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How-to's Accessories Reviews

Neutral Density Filters – When, How, Why

Ernesto Santos (esantos)


Keywords: how, to, landscape, filter, neutral, density, graduated, reversed, nd, gnd, singh, ray, lee, format, hitech, bw

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ND - Neutral Density. For the beginning landscape photographer this term could just as well stand for Niggling Disorientation. The ND filter is possibly one of the more misunderstood accessories for photographers. Looking at one for the first time, whether a split-graduated type or a solid one, many may vaguely understand what its purpose is, but few instinctively know how to use it and under what circumstances. Yet, the ND is one of the two filters I consider a “must have” in my photo bag, right there next to my circular polarizer. While this article might not be for the experienced outdoor photographer, I offer this information for those who are starting out in this field and need some solid and basic information on the description, use, and purpose of this very important filter.

image_01

Made using a 4-stop, hard step, ND Graduated Filter.
Click for an enlarged view.

 

WHAT ARE ND FILTERS?

A neutral density filter is designed to do one thing – reduce the transmission of light to the photo sensor. Think of it as a sunglass for camera lenses. The better quality filters will filter the intensity of the light without introducing color shifts or imposing a color cast – just like good quality sunglasses do versus cheap ones. The better ones are also carefully manufactured to minimize flaring and ghosting. By reducing the amount of light hitting the camera sensor the photographer is able to make changes to exposure values. This is done to achieve certain effects - such as to take advantage of reduced depth of field, by allowing wider aperture settings, or to photograph subjects in such a way as to project movement or fluidity through longer exposure times. A variation on the solid ND filter is the graduated ND filter, or ND grads. These serve a unique purpose and so are a little more specialized. They allow you to capture the full dynamic range of an outdoor scene within one single exposure. Since they have a clear section and an opposing filtered (darkened) section, they can compress the exposure values of the light areas and dark areas present so that the camera can record both highlights and shadows with a reasonable amount of image detail. A bright sky against a darker foreground is a good example. Neutral density filters come in several forms and configurations. I’ll group them into three basic types.

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Circular Screw-on Solid Neutral Density Filter.
Click for an enlarged view.

 

The Solid ND

These filters come in two shapes, the more common circular, screw-on type (just like your polarizer), and the slide-in square/rectangular shape. Both accomplish the same thing; they are just designed to attach to the front of your lens differently. Is one better than the other? The end result is the same, but as I’ll point out later, I believe each is better suited based on one’s shooting preferences and budget.

The solid ND also comes in varying strengths. The strength of an ND is typically measured in f-stops. The strength of these filters usually range from 1 to 15 f-stops of filtration.

The Variable ND

This filter is only made in the circular design and screws on to the front of your lens. It has a rotating bezel much like a circular polarizer. As the name implies, these ND’s are designed to give you a varying range of density from about 2 to 8 f-stops of filtration in one package. A great concept, especially if you have limited space in which to carry your gear. While very popular, they do have some limitations, and they also tend to be more expensive. These are not your usual ND filters – they do not use density dyes to darken the filter material. They use opposing polarizing filters, that when rotated on the same axis increase or decrease the light stopping capacity of the filter.

Image_3

Rectangular Slide-in filters. Click for an enlargement.
Click for an enlarged view.

 

The Graduated (or Split) ND

The graduated ND filter also comes in both circular screw-on and rectangular types. I’m going to stop here and make a rare, absolute statement. Circular screw-on graduated neutral density filters are absolute rubbish. Do not buy one. If you own one, sell it to your worst enemy. Get that pointless thing, designed by evil elves from somewhere south of the North Pole, out of your bag once and for all. Okay, I feel much better. ND grads, as they are sometimes called, also come in varying strengths - from 1 to 5 f-stops. Some makers even offer what is called a reverse ND grad. This unique filter is used when shooting into the sun at sunrise/sunset. The filter has the usual density transition except that it is darker at the center and then fades slightly toward the top. This will give you more filtration where the sun is hanging over the horizon without making the upper sky too dark. 

 

(32 Votes )
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Originally written on October 13, 2015

Last updated on December 7, 2017

Ernesto Santos Ernesto Santos (esantos)

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

McAllen, USA
Moderator, 14422 posts

23 comments

John D. Roach (jdroach) on December 8, 2017

Fellow Ribbon awarded. John exhibits true Nikonian spirit by frequently posting images and requesting comments and critique, which he graciously accepts. He is an inspiration to all of us through constant improvement in his own work, keen observations and excellent commentary on images posted by others. Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his most generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017

Fine article. Variable ND and the regular .3, .6, .9 ND are what Keep with me. Sometimes size of kit limits to the VND. You make good points, Ernesto.

Annie Parm (annie459) on August 7, 2017

Everything was awesome.Thank you.

Edwin Wilson (hattrick) on May 28, 2016

I should add to my comment above, that I use a 2 stop soft Singh-Ray ND Grad. filter in a Cokin P series filter holder. I shoot with the Nikon D7100. Skip

Edwin Wilson (hattrick) on May 28, 2016

Thank you for your nice article. Could you please tell me about the proper metering through a graduated neutral density filter (ND Grad). You mention using the Matrix metering and in manual mode, metering at 0. John Shaw in his classic book, Nature Photography Field Guide, talks about first metering the bright area, eg snowy mountain top, through the darker part of the ND Grad, to allow for any tonality discrepancies of the filter, adding compensation eg +2 for the snow, and then adjusting the position of the filter and shooting. I assume he is using spot metering instead of Matrix. Will Matrix metering and using 0 on the metering analog truly give an accurate reading for the whole scene using the ND Grad? Shaw in that book, may have been talking only about film rather than digital then but I am not sure. Also, how does one blend 2 photos in Photoshop Elements 11 if one were to just take 2 different exposures without the filter one for the snow and one for the darker foreground? Is special HDR software needed? Thanks Skip

Steve McTeer (NRVVA) on February 13, 2016

Excellent introduction, for me, to the application of ND filters. Thanks!

Gary Worrall (glxman) on February 6, 2016

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Much appreciated Ernesto, This has been on my "to do" list for some time, I have a 14-24 and would love to get the Lee Filter Holder and a Big Stopper, Trouble is I keep buying other things instead! This year maybe , I hope Thank you for taking the time for this detailed article Regards. Gary

Craig Menzies (foamfollower) on December 1, 2015

Thanks for this article,it's clarified a lot of questions for me about using ND Filters and the importance of this still despite software options in the Digital World.

Mark Yeazel (Mplsmark1) on November 4, 2015

An excellent article. It should help me progress quickly beyond experimentation stage. Thanks!

donald cvitkovich (dcvitko1) on November 2, 2015

Appreciate clear concise coverage. Good article

Joanna Pecha (PixiePixels01) on October 19, 2015

Thanks for a great tutorial..Look forward to implementing!

Richard Sloggett (NiteLite) on October 17, 2015

Excellent article. It brought back some of the basics that I never should have forgotten.

Gary Marshall (gtm) on October 17, 2015

Good refresher for me. Having just added the Lee 100 ND filter kit to my bag and having the ability to rotate the ND grad on the ring makes it nice. Thanks for writing about this. As a thought how about doing one on circular polarisers especially when using wide angle lens. I tend to get that dreaded dark blue vignette effect in the upper right of my sky.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 17, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

John, For ND filters look at: B+W, Singh-Ray, LEE, Tiffen, Hoya. For Grad ND's look at: Hitech, Singh-Ray, LEE. These are listed in no particular order.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on October 16, 2015

Do you have any recommendations for good filters that are widely available? I was excited to play with ND filters a while back and bought a Kenko PRO-ND1000, which is a 10 stop ND filter (Kenko is Tokina in Japan)...unfortunately the quality is terrible, colors and contrast are terribly muted and the resulting image looks nothing like the same image taken without the filter at 10 stops faster exposure. I tried to come up with a correction scheme in Photoshop, but failed to produce anything reasonable.

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on October 16, 2015

Donor Ribbon awarded for her support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Fellow Ribbon awarded for her continuous encouragement and meaningful comments in the spirit of Nikonians. Donor Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017

This was so useful. I learned some things here that I had never thought of or known before. Can't wait to experiment.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 15, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Duke, That has not been the case in my experience and I cannot think of any reasons optically why that would be the case. Neutral Density filters simply hold back the light and nothing more. Now, there is a combination filter made by Singh-Ray that combines a a variable ND with a polarizer and a color intensifier called the Vari-N-Trio, but that is something different, adding color intensification purposely. Lower quality ND's will impact the image quality but in a negative way, such as loss of contrast and color shifting/color casts.

Duke Miller (dulaurence1) on October 15, 2015

I'm told that an ND filter, solid, when used to extend a typical exposure, will enhance the overall color. True or false?

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 15, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Geoff, Thanks for spending time to read and comment, much appreciated. My point about screw-on filters was related to graduated neutral density filters only because the transition of those filters forces you to make compositions where the horizon runs right through the middle of the frame, generally not the best of framing options. There is nothing wrong with solid or variable density filters that screw on to the lens. I have several and use them frequently. Hope this clarifies. :-)

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on October 15, 2015

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Awarded for his generous and continuous sharing of his high level skills with the Nikonians community Writer Ribbon awarded for his contributions to the Nikonians Articles. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his win at the Best of Nikonians 2107 Annual Photo Contest

Great article Ernesto. You made the point that screw-in variable grad filters are to be avoided, but exactly why is that? (I should point out that I don't own one!). Is it because once secured onto the lens you can't rotate it, like you can on a polarising filter? If it could be rotated, would that put them on a par with rectangular drop-in filters, and if not, please elaborate on why that's not the case. Thanks, Geoff

David Summers (dm1dave) on October 13, 2015

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Great info! Thanks for sharing.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on October 13, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Hi Doug, Thanks for your great feedback. Yes, you are correct, and do mention this (if in somewhat of a fleeting way) you can in most cases correct the exposure range in post processing. If the images to be blended are taken with care to not move the camera you can get very good results. The difference is in an intangible sense that getting a single correct exposure in-camera using ND grad filters is somehow different. Better? No, not necessarily. To my eye they just seem a little more natural looking. One is not better than the other and I consistently use both methods. I think it is good to have the knowledge and skills to employ different techniques to achieve the same end. That makes us better photographers.

Doug Nickle (fivesense) on October 13, 2015

Thank you Ernesto! Great article with lots of good information. Question- how are ND filters different than what one can achieve in post processing, i.e. using the graduated filter tool? Are ND filters simply better at achieving the best exposure in-camera? I always prefer getting as much as possible in-camera...

Mark A. VSoske (mvsoske) on October 13, 2015

Excellent article Ernesto! You've covered all the bases.

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