With the best neutral density filters, or ND filters, you have one of the most tried-and-tested tools for controlling light. Making long exposures possible in any and all light conditions, ND filters may seem simple, but they're vital for creating the kinds of photographic effects that simply aren't possible to replicate in post-processing. Any serious landscape photographer should have a set of ND filters in their bag – but which to choose?
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A primer for the uninitiated: an ND filter is essentially a piece of darkened glass placed over the front of a lens. Made from high-quality elements in order to retain sharpness, an ND filter reduces the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor, thereby allowing for longer shutter speeds to be used. This makes it possible to create long-exposure effects like smooth water, traffic trails or ghost crowds at different times of day.
ND filters come in two varieties – square and circular. Square filters slot in and out of a holder that is attached to the lens in advance, making them easy to slot on and off once you're set up and ready to go. Circular lenses screw directly onto a lens, so require less paraphernalia. However, many of them can't be used with ultra-wide lenses that have bulbous front elements. Neither type is better; it's all about personal preference and what best suits your setup. So, for this guide, we've included a mix of both.
ND filters also come in different strengths – stronger filters cut down more light. They can be referred to in different ways; you might see terms like "ND 1.8" or "ND64" being used. The best thing to do is check the stop count, which all ND filters will specify. So in this instance, both the ND names we specified just then will cut down your exposure by six stops. It's much simpler to think of it that way!
Some filters, particularly cheaper ones, can have a marked effect on the colour of an image, giving a warmer or cooler cast. This can be corrected easily enough in software, but is always worth being aware of before you choose your filter.
The other thing to pay attention to is thread size, as it's how you make sure a filter will fit your lens. Any lens that can take a filter will come with a specified thread size, measured in mm. Most filters come in different sizes, so make sure you get the right one for your lens.
Best neutral density filters in 2022(opens in new tab)
We've been hugely impressed by Cokin’s Nuances Extreme ND filters, which is why we've made the Z-Pro option our number-one pick for the best ND filters you can buy. Made with tempered mineral glass, these high-quality filters provide flawless colour accuracy, and pitch-perfect sharpness in all corners of the frame. This is thanks to the nano metallic alloy coating, as well as the quality of the glass.
Our testing proved that the filters were as good as their marketing promised. The Z-Pro filters also precisely matched their f-stop light reduction range, so you know exactly what you're getting when you fix one on. The "Extreme" designation is there because the lenses are hardy and drop-resistant, a quality complemented by the Cokin EVO filter holder, which has an effective foam gasket to guard against light leaks.
These aren't the cheapest option for ND filters, but they really are superb. The Nuances Extreme ND filters come in 6-stop and 10-stop densities, and are available in three sizes: P-size (84x100mm), Z-Pro (100x100mm), and X-Pro (130x130mm)(opens in new tab)
In terms of sheer quality, it's hard to beat LEE Filters. The firm's recent ProGlass IRND range delivers a new benchmark in ND filter performance, and while like all LEE stuff it is not cheap, it's really some of the best you can get. With six density options going from 2 stops all the way up to a mega 15 stops, it's a superb choice for the photographer who needs the best.
The IRND name means that the filters are coated to block infrared and ultraviolet light, delivering better image contrast and clarity. LEE filters of years past were well known for having a cool colour cast, but this is no longer the case, with the IRND line-up delivering pitch-perfect colour accuracy in our testing. Sharpness was also top-notch, in the corners of frames as well as the centre.
It does all take a bit of setting up: you'll need a 100mm filter holder (LEE, predictably, recommends the LEE100 holder) as well as an adapter ring to get it onto your lens. Also, calculating exposures with such an extreme filtering effect can be a bit of a head-scratcher, so LEE has considerately made it easier with its companion app, which helps you work out the optimal exposure time for a balanced image.(opens in new tab)
Hoya’s Pro ND range of circular filters comes in ND4 to ND1000 variants for a 2-stop to 10-stop shutter speed reduction. Most common filter thread diameters are catered for by the 49mm-82mm size range, though the frame is slightly deeper than the B+W and Marumi circular filters, which could introduce minor vignetting when shooting with a very wide lens.
As you’d expect, Hoya is keen to promote the ProND’s color neutrality and exposure accuracy, with features like a Metallic ACCU-ND coating on both sides of the glass. And whatever this really is, it does work. We tested the ND64 (6-stop) and ND1000 (10-stop) ProND versions and found them to be the only round filters on test to have no negative impact on image sharpness at any point in the frame. Colour accuracy was a shade off the standard set by the best square filters, but a 0.5% deviation from the ND64 and a 1.3% difference from the ND1000 won’t be visible in real-world shooting.
A 77mm ProND 1000 compares well with similar rival filters on price, making it reasonable value for its decent image quality.
See review of the Hoya ProND filter kit (opens in new tab)
While the Lee Big Stopper has been beloved of landscape photographers for many years now, some decried the fact that it was only available in the square format, requiring a separate holder to attach to a lens. Well, no longer – Lee Filters has heard your cries, and unveiled a version of its 10-stop ND, the Big Stopper, in a screw-on circular version.
The Big Stopper is unrivalled in its ability to tame powerful light, rendering long exposures possible in even bright conditions, and the high-quality Lee glass also means that vignetting is kept to minimum.
Bear in mind that the Elements Big Stopper is currently only available in four filter thread sizes – 67mm, 72mm, 77mm and 82mm – so check your lens is compatible before buying. And if 10 stops feels like overkill, the 6-stop Little Stopper is also available as a Lee elements circular filter.(opens in new tab)
The H&Y name may be new to the filter scene, but the company has actually been manufacturing filters for other brands for many years, and having recently made waves with its innovative magnetic filter frames, H&Y is now putting its name to the filters themselves.
The K-series (100x100mm) square ND filters come in useful 6-stop and 10-stop densities. Both use multi-coated glass that avoids color casts while also resisting moisture, fingerprints and scratches.
Our testing revealed the 6-stop filter to be perfectly color-accurate, while the 10-stop was just 1.2% off the mark, most likely due to it being fractionally less dense than its 10-stop rating. Both filters produced a flawless image sharpness result.
The filters are even more appealing as they come with H&Y’s nifty magnetic filter frame which would cost £23 (opens in new tab)/ $35 (opens in new tab) separately. It makes the filters much easier to fit and means you never touch the glass. The only drawback is the foam gasket doesn’t quite seal the filter perfectly against light leakage.(opens in new tab)
Formatt Hitech offers a wide range of filters, both circular and square. As well as 85mm and 100mm ND filters, Formatt Hitech also produces large 150x150mm ND filters that are aimed at full-frame wide-angle photographers. The large size does make them pretty price as you'd expect, but you're getting a quality filter at the end of it. The company's Firecrest ND filter range is available in 1-stop to 10-stop densities, and in single-stop increments, but that's just half the story.
Formatt Hitech has taken a different approach to the manufacturing process and instead of dyed resin, these filters are made from 2mm thick Schott Superwite glass with the multi-coating bonded in the middle. The result is a filter that's more scratch resistant than a typical dyed resin filter, while the Firecrest filters are neutral across all spectrums, delivering brilliant color accuracy.(opens in new tab)
ND filters produce the most dramatic results when using very long exposures, so Marumi’s DHG Super range only contains high-density 9-stop and 10-stop options. Both are round screw-in-type filters, available in all common diameters from 49mm through to 82mm. We’re quoting prices for the 10-stop (ND1000) filter, but the ND500 pricing is similar.
The filter’s shallow frame depth helps avoid vignetting when shooting with an ultrawide lens, and its satin finish reduces reflections. The filter glass also has a scratch-resistant coating.
Sadly, neither our Super ND500 or ND1000 sample filters managed a flawless performance in our testing. The ND500 produced a 2.5% colour shift from optimal, and the ND1000’s colour deviation was worse at 4%. Image sharpness was also negatively affected. Both filters maintained perfect centre-frame sharpness, but reduced mid-frame sharpness by a noticeable 20% in the case of the ND500, while the ND1000 produced a 24% drop. Sharpness in the corners of frame wasn’t quite so badly affected, but both filters still gave the worst results of the group.(opens in new tab)
Screw-in filters may not quite have the kudos of a square or rectangular filter system, but B+W’s round XS-Pro filters certainly aren’t short on features. Their MRC Nano (Multi-Resistant Coating) helps shed dirt and water, and we found it does indeed do a good job of beading away rain drops. Further coatings reduce reflections, while SCHOTT glass (drinks, anyone?) increases optical clarity and colour fidelity. Thread diameters range from just 30.5mm all the way up to 95mm, and you can have 2, 3, 6 or 10-stop densities. Whichever option you go for, you get an exceptionally shallow frame depth that makes these filters great for ultra-wide photography.
However, our samples weren’t quite so great in our image quality tests. The 3-stop version produced excellent results in our colour accuracy and sharpness tests, but the 6-stop and 10-stop filters introduced some issues. Both our samples were ⅓-stop too dark, requiring exposure compensation to maintain accurate colour. Mid-frame and corner sharpness also dropped 5% with the 6-stop filter fitted, and by 20% with the 10-stop filter. Not great considering the hefty price commanded by the larger-diameter filters.
Six things to look out for when buying an ND filter…
Round ND filters: A circular ND filter is fantastic – as long as you only want to use it with one lens thread diameter. However, it's convenient to use and rarely lets in light leaks. If you want do want to adapt it for other lenses, you can use stepping rings to adapt a larger filter to fit a smaller lens (but you can't do this the other way round).
Square ND filters: While they require a holder and an adaptor ring, the great thing about square ND filters is that they can be used with multiple lenses. To avoid disappointment, make sure the filter is attached properly to prevent light leaks.
Go slow: If you want to capture truly minimalist land-, sea- and city-scapes, you'll need a very dense ND1000 (10-stop) filter to help slow down your shutter speed to achieve your desired result.
Keep it sharp: Neutral density filters should do what they say on the tin – remain neutral. While color casts can be corrected in image editing programs, any fuzziness from poor glass quality will be much more difficult to fix (likely impossible).
Extra effects: A square ND system opens up possibilities for stacking filters like a polarizer or graduated ND filters for images with even more appeal.
Variable ND filters: These handy little filters have adjustable density, and are particularly useful for controlling exposure in video, see separate guide to best variable ND filters (opens in new tab).
ND filter reference table
Neutral Density filters are made in wide number different strengths, and different scales are used to measure this. Some manufacturers use an NDxx number, others can quote a number for the optical density, and some use a figure to describe the light reduction in ‘stops’.
The table here compares the systems and shows how much slower a shutter speed each filter type will let you achieve with your camera.(opens in new tab)
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