Looking for an ND filter? I’ll show you which strengths you need, which filters are really color neutral and how to use them.
I strongly recommend to combine several different ND filters. This is the only way to achieve the desired exposure time even in different light situations. You can find more about this below.
Best ND filters
The following recommendations are like a small comparison from me. I have not yet been able to review all ND filters on the market, but at least many.
Small budget – Hoya
ND filters from Hoya offer good value for money and are also relatively color neutral. When buying, be sure to go for the coated HMC variety. B+W also makes filters, but they cost a bit more than the Hoyas. Please note that the B+W filters can have a red cast in certain shooting situations, making them more suitable for black and white photography.
As mentioned below, I use Hoya ND8, Hoya ND400, B+W 106, and the B+W 110. I am very happy with this combination of filters and can achieve virtually any exposure time between 5 seconds and 5 hours.
Medium budget – Hitech
Hitech Firecrest ND filters are relatively color neutral according to Amazon reviews, so they are highly regarded by various photographers.
Big Budget – Lee
Lee filters and especially the Big Stopper are also very popular among professional landscape photographers. The color shifts here are quite small.
Is there a ND filter set?
Yes, there are several ND filter sets available on Amazon, however I would recommend you just buy a Hoya ND8 and a Hoya ND400 instead. You can do a lot with those and also stay reasonably within the price range.
About me and my background knowledge about ND filters
I have been photographing mainly landscapes and architecture since 2005. Since 2006 I use ND filters. During this time I have tried many different manufacturers and filters. So this article is not only theory, but a lot of practical knowledge from more than 15 years of photography. I show my pictures not only on the internet, but also in exhibitions. I have lightened up the article with many long exposures, which were all taken with ND filters in the past years.
What is a ND filter? (Explanation)
An ND filter is a filter used in photography to block some of the incoming light. ND filters are also called neutral density filters, neutral density filters or gray filters. They are primarily used in landscape and architectural photography to capture long exposures in daylight.
Why do I need ND filters?
ND filters are used to increase the exposure time. Why can it be useful to increase the exposure time?
Scenes that are very complex and contain a lot of detail can be simplified with a longer exposure time. In landscape photography, for example, gray filters are used when you want to blur details in water. ND filters can also be used to capture the movement of clouds. These filters can therefore be used to make long exposures in daylight conditions.
For these two applications, the result is an image that the human eye cannot see in reality. Thus, one moves away from the original documentary photography and creates a surreal effect. The simplification of these scenes works primarily, of course, when there are elements in the image that continue to move during the exposure time. In this image, those elements are the clouds and the water.
However, an ND filter can also be used, for example, when you want to shoot a portrait in strong light with an open aperture (e.g. 1.4). With a light ND filter (ND8, 3 f-stops darkening) you can shoot here with f-stop 1.4 despite midday sun without overexposing the image. For this purpose, a light strength filter like the ND8 is usually sufficient. Some cameras, such as the Fujifilm X100F, also have such a filter already built in, which can be switched on at the push of a button.
What are the strengths and designations? – The ND filter table
The filters are available in different strengths. The filter manufacturers have different designations for the degree of darkening. On the one hand, it is calculated in f-stops, on the other hand, how much the exposure time is extended (extension factor).
Density F-stops Factor Exposure lengthening
ND 0.3 1 f-stop ND2
ND 0.6 2 f-stops ND4
ND 0.9 3 f-stops ND8
ND 1.8 6 f-stops ND64
ND 3.0 10 f-stops ND1000
So with an ND 0.3 filter, the exposure is extended by a factor of two. In other words, it practically doubles. With an ND 0.6 you darken the image by 2 f-stops, so you have to expose four times as long. One f-stop more always doubles the exposure time.
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What to look for before buying – criteria
What is the difference between screw-on filters and plug-in filters?
Gray filters are available as screw-on or plug-in filters. Plug-in filter systems such as Cokin or Lee often have the problem that light can enter through slits at the filter insert or filter holder. As you take longer exposures, these are then visible as light spots or low contrast areas in the image.
I would therefore prefer screw filters. The filter glass of screw filters is also more scratch-resistant than the plastic of most plug-in filter systems. However, there are now also plug-in filters made of filter glass.
I use plug-in filters primarily for gray graduated filters, since I can move them variably depending on the placement of the horizon. So for these graduated filters a screw-in filter is not recommended.
My experiences with color fastness
ND filters have the same problem of infrared radiation as gray graduated filters. In addition to visible light, most filters also let through light in the infrared wavelengths. This combination then produces a color cast at longer exposure times. This color cast can be partially corrected in post-processing, but especially with stronger ND filters (for example the B+W ND1000) the image quality suffers. How exactly you can remove the color cast in post-processing, I will show you below.
Tip: Hitech IRND
Hitech recently launched the IRND, which is supposed to block both visible and infrared light. This should result in very little color shift. I haven’t used the filter myself yet, but the reviews from Amazon customers look promising.
Do I need a tripod if I want to use ND filters?
Yes, unless you use the filter as described above to be able to take a portrait even at f/1.4 and midday sun. Usually ND filters are used to achieve longer exposure times. The rule of thumb is: Maximum 1/focal length you can still hold out of your hand. When using gray filters for long exposures, we are usually talking about times between one and thirty seconds. You definitely need a tripod for this, otherwise the image will be blurred. My recommendation: the Manfrotto Befree.
Which filter size do I need?
For this, you need to know which lens you want to use the filters on. Look at the lens, because it will say what filter diameter you need. I usually shoot with a wide-angle lens, which has a filter diameter of 77 mm. If you plan to work more intensively with long exposures, I would advise you to buy a 77 mm or, depending on the lens, an 82 mm filter and to screw it onto the respective lens using a step-up ring.
Why? Because otherwise you will buy a gray filter with a diameter of 58mm for your 18-55mm, only to find out that you have to spend more money for your later wide-angle lens or a faster standard zoom, because you need a different filter diameter for it. If you take 77 or 82 mm right from the start, you avoid this problem.
Is a variable ND filter (Vario ND) worthwhile?
The only Vario ND filter I would recommend is the Vari-ND from Singh-Ray. All other photographers I have talked to so far who bought a Vario ND filter from another brand were not satisfied with it. In many cases there were severe color shifts, and often the results were just plain blurry. Of course, Singh-Ray pays well for this advantage.
Can I make long exposures without ND filters?
Of course it is possible, you can simply shoot during the late blue hour or at night. During the day it is otherwise too bright to get longer exposure times without a filter. This is where the advantage of gray filters comes from: You can not only take long exposures at these times of day, but also during the day.
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Do I need a specific ND filter for my Canon, Nikon or Sony camera?
No, it doesn’t matter which camera manufacturer you use. You can use all available ND filters on all cameras as long as the filter diameter fits.
Does it matter if I use the ND filter on an SLR or a system camera?
You can use ND filters regardless of the camera you use. It only depends on the filter diameter of the lens you want to use the filter on. For example, the filters work on system cameras, SLR cameras and bridge cameras.
Should the filters be plastic or glass?
I currently use filters made of plastic. Glass, of course, has the advantage that it doesn’t scratch as easily. However, it is also more likely to break. The plastic ND filters should be replaced every few years, because over time, scratches will appear on the surface, no matter how carefully you use them.
Can I combine several ND filters?
Yes, this is possible without any problems. When you combine multiple ND filters, the amount of darkening is multiplied. So if you screw an ND 8 and an ND 1000 filter on your camera at the same time, you get 8000 times the exposure time. The ND 8 filter darkens 3 stops, the ND 1000 darkens 10 stops. So in total you have to expose 13 f-stops more, which is 8000 times the exposure time.
I use these filters myself (ND 64, ND 1000, ND 8, ND 400)
If you want exposure times between 10 seconds and 2 minutes, then I recommend a Hoya ND8 and a Hoya ND400. Why two filters? You can use only one of the filters or combine both. In combination with the aperture you can vary your exposure time depending on the effect you want to have. These filters together have a slight blue cast, but this can be corrected in post-processing. Therefore this combination is suitable for color photography.
If you are aiming for exposure times between 2 and 10 minutes and are looking for black and white, then I recommend the B+W 106 and the B+W 110. Here, too, you can influence the exposure time very variably in conjunction with the aperture. In combinations, the B+W filters have a pronounced red cast that is difficult to remove with post-processing. Therefore, I use them only for black and white photography.
I almost always carry these four filters in my photo backpack. This way I can realize almost any desired exposure time for long exposures depending on cloud type, cloud speed, swell and light conditions.
If you want to see more pictures, you can take a look at my landscape photos. Alternatively you can have a look at the series „Dark Monuments“. Here practically all pictures were taken with gray filters.
Other accessories for long time exposures
What other accessories do I use for long time exposures? I always use a stable tripod, a spirit level and a remote release. I use the Manfrotto Befree, a Hama spirit level and a cable release.
Application – Photographing with ND filters with my QuickTest method
Newsletter Lead 4 – Photo EquipmentI take the following approach: The first thing I do is take enough time to pick my subject. For long exposures, I can easily spend 20 minutes for a single exposure, so you should choose your subject well. Then, once you’ve found your subject, it’s a matter of setting up the tripod in the right position, clamping the camera onto it, and composing the image.
At this point, the ND filter is not yet attached to the lens. If it is screwed on, you will not be able to see anything through the viewfinder or Live View. Therefore, it makes sense to compose the image and focus beforehand. I almost always use Live View and contrast AF to focus from the tripod. I have had the best experience with this.
Now I switch my lens from AF to MF so that the camera doesn’t try to focus again after screwing on the filter (and through the ND filter the AF doesn’t hit). I also disable the image stabilizer directly on the lens. Otherwise, the image stabilizer may start working during the exposure, giving you a blurry image. Now I screw on the ND filter(s).
Tip: Cover the viewfinder during exposure
During a long exposure, light can also enter the camera through the viewfinder. With normal exposure time, this does not matter. However, if you expose for 5 minutes, for example, then every incidence of light into the camera is visible on the image. This can then manifest itself as a light spot in the image. Therefore, I strongly recommend covering the viewfinder during a long exposure. Almost all DSLR camera manufacturers provide a cover. With Canon, this is in the form of a black rubber on the camera strap. Other cameras have a small switch next to the viewfinder that can be used to close the viewfinder.
Calculating exposure time with a test exposure – the core of the QuickTest method
Then I make a first test exposure with for example ISO 1600, aperture 8 and 10 seconds. After this first test exposure, I look at the histogram. I want to have the histogram pushed as far to the right as possible without burning out my highlights. This technique is called expose to the right. Now, if there is still room in the histogram to the right, I change the exposure time so that I just reach the edge on the right.
A bar in the background of the histogram is always an aperture (with Canon). If I now have, for example, the settings ISO 1600, aperture 8 and 15 seconds and thus have a correctly exposed image, I can start to calculate. Now it’s a matter of what exposure time I need at ISO 100. Why ISO 100? Because that’s how I get the maximum image quality out of my camera. You can find even more tips for image quality here. Currently I have 15 seconds at ISO 1600.
For each whole ISO step the exposure time always doubles:
ISO 1600 – 15 seconds
ISO 800 – 30 seconds
ISO 400 – 1 minute
ISO 200 – 2 minutes
ISO 100 – 4 minutes
So to get a well exposed image at ISO 100 in this example situation, I have to expose for 4 minutes.
So now I do the exposure in manual mode. On some cameras, you have to use Bulb mode to expose for more than 30 seconds. I use my remote shutter release for this and look around for more subjects or enjoy the landscape right away during the exposure. At the end, of course, I check the final result again, also to see if the histogram is correct. The image is ready.
ND Filter Calculator – Calculate exposure times directly on location
Often it is practical to calculate the appropriate exposure times directly while taking the picture. This way you can adapt well to the respective light situation and choose the appropriate ND filters.
As ND filter calculator there is the ND Filter Calc Pro (DSLR) for Android. Even though it says DSLR, the app can of course also be used for mirrorless system cameras. For Apple iOS there is the ND Filter Calculator Long Exposure Calculator.
The ND filter manufacturer Schneider-Kreuznach has its own smartphone app called B+W ND calc. This is available free of charge for Android and Apple iOS.
Tip for long exposures at sunset or sunrise
During sunset (and of course sunrise), the light changes very quickly. For example, when you take your test exposure just before sunset, you calculate a value for the exposure time that corresponds to the current amount of light. Now the light decreases relatively quickly because the sun is setting. If you now simply keep the calculated value, your image will probably be underexposed. As a rule of thumb, it has proven useful to add one third of the calculated time in such a light situation. Again, use the histogram to judge your exposure and correct it if necessary. The opposite is true for sunrise.
How can I correct the color cast in post-processing?
Of course, you have to take the pictures in RAW format. When you open the image in a RAW program such as Adobe Camera RAW, you can use the eyedropper to select the location for the white balance.
Here you should select an object that is as color-neutral as possible, such as a gray stone. Now the RAW program converts the white balance to the entire image. The color cast should now be corrected.
There is an advanced variant of the color cast correction. If you have your gray card, you can make a second exposure with the same filters and settings. You should then place the gray card in the image, of course. Now you can set the white balance pipette to this gray card in post-processing. Now your RAW program (I use Adobe Camera RAW) suggests the values for the white balance. Now you simply transfer these values to the actual image.
At this point you have to keep in mind that unfortunately not every color cast can be corrected in post-processing. In this respect, it is worthwhile to invest in a good gray filter at the time of purchase.
What are your experiences with ND filters? Which manufacturers have you already tried? With which filters were you satisfied, with which not? Write me in the comments! Also, if you want, I can give you a quick shout out every time I post something new, so you don’t miss anything.