There are many useful reasons to own an ND filter. From long exposure shots in photography, to low aperture and shutter speed shots in film - choosing the correct camera gear, as we all know, is essential. This is especially true for variable ND filters because there are many aspects that determine the correct variable ND filter for you.
This article will help you by breaking down the best variable ND filters so you can confidently purchase a filter that works for you in not only functionality but your wallet. Be sure to read the entirety of this article - you won’t want to miss the money saving tips that are sprinkled throughout.
The Best Variable ND Filters
If you are the type that would prefer to look at the filters immediate as opposed to reading about them first - the filters discussed in this article are below. I have broken them down into each "tier" - Budget, Mid-range, and Top Tier.
Ask yourself these questions
First things first, ask yourself these questions. Be honest about the answers. They will really help you determine the correct ND filter for you.
- Are you a complete beginner to photography/film?
- Is photography/film a hobby or do you make money from it?
- If it's a hobby, do you see yourself doing either photography or film for a living in the future?
Those questions weren't too hard to answer, were they? Keep those answers in the back of your mind while you are reading. They will come in handy when we go over the filters themselves. Lets move into what a variable ND filter actually is (for those who do not know). If you just want to skip to the recommendations, feel free to use the table of contents below!
What is an ND filter?
An ND filter is a special filter (either threaded to your lens or placed in front of your lens via a special mount), that filters the amount of light that hits your camera sensor. While they do reduce light, they do not affect the color coming through the lens. It’s essentially sunglasses for your lens.
The amount of light they reduce is determined by their ND or stop level. You may have seen ND filters named “ND8 ND16 ND32” If these numbers confuse you, stay with me and let me explain.
If you look at the to the right (or below this if you are on a cell phone), you may think the number of equivalent fstops of an ND32 is 5. Unfortunately, this is not exactly true. These are just another numeric value that is used to determine the ND value. But just understand that the higher the stop or ND level, the darker the tint is. This would allow you to expose your image the way that you would want to.
The downside to regular ND filters (ND8 ND16 etc.), is the fact that there is only density value per filter. Variable ND filters have changed that…
What makes a variable ND filter so special?
The sweet thing about a variable ND filter is there are multiple densities within the filter itself. It accomplishes this by layering two pieces of revolving glass (or resin) together. As you spin the outer layer of glass, the intensity of tint increases or decreases (depending on which way you turn it).
This is convenient in many ways. The obvious one is that you do not have to purchase multiple filters to accomplish what the variable version offers. This can save someone hundreds of dollars in the long run. Another significant benefit is the fact that you do not have to change filters out when lighting conditions change - all you have to do is simply rotate the filter. This a game changer when you are in run and gun mode while filming.
The downsides to variable ND filters...
As the saying goes, for every positive, there is usually a negative. Although, these downsides are subjective.
Seeing as there are two layers of glass instead of the single layer found in a standard ND filter - overall quality of a variable filter isn't as good as a standard ND. There have also been many claims of the dreaded black X across their image when the end of the tint makes a full revolution.
Both of these claims are true. Mainly in inexpensive variable ND filters. I have used many variable ND versions (including the cheap ones) and can attest to these claims. You will notice these negatives in the cheap versions - but anything from mid to high end, these claims diminish drastically.
Don’t worry, I’ll steer you in the right direction so you don’t have about these issues!
The size of your filter
Variable ND filters screw into the end of your lens. You will have to determine the size of your lens. Use the image above as a reference to figuring that out!
Note: If you have more than one lens and one is bigger than the rest - buy the size that is the largest. Trust me. I will dive into more detail later on in this article on how this can save you quite a bit of money.
The ND levels
Knowing what you need in terms of ND level or equivalent stops is important. Generally speaking, ND 2-32 will get the job done. It is recommended that if you are just starting out using ND filters, start between 2 and 64. In film, you can get away with shooting everything with a filter between 4 and 32. If you find yourself needing a denser filter (for long exposure shots) you can purchase them in the future and have both versions (like I do).
A polarizer should be a standard in every photographers kit. Once a polarizer is placed in front of your lens, it saturates/darkens skies, manages reflections (off of water, windows, etc), and suppresses glare. This is accomplished by rotating the filter itself to increase the reduction of polarized surfaces.
The reason this is being mentioned is because manufacturers have developed a way to combine both polarizer and ND filters into the same filter. Not only do you gain the benefits of balancing exposure from the variable ND filter, but you also get the benefits of reflection management - all out of the same filter.
You will find versions of these filters in the list of products below.
Onto the good stuff…
This section will be broken by tier/price - budget, mid, and high tiers. Each tier will have different products to compare.This will give you a better comparison within the tiers themselves, and an easy comparison against the other tiers.
Budget variable ND filters (Under $100)
Tiffen is a very trusted brand within the camera community. Their customer service and return policy is top notch. Not that you have to worry about returning their products - their products are very well built and I have never had a single one get stuck in my threads (which can be common with cheaper brands). Their lenses are made out of a very sturdy aluminum. The downside is at this price point, they do not sell the ND filter with the polarizer built into it. Regardless, you would not be let down with this filter.
This brand is considered one of the best in the budget market. Do not get me wrong, they do have mid-tier models, but their affordable budget models work great. All of their models are also made of an aluminum compound that is well built. What’s very important is their filter actually stops at 32 (instead of free-spinning), which eliminates the feared black X that we talked about earlier.
This brand is respected in the camera community. I have had problems with their cheaper versions (black X), but again, that was the cheap $30 models (and a few years ago). Since then they have greatly improved their filters. This one is a steal at under $100, seeing as it is polarized as well. If anything, keep an eye out for them over time as they run coupon deals quite often for 20% off their filters.
To support the questions that you asked yourself earlier (from the top of this article); if you answered yes to being a beginner and yes to it being a hobby - then I would recommend going with the budget filters. There is nothing wrong with them - they are just lower quality in terms of materials. You will get great results from them, and later down the road you can upgrade if you choose to.
Mid range variable ND filters (between $100 and $200)
These filters are nearly identical in construction as the Gobe filters above. There are two key differences that make this model stand out a bit more than the budget version. ND8-128 gives this model a bit more range in terms of long exposure shots. The range of stops equates to 3 to 7 as opposed to 2 to 5. If you do the math on that - that is actually one additional stop of light reduction. Another feature that makes this filter recommended in the mid range is the fact that it has 32 layers of protection as opposed to 8 layers. These layers protect the filter from water, scratches, and dust.
B+W is respected in the industry. Their XS-PRO line of filters have stood the test of time for most. The protective coating on the outside of the glass promotes an improved beading effect for more effective cleaning (when it gets wet). There is also a brass filter ring that prevents jamming and adds additional strength. The threads are also machined very well to ensure they do not get stuck when applying or taking the filter off. There are no signs of the dreaded black X in any reviews
If you answered the questions above with it's a hobby, and you want to step up the value of your equipment, than I would highly recommend these. You should also think about them in you inspire to be professional and want to see the different between entry level and intermediate.
Top tier variable ND filters ($250 and up)
Polarpro is the high end standard in the camera world community. The have top nothc products, reputation, and equally important is there guarantee. They guarantee their products for life. That's right, for life. Everything that you could expect from a price point like this is there. Perfect machining - meaning you will not have to worry about the filters getting stuck in your lens. The variable ring is also butter smooth and never sticks. It also comes shipped to you in a foam fitted case that is perfect for your camera bag. This is also YouTube personality Peter Mckinnon's version. All of PolarPro's variable Nd filters are Peter Mckinnon editions. This company (along with Tiffen) are the only companies I chose when it comes to filters. You pay for the quality - but it’s so worth it.
Hoya is becoming a trusted brand in the photography world. They have great customer service and return policies. Also, their filters are manufactured in Japan (some consider to be the best glass). The price is it’s downfall. You will fork out a good chunk of change for good Japanese glass - but in the end it’s worth it. You should spend a little extra money now on a product that is a tad more expensive than buying cheaper glass first, and ending up buying something along this caliber in the future. This is especially true for those who find themselves making photography or film their business.
The top tier is just that - top tier. If you take photography serious enough and are making it your business now, or in the future, you will want quality equipment. That includes your filters. Quality products will last you for years if you take care of them. Invest in them and have them make you money over time.
Saving you money!
Now that you know what variable ND filters are and which one you are thinking about buying; lets talk about saving you money.
Do you remember at the beginning of the article where I told you to read this article in it’s entirety and I would reveal to you how you can save possibly hundreds of dollars in this category? Well, thank you for reading this far. I really appreciate it!
The way to save money with ANY filter that screws onto the end of your lens is to buy what they call step up rings.
Step up rings step up the thread size from one lens to fit a filter that is larger than the end of the lens itself. This can be said about any lens size. Even if you have a 58mm thread size and have a filter for 77mm - not a problem! You can purchase a set of rings that will allow your ND filter to fit that lens! You can find the set of step up rings I would suggest to purchase here - if you find yourself needing them!
You now have everything you need!
Just to give you a little bit more of a perspective - I still own every variable ND filter listed here. Everything on here if from personal perspective and what has worked for me everyday that I have used my camera gear. Like anyone who owns a business, you build your arsenal over time. Keep that in mind if you can not purchase the best of the best and do not let it hold you back from getting the work and practice that you need.
At this point you should have a much better grasp on what variable ND filters are (if you didn’t know already), which variable ND filter to actually buy, and how to save quite a bit of money in the process!
Bookmark this page if you find yourself pondering on what to purchase and need to check back later.
I encourage you to leave a comment if you have a question or concern or would like to leave feedback.
Checkout our previous article on exposure here - if you want a bit of a deep dive into exposure!
As always, thank you so much for stopping by and reading.
Until next time, keep shooting!