The best neutral density filters, also known as ND filters, are a fantastic way to control the light in a scene. While creatively varying your shutter speed is a good way to get inventive with your image-making, it’s restricted by the brightness of the available light. Open the shutter for 30 seconds in the middle of a sunny day, and all you’ll get is a blinding-white mess. ND filters allow you to control for this.
ND filters – short for neutral density filters – are pretty much the equivalent of giving your lens a pair of sunglasses. A high-quality darkened glass element is placed in front of the lens, reducing the amount of light that gets in without impacting the image quality, and therefore allowing longer shutter speeds to be used without blowing out the image. Smooth out the surface of water, create traffic trails or transform a busy crowd into ghostly shapes – an ND filter makes it all possible. These aren’t things you can replicate in Photoshop; it has to be done in-camera.
For this list we’ve picked out the best ND filters available right now. Whether you’re shooting landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes or whatever else, these filters will help you achieve your long-exposure vision. There are plenty of options available too – you can choose different strengths of ND filters in accordance with how much light reduction you need. Sometimes this can be a bit confusing, with different numbers being bandied about to illustrate the various concepts. Generally the best thing to do is look at the stop count, i.e. how many stops of light does a filter cut out? For example, it’s not entirely clear at first glance what ND 1.8 or ND64 mean, but it’s simple to understand that both will cut down light transmission by six stops.
There are also two main types of ND filter – square and circular. Circular filters can be screwed directly onto the front of a lens, provided they are of the correct thread size, while square filters come with a dedicated holder. Neither is inherently better, it’s all about personal preference, so we’ve included a mixture of both.
Best neutral density filters in 2022
Cokin’s Nuances Extreme ND filters come in 6-stop and 10-stop densities, which is an ideal choice for long exposure photography. They can also be had in three sizes: P-size (84x100mm), Z-Pro (100x100mm), and X-Pro (130x130mm). We went for the Z-Pro option as this is the best balance of portability and versatile lens coverage. Their tempered mineral glass with rounded corners is said to be drop resistant, while a nano metallic alloy coating gives a more uniform density and better colour neutrality.
And our testing proved this to be more than just marketing hyperbole. Both our 6-stop and 10-stop filter samples were joint best with the Lee IRND filters for colour accuracy. Sharpness at all points in the image frame was also flawless, and both filters exactly matched their f-stop light reduction ratings.
Cokin’s EVO filter holder is an ideal match for Nuances Extreme filters. It’s beautifully made and features a very effective foam gasket to guard against light leaks during a long exposure, but it is not the cheapest option.
LEE Filters has long been the go-to brand for uncompromising filter quality, and its latest ProGlass IRND range is said to be the new benchmark in ND performance. Six density options are available, with a typical 2-stop to 10-stop range, but there’s also a super-dark 15-stop variant for extremely long exposures.
The IRND name signifies that the filter coating blocks infrared and ultraviolet light for better image contrast, and LEE is claiming top notch exposure consistency and colour accuracy. We tested the 6-stop and 15-stop filters in the IRND line-up and both did indeed have absolutely no impact on colour accuracy in our testing. Image sharpness was also flawless, with both filters maintaining perfect centre, mid and corner-frame crispness.
With such long exposures possible, LEE has come up with a companion app to help you calculate optimal exposure times. You’ll also need a suitable 100mm filter holder to use IRND filters, with the obvious choice being the latest LEE100 holder. Finally, a lens adaptor ring is required to attach the holder to your chosen lens.
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 colour 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.
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.
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/ $35 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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