The best diffusion filters and low contrast filters provide a fantastic way to achieve a stylish, cinematic look in-camera for both video and stills. However, they do much more than that!
Beyond achieving that movie-like look, the best diffusion filters are also flattering to skin, making them ideal complements to modern lenses (which are so sharp as to be unkind to pore structure). And, as the name suggests, low contrast filters also raise black levels by diffusing light into the shadow areas to lift dark areas of your image.
This can be just as helpful whether you want to create a more atmospheric shot in a portrait, or you want to shoot a sunset shot where the low sun is rendering everything in shadow as a harsh silhouette.
Still, the most common use for these filters is to capture that dreamy, hazy, "golden-age Hollywood look" with blooming highlights, lifted contrast and even more charismatic bokeh.
So, why would you do this in-camera, as opposed to overlaying an effect or LUT at the editing stage? The main reason is that software-driven effects simply can't recreate the same effect as these filters, which are etched to defocus illumination and spread it across the image – all while retaining crucial sharpness and contrast.
In this way, filters give otherwise crisp, clinical, modern lenses similar visual characteristics to vintage lenses, and even 35mm film. Productions like The Crown and Peaky Blinders use Tiffen diffusion filters for this very reason, to achieve that distinct period look.
What does a diffusion filter do?
It's very difficult to visualize what diffusion filters do. At their lowest strength, they can add subtle softness to textures, cause highlights to halo or gently raise shadows. At their strongest they can radically reduce resolution, create brilliant bloom or lift contrast so much that shots resemble ungraded log-like footage.
The video below shows how Tiffen's Pro-Mist, arguably the best known and most popular diffusion filter, affects resolution, halation and contrast at a number of strengths (densities).
Best diffusion filters and low contrast filters
Tiffen is far and away the leader in this category – and the Pro-Mist line is the reason why. Offering the brand's maximum white halation increase, with its minimum reduction in contrast and resolution, these filters provide minimal loss of detail while rendering soft, pastel-like light. This makes it ideal for striking videography or softening blemishes for beauty and portrait photography. The choice of countless cinematographers, you can't go wrong with Pro-Mist – though the sheer volume of choice on offer can be daunting.
Moment made a name for itself with neutral density, UV and polarizing filters, and now it has entered the arena of diffusion filters with the stunning CineBloom line. Where Pro-Mist covers every possible base, offering 8 different strengths, CineBloom comes in 10% and 20%. Moment's filters create results every bit as stunning as Tifffen's, but its straightforward "subtle" and "strong" varieties won't leave you paralyzed by choice. Best of all, the 37mm size fits Moment's lenses for iPhone and Android, meaning you can get stunning video on your phone!
Where Pro-Mist focuses primarily on white halation increase, Tiffen Gold delivers warm halation and reduce resolution to produce atmospheric bloom and glow. This creates an almost soft focus-like effect, spreading the light to create an ethereal glow rather than hard sharpness, with added gold hues to warm your image and balance skin tones. Clarity and detail is retained, but skin is flattered and illumination is spread around highlights.
A prolific name in the camera accessory sphere, K&F Concept offers a lone diffusion filter in a subtle ¼ strength – but it's a doozy. The Nano-X Black Mist has similar properties to Tiffen's Black Pro-Mist range, at a lower cost. This increases black halation and reduces highlights while maintaining resolution, to soften skin imperfections and create a dream-like haze to your imagery. It also boasts K&F's anti-scratch, anti-mold, anti-oil and waterproof coatings to ensure peak performance even if you're using the filter out in the elements.
The Tiffen Digitial filter is engineered specifically to produce softness and diffusion while with almost zero flare or contrast reduction. As such it's perfect for more subtle shooting, where you want to soften skin or smooth background details while retaining clear focus and making it look like no filter has actually been used. If you want to achieve a soft, diffused effect with other characteristics so controlled that the filtration feels almost invisible, look no further.
If you own Lee Filters' 100mm System or the recent Lee100 (which we rate as the best filter holder currently on the market), this Low Contrast filter can be used with any lens (as opposed to having to buy individual screw-ins to fit each filter thread). These white-opacity resin filters diffuse light into the shadow areas of your image to reduce contrast, while also creating subtle flaring and halation around hot spots and highlights.