Table of Contents
What is a variable ND filter, exactly?
A variable ND filter is a neutral density filter that allows you to adjust the density of the filter. You usually twist a ring on the outside of the filter and the filter moves from low to high densities (often from 2 to 10 light stops anywhere).
A standard (non-variable) filters of neutral density avoid the passing of a certain amount of light. One filter could filter out 2 light stops and another 10 light stops. But you need multiple filters instead of just one variable ND filter.
The argument here is to realize that if you have a standard ND filter installed on the lens that filters out two light stops and you need a four-stop filter then the filters need to be replaced, which takes time.
When should I use a variable ND filter?
If shooting in heavy daylight or other bright conditions, it is better to use an ND filter or variable ND filter and, for example, to shoot with a broad aperture to produce a shallow field effect. In this case, you are likely to blow out your light without an ND filter. An ND filter helps to reduce the light entering your lens, enabling you to aim at a respectable shutter speed, for example, at f/2.8.
For example, if you’re shooting the sea, you might also use an ND filter and want a long exposure to smooth out the water for this classic milky sea effect. You can’t get an exposure long enough to flatten the waves in the daylight. Once again, an ND filter decreases the light that reaches your sensor so you can fire at a longer exposure.
Variable ND filters are useful because their opacity is regulated. Using our beach example again, the light levels will change dramatically over a short period of time if you are photographing a sunset. A ND filter variable allows you to continue to change the opacity until you no longer need it.
It’s also useful for videographers. Assuming you’ve been watching someone at a street corner and then panning to a commotion in a dark alley. A variable ND filter allows you to move your camera smoothly from brighter to darker scenes while maintaining the same field depth in your image.
Do these filters affect image quality?
This is a common question, and the answer is no: image quality will not be affected by ND filters. ND filters restrict only the amount of light that enters the sensor of your camera via the lens. To get a longer shutter speed, you do this. If your camera is stable, sharp, detailed images will be created with an ND filter installed.
Some questions with ND filters about image quality can result in confusion with color filters and gels, which may affect the quality of your image.
How do I know if I am using it correctly?
While variable ND filters give loads of versatility, you can sometimes push them too far. If you see a strange dark cross in the middle of your scene when you try to darken the picture too much, you’ll know when you’ve done so–this is a function of using two sheets of polarizing content. And if you use them with a very wide lens, the effect across the frame will vary.
However, if you pan in video, the effect can change because when the sun is on the side of the frame, polarizing filters work best.
The difference between a variable ND vs fixed ND filter
Nonetheless, between variable ND filters and conventional fixed ND filters, there are some subtle differences in image quality.
Typically, Stills shooters looking for high-quality, high-resolution images (think landscape photographers) will opt for a fixed ND filter. A variable ND filter could be used by videographers or photojournalists and street and travel photographers.
In most cases, the image quality you want is provided by a variable ND filter. But it can fail under a few conditions.
For example, a variable ND filter may create odd tones with reflective surfaces as you adjust the power.
There is also the question that you fire through more glass layers with a variable ND filter than with a fixed ND filter. It means that you can get better images at times.
Then again, you might find with a variable ND filter that you get shots that you usually wouldn’t be able to achieve because you don’t have a full set of filters or the time to keep adjusting them one by one.
In short, a fixed ND filter provides images of higher quality, while a variable ND filter provides much more speed, versatility and convenience. In the long run, a variable ND filter will also save you much more money than buying lots of set ND filters at various strengths.
If you’re a photographer and love shooting the landscape, you should have plenty of different filters in your pocket.
A polarizer is a must, and another one is a graduated neutral density filter.
A kit of neutral density filters is used by many landscape photographers. I used to be a photographer like that, but now instead I started using a ND filter variable.
It is just too good to pass up the convenience of having multiple ND filters in one. Naturally, like any other lens filters, when choosing a variable ND, there are good and bad options.
Choose one of the following options if you are ready to upgrade your kit with a price variable ND filter.
1. Best Pick: Kenko Professional Variable NDX Filter
This Kenko Variable NDX is my choice for ND filter, and it impressed me from day one.
It offers a range of light-stop power from 1.3-8.5 stops, so it really offers a wide range of opportunities to create long exposures.
Moreover, the range of practical usage factor is ND2.5-450 and can be extended to ND1000. Just imagine the beautiful smooth motion at ND1000 that you can get!
These filters are available in 77 mm and 82 mm sizes from Kenko. The filter is created by mounting two pieces of high-quality polarizing glass opposite each other, thereby providing smooth operating motion when turning the filter ring and lightening or darkening as you see fit.
It is necessary to obtain a neutral color result when using ND filters of any kind. Thanks to a depolarizing plate inside the filter, Kenko ensures that your pictures have a hyper-neutral color balance.
This means no changing of color, no vignetting, and no flare. Instead, thanks to high-quality materials and high-quality construction, you only get a wide range of stopping power.
Why carry a big ND filter kit if something like this is going to do the job and do it well?!
2. Runner-up: Marumi DHG Variable ND Filter
Over the years, I’ve used Marumi filters many times, and they’ve done well (and they’re also usually affordably priced).
Their ND Filter DHG variable provides continuous ND2 to ND400 modification. While that’s not quite the Kenko filter range outlined above, for most shooters, it’s still a good variation of light-stop power.
Marumi uses Japanese prime optics to produce these filters to offer smooth, clean, and clear results.
The ultra-thin thread on the filter frame is easy to attach and detach from your lens, and vignetting isn’t a problem because it’s so thin.
The aluminum filter frame is lightweight and robust, so as you try to get those beautiful long exposures you’re looking for, it can stand up to a little punishment.
Like Kenko, Marumi has ensured that the filter produces hyper-neutral colors, so you don’t have to worry about color casting when using this filter. As you can see in the before and after images above, there is no difference in the color tones, yet in the second image, the shutter speed has been extended to blur the movement of the water.
There’s a reason why Digital Camera Magazine has given its Gold Award to Marumi Variable ND Filters-they’re only made to give you the best results!
3. Starter pick: Syrp Variable ND Filter
Although Syrp may be better known for their movement control tools, they actually make a very good variable ND filter.
I found it to be as strong as some of the filter industry heavy-hitters.
What’s good about the Syrp option is that it comes with two step-up rings to match a 72 mm or 77 mm lens with a 82 mm filter. They even throw a genuine case with leather and a lens cloth as well!
The filter itself is made of Japanese high-quality glass so you get those clear results you’re looking for whether you’re using the filter for still pictures or videos.
This particular model offers 1-8 tops of filtering capacity, so for long exposures, you can smooth out motion or open the pleasant and wide aperture to get beautiful bokeh.
If you’ve never used an ND filter before, it’s a good start!
4. Longevity: B&W XS-Pro Digital Vario ND Filter
Although this filter is $300 for a 77 mm version, given that a full ND filter complete kit will probably cost twice as much, it’s still a good buy.
And you get the solid reputation of B&W for making some of the best filters in the business for that price.
This model provides 1-5 stops and an extra-wide mount that helps when using broad-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses to prevent vignetting.
The filter has a Nano Technology Multi-Resistant Coating that ensures that the filter repels contaminants from your skin like water and oils.
The filter ring is made of brass, so it’s a bit heavier on this list than other filters. Yet brass is also very robust, so for years and years to come, this rig can stand up to a ton of use.
In a variable ND filter, that’s just what you like-excellent performance and long-lasting longevity.
5. The best budget filter: Tiffen Variable ND Filter
If you are a more budget-conscious consumer, Tiffen will make a standard ND filter that will not bust your budget.
Like the other filters listed above, the Tiffen Variable ND Filter has an integrated rotating ring that allows you to adjust its filtering power quickly and easily. The ring provides the smooth rotational action required by discerning photographers for precise control.
For ND 0.6-2.4 exposure control, this filter will provide you with 2-8 filtering power stops. Again, this is not as large a range as other filters in this series, but for most photographers it is still more than sufficient.
What makes a particularly good buy for this filter is the ColorCore technology from Tiffen. ColorCore ensures you get color-neutral results that can’t be claimed by many budget-friendly ND filters.
In addition, ColorCore helps to control the filtration’s precise density. This means that in your pictures you have more power over the exact filtration degree.