Using ND Filters to Kill Depth of Field

UPDATE: Just answered many Q's in the comments. -DH

It's simple math. If you are shooting outside in the sun and limited to 1/250th of a second sync (or worse) you are are going to be shooting through a tiny hole as your aperture. Even if you crank your ISO down as low as it will go, you'd better like that background. Because you are going to see it in pretty sharp focus.

Or maybe not. In addition to high-speed sync, there are a few ways to bleed some aperture from your exposure settings in full sun.

Three blurry choices, inside.

Dedicated speedlights and high-speed sync is one way to get rid of your aperture problems. But because of the inefficiency of focal-plane flash (lots of energy falling on mostly closed shutter curtains) your flash power is greatly reduced.

You can add extra flashes (cue McNally's Tree of Woe) or you can do everything at f/16 or so and then bleed some aperture with a neutral density filter.

Couple of things: First, you put the filter on the lens, and not the flash. And second, there are a few routes to take, with some being better than others.

The upside about ND filters is that you can use them with any dumb flash. Anything you flash can do balancing with the sun at f/16 it can also do at f/2.8, or even f/1.4 with ND filters. Big flashes, small flashes - doesn't matter. You are simply taking aperture limitations out of play.


You could wrap three speedlights around an athlete for a very cool mid-day portrait. All hard lights -- high front key, and two back/side rims. At a 250th of a sec, you'll need to light your subject to ~f/16 or so (depending on the ISO) to balance the sun. More if you want to overpower it.

That takes a lot of light. But close-in, bare speedlights can absolutely do it. And any decent monobloc or pack-and-head could do it without breaking a sweat.

The problem is your backdrop -- maybe you want to blow it out. Maybe it looks like crap at f/16. Maybe your sensor dust is starting to look like a scene from Jurassic Park.

The important thing to know is that the flash/ambient relationship is not going to change. You need the power to compete with the sun. But now we want to bleed some aperture out and lose the background focus.

To take your exposure from 1/250th at f/16 to 1/250th at f/2.8, you will need to place five stops worth of neutral density filter over your lens. This will maintain the flash-to-ambient balance, while knocking the light down.

(If you put it on your flash, you would be giving yourself big problems -- unless maybe your flash has a thermonuclear setting or something. And you still would not be able to get your aperture down.)

So, what kind of ND filters to consider?

As always, there are choices. And some of those choices depend on your wallet. Here are three.

The Budget Option

You can get a typical-brand ND filter for about $50 or less, which is very tempting. This is the route you will probably try first -- I did. Unfortunately, it was a learning experience. Here's why.

I bought a Tiffen 77mm ND filter that cut three stops of light. Cheap, fit my lenses and solved the problem, right?


The sharpness was not what I had hoped it would be. But there was also a color shift -- it was a kind of weird warm that sucked the color out of the sky, which was exactly what I would typically be using as a backdrop with the NDs.

Granted, it is very difficult to make an optically pure ND filter of that strength, and maybe $50 was a pipe dream. They got the "density" part down. The "neutral," not so much.

But on top of that, it was like my first microwave oven. It had two settings -- off, and nuclear. What I found is that I needed variability to solve different problems. Sometimes 3 stops was okay. Often I needed more -- or less.

In the end, it went into a drawer. $50 lesson learned.

The Pay-As-You-Go Plan

Being younger and wiser, my friend JoeyL skipped the dime store version and went for a set of Lee 4" polyester ND filters. The good news -- they are both sharp and cheap -- on an absolute basis.

The bad news, they are basically a consumable. They will scratch, and you will have to replace them.

This is the way the Hollywood folks roll when making movies. You'll need a 4" gel holder (probably "pro shade" combo) and a filter for every ND value you use. If you always work in full sun and want to go to f/2.8, this might be a good option for you. But you will use up the filters and have to replace them.

If you need variability in your ND filters, it could get to be expensive pretty quickly and do so in an ongoing way. That said, Joey seems very happy with the 4" gels and his photos of course look amazing.

He also uses it for wide-open movies with his Canon 7D. Above, he is shooting footage from inside a seaplane over Dubai earlier this year.

Pretty intimidating looking setup, if you ask me. Very Cecil B. DeMille.

If you want to use ND sparingly (and you are very careful by nature) the 4" polyester filters can be a very reasonable option that will give you very good results. You'll probably want to buy one that will get you from your full-sun aperture to your wide-open aperture. Then maybe a second which will do the same on a cloudy day.

This will give you the option on a sunny day (with the second, less powerful ND filter) to go to only f/5.6 if you want moderate depth of field.

The Buy-It-Once Plan

If you want optical quality, durability and continuously variable densities, there is one option. And it is expensive.

The Singh-Ray Vari-ND is the ne plus ultra of ND filters. It gives you a "dial-in" setting of anywhere from two to eight stops of neutral density -- that is actually neutral. And it is sharp, too.

Singh-Ray filters have an outstanding reputation, for which one pays dearly. For example, the 77mm Vari-ND filter is $340. As far as I can tell, it is two high-quality polarizers that used together form somewhat of a "dimmer switch" for light.

But it is a thing of beauty, both in operation and performance. After paying my $50 Newb Tax above, I at least was able to experiment enough to know that I wanted to have the ability to mix flash with any level of sunlight, work at any aperture and with any piece of flash gear. That's what the Vari-ND let's me do.

I'll probably catch some crap in the comments for such a pricey filter, but I tried the cheap version and that was $50 for nothing. To me, that's more expensive.

And yeah, I have given the old Visa card a pretty good run over the last year. But I shot for 20 years with someone else's gear, and I wanted the next 20 to be with that of my choosing.

And frankly, it feels very good to finally be done with major purchases for the foreseeable future.


The photo up top, of my daughter Em, was when I first started using it. Just some learning time with no pressure.

It is a straightforward shot, done mid-afternoon with a single Profoto head in a 60" Photek Softlighter II. But the neutral density adds a third variable to your normal f-stop and shutter speed duo. Here's how I keep from getting too confused by that.

First, I choose my shutter speed. If I am pushing the limits of my lights (i.e., maybe when using speedlights) I would choose 1/250th. In this case, I had plenty of power so I started at 1/125th. This was simply to give me the ability to alter the ambient background levels with my shutter speed while shooting without hitting my sync limit. And in the end, I shot this frame with a darker background at a 1/250th. Nice to have the option.

Next, I close down my aperture until I get a background that is the exposure tone that I want. It will be very much more in focus than the final shot will be.

Now adjust the power on the flash to light the subject. In this case, Em was in the shade of a building (background in full sun) so I was adding light to a nice, dark starting point.

The flash and ambient relationship now are set. Placing the Vari-ND on your lens will allow you to remove as much light as you want from the photo, and you compensate by opening up the aperture. Rather than go wide open to f/1.4, I stopped at f/1.6 because I know my 85 is sharper there.

I went pretty wide open here, but I could have shot at any aperture. And I absolutely love that I can do that now.

The idea of crisp, multi-hard light wraps mixed with squishy backgrounds at high noon gets me a little tingly. Which is much needed, after the numbing effect of buying a filter that cost as much as a car payment.

So, do you use ND filters with flash? If so, what kind? What has worked for you? What has left you wanting?

Sound off in the comments.


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Blogger Brandon said...

It's interesting that you right about this now because I have just been wanting to try some neutral density filters for exactly this purpose, and I've had trouble deciding between the cheap individual filters and the sign-ray. Apparently, a company called "Genus" also makes a variable density filter, I wonder if anyone out there has tried it? Here is the link at Adorama

June 28, 2010 12:16 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

I paid my $8 x 2 idiot tax for two ND 8 filters from Deal Extreme. Not very sharp and mostly neutral. For my initial intentions of long exposure water work they allow me to get creative using the clarity and blacks sliders in Lightroom. I would never use them with people, but have with florae outside.

Definitely only for artistic use, but only $16 for the learning experience.

To answer your question further, I couldn't, as a hobbyist, see spending a few hundred dollars on quality ND filters. Photoshop blurring will need to suffice on my budget, but I fully understand the function and use of them.

June 28, 2010 12:29 AM  
Blogger Jake Orness said...

Being forced into video due to the DSLR video rage I quickly learned that ND filters were not only required for video but also another important tool in my regular camera bag for still photos as well.

June 28, 2010 12:31 AM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Hi David,

I'm surprised you didn't mention the Cokin filter kits. Unless they aren't that big in the US. My full kit with ND8 and gradual ND4 cost just over $100.

I use ND filters with flash (Speedlights and Alien Bees) quite often. I have a tri-filter holder and a bunch of different ND filters from ND4s to ND32s. They basically slide into the holder which will take up to three filters. Obviously clarity gets a little softer with 3 filters(but not much), but with only one it's not really possible to tell that a filter was used at all. I generally stick to just one ND8 on most days.


June 28, 2010 12:34 AM  
Blogger dav_trapman said...

I haven't spent the dough to get a SinghRay ND filter, but have solve the problem with using longer lenses in conjunction with a common (although not inexpensive polarizing filter). Eats a ton of light. And with the CLS system, alongside my Nikon's already excellent intuitive metering, there aren't many situations that get by me. Excellent post! Keep them coming, David!

June 28, 2010 12:35 AM  
Blogger David Williams said...

Great article! This has been on my wish-list for quite some time, but now it is spelled out in plainness that it is something I can't do without.

I do have a question though.

You said in the article:

"Next, I close down my aperture until I get a background that is the exposure tone that I want. It will be very much more in focus than the final shot will be."

Could you perhaps expound on "exposure tone"? I have never heard of this concept, and I am curious if there is some aspect of the game that I should be looking at.

Right now I use the Cokin system, but I find that they scratch pretty easy, are too fiddly, and I can't use my lens hood with it attached.

Are you able to use your lens hood with the Singh-Ray attached?

June 28, 2010 12:46 AM  
Blogger Brence said...

I came across this DIY option recently for creating your own variable ND filter. I can't comment on its effectivness - and it might still suffer from colour shift problems depending on the quality of the filter used to create this - but still worth considering as a cheap and durable alternative. I imagine that the density would be a bit of guesswork as well.

June 28, 2010 12:52 AM  
Blogger David said...

Great post David.
Could you achieve this look with a speedlight such as the sb-900, or would it require the output of a more powerful strobe such as your Profoto. It seems that if the ND cuts out the ambient, it would also cut out a good deal of the light from a speedlight as well.

I was actually experimenting with this earlier today, but didn't realize till after sunset the amount of light I was losing due to being in High Speed Sync mode.

I'm curious if this will work as well with a small strobe (in non HS sync) as it does with your larger strobe?

Keep up the good work!

June 28, 2010 1:38 AM  
Blogger Tiberiu Simtion said...

Cool stuff. But what about focus issues? I suspect five stops of ND pretty much clog your viewfinder. Trying to freeze motion with a running child would really raise some problems...

June 28, 2010 1:55 AM  
Blogger alohadave said...

One thing to note that if you use a Singh-Ray (or other vari-ND products), if you crank the filtering to near max (around 8 stops), at wide angles, you can get a curious X effect in your shots.

There is an example picture on page 2, post 19 that shows it very clearly. The example is with a LCW vari-ND filter, but the theory is the same with the Singh-Ray.

As an alternate, you can use two polarizers stacked together as a poor man's vari-ND. It works just like the expensive one, but obviously a DIY solution.

June 28, 2010 2:05 AM  
Blogger Bogdan said...

Dave ... would you by any chance know what model of lens hood JoeyL uses with his polyester nd filter ?

June 28, 2010 2:17 AM  
Blogger Bogdan said...

Dave ... do you know by any chance, what type of lee lens hood is Joeyl uses with his polyester nd filters ?

June 28, 2010 2:18 AM  
Blogger David L said...

It seems to me that you could create a DIY variable ND by stacking two circular polarizers.
Anyone tried this?
Maybe it would me so neutral...

June 28, 2010 2:34 AM  
Blogger MindStorm said...

I bought that filter a couple months ago, when I got a Canon 16-40 lens and it used a larger filter size than I had previously outfitted for.

I have loved the filter ever since, and have put my (smaller diameter) ND filter set in a drawer, probably to be found by an archeologist some day.

To avoid having to shell out for two of these things, I got a step-up ring so my smaller diameter lenses can use the larger variable ND.

June 28, 2010 2:40 AM  
Blogger Mark Anthony said...

I use an el cheapo Hoya CPL which gives me about a stop and half to 2 stops of light loss.

I'm coupling it with my d40 to give me up to 1/500 sync speed to kill the ambient.

I also have cokin plastic filters, bang for the buck but has an amber cast.

June 28, 2010 2:49 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

If you have a filter holder, is there a material difference between ND gels for lights and the polyester ND filters? Has anyone tried this?

June 28, 2010 3:25 AM  
Blogger SS Buchanan said...

The Cokin set has the added bonus of being able to fit on multiple lenses (with different filter diameters, then, I guess you could get step-up rings for the Vari-ND too), and can be cheap as long as the A or P series will cover your needs.

The biggest problem there is going WIDE (under 20mm), but I suspect that's a problem with the Vari-ND as well.

June 28, 2010 3:37 AM  
Blogger Katrin said...

Call me an idiot, but I've never thought of this - thanks for the blur-it-with-an-ND-filter tip! $350 or not, if it's worth it, you'll save for it :-)

June 28, 2010 3:59 AM  
Blogger Tomas said...

Hi Dave!

I bought a Lee filters set up a couple weeks ago now, it's certainly a real nice way of adding a very different spin, style and feel to flash lit or flash/ambient balanced shots.

So far I'm really happy with the results.

Lee seem to have some stock issues at the moment though, the resin and poly filters are mostly on back order in the EU and UK :(

June 28, 2010 4:19 AM  
Blogger Owen said...

I'm using the Fader ND which you can find on eBay - same idea as the SinghRay but a lot cheaper. Not sure how neutral it is but Philip Bloom tested it and the SinghRay and thought the Fader ND was good. I haven't noticed any obvious colouration. I bought it so I can shoot wide open video on my 5D II in daylight (shutter speed set to 1/50 which is very slow in daylight!).

June 28, 2010 4:53 AM  
Blogger Nicolas Favro said...

Hi David,

These days I think about buying a variable ND filter.

Last weekend I was photog a friend's wedding. At 7:00pm the sun was facing me for groups pictures, so I said myself I should open at f16, maybe more.

Background was ugly at top of the picture, so I had 2 choices : crop my picture later or go up on a 3 steps ladder -but ladder was missing... maybe someone's shoulders ? :D

DSLR settings were 80ISO, f4, 1/2000s (!) : not adapted to use with manual non-high speed SBs in umbrellas.

This variable ND filter seems to be the answer.
Price is here, but quality goes first.

Thanks for this great article.


June 28, 2010 4:53 AM  
Blogger LR said...

Nikon D40, anyone?

June 28, 2010 5:09 AM  
Blogger jason said...

I went straight for the Singh-Ray after we discussed this very subject at the Birmingham seminar last month.

I've used it quite a few times now and really love the flexibility it gives me. It's not cheap, but it's a spectacularly versatile and compact solution.

June 28, 2010 5:18 AM  
Blogger RayPlay said...

Recently tried out the LCW Fader ND Filter (two to eight stops)on my Nikon FX cam and 50 mm lens. Cheap buy and cheap results. Seven stops and higher brings you into no-go-area ending up with a big light cross on the pic. Brought it back.

June 28, 2010 5:40 AM  
OpenID danny said...

I was trying to get shallow DOF in studio portraits because even on the lowest setting the flash was too strong. I don't have an ND filter so I used polarizers instead. You can stack any two polarizers to get a "vari-ND" effect by turning them with respect to each other. The down side is the more filters you stack you'll lose sharpness. But as cheap goes, and with a good lens, it can work and indeed I got some cool pictures...

June 28, 2010 6:25 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey S Baker said...

David, How easy is it to focus through the Singh-Ray @ eight stops down? Thanks.

June 28, 2010 7:57 AM  
OpenID linh said...

@Jamie Do you have any problems w/ color casting w/ the Cokin ND filters?

The SinghRay is definitely intriguing, but man, $390, and I'd need some step down rings (largest lens I have is 82).

Though, I guess buying a 2x,4x, and 8x ND filter is costly depending on the brand. But is there no middle ground?

June 28, 2010 8:09 AM  
Blogger Drew said...

Firstly, do people really put them on their flash?


Secondly, with Camera manufacturers pushing the envelope with higher and higher ISO settings (what does the 5D II go to? About a billion ISO?), why has there not been a push to make some room at the other end of the scale, pushing ISOs down well below 100 to maybe 25? 12.5? 6.25?
I'm not an expert on such things but why not?

I had a Canon G5 back in the day and it had a built-in ND filter. As far as I could tell, it just made the sensor less sensitive, giving 3 or 4 stops of opening up room. I loved it; used it all the time and couldn't figure out why it wasn't a standard feature on their DSLRs.

Is there someone more knowledgeable in such things able to shed any light? Or less light?

On the flash?

June 28, 2010 8:23 AM  
Blogger Low said...

I've read your blog for years and never commented (IIRC) so it's weird that I would do it in this post since I never use ND filters; but I have to commend you on that photo - it's very beautiful. I love the tight crop and everything from exposure to the expression is perfect in my opinion.

June 28, 2010 8:31 AM  
Blogger DaveRe said...

My only questions about using NDs in the field has been what effect you'd notice on the camera's auto-focus, and whether you notice it becoming significantly more difficult to frame the subject, etc (after all, you're taking light away from both your own eye, and the auto-focus sensor in the camera, as well). Logically, I know that most of our cameras can autofocus in situations much dimmer than "3-5 stops knocked off bright daylight", but...???

June 28, 2010 8:48 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

+1 on the polarizing filter comment. For use as an ND filter, mine eats about 3 stops of light. I love multipurpose tools.

June 28, 2010 9:02 AM  
Blogger -FD- said...

Nice write-up David. Some folks have mentioned Cokin filters so I thought I would add my 0.02... my first two Cokins (grad ND's) are great - sharp and neutral. Then I bought a couple of ND's in the normal range of stops - one was good, was is a little soft, and one has a horrible color cast. So from my experience, I view the Cokin filters as a bit of a crap shoot in the quality department.

June 28, 2010 9:06 AM  
Blogger dhani accioly borges said...

Two options I think that are worth mentioning, one is the canon sync speed cheat that you have mentioned here before. Using a faster speed and letting the ambient light do the job of illuminating were the black strip would be (requires an open shot and wouldn´t work with the example of your daughter). The other is the Pocket Wizard MiniTTL, with it you can use hyper sync and get away with 1/400 with minimal sync failure. Neither of these options will get you your 5 stops, but every bit counts.

June 28, 2010 9:35 AM  
Blogger Vince Edward said...

To the commenter above that mentioned the Cokin system: I'm not sure how popular they are in the US in general, but I know that when I set out looking for them, either no one carried them or, even worse, a lot of people had no idea what I was talking about. When I did finally find someone that had the holder system, it looked like it was the last item from a set that had been ordered ages ago. I'd compare it's condition to the dusty can of baked beans that someone survives in the back of a hardware store.

As for the price, as a hobbyist I wouldn't consider a $350 filter. I will simply tell myself I'll have to deal with the situation as is, or handle it differently. But for someone making a living as a photographer, you probably can't tell a client that you can't get a shot the way they want because you didn't want to spring for the good equipment.

June 28, 2010 9:51 AM  
Blogger Brett said...

I saw this a few days ago. I think this may be the best solution for cost and performance.

June 28, 2010 10:07 AM  
Blogger Joshua Ayres said...

The new pocket wizards allow hyper-sync (different than high speed sync) which they claim allows full power flash at high shutter speeds. I use them regularly and shoot outdoors at f/1.8 all of the time. I have never had to switch on the high speed sync setting on my 580exII. I don't know if hyper sync sucks more from your flash or not. I haven't noticed a difference.

June 28, 2010 10:14 AM  
Blogger Ed Kawczynski said...

has anyone tried 2 polarizer filters? stacked, but still rotatable? would that work? I'm just askin.
Ed Kawczynski

June 28, 2010 10:30 AM  
OpenID Ben Smith said...

It's funny that you should make a post about the use of ND filters today having spent the previous afternoon experimenting with mine for the first time. I love the idea of using it in a Strobist situation (I too have lusted after shooting outdoor portraits below f/9 earlier in the afternoon!). Sadly, I am working with a lower quality Tiffen but I look forward to trying it out in a portrait situation.

Thanks for the great idea!

June 28, 2010 10:41 AM  
Blogger charles said...

Tiffin NDs are pretty much standard in Hollywood. I've been using them since the 1970s, so your problem is not typical. Lots of Academy Awards won using Tiffen filters.

Tiffen filters are available as combination of a 85 (same correction as as CTO lighting gel) with a ND filter, such as an 85N3.

BTW Tiffin makes glass 4x4 filters.

June 28, 2010 11:00 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Fader ND user here too...

I purchased one from an Amazon vendor for less than $80. Couldn't be happier with it.

Here's were I originally found out about it.

June 28, 2010 11:32 AM  
Blogger David said...


I have heard first-hand experiences from photogs who tried the Genus version, neither of which would inspire me to buy one.

As I said, it is very difficult to solve the problems of sharpness and color-correctness through so much density. And when you do it with circular polarizers, you also get banding issues thrown into the mix. There is a reason the Singh-Rays are not cheap.


I certainly understand on the cost. I am not looking at it as $$$ for a filter, but rather $$$ for the ability to shoot outdoor flash at any aperture I want, no matter what the flash and/or ambient level.

@Jamie (and everyone else who mentioned Cokin) -

I first discovered Singh-Ray in the 1980s, after a tip from my friend and fellow photog Chris Usher, after being dissatisfied with Cokin split grads. Once I tried a Singh-Ray, I never went back. Same with the Vari-ND.


Yep. I am closing down the aperture (after setting my shutter speed) to bleed exposure from the ambient. If one variable (shutter) is fixed at, say, 1/250th, then you would adjust using the other. But this also gives me lots of depth of field, which I am later going to remove. Just trying to clarify that I am studying the actual tone of the background as I close down, without regard for the DOF. Sorry if I was confusing.

@Brence -

Indeed. But knocking out density is not hard. Doing so without losing sharpness (or altering color) is difficult. In this case, banding will most likely be our culprit. Using two polarizers which were not designed for this purpose would get you banding pretty fast. If you already have two CP's, maybe worth a try. But I would not buy two CPs to experiment, unless I could return them.


Yeah you could, and I mentioned that in the post. But you would be very limited as to distance, and/or light quality (i.e., through an umbrella) would seriously limit your working range.

@Tiberiu, and others asking about focusing-

In a portrait situation, I have no prob autofocusing with my D3 while shooting through 5 stops of ND. Do not think I would wanna follow focus a running kid, tho. Pretty hard to see through the viewfinder.


Yes, you do. Which is why they specifically tell you that you cannot go to the design max -- only within the specified range. The stops are a little tighter with wideangle lenses. FWIW, I shot the above pic with seven stops of ND added.


Nope. Ask Joey.


Indeed. We live and learn, no?


Um, your D40 will sync at any speed. Search D40 on this site to learn more.


Yes, the Lees are brilliant. Just keep them safe and scratch-free.


I would practice a lot before using these in live, run-and-gun situations. It definitely adds a layer of complexity.

@All people mentioning other brands of "eBay" ND filters-

If you get one that is really good (sharp, no banding and no color shifts) let us know. But not if you are the one selling them, please. ;)


Not very. But you can "open up" then focus and close back down pretty easily, too.


Everyone starts from zero. I have learned that if I don't articulate stuff like that, some people will be confused. And that would be my fault.

And we would love to see lower ISOs on chips. My bet is that is a net zero on the high ISO end, and you'd be taking away higher ISO capability. Not that I'd mind on one body just for that. You listening, Nikon D4x?


Thank you!

@Joshua and others asking about PWs-

Yes, they do sync right up the range. I am a beta tester for the new Nikon PW TT5/1, and I have seen significant efficiency gains as compared to straight Nikon FP flash. That is the most exciting thing about PW's new platform, IMO.

That's all the answers for a while -- I am on vacation this week! (Normal posting schedule is preset to drop, tho.)


June 28, 2010 11:57 AM  
Blogger tug said...

Lee do 2 and 3 stop ProGlass filters which are intended for digital cameras. They are also less easy to scratch than polyester filters. Lee will redip damaged filters too.

I'm obviously missing something with your "nuclear option" comment. You are presumably using an ND filter because you can't go any lower with your ISO setting. if you put a 3 stop ND on the lens and you want less than three stop reduction why not just up the ISO until you get the effect that you want? Three stops up from your minimum ISO setting isn't going to introduce noise is it?

Some people have been asking about using crossed polaroids. This will work up to a point. It appears to be best to use one circular and one linear. But you will get a colour cast.

A question on the problem you had with the Tiffen - would a custom white balance have helped?

June 28, 2010 11:57 AM  
OpenID Jonathan Castner said...

David using ND filters is a very old landscape photographers trick. They are usually used to enable you to get a very slow shutter speed for things like moving water images to turn the water in to that soft “angel hair” look. I’ve been working with using ND filters for years in daylight situations to give me more control over both my aperture and shutter speed. When doing panning shots of sports with a long lens it is much easier to get a cleanly blurred background in our very messy looking stadiums when at f/5.6 than f/16 so I will put a 3 stop ND filter into my 400mm lens. I’ve also been doing exactly what you were espousing: using that idea in lit portrait situations to overcome the ambient. So I always walk out the door with a few ND filters and a polarizer even if they don’t get used that much.

June 28, 2010 11:57 AM  
Blogger Eddie said...

I have the Light Craft Workshop (LCW) ND filters that were mentioned earlier in the comments. They are about 1/3 cheaper and you can do pretty much anything you can with the Singh Ray filters. Both are highly recommended by Philip Bloom for video.

My recommendation, buy the largest filter you'll need and buy stop down rings to use them on other lenses with smaller filter threads.... Much much cheaper in the long run (for example, I bought a 77mm for my 28-70 2.8 and a 72mm stop down filter for my 85 1.2).

June 28, 2010 12:13 PM  
Blogger Eddie said...

One word about the new Pocket Wizards tt5 and mini that somebody mentioned earlier with a 580ex II....BUYER BEWARE!

Check out this thread on Flickr:

Yes, you can do some pretty cool stuff with them, but you run the risk of them killing your flashes! PW fried my 580ex II. The sock they give you to put on the 580ex to cut down on the RF noise seems to be frying the electronics. I was lucky enough that the flash was still under warranty, but I just returned my mini and tt5 and went with the Plus II's instead. Such a bummer too...I'll stick to the LCW Fader ND and PW Plus IIs for now.

June 28, 2010 12:27 PM  
Blogger Swanky said...

Anyone got an answer for the small point and shoot lens..a ND for the G11..any ideas

June 28, 2010 12:40 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Another good read. I actually have been using a variable ND filter for a while on one of our HD cameras. For some reason it never occurred to me to use it for stills

June 28, 2010 1:46 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

"why has there not been a push to make some room at the other end of the scale, pushing ISOs down well below 100 to maybe 25? 12.5? 6.25?
I'm not an expert on such things but why not?"
There's probably a fundamental front-end sensitivity of the sensor materials, based on sensor physics, which is around the ISO 100-200 range. My guess is that at ISO 100-200 (depending on the camera), there is little to no amplification prior to the ADCs. As ISO goes up, an amplifier is placed in front of the ADCs to increase sensitivity.

Putting an attenuator after the sensor may only hurt your dynamic range - the peak light intensity that will blow out the sensor doesn't change, while the ADC now is seeing less voltage.

The only way to achieve lower ISOs is probably to have a switchable ND filter in front of the sensor (having it in front of the sensor only would improve viewfinder and focusing behavior) - I think some video cameras do this, and also I think some point-and-shoots do it as "ghetto aperture" (since DOF rapidly approaches "utterly insane" in many P&S cameras, using a real aperture doesn't help that much for DOF control).

$340 for the filter isn't much more than the price delta between a non-HSS flash and an HSS-capable flash with the same output capability. Don't forget that some monolights can do far better in the dollars-per-wattsecond than any battery strobe can. (For example, the 150WS Adorama Flashpoints are about the same price as typical "manual" 60WS strobes.)

June 28, 2010 2:42 PM  
Blogger kevwil said...

@swanky google for "lensmate" and get the set with the wide filter thread. I use this for landscapes and use all sorts of filters with my G11

June 28, 2010 3:11 PM  
Blogger Rogier said...

Cole Thompson's b&w work with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND is gorgeous.

June 28, 2010 3:37 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

It's important to note that the ND cuts light from both your flash and ambient equally so it's not a magic trick to be able to create dark backgrounds in sunny 16 weather. The ratio between the ambient and flash will stay the same it just means you can use a wider aperture for shallower dof. A flash at 1/250 is very much more efficient than using any HSS modes. The flash output drop from 1/250 to 1/500 HSS is much more than the one stop of ambient you are taking out making ND filters the only way that makes sense.

I first tried the LCW fader ND as a proof of concept before shelling out for the singh ray. It worked as expected also showing the huge quality loss and colour shift you would expect from such a cheap nasty filter. Anyone that says the quality is fine must be using truly dire lenses. I sold it on ebay for slightly more than I bought it for so no idiot tax paid this time around and ordered the singh ray despite the obscene cost and $50 delivery + VAT to the UK.

It is a quality piece of kit and definitely not just two polarisers stack on top of each other and much much slimmer.

This is definitely a case where if you buy cheap you buy twice. If you need variable ND you need to eat the cost :(

June 28, 2010 3:50 PM  
Blogger Nas said...

I bought the Genus variable ND filter back in March and the few times I've used it since then it's worked just fine for me. Exactly as advertised. Maybe I got luckier than the other photographers you spoke to?

June 28, 2010 4:26 PM  
Blogger Edward said...

hmmm, I get ISO 50 on my 5D MkII... you nikonians dont have that? ;)

June 28, 2010 4:26 PM  
Blogger JF Machado said...

Actually, when I need to overpower the sun, I just go back to my Fuji S9500 (S9000 in US).
The electronic shutter in it can sync well over 1/1000, so that works for me.
The only downside is the limited aperture.

June 28, 2010 5:01 PM  
Blogger Glenn said...

Hope I'm not misinterpretting the color shift issue but my thought was if the issue could be solved or at least improved by a custom WB setting using Expodisc or other method.

June 28, 2010 6:24 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Would have liked to have had one of these at yesterday's all fog no contrast wedding. At 2-4 p.m. it will full fog, but still shutter speeds of 1/000 at 5.6, much too bright.

Maybe it's something to consider adding to the bag, but the AF issues would be tough at weddings.

June 28, 2010 7:02 PM  
Blogger 1LL0G1C@L said...

I think the flaws of the LCW fader ND & the less expensive filters are less noticeable & more acceptable when shooting video than with stills. A single video frame does not have the same resolution as a single frame of a stills camera (unless its a RED or something crazy like that) & does not require the sharpness that still photography does. Plus any color issues will probably be unimportant since most video footage is colored in post anyways. Im guessing this is why Philip Bloom gives them a passing grade but the purely stills photographers may be turned off by the results of the lower cost options. This is just a guess as I dont own any of the vari-nd filters mentioned.

June 28, 2010 8:24 PM  
Blogger George said...

I could not disagree more.

Get the $50 ND filter. I do the same thing I do with my UV filters, adjust the sharpening "slightly" in Photoshop. You can do the same thing with the color mismatch.

Take one image with no filters, compare it to an image with the filters on, then adjust in PS and note your settings. Just calibrate once and you are set.

My bigger question is if you are doing a head shot, why bother to shoot it outside at all? The background is meaningless and this shot could have been done more easily indoors.

June 28, 2010 8:24 PM  
Blogger Mark Anthony said...


yes.. I'm usually shooting at 1/800th using my cactus triggers (cactus triggers are not known for their speed) ... however lately I'm more on using my sb900 to remotely control my remote via CLS/AWL ... still in manual though :)

I've had great results usually with 1 off cam (an sb600), and an on axis fill (sb900 as master). A variation of your 1 light plus an on axis ring light fill

June 28, 2010 9:45 PM  
Blogger David said...


LOL. By that rational, I hope you did not spend more the $50 on any of your lenses, either. Just sharpen them and fix 'em in Photoshop.

Wait, PHOTOSHOP? You mean you spent $650 for just a $1 DVD with ones and zeroes on it? GIMP is free, dude.

Courses for horses.

June 28, 2010 10:31 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Threadjacking, but I just wanted to let you all know Strobist was named by the TIME as one of the best blogs of 2010!!,28804,1999770_1999761_1999758,00.html


June 28, 2010 10:36 PM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

I use the Lee filter set - pretty expensive but it's nice to have one set of filters for all my lenses. In conjunction with ISO 50, it handles most situations quite well.

June 28, 2010 11:38 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

This is slightly off topic to this post but you mention the ability of speedlites to work in an outdoor sun ambient setting. I was wondering if the LP120 is a contender in this category of ambient power.

June 29, 2010 12:49 AM  
OpenID chargingarc said...

This article just saved me from impulse buying a low end ND filter, very timely. I'll concentrate on fiddling with high speed sync for now.

June 29, 2010 4:55 AM  
Blogger JIVAN said...

Beautiful photograph David.

June 29, 2010 7:33 AM  
Blogger -- said...

I went with an equally pricey route in my ND's, getting B+W filters. Easy when I use similar size threaded lenses...beautiful ND's if you have the bucks, and you can stack nicely.

June 29, 2010 11:15 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

"Maybe it's something to consider adding to the bag, but the AF issues would be tough at weddings."

Keep in mind that the aperture limits of AF systems are not about available light, but are about the actual lens physics. That's why an F/2.8 lens in very low light will still AF reasonably well, while an F/8 lens in light that is well beyond 3 stops brighter will still not AF well at all.

So a 3-stop ND on an F/2.8 lens will still AF quite well (Because it's still F/2.8 despite now being T/8), probably better than an F/5.6 lens with no ND despite transmitting less light through to the AF system.

I used to know of a link to a great explanation of AF systems and why they fail past a certain aperture but I've lost it.

June 29, 2010 12:31 PM  
Blogger David said...


Yep, they are very good. But knowing how to use slaves in sun is also helpful. I have an upcoming post on that...


June 29, 2010 1:15 PM  
Blogger Ian Johnson said...

I'm wondering if the $50 cheapo ND filter is workable by shifting color back in your RAW processing. It still doesn't address the sharpness factor, but is it a fixable color shift?

June 29, 2010 2:52 PM  
Blogger Strong Mind said...

What if you stack up 2 polarizing filters and rotate the one in front? It won't work for wide angle lenses, but I feel that you can save quite a bit from $340.

June 29, 2010 4:10 PM  
Blogger M said...

The video link below compares a few ND filters, including the LCW. It's done with video, so the comment above about video vs stills may apply.

June 29, 2010 4:46 PM  
Blogger Frederic said...

hmmm, there is another cheaper solution but again fragile.

rear lens gelatines holder.
(those small slots on the rear of your lens)

they are very small compared to front filters diameter.

so you buy sheets of ND 1, 2, 4, ... and you cut them to one size (because for all my lenses the rear gel holder is the same size)

when damaged you cut another from the sheet.

you save money because A: sheets are cheaper then other types of filters
B: because only need one size to fit your whole lens collection!!

June 29, 2010 6:45 PM  
Blogger Vibrant Photography said...

For the cost of the the singhray I could get a few different B+W ND filters. They make 1, 2, 3, 6 and 10 stop filters. I have a 6stop coming and cant wait to shoot at f1.2 with 1100ws of flash outdoors :))

June 29, 2010 7:07 PM  
Blogger Darien Chin said...

That Vari-ND has been on my want list since before I even started shooting people!

June 30, 2010 2:12 AM  
Blogger John Van Boxtel said...

Interesting timing on this article as I just ordered an ND for myself for this very reason.

I went round and round about the variable ND idea but all the reviews of the off brand variable NDs showed that they had major issues with sharpness or weird patterns at higher levels. I just couldn't justify spending for the Singh Ray so I bought a single B+W 10 spot ND.

My plan is that with a 10 stop ND I can always use ISO to fine tune the ND level. I would set shutter speed (which I can sync up to 1/250 cleanly), then aperture, and lastly ISO. Since lots of cameras let you do ISO in 1/3 stops this should work well and save me some money.

June 30, 2010 1:18 PM  
Blogger Prasann Patel said...

This is a technique I've been using for quite some time now, thinking it was common knowledge. I, however, was not aware of the other two methods you posted. Thanks for spreading the wealth. Cheers DH!

June 30, 2010 3:45 PM  
Blogger Frederick said...


Timely post. I've been looking at the B+W and going cumulative because of the reported optical quality of the B+W ND filters. Any chance you did an optical quality, pre-sales comparison of the Vari-ND with B+W or other high-end NDs?

June 30, 2010 5:42 PM  
Blogger thewiss said...

David, thanks very much for this post. It's incredibly timely, as I had a $50 77mm ND filter and a few step up rings in my cart at adorama yesterday and almost bought them before thinking "gee, is this really what I need?" and deciding to put off the purchase till I learned more.

June 30, 2010 7:48 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

David -

Thanks for the review! Now that it is "strobist approved" my wife says I can get it. I have been wanting one ever since Syl Arena showed us all his in Paso.

Also, what would this exposure be for the image of Emily if it was ambient (roughly) in the same setting?

Last question: Is this technique possible in a less shaded situation? You mention that you were in the open shade and using your ND ~7 stops down. Something doesn's seem right, but I can't put my finger on it.

Thanks for the great post and love the pic of Em!

July 02, 2010 12:04 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hey, Sean-


>>>What would this exposure be for the image of Emily if it was ambient (roughly) in the same setting?

Look at the shadow side of Em's face -- that's the level the of the ambient.

>>>Is this technique possible in a less shaded situation? You mention that you were in the open shade and using your ND ~7 stops down.

Yes, of course. But the 7 stops was just the amount needed to knock the overall exposure from f/16 to f/1.6 (okay, 6 2/3 stops to be exact.)

Typically, I would be going from f/16 to 2/2.8 -- or 5 stops.


July 02, 2010 10:36 AM  
Blogger Wrenched Photography said...


You can take a quality CPL, mate it to the back of a linear PL and create the same at less cost. You can also use two CPLs, but will need to reverse the front CPL lens in the filter.

July 02, 2010 10:57 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Keegan said...

In my job, I am inside one day, outside the next and the weather's always changing. I have come to love my ND filter. It's not an expensive one, though you've gone a long way to convince me I "need" one, eventually. But almost anytime now when I have to shoot in the bold sunlight, with no flash, I slap on the ND as habit. It really helps bring down some of the haziness on hot summer days, and does a good job balancing out harsh contrasts. And I do also use it to "push" my camera - mainly so that I can shoot faster. I believe everyone should have some sort of ND solution in their bag. It allows you to be so much more versatile.

July 02, 2010 12:32 PM  
Blogger The Bear said...

@ Swanky
While you could use a lensmate for your G11. But if you keep the camera 'pocketable'. The G11 has a function that moves a 3stop ND filter in front of the sensor. I use it alot on my G9 when working OCF in bright sunlight. It's burried down in the menus a bit so I programed my 'S' button with this function for quick shortcut.

After using it, I wished Canon would implement something like this on their DSLRs, it wouldn't effect the viewfinder image, you'd never have to worry about having enough stepdown rings for all your lenses, and most importantly, you'll never forget it in your other camera bag that you left at home.

July 02, 2010 2:12 PM  
Blogger Ranger 9 said...

After reading this and investigating, I was surprised to find that Kodak still makes Wratten ND gelatin filters, and B&H has most of them in stock. Gel filters have been the standard for eons in process photography, where image quality is critical. Yes, you have to handle them carefully, but they're super-thin, so they have the least possible effect on sharpness.

When buying, remember that Kodak specs them in logarithmic density units (0.3 log density units = 1 stop) so the densest one they sell -- 4.0 -- lets you open your aperture by 13-1/3 stops. Or to put it another way, you can shoot your f/0.95 lens wide open under lighting that otherwise would call for f/90 at the same shutter speed!

July 04, 2010 12:54 AM  
Blogger dude101 said...

For real cheap skates - myself included - I used a polorizing filter as my ND - it dropped 2 stops and gave me amazing blue skies and killed reflections.

July 05, 2010 2:27 PM  
Blogger Davidikus said...

One of the most interesting posts on this blog. I would make two comments with regards to the way to deal with HD filters:

1. How to deal with ND filters
a. Adjust all your settings without the ND filter(s) if possible.
b. Check what kind of aperture you want and by how many stops you would be overexposing.
c. Choose the ND filter(s) accordingly and add to the setting, on the lens (!)

2. How to deal with not so good filters in general.
a. If there is an issue with sharpness, you cannot do much.
b. If there is a colour cast, you can remove it easily!
b1. In a well-lit place, with homogeneous lighting, use your camera's custom white balance setting to measure the light temperature, with a simple setting (prime lens, best aperture). Write down the light temperature.
b2. Add the filter (ND or otherwise) without changing anything else in the setting. Repeat custom white balance setting. Write down the light temperature again.
b3. Work out the difference between those two white balance settings.
b4. When shooting with the ND filter, always correct the white balance setting with that number.

Easy peasy, innit?

This works very well to recreate filter effects too!

July 07, 2010 12:58 PM  
Blogger Owen said...

Just tested my Fader ND for photos (instead of video, which is what I bought it for). Doesn't seem to affect colour much but there's a big reduction in sharpness. So I'd have to agree that for photos you need the more expensive option.

July 17, 2010 1:53 PM  
Blogger Flash Dawg said...

Used the fader myself:

It did affect color for me, along with sharpness. But does allow long shutter speeds in the middle of the day:

July 18, 2010 10:09 PM  
Blogger Brian Hursey said...

Anyone try rosco ND gels?

July 19, 2010 3:15 PM  
Blogger Ted Calbazana said...

Just got my fader lens off of eBay and immediately tried it out doing portraits and garden shots outdoors. It was nice being able to dial down the ambient mid-day in full sunlight with a little fill flash. Had to go to manual focus because the AF was having a hard time. But no problem. I was using the built in flash on my Nikon D700 with everything (including flash) in manual mode. I had no issues with the sharpness. Loved the results. Thanks so much Dave for getting me hip to this.

July 21, 2010 9:47 AM  
Blogger Matt Heath said...

great post, I will definatly be trying this one! Now to find me an ND filter :)

July 27, 2010 2:26 AM  
Blogger DaveRe said...

Here's a little tutorial on flipping a cir-pol to do this same trick... Might be cheaper, if you already have one polarizer...

@Brian Hursey - ND gels won't get you anywhere...

August 27, 2010 3:45 PM  
Blogger noli san jose said...

Since I don't want to shell out my extremely hard-earned cash for the very-well reviewed Singh Ray Vari-ND/Vari-N-Duo just yet, I bought a LCW Fader ND II and prayed for the best. I did some test to focus on the quality loss that I've been hearing about. Surprise, surprise! No quality loss at all. I used a Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 (which is not a "dire lens" as some would say here)and from end to end, I see no quality loss. I was just thinking that the bad reviews to this filter might be related to its first version. I'll try to post some sample pictures later in my Flickr account

September 16, 2010 12:23 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Why can't Nikon and Canon build a dial in ND filter that blocks the light from the sensor, so the through the lens part of the equation is easier to see. There is so much technology in the cameras now, it seems like a dial in ND filter would be pretty easy to include.

October 31, 2010 6:38 PM  
Blogger gerardo huck said...

Hi David! I have just stumbled upon this page titled "How to Build a Cheap and Simple Variable Neutral Density Filter", and I immediately remembered this post of yours.


I guess that using a pair of decent CPL filters and stacking them would probable create some vignetting, but still it is worth to give it a try (unless you have already bought the top-of-the-line alternative :P).

BTW, great blog! I really love it!

(from Argentina)

November 06, 2010 10:52 PM  
Blogger StandBack Images said...

I just the the Genus and only had time to take a half dozen shots, it is great! Check out this youtube..

October 03, 2011 4:47 PM  
Blogger Premilo said...

HThis post helped me lot to understand the value of ND filter. However I am not the kind of person who could afford $300 Singh-Ray filter. So I took my chances and bought a set of three Tiffen ND filters - 0.6, 0.9 and 1.2. As soon as the filters arrived, I tested them for lost of clarity sharpness. I am so glad to report that the filters did the job without any loss of color or clarity. I spent 32$ for the set and I cannot be more happy. I will admit though I haven't tried them in full sun yet but they bring down the stops accurately (2,3 and 4 stops with 0.3 is each stop). Also I can stack them to get 9 stops. I will recommend folks to try them out before buying Singh Ray or expensive ND filters. If you are professional which I am not, may be the cost is justified. Specially for not having to stack filters manually.

April 03, 2012 11:10 PM  
Blogger Premilo said...

This post helped me lot to understand the value of ND filter. However I am not the kind of person who could afford $300 Singh-Ray filter. So I took my chances and bought a set of three Tiffen ND filters - 0.6, 0.9 and 1.2. As soon as the filters arrived, I tested them for lost of clarity sharpness. I am so glad to report that the filters did the job without any loss of color or clarity. I spent 32$ for the set and I cannot be more happy. I will admit though I haven't tried them in full sun yet but they bring down the stops accurately (2,3 and 4 stops with 0.3 is each stop). Also I can stack them to get 9 stops. I will recommend folks to try them out before buying Singh Ray or expensive ND filters. If you are professional which I am not, may be the cost is justified. Specially for not having to stack filters manually.

April 03, 2012 11:11 PM  
Blogger Haylee Joel said...

Thanks for the tips, I'm looking forward to the Lee filters but since I need it ASAP I'm going to pick up the Hoya 52mm ND filter at my local camera shop. Not ideal, but I will invest in the Lee filter system soon!

Thanks for the informative post.

January 01, 2013 6:45 PM  

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