without covering the frame, a variable filter makes the best ND filter for video recordings.
Graduated ND Filters
They have a darker end of the filter that transitions to transparency at the other end, and are mainly found as the square (or rectangular) type that fits into holders, as this shape means that they can be slid up or down to adjust where the transition occurs in the frame.
These tend to be the best ND filters for landscape photography and the best ND filters for sunsets, as they can be positioned so that the darker part of the filter covers the sky, reducing its light intensity to the same level as the ground, meaning that a perfectly exposed image can be captured in one shot.
You can subdivide graduated neutral density filters into two main types:
- Hard Edge – Used when there is a distinct transition between bright and dark areas, such as a level horizon. The filter will change from dark to light in a very abrupt transition.
- Soft Edge – The transition from dark to light is much fuzzier and smoother, which is useful for scenes where the transition is much less defined.
But you can also get many other types of graduated filters, including softer transitions and reverse edges.
Key Requirements of the Best Neutral Density Filters
ND filters can be an excellent investment that pays off many times over in the photos and videos that you make with them, but they can also be a very poor choice if you jump into buying something without doing the necessary research. Luckily, I’ve conducted the necessary research and testing for you, but you will still need to think about what you actually need and want.
To find the best neutral density filters for you, you will need to answer the questions below, and then consult the relevant sections of this article.
- What is your style of photography / videography?
- Do you have a quality lens?
- What is the build quality of the filter?
- How many usable stops do you need?
Ultimately, you get what you pay for in ND filters, meaning that if you intend to work professionally, it’s better to get something towards the top of your budget, whereas cheaper filters suit those coming from a more hobbyist perspective.
What is Your Style of Photography / Videography?
The photos and videos that you intend to take will determine the type of ND filter that is best for you. If you intend to stick to photography, then solid ND filters and graduated filters are ideal, whereas variable ND filters are better suited for videos.
Typical use cases for neutral density filters are:
- If you want to shoot long exposure photos of waterfalls, clouds and the like, then solid ND filters should be your go-to choice, particularly the ND 10 stop filters.
- If you want a set of filters for landscape photography for sunsets and to balance the exposure across the scene, then graduated ND filters are the best choice.
- If you want to shoot photos at wide apertures (Eg. f/2.8 or wider) in bright lighting, then solid ND filters or variable ND filters will work.
- If you want to create videos of street scenes and similar, then variable ND filters are often the best choice.
- If you want to make videos of the natural world, at night, indoors, or where the camera is fixed on a tripod, then solid ND filters tend to offer better performance than variable filters.
Do You Have a Quality Lens?
When you attach a filter to your lens, it effectively becomes part of your lens. Therefore, if you have invested in high quality lenses, it doesn’t make sense to use cheap filters, as these will have a real negative effect on your images. If you are already using a more budget lens, then a cheap ND filter will likely not make too much difference.
Bear in mind that if you are using circular filters, then you have to match the lens thread size to the size of the filter. You will most commonly see 77mm neutral density filters, as most wide angle lenses have this thread size. If you get the size that matches your largest lens, then you can always use step up rings to attach smaller lenses onto the larger filters, meaning that lens thread size becomes less of an issue.
What is the Build Quality of the ND Filter?
Of all the type of ND filter that are available, the variable ND filters tend to be both some of the most expensive, but, the cheapest variable ND filters also give the lowest quality photographs.
The highest quality variable filters have multiple layers of coatings and are often made from aluminum rather than plastic, to try to avoid some of the problems listed below.
If you are on a strict budget, it’s worth considering solid ND filters, as these tend to offer the highest quality to lowest price of any types of neutral density filters.
Also, the threaded, circular ND filters come out cheaper than the square / rectangular or graduated types for the same level of quality.
A great way to save money with filters is to buy the largest circular filters available, then use high-quality step up rings like this one from Breakthrough photography to fit it to all of your lenses. Although there are some cheaper step up rings available, it always pays to go for higher quality models as these avoid light leaks between the ring and filter and will not damage your lens thread.
Common Issues with ND Filters
When using ND filters, you should be aware of the most common issues that they can cause. The prevalence of these issues decreases with increasing build quality (and generally increasing price).
White Balance Shift / Color Cast
Unless you go for the most expensive model of ND filter, you tend to get a color shift in your images. This is not a problem as long as the color shift is even across the frame. There’s an example below of how a simple white balance change in Lightroom can fix this.
Potential Problems with Variable Neutral Density Filters
In the photo below, you can see that the effects of the variable ND filter are not consistent across the frame. This is likely because of cross polarization caused by using a wide angles lens. As the polarization of light changes with respect to its position relative to the sun, and because a wide angle lens covers such a wide area, the light will be polarized in different planes across the frame causing patches of light and dark.
But this could also be caused be the polarization planes being tilted with respect to one another, or even light leaking in-between the two glass elements in the filter.
Variable ND filters are also susceptible to an X pattern across your images when pushed too far, but the more premium models have hard stops to prevent this from occurring.
Nonetheless, when shooting with variable ND filters in bright light, you often see that the picture quality suffers when compared with using a solid filter at a similar darkness, so I would always recommend going for a solid filter over a variable one if possible.
How to Use ND Filters
There are a number of creative ways for how to use ND filters that can help you to make photos that otherwise would not be possible, including:
- Blurring clouds through a long exposure in daylight
- Using a long exposure to remove tourists and people from a scene
- Making water silky smooth, from the sea to waterfalls
- Properly exposing a sunset and the surrounding landscape in one frame
Follow these simple steps for how to use ND filters for landscape photography:
- Attach your filter holder, if using.
- Set your camera to live-view mode – the viewfinder doesn’t compensate adequately for the filter, so is harder to use.
- Adjust your camera settings to correct values for the scene without the filter, as this makes it easier to then re-adjust for the filter. If using a tripod, you can compose your photo here.
- Add the filter, either screwing it into the lens thread, or sliding it into the holder, adjusting the position of the graduated filter, if using.
- Re-adjust your camera settings to compensate for the filter. You are likely to only want to change either the aperture or shutter speed, while keeping everything else the same.
- If you are wanting to shoot long exposures, but the shutter speed is still not long enough and you have reduced the ISO to its lowest level and have increased the aperture to its smallest opening, then consider stacking ND filters. Circular filters can be screwed in on top of each other, and square filters can be put into the additional slots on your holder.
- You can use the histogram overlay or exposure peaking settings to confirm that you are getting a balanced exposure, but bear in mind that strong filters like the 10 stop ND filter often overwhelm the camera’s ability to accurately measure exposure settings, so this may have to be done manually, using a trial and error basis. You can look at the ND filter chart below for more.
When you start using neutral density filters, you will quickly find that you need a variety of models to accommodate every photographic situation, from a 10 stop neutral density filter for waterfalls, down to a 1 stop ND filter for portraits outdoors.
Therefore, I would advise buying the best ND filter kit that you can afford, rather than looking at individual filters, as you get much better value for money in an entire kit.
Generally, the best ND filter brand as determined by popular opinion is the Lee ND filter kit, although whether this will work for you depends on your own use case. Otherwise, the Cokin ND filters and Singh Ray ND filters are also considered top brands. See the full reviews to explore this in greater depth.
The ND Filter Chart
You can use the ND filter chart below to get a feel for what density of filter you will need for your style of photography or videography. Find an appropriate neutral density filter on the left, then use the ND filter calculator to see the shutter speed you will need based on the shutter speed without using a filter. This assumes that the aperture and ISO remains the same.
ND Filter: Best Filters Reviews
Square ND Filter ReviewsThe Best Cokin ND Filter Kit
- Best value all-in-one Cokin ND filter kit
- Includes a holder and 4 adapter rings
- Three filters – 2-stop solid ND filter, 2-stop hard grad & 3-stop hard grad
- System can be extended with additional Cokin kits
- Resin construction rather than glass
- Small color cast when compared to Lee filters
- Top notch build quality
- No appreciable negative image quality effects
- Does exactly what it says
- Expensive both individually and as a system
- Excellent value for money filter kit
- Includes 8 lens adapters – 49 – 82 mm lens thread compatibility
- Glass construction at a budget price
- Ideal starter set for those new to filter photography
- The filter to lens join isn’t as flush as competitor models – this can let light in
- Slight cool color cast
- Includes 3 filters – 1 stop, 2 stop and 3 stop ND filters
- Very good quality to price ratio
- Available in a variety of sizes to accommodate different lenses
- Plastic resin construction
- Does not include holder or ring adapters
- F-stop reduction slightly less than advertised
Square ND Filter Comparison Table
Solid - 2 stop
6 stop & 10 stop
1 stop, 2 stop & 3 stop
Included - 49mm, 52mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, 82mm
Circular ND Filter ReviewsThe Best Circular ND Filter
- Super-sharp with no discernible color cast
- Ultra-thin profile
- Available in a large number of sizes
- Can get in 3 stop, 6 stop, 10 stop or 15 stop models
- Very low price
- Includes a polarizer and UV filter in the kit
- Available from 49 mm to 77 mm
- Surprisingly high quality
- Slight color accuracy issues in testing, but unlikely to matter in real-world use
- You would be better off with a square filter system if you have lots of lenses
- Includes 2 stop, 3 stop and 4 stop circular filters
- Budget model best suited for those starting out with filters
- No multi-coating, so will show significantly more lens flare when pointed at the sun
- Slight green color cast
Circular ND Filter Comparison Table
Circular ND Filter
3 stop, 6 stop, 10 stop or 15 stop
3 stop (plus UV filter & polarizer)
1 stop, 2 stop & 3 stop
46mm, 49mm, 52mm, 55mm, 58mm, 60mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, 82mm, 86mm, 95mm
49mm, 52mm, 55mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm
Variable ND Filter ReviewsBest 77mm Variable ND Filter
- Image quality as good as shooting without a filter
- No vignetting down to 16 mm focal lengths
- Clear markings and hard stops so you can see level the filter is set at
- No cross-polarization
- Best Variable ND Filter 77mm
- Good value for money
- Available for 52 mm – 82 mm lens threads
- Filter position markings are not numbered
- Some users report cross-polarization
- One of the cheapest variable ND filters that still offers good performance
- Available in 37 mm to 86 mm
- No appreciable color cast, and little negative effect on image quality
- Markings on the ring are not clear
- No hard stops
- Threads can get ‘sticky’ when trying to take the filter off
- Very low price
- Highly rated by amateur photographers
- Excellent entry point to variable filters
- Only about 4 usable stops of light reduction
- Relatively strong color cast and some softness
Variable ND Filter Comparison Table
Variable ND Filter
2 - 5 Stops;
2 - 8 Stops
1 - 8.66 Stops
1 - 8.66 Stops
67mm, 77mm, 82mm
52mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, 82mm
37mm, 40.5mm, 43mm, 46mm, 52mm, 55mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, 86mm
37mm, 40.5mm, 43mm, 46mm, 49mm, 52mm, 55mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm
Graduated ND Filter ReviewsBest Graduated ND Filter
- Includes 3 filters – 1 stop hard grad, 2 stop hard grad and 3 stop soft grad
- Excellent value for money
- Available in multiple sizes to suit different lenses
- Good entry into graduated filters if you have not used them before
- Resin, not glass
- Scratches easily
- Outstanding image quality with no appreciable color cast or loss of sharpness
- Includes 3 filters – 1 stop, 2 stop and 3 stop soft edged grads
- The best set of graduated filters you will find
- Resin, not glass
- Relatively expensive
- Fantastic image quality, but at a price
- NanoPro multi-coating on the glass reduces reflections and beads water off the glass
- Compatible with Lee holders and others
- Not available as a kit – you must buy each part separately
- The entire system is expensive
Graduated ND Filter Comparison Table
Graduated ND Filter
Hard Edge - 1 stop & 2 stop;
Soft Edge - 1 stop, 2 stop & 3 stop
No - available separately
No - available separately
None included - buy separately
No - available separately
No - available separately