Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm thinking about getting an neutral density filter to shoot some silky waterfalls and smooths waves on the beach.

What would you recommend in terms of:
1. Brand - quality, durability, price
2. Darkness - what do I need to slow a direct sunlight shot (sunset, sunrise) down to 10-20s exposure?
3. Type - uniform or gradual?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I have also recently been researching the same subject. I'm a DSLR user, but there are many scenarios where shooting without an ND filter is just not possible. In my extensive exploration of ND filters, I've found Lee Filters. Both from a textbook technical perspective, and in reality, Lee seems to have the best filters available.

Some of the things I've learned about ND filters are that you need flexibility in how they are situated in front of your lens (particularly for ND Grad filters), and quality of filtration. A lot of other brands don't filter all ranges of light...they filter the "central" bulk of visible light, but allow either infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths to slip through. This can give an undesired color cast to your images...either warming them or cooling them.

Lee filters are solid filters that don't leave much of a color cast, and they have a very broad range of stops, anything from a few stops up through their "Big Stopper", a whopping 10-stop filter.


In regards to which kind of filter you get, you will ultimately probably need both solid and graduated filters. One of the most useful purposes for an ND Grad filter is to balance the contrast in a scene, and depending on the scene, you may want a hard ND grad, or a soft ND grad. If you have a sharp horizon with a very bright sky, a hard ND grad will serve you well. If you have a softer or less defined horizon, such as a mountain landscape, a soft ND grad will probably be better. The most common ND grad filters I have seen in use, and the ones I've purchased for myself, are the 0.6 and 0.9 (or 2 and 3 stop).

If you wish to greatly slow down the rate at which light reaches your sensor, by that 10-20 seconds, you'll likely need a high-stop solid ND filter. Lee's Big Stopper is an excellent high-stop ND filter that will definitely get the job done for you.

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That Big Stopper link might be broken, please check. (also possible it's just me and the Great Firewall having a tussle...) –  Andrew Heath May 14 '12 at 2:29

This is similar to a question I posed. I'll dump what I know, and hope my question gets answered in turn :)

I have heard that Cokin has a color cast to their "ND" filters, so avoid them. Not sure about singh-ray. Lee I have heard is the best, but in my experience, their 4x6 gnd's are having supply chain issues.

I think I read an article somewhere about some pro using a 9ish? stop filter to slow down waves at twilight. This sounds about right to me, but I've never tried it myself.

In terms of uniform or gradual, that depends on what you want to accomplish. An overall ND would be good for taking those hot white peaks out of wave caps, but a GND is important for balancing the sky against the water (GND on top). Jim Patterson is my idol for this stuff, and he recommended a .6 hard GND, and .9 soft. The .6/.9 describes the number of stops of light it filters, and the hard or soft describes how the edge is feathered. He said for water shots of sunsets on the horizon, he even uses a reverse GND - where the bottom half is clear, the darkest part is dead center, and it trails off to clear at the top. This allows you to balance three pieces - dark water against hot sunset against semi dark sky.

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From my experience with Cokin filters, the color cast really only becomes a problem when you stack more than one. –  Sam Jul 16 '10 at 0:17

B+W is good stuff.

I've used their 10 stop ND filter. It's pretty cool for long daytime exposures. There was a slightly warm tone for longer exposures. I was using it on a 10-22, which has a fair amount of vignetting at the wide end, so keep in mind that a 10 stop filter will emphasize that.

The type is up to you, but I think a regular one would be more versatile.

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How much attenuation you need to slow down a sunlight shot to 15 seconds is simple to answer. Just do the math.

For a average scene in normal sunlight, good exposure will be about f/16 and a shutter speed of 1/ISO seconds. Let's say you want to shoot at 200 ISO for maximum image quality. You've got too much light, so use as much as you can to get the best quality out of your sensor. In this example, the scene would be properly exposed at f/16 and 1/200 seconds. Let's keep the aperture the same as a first comparison. That means you need to attenuate the light by a factor of 15s/(1/200s) = 3000 times. Take the Log2 of that to get f-stops, which is 11.6. That's a lot. A 10-stop ND filter would work, but for that scene and sticking to 200 ISO you would have to stop down another 1 1/2 stops. F/22 and 10 seconds should be about right then, or f/22 and 20 seconds if you can go to ISO 100.

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If you don't mind polarization you can get variable ND filter by combining a linear polarizer with another polarizer and adjusting their relative position.

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I can tell you that the B+W 10 stop ND filter is a great piece of glass. I've only really used it in dark overcast winter days for slowing water down. If you want to use a filter on a bright sunny day I think you can do a lot worse than this filter.

There is a knack to using it though, which I've written up about here: http://fwgx.co.uk/2009/12/30/what-i-use-for-long-exposure-shots/

There's another example of using it: http://fwgx.co.uk/2009/12/30/woodland-gardens-long-exposure/

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Great link and write up. Many times we have people "self-promote" here and it is more or less just spam. But this is actually helpful so thank you for linking to it! –  dpollitt Jan 17 '13 at 16:34

Singh-ray's variable density filter along with their 5 stop mor-slo and 10 stop mor-slo. They are the only NDs filters I ever need to take with me. The variable goes from 3 to 8 stops of light by simply turing the filter frame like you would with a polarizer. It works extremely well and is precise and reliable.

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The other brand that gets a good review is Singh-Ray filters. Amongst the range of products they also have the (i think) very interesting Vari-ND. This is a ND filter that you can adjust from 2 to 8 stops. Although you pay a premium for it, you only need to buy a single filter instead of many. Can be very useful your trying to slow water down for long exposures.

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