ND Filter. Don’t go Variable!

(EDIT: Over at f-stop forum Mark Soon has posted some findings with the Singhray that shows no artefacts. We have had some conversations as to why this could be, and we can’t seem to find out. I just recieved a new singhray yesterday, and I will try the tests again. Still my point remains: I would always recommend buying non-variable ND’s)

A little warning for my fellow photographers today. I like to shoot high speed prime lenses. That should no longer be a secret to the people who follow this blog. Ever since I started going “collectors heaven” with the old 50 mm lenses I have been needing ND filters in all shapes and sizes. And trust me on this

DON’T BUY VARIABLE ND FILTERS!

They will mess up your gorgeous bokeh, and specular highlights!

What a variable ND filter really is, is two pieces of polarising glass. One linear, one circular. You twist the filter to offset the polarisation. Polarized at a 90 degree angle, the filter lets in zero light. at 0 degrees it lets in 100% light. (Basic high school physics :-P)

What this sadly does is introduce artefacts into your out of focus areas. And before you start saying that this is only true on cheap filter brands… trust me…it’s not! I’ve tried variable ND’s from the following companies, and ALL with no exception show this issue!

B+W, Hoya, Hama, Heliopan, and Singh Ray. I returned them all!

They all show the exact same issue. The shots below were taken using the Hoya NDx8 and the Variable Hama NDx2-400. Both fitted on the Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2. Again, this is to show the artefacts. As stated above this is the same for all 5 of the above brands. The Hama is the cheapest, and also the far worst of the bunch. Low contrast, grey dull colours and artefacts. It costs twice that of the normal Hoya NDx8 filter which I now use on ALL my lenses. Best value for money in ND filters as far as I’ve learned.

Normal
Hoya NDx8 Filter. Notice the contrast.
Variable
Hama Variable NDx2-400. Notice the low contrast, grey milky tones to the greens.
Normal ND 100 percent crop
Hoya NDx8 @100% crop. No specular highlight artefacts!
Variable ND 100 percent crop
Hama Variable NDx2-400 @100% crop. Notice the linear artefacts in the speculars.

A couple of shots using the two most expensive Vari ND filters I’ve tried. Both with the same specular highlight artefacts.

DSCF3075-2
Minolta MD 50mm f/1.2 – w/ Variable B+W
DSCF3668
Minolta MD 58mm f/1.4 – Singh Ray Variable ND filter.

So there you have it. A little word of advice from a dude who has tried a bucketload of variable filters. Only to return home to Normal single set ND filters.

Sofie says: Laters! 😀

_DSF2083

/J

jr050680

47 thoughts on “ND Filter. Don’t go Variable!

  1. Boss J–that is really solid advice–which I will use to good effect. Many thanks–I really enjoy your work and suggestion with the Prime legacy 50’s…therein you have offered very informative, accurate and applicable suggestions supported by absolutely beautiful images. Thank you again.

  2. I was about to buy a variable ND filter. Just in time I saw this review via Scoop It. Thank you for the effort.

  3. Great advice and lovely images! Another thing is that the variable ones are pointless too if the aim is to shoot wide open in strong sunlight. One filter will do unless you need absurdly fast shutter speeds. I don’t. Bought two really really expensive variable filters and have never used them once. I think they were around $100 each. Such a waste.

  4. Probably good advice! But it would have been so much better had you shown your images with/without the variable filters, to really show the difference.

    1. Yeah, Indeed it would. Except shooting wide open without any filters at all would cause violent over-exposure, and I wouldnøt really be able to compare 🙂

      Thanks for reading

      /J

      1. How so? Is your shutter so slow? Or are there disatvantages with high shutterspeeds I’m unaware of? Honest question btw.

  5. Glad I saw this before buying. Can you recommend a normal ND filter for those of us who have no clue where to start? Thanks!

    1. Jonas wrote: … Hoya NDx8 filter which I now use on ALL my lenses. Best value for money in ND filters as far as I’ve learned.

  6. A lot of people will deny that filters finally influence the image but I’ve always found it a risk and experienced quite a few undesired artifacts. Trails, unexpected reflections and and effects on color & contrast are always a risk even with the expensive brands, fully coated. I know, there’s quite a bit of justification to use filters. But f.i. I find that polarizers have very weird effects on quite a few cameras. The fierce contrasts may induce noise, influencing the black knee in a strange way it’s erasing all detail – I find that neither my Fuji X or pro-Nikon DSLR reacts very well to them. Being in fact twice a polarizer I can only suppose the worst for this kind of filter. But also neutral density filters might be less neutral than many people think. A complex story. I only use the pro-B+W and Hoya ranges – never the cheap camera outlet kind of stuff – even for protective reasons.

  7. Hi Jonas,
    Thanks for this blog. I was also just about to buy a variable ND, but had concerns about the X issue. I just purchased the Fuji XT-1 and I am STILL waiting for my Fuji 56mm, so I have a couple of questions if that is okay:
    1. Can you use the 62mm Hoya 8X ND with the bayonet lens hood or is it too big for the hood to fit? I want to use the ND with backlit portraits and so I want to avoid unnecessary flare if I can. Is the B+W version any different?
    2. With the 8X (3 stops), does that give you close to f1.2 on a very sunny day (probably backlit)?
    3. Can you autofocus with the 8X ND filter and see well through the EVF?
    Thanks for any experience you can share. I am ready to purchase when you have a moment to reply.
    Thanks again!
    Marshall

    1. Hi Marshall.

      1: yes, Hoya can be used with the hood.
      2: The filter density doesn’t change the aperture value. It lowers the light level. Think of it as sunglasses for your lens. In direct sunlight with the 8x filter I can shoot at f/1.2 at around 1/2500th sec shutter time. 🙂
      3: No problem at all. EVF works like a charm. No different.

      Also have a look at the f-stop lounge website. Mark Soon has written an article about the SinghRay variable ND filter. He gets very different results from mine.

      Thanks for reading the blog.
      /J

  8. Thanks Jonas,
    Yes, for question two, I was rushing and meant to say at the XT-1’s highest shutter speed range, are you able to open to f1.2. I do not see the advantage of the variable for using it to get wider apertures, especially if you are shooting the same way each time. The variable would be good if you need it for several different setups. I already own the Lee Big and Small Stopper so that is what I will use for landscapes. The bonus of the EVF compared to and OVF is that is will compensate for the ND and you are able to see and focus properly. That’s great! Thanks for the information!

  9. I am really loving the theme/design of your website.

    Do you ever run into any internet browser compatfibility
    issues? A couple of my blog audence have complained about
    my blog not operating orrectly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox.

    Do you have any solutions to help fiix this issue?

  10. Hi Jonas!

    As you know the latest X-T1 firmware release (last December) Fuji gave us, basically, a new camera! And one of the interesting features is the 3 stop improvement in shutter speeds employing an electronic shutter. I am wondering if this changes the need to use a 3 stop (like the Hoya NDx8) or just a weaker ND filter or nothing, e.g, with your recently acquired Rikenon 55mm, f/1.2 lens shooting wide open on a sunny day?

    regards.
    Michael

    1. Hi Michael.

      Since the new firmware I am NOW able to shoot directly into the sun at f/1.2, and the images exposes perfectly 🙂 I do however still use ND for flash use when shooting wide open 🙂

      Thanks for reading.
      /J

        1. Haha. Stupid spellchecker!! The glories of using a different native language on your mac. Thank you Mark. It’s of course “now able”
          /J

      1. Thanks for the great article!

        I was about to buy a nd filter for my new x-t1 with a 35mm, and boom… I read your comment on the electronic shutter which shows me shutter speed of 32.000…
        I’ll certainly try this before buying anything.

        If you have the time to answer, is there a downside to the electronic shutter when making the ‘slow-water-effects’?
        Or anything else you want to add about it?

        1. Hahaha. It’s still a relevant question.

          The electronic shutter won’t work with flash, so if you want to shoot wide open in studio, the ND filter is still necessary.
          Also, the electronic shutter will present a “rolling shutter” effect, if your subject is moving too fast across the frame. So there are still a market for these filters.

          Thank you very much for reading.

          /J

          1. Ok, great info – thanks a lot!
            I´ve ordered a Hoya 52mm HMC NDX8 Neutral Density Filter ND8, and will see what it can do for me.

            About the ´rolling shutter´ effect; will this occur at any speed? Or is it something that´s more likely to happen at ss 4000 or at 32.000?

      2. Hi Jonas,

        In regards of using ND filters with the Fujinon XF56mm f1.2 while shooting with a flash during a sunny day would you recommend Hoya 8xND or would you prefer Hoya ND PRO 16x which gives you 4 stops step down to be able to shoot wide open while staying within the maximum sync speed 1/180s of X-T1. If 4 stops step down would suit better is Hoya ND PRO 16x a good option, or would you choose different brand/filter type?

        Many thanks for your response.
        Peter

  11. Hey, discovered your blog about an hour ago, it’s fantastic. I’ve bookmarked it and will be checking in periodically 😀

    I know this is an old entry but hopefully you can still help me out. I’ve recently acquired some fast lenses for my Lecia MP, the summicron 90/2 (read your review on it, can’t wait to start using mine, haven’t received it yet) and the summilux 50/1.4.

    I see what you mean by the distortion created by the variable ND filter, but all of your examples are for color. The artifacts don’t bother me as much as the contrast. Since I only shoot B&W, will it have the same effect on my images? Honestly, I’ve never shot color film, so not sure how the qualities compare.

    Also, since my fastest shutter speed is 1/1000, it seems that I will need the highest density I can get when shooting in California sunshine at f2 or f1.4. It seems to me that the variable is the best option because it offers the max density and everything in between, so if the sun isn’t as intense I can just lower the density. The thing is, it seems on an M8 you can shoot at 1/4000 so you can obtain a medium density filter and work within the high shutter speeds, but this isn’t the case on my camera. Is my reasoning correct?

    Hope to hear from you, thanks!

    1. Hi Alexey!
      Thank you very much for your kind words.

      About the Vari ND. If you buy Singh Ray variable ND filters you shouldn’t have a problem. After my initial testing I tried a new singh ray filter, and the issue didn’t exist on that one. So that would be my best advice to you. They’re expensive. But it seems like your best option. Sounds like a cool setup you’ve got going. I wish you the best.

      Thank you for stopping by.
      /J

  12. Hi Jonas, Interesting post. Having been a Nikon user all my career, when I started using the X Pro1 the relatively slow shutter sync with flash and the lack of and ISO 100/50 setting, was a big limitation. I looked into using different nd filters and in the end opted to try a variable, going with the Hoya version. For location portraits, I’ve continued to use it, and while the X vignetting is an issue, particularly with wider lenses, I’ve been happy with the results when using the 56, 35 and lately the 23 (I used to use the X100s for 35mm images, but having bought the 23 I find it easier to use my 2 XT1s than swopping between different bodies). Reading your post makes me feel I need to pixel peep a little more closely – quality is very important to me, but I haven’t specifically been on the look out for the artefacts you describe.

    In the meantime, I wondered which Nd filters you have been using when shooting wide open with flash? In bright sun I would’ve thought you’d need more than 3 stops to use the widest apertures, so have you a more powerful nd than the one you mention in you post?

    Thanks for any thoughts,
    Cheers
    Andrew

  13. Hi Jonas,

    My friend with whom we were preparing our kits for the India trip advised me to get Tiffen Variable ND filter for the video shooting. I have Xt1 and wanted to take mostly photos but also some video shots and make a short document clip. After reading your post I decided not to go for it as I take photos 75% of the time and only 25% is video. However, If I look at my friends video that he made with his GH4 and tiffen variable set on sigma 18-35,1.8; I do not see any artefacts or issues with bokeh / out of focus areas, etc. Does that mean that your post and the issues you are desribing are applicable only on the photography? Can I conclude that I can use variable ND for video shots without having same issues as artefacts, etc?

    Please, can you share more light onto this? have you tried also some video shots with the variable NDs?
    ps. link to my friends video just for the reference: https://vimeo.com/134177514
    Thank you.
    Much appreciated.
    Maros

  14. Jonas,

    Glad I found this post on google. As per your recommendation, I just bought the Hoya NDx8 filter. I was considering getting a variable ND filter, but took your advice and got this one instead.

    Thanks,
    Marshall

  15. Yeah, agree 100%, I just sent back the variable hoya filter and took instead a hoya ndx8 pro1, finally I’m satisfied with the results, not to mention, that I can put the lens cap on this one… 🙂

    btw, great article!

  16. Hi,

    I found your site while searching variable ND filters. I was about to buy a Hoya 77mm 9 stops filter but now i changed my decision. I’m a photographer and bought an A6300 for video works. I have so much highlights while shooting outdoor videos in 1/50 shutter speed. Which ND filter do you recommend for me? Is a 3 stops filter enough for F1.4, 1/50 shutter speed or should i choose
    higher stop ND?

    Have a nice day

  17. Hi Jonas,

    In which cases you use the recommended filter? Do you also use UV/Clear filters to protect the lens?

    Thank you in advance and have a nice day!

  18. Hi Jonas,

    This was a timely article. I was looking for a variable ND filter myself. I had always heard/read about vignetting issues and other anomalies using variable ND’s. I always blew them off as merely something I’d have to just live with. Your article made me think twice.

  19. Hei

    Jeg holdt på å gå i variabelfella, men leste denne posten i tillegg til andre. etter å ha lest og sett dine bildeeksempler så ble det bestilt et B+W nd106 isteden. Hadde Lee 100×100, men ble stort på Fuji synes jeg 😉

    Jarle
    Norge

  20. Enjoyed the artifact thing,

    Well, imaging is everything and expediency a necessity. In these posts there are 2 addressing the true value of a variable ND filter, which I believe is in cinematography/videography. In those disciplines, maintaining a preferred f stop and preferred shutter speed are of paramount importance. A VND filter makes this task simple. I would like to add that while technically great images benefit from technically great equipment and practices, truly great images know no such restraints.

    thephotorenegqade

  21. I’m sure you are right but not everyone has the money to buy a set of very expensive neutral density filters or even high speed prime lenses for that matter💰
    It would be a great idea/challenge to write an article about photographing on a budget💲

    1. Neither do I, so I bought 1 ND-filter B&W 6-stop 77mm and a bunch of stepdown rings from China. Good way to go budget 🙂

      Jarle

  22. Hi Jonas,
    Thought I search your blog about ND filters, and yes!
    I only have a compact fuji kit at the moment.
    X-pro1 and 35/2 and likely a 23/2 soon

    I want to keep the kit light so I’m not looking at a Cokin or Lee set up yet, but do want to improve my Landscape/ Seascapes and Cityscape shots.
    43mm thread, Hoya ND8x or Tiffen ND series, have you tried this?

    Until I upgrade my lens to an ultra wide lens,
    I rather just keep it light.

    Please let me know what you would use with a 23/35 f2 lenses and would you buy ND8.

    Thank you kindly,
    Love your work and fantastic blog.
    Manga Tak!
    Shidan

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