Neutral density (ND) filters are essential for videographers and landscape photographers, but there are so many options of varying cost and quality that choosing the right one can be a daunting task.
Before we can get to the recommendations, we need to make sure you know what a neutral density filter is and why you might need one. A neutral density filter is basically a blackened piece of glass that is placed in front of a camera lens. Good ones are usually made from high-quality materials so as not to detract from the natural quality of your lens, such as preserving sharpness and limiting (or outright eliminating) color cast.
An ND filter reduces the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor, allowing you to capture longer exposures or shoot “normally” in very bright situations. These filters allow users to create long exposure effects like silky smooth water, glowing trails with passing cars, or ghostly crowds in public spaces with pedestrians. A more detailed explanation can be found in our guide to ND filters here.
The interesting thing about ND filters is that sometimes the most expensive aren’t always the best. There are many factors to compare when choosing the right filter for the situation, as each brand, material, and coating will provide different chromatic aberrations and color smears. Using these filters can help blur the movement of clouds, water, and even people. Additionally, these filters can protect your camera’s lenses and sensors/shutters by keeping the camera safe even when exposed to bright light.
It’s also important to know that ND filters come in many different sizes, shapes, intensities, and styles to suit different needs. When purchasing an ND filter, users should ensure that the filter threads and/or lens mount(s) match the lens they intend to use them on. Typically, ND filters come in square or round shapes, in sizes from 43mm to 100mm and larger, and densities ranging from 1/4 to 10 full stops of light restriction. Some of them will even require custom mounts/brackets which will add another level of complexity and cost to the business. So which is the best?
PetaPixel will update these results periodically as we test more filters, so be sure to bookmark this story and come back when you’re ready to make a purchase.
Best Overall ND Filter: LEE 100×100 ProGlass IRND Filters
LEE Filters’ ProGlass IRND Cine filters are considered the industry leader for class-leading performance with superior image quality and a wide variety of filter density and size options. The ProGlass IRND line has set the bar for ND filter performance, as well as peak price per filter.
Despite the very high cost (they cost $255 each plus the need to purchase a compatible filter holder to use them), ProGlass IRND filters offer users six density levels ranging from two stops up to 15 stops of light reduction. The filters are coated to block infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) light, allowing for better contrast and image clarity with almost no color cast.
The filters also allow for incredibly sharp images (almost no distortion) even in the farthest corners. To use these filters you will need to purchase an additional LEE 100 filter holder to use the system at an additional upfront cost (per lens), but you won’t find an ND filter anywhere that offers this level of quality. other.
Best Affordable ND Filter: Cokin Nuances Extreme Z-Pro ND
Cokin has made huge strides in the quality of its filters with the Nuances Extreme ND system. The Filter Kit offers premium square filter quality and performance at a manageable price of $435 for a kit that includes multiple filters and cases to protect and store the filters when not in use. The filters are made with tempered mineral glass coated with a nano metallic alloy which allows incredible color accuracy and very impressive sharpness, even at the extreme edges.
Cokin Nuances filters are precisely matched to their f-stop light reduction range so users can tell exactly what they are getting with each part. Plus, the filters are durable and drop-resistant, with a filter holder that has a nice foam seal to help prevent any light leaks while using the system.
Nuances filters are available in three sizes (84mm, 100mm and 130mm widths) and densities from one to 10 light reduction stops.
Best Square ND Filters: H&Y K-Series HD MRC ND
While H&Y is a newer name in the square filter market, the company has been making waves with its revolutionary series of “revoring” and magnetic filters and adapters. Aside from our pick for best overall ND filter above, the K-Series 100x100mm Square ND Filters come in six-stop and 10-stop densities and are made with multi-coated glass that helps prevent color cast and reduces moisture, scratches, dust, and fingerprints. The filters cost $149 each and offer excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. What’s even better is that the magnetic filter holder will even work with H&Y round ND filters, further expanding capabilities and combinations.
Best Graduated ND Filters: Benro Master 100x150mm Glass Graduated ND
The $239 Benro Master GND filters use premium German Schott B270 optical glass with ultra-low chromatic aberration (ULCA) and less than 1.5% reflection rate.
The filters also feature a waterproof multi-layer that helps resist scratches, moisture, dust or dirt, as well as an anti-infrared coating that blocks UV and IR light to prevent any cast. color in captured images or video. Image sharpness is also stable at all density levels, with no visible color shift.
Benro Master filters come in a variety of sizes and come in two, three, four and five stop densities (in soft, hard and reverse fades) that can be used individually or stacked for even more light reduction.
Best Ultra-Dark ND Filter: LEE Filters Elements Big Stopper
LEE Filters is famous for its handcrafted filters that have been considered an industry standard for photographers and videographers for decades. The Big Stopper series of ND filters is a 10-stop neutral density filter that can be used alone or combined with the 6-stop “Little Stopper” and/or the 15-stop “Super-Stopper” for wide aperture exposures and extremely long in the brightest situations. The current generation of caps are available in square and circular formats, and each is made with excellent quality.
Vignetting is virtually non-existent and color cast is extremely minimal (magenta side) and usually only shows up if light leaks through the lens or DSLR shutters occur. The $175 Big Stopper filters are available in 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, and 82mm circular sizes and 100 x 100mm in square format.
Best Variable ND Filter: PolarPro Variable ND (Peter McKinnon Edition)
The PolarPro Variable ND Filter (Peter McKinnon Edition) is widely regarded as one of the best variable ND filters on the market due to its attention to detail and excellent build quality.
The filter comes with etched markings on an aluminum frame allowing users to make precise adjustments to their exposure. Rotation is smooth and quiet with minimal vignetting. Cross-polarization (X lines) is not present and detail levels are incredibly sharp even at maximum density allowing for incredible image quality. Also, the small/low profile of the filter works great for wide angle lenses by keeping the edges out of the frame.
Variable ND filters are adjustable ND filters that allow users to increase or decrease the amount of light reduction through the use of two stacked polarizing filters. The inner filter is fixed while the outer filter can be rotated, thus affecting the “density” applied. This is extremely convenient for users who work in varied environments and don’t have time to stop shooting/recording to change filters.
The filter is available in signature or “fog” editions in sizes 67mm, 77mm, and 82mm, and “stop ranges” of two to five stops and six to nine stops. The only “downside” to this filter is the price of $249 which while fair considering the quality isn’t cheap, especially considering you’ll have to buy extra rings for lenses that don’t fit not to the three sizes available at Polar Pro natively.
Best Expandable/Customizable ND Filter: H&Y Revoring Variable ND & Circular Polarizer
Between $184 and $259 Revoring Variable ND and CPL from H&Y is a revolutionary filter system for photographers that not only provides a two-in-one filter, but also a base that can be used to add different filters and accessories from H&Y to take really in control of your creativity. The system is in a middle position when it comes to price (especially considering you’re getting two filters in one accessory) and allows users to quickly and easily swap the filter system between lenses/cameras in taking advantage of self-retracting blade mounting technology.
The lightweight, architectural-grade aluminum system is available in thread ranges of 37-49mm, 46-62mm, 58-77mm, 67 tp 82mm, and 82-95mm, and offers an ND range of 1.5 at 10 stops of light reduction. It should be noted that (especially on wide angle lenses) there is a noticeable ND crossfade as you go higher on the stop levels. While it’s not perfect, the level of expansion and customization more than makes up for the crossfade effect.
Picture credits: Header photos licensed via Depositphotos.