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Some of the Best and Most Affordable Variable ND Filters of 2020

These three tried-and-true variable ND filters will help you control exposure under even the harshest light. And they’ll do it without breaking the bank.

You’ve got your camera. You’ve picked out the perfect lens and selected your SD/CFast card. So, what’s the next step on this path toward the best shot of your life? The answer is easy: It’s time to choose a neutral-density filter (ND filter) like those found in Canon’s C lineup and other cinema-grade cameras. Here’s what you need to know.


ND Filters: What Are They, What Do They Do, and When Do You Need One?

ND Filter in action

A simple demonstration of how ND filters can affect your shot. Image via tigristiara.

In the simplest terms, a neutral-density filter reduces the amount of light hitting the sensor without affecting or changing an image’s hues. This effectively allows you to increase your aperture and control your exposure in bright settings. Instead of stopping down to f22, or however small you can make your aperture, you can shoot with a shallow depth of- field and control your overall exposure more precisely.

There are all kinds of different ND filters, like graduated ND filters, variable ND filters, and even “extreme ND filters,” which let in only the tiniest amount of light. (You can dig in a bit deeper with a quick look at our post “Manipulating the Invisible Spectrum with ND Filters.”)

You really only need an ND filter when shooting in bright, overexposed situations — like beneath the mid-day sun. Personally, I like to keep some type of ND filter attached to my camera in most situations, just for the added control over my image. At the very least, I always have one nearby for when I need to use a specific aperture.


Best Variable ND Filters

Unlike standard ND filters, variable ND filters let you control the intensity of the filter. So, instead of being locked in with a 4-stop filter, you can switch to a 6-stop with a simple twist. This instant adaptability makes variable ND filters perfect for documentary projects and other shooting situations where the moment-by-moment flow is unpredictable.

It should be noted, as you can see in the video above, circular ND filters that are screwed onto the lens do create distortion as you increase their strength. Specifically, you can expect some vignetting as the two pieces of glass cross over each other.

Tiffen

Tiffen

An added selling point is the ability to screw another filter on top of this one. Image via Tiffen.

Price: $87.19

This classic variable filter allows you to stop down from 2 to 8 stops, and its aluminum ring has markers on the side that let you know how many stops you’re reducing as you twist. The main reason I included this filter at the top of the list? You can add another filter on top of it — like a polarizer or Black Pro-Mist.


Hoya 

Hoya

This filter is made of aluminum and slightly reduces vignetting. Image via Hoya.

Price: $74.90

This filter has a 1.5 to 9 stop range and claims to reduce vignetting. However, I own this filter and can say there’s still some vignetting. Honestly, you’re always going to have a degree of vignetting with circular lenses. It’s just inevitable. Nonetheless, Hoya’s clearly marked, aluminum-made filter will indeed get you closer to your desired image.


PolarPro

Price: $249.99

Taking the internet by storm two years ago, this “Peter McKinnon” branded filter has a pretty steep price point. There’s a reason these filters cost more: The glass is fused quartz, which helps eliminate cross-polarization, and — you guessed it — vignetting.

Yes, I know that only moments ago I said vignetting is inevitable, but, like most things, you get what you pay for. With the Polar Pro, you’re paying for its ability to get vignetting under control while producing a crystal clear image. Available in 2-5 and 6-9 stop variations.


Recommended Stepping Rings

A stepping ring is a super-inexpensive attachment that allows you to use a single filter with different lens sizes. Which is another way of saying, “spend a little now to spend less later, all while have more room in your camera bag.”

How’s it all work? Well, if have a 52mm lens and a 77mm lens, buy a 77mm filter and a 52-77 step ring. Now you can use the bigger filter on the smaller lens. The rings only cost around $5, making it easy to own multiple rings for your various lenses.


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