I am going to jump right in to the nuts & bolts of this review, without a lot of explanation about what a Neutral Density filter actually is. If you aren't familiar with ND filters, my ND 101 article would be a great place to start. The main goal for this article is to provide unbiased, real-world examples of each filter, covering a wide array of price points, and give you a useful tool to compare the various options in the Neutral Density Filter marketplace.
Scope of Study
This is not a scientific study of the optical qualities of these filters. I did not have access to a spectrometer, or any other scientific equipment. Quite the opposite. I was in the position of realizing that my very old and very inexpensive filters were no longer a reasonable decision for my Canon L lenses and a 5D Mark III. It's just crazy to have spent many thousands of dollars on great photography gear, only to have a cheap (and I'll admit it… JUNKY) filter. The whole idea for this article came out of the fact that I wanted to pick out filters to buy for my own photography, but I wanted to make a very educated decision. That being said, since I was reaching out to as many vendors as I could find, I also asked them to provide their “low level” gear, in addition to their top level gear, if they would like. That way, I could offer everyone a great cross comparison of what an image looks like through a $35 filter, versus what it looks like through a $450 filter.
My test process:
I shot all of the test photos during the same hour, on a VERY bright day, at high noon, with zero cloud cover, in direct sunlight. Rather than purchasing a color chart, I took advantage of the free paint cards from a local hardware store, and I taped them on a white adirondack chair, and put a gray scale across the stop as well, using the same method. The photos were shot on a Canon 5D Mark III, set to “faithful” style. The White Balance was set to “Daylight.”
When compensating for the number of stops, I adjusted the camera exactly the correct number of stops for the name of the filter. SO – if it was a 3-stop filter, I adjusted the shutter speed exactly 3 stops in comparison to the reference photo. I re-shot the reference photo for each major grouping of photos (one reference photo for 1 & 2 stops, one reference for 3, 4 & 5 stops, one for 6 stops, and one for 9 and 10 stops, and one final reference photo for the 15-stop photos.) Even though there was essentially no change in the brightness of the day, I wanted to ensure that I would be comparing each set of filtered images with a relevant and accurate control image. I observed in the testing of numerous filters of the same “stopping power,” that they weren't all exactly identical. For example, when testing the 10-stop filters, one or two of them appeared to stop a little bit less than 10 stops of light. The light meter in camera would read +1/3 or +2/3, even though I had done the mathematical adjustment correctly for ten stops. I felt that it was important to remain consistent, so I used the mathematical exposure time, and ignored the light meter. From a pragmatic perspective, a photographer is not going to own all of these filters. He/she will shoot their chosen filters and truly learn that piece of gear inside and out, just like we learn our cameras, or lenses, etc.
In each category, I am going to list the filters based on price point for Amazon, at the time of the writing of the article. All prices and all links provided are to brand new 77mm variety of the filter, or the 100mm size for square filters. Of course as a consumer, you will want to double-check for price changes taking effect after the writing of the article. You will also want to make sure that you have the correct size filter for your own needs. I was testing the filters on a Canon 24-70 2.8L, which is a 77mm lens. It's worth mentioning that if you are going to eventually own a big wide-angle lens, you may be better off buying the 82mm version of the filters, with a step-up ring for whatever lenses you are currently using. This will save a substantial amount of money in the long-run, since you can use the larger filter an all of your smaller lenses, without any difficulties at all.
The 1-stop category contains 3 filters:
Vu Sion ND 1-Stop
B+W 101 ND $80.00 USD
Heliopan Grey ND 1-Stop $115.00 USD
My overview of the 1-stop filters is that while there are clear differences from one filter to another, none of them really fall into the category of ‘unacceptable' color caste. All three of the contenders in this category performed well. The Vu filter looks to caste toward the blue side of things. The B+W and Heliopan look very similar to each other, both generating a slight warming caste. Here again, though, I don't view any of the effects to be a “deal breaker” for any of these filters, and would be comfortable using any of them.
The 2-stop category contains 4 filters:
B+W 102 ND .6 $90.00 USD
Heliopan Grey ND .6 $115.00 USD
Lee Pro Glass .6ND 100mm Drop Filter $266 USD (plus holder)
The 2-stop filters also have just slight casting involved. The B+W and Heliopan are still toward the warmer side of things, and again, looking very similar to each other. Of all of the filters in the 2-stop category, I think I personally would opt for the Lee Pro Glass .6, if making my choice completely independent of cost. The test photography for this article was actually the first time I had used a drop-in filter with a filter holder, and I could easily see myself greatly enjoying the “tactile” side of the Lee filter system. I actually found it extremely fast to make changes and adjustments with the Lee holder system.
The 3-stop category contained 5 filters:
Tiffen Neutral Density .9 $42.00 USD
Tiffen Water White ND .9 $80.00 USD
Manfrotto ND 8 $115.00 USD
Breakthrough Photography X4 ND (Amazon link says X3, but the X4 will ship, and link will soon be updated.) $163.00 USD
Lee Pro Glass .9 ND $259.00 USD (plus holder)
The 3-stop category includes the first entries by Tiffen, Monfrotto and Breakthrough Photography. As regular listeners to the podcast know, the Breakthrough Photography filters are the filter of choice of Nick Page. I find myself agreeing with Nick Page on virtually every topic. That tradition is not going to change here! The thing that I absolutely loved about the Breakthrough Photography filter is how neutral the color is, but then how the fine hues are differentiated. For example, use the sliders above to move slowly across the Breakthrough test image. I feel that the slight hues at the bottom of the color charts are much more defined in the Breakthrough image than any of the other filters. The other filter that I again really enjoyed was the Lee. There is a distinct color caste to the Lee, it definitely skews toward the blue side of things, even at the 3-stop range. I think Manfrotto held up quite well at the three-stop range. The one filter that I feel I would place in the “avoid” category are the Tiffen filters. I was truly hoping not to have any strong negative reactions to any of the filters, but for my own personal taste, I would not consider the Tiffen filters. This becomes even more extreme at the higher stopping powers.
4 & 5-stop Filters
This category contains a 4-stop and a 5-stop filter:
Tiffen HT ND (4-stop) $131.00 USD
Singh-Ray 77mm MOR SLO ND-5 $250.00 USD
I only had one 4-stop and one 5-stop filter in the line-up. The 4-stop Tiffen was the highest-end model that I evaluated. It was better than the others, but still not necessarily a filter that I would feel an urge to purchase. There is a distinct caste toward green here. The 5-stop filter is the first appearance of Singh-Ray in the review. I was extremely excited that Singh-Ray joined the line-up, and sent me three filters to test. The 5-stop every-so-slightly warms the image, but certainly not to an extent that I would consider objectionable. It is noticeable, without a doubt.
The 6-stop category contains 4 filters:
Tiffen Water White IR ND $89.00 USD
Tiffen Water White ND $104.00 USD
Breakthrough X4 ND 6-stop $173.00 USD
Lee Little Stopper 100mm 1.8 $150.00 USD (plus holder)
The 6-stop category is the next appearance of Breakthrough Photography. Again, they perform absolutely incredibly when it comes to color neutrality. By this time in my test another, perhaps unintended benefit became obvious. I was shooting in bright sunlight, on a 100+ degree day. Man of the filter rims became so very hot, that I was burning my fingers. Perhaps it's the proprietary grip on their rims, or perhaps it was the material of the rim, or maybe even the fact that the filter was packaged a certain way – but I could easily handle it when so many of the others were literally so hot that I was afraid to drop them. By far, the number one reason that I find the Breakthrough Photography a very clear winner in this category, is yet again they are so amazingly color-neutral! Lee's 6-stop is definitely casting toward blue. I am still extremely drawn to the drop filter type of system, but the blue caste is quite pronounced. Breakthrough is clearly ahead of the game here when it comes to the neutral color.
10-stop Filters (plus a 9-stop)
The 10-stop category contains 9 filters, plus one 9-stop.
Manfrotto ND 500 9-stop $115.00 USD
Tiffen XLE Axent 10-stop $39.00 USD
B+W 110 ND 10-stop $67.00 USD
Vu Sion ND 10-stop $97.00
Nisi 100mm 10-stop filter $118.00 USD (plus holder)
Tiffen XLE Advantix 10-stop $140.00 USD
Lee Big Stopper 100mm 3.0$150.00 USD
Breakthrough x4 ND 10-stop $183.00 USD
Heliopan Grey ND 3.0 10-stop $189.00 USD
Tiffen XLE Apex HOT Mirror 10-stop $225.00 USD
Singh-Ray MOR SLO ND 10-stop $380.00 USD
The 10-stop category is the largest category of the entire review. This is also the first appearance of a relatively new filter company for the United States market. NiSi, a Chinese manufacturer, sent me two filters to test. One of my most embarrassing moments was when I dropped the case that contained both the 10-stop AND the 15-stop NiSi filters, just after I had shot the 10-stop filters. So, completely due to my own clumsiness, I was unable to include their 15-stop during my initial publication of this review. I have asked them to re-send the 15-stop, because the results from the 10-stop are really very exciting! The NiSi 10-stop performs very well in terms of color neutrality. I'm incredibly interested to see what they have to offer in the future. I'm also very interested to see what they have to offer with regards to Graduated Neutral Density filters, etc. The 10-stop category also has another phenomenal showing from Breakthrough Photography. Breakthrough absolutely knocked it out of the park with consistency across all three of their filters in the review.
The 15-stop category contains 2 filters, with a possible third and forth to be added soon.
Lee Super Stopper 100mm 4.5 15-stop $150.00 USD (plus holder)
Singh-Ray MOR SLO ND 15-stop $480.00 USD
I was actually very wonderfully surprised that both entries in the 15-stop category had minimal problems with color casting. Both the Singh-Ray and the Lee Super Stopper fell into what I would view as entirely acceptable as a 15-stop filter. The incredibly exciting news here is that Breakthrough Photography will be releasing a 15-stop filter in their product line-up. Also, I am very hopeful to get another chance to test the NiSi 15-stop as well.
I wanted to avoid coming right out and saying “buy this filter” in this review. The main goal I set for myself was to get everything set up so that each photographer can make their own determination with regard to what they would want to use. My decision-making process has narrowed down tremendously, and I fully intend to do a lot more shooting, and perhaps to offer a subsequent update with a few different products.
First and foremost, I love the Breakthrough Photography line-up. For a threaded filter, they are absolutely, hands down, my choice. I want them in my camera bag. Regardless of any other filters I decide to work with.
The other two that I am incredibly interested in spending much more time with are the Lee and NiSi filter systems. I am very interested to see how the Graduated Neutral Density filters work in conjunction with the ND filters with these systems. I feel that the holder system will generally be a “love it or hate it” type of thing. For me – I love it! Vu also has drop filters available, and I would be extremely interested in seeing how they fit in with the other two drop filter options. There is something very appealing to me having to do with the tactile, ‘mechanical' side of using the drop filters. In an ideal dream world, I would really want to have the option of BOTH a threaded system, and the drop filter system.