Having recently purchased and used a variable nd filter I thought I had better warn anyone thinking of buying one how rubbish they are and don’t bother wasting your hard earned money on something you will use once, be disappointed with and then toss it in the bin.
When I go travelling I like to travel to light yet I still like to have the option of taking long exposures since it is an effect that is impossible to re-create using photo editing software. Even if the effect of using an nd filter could be replicated with photo editing software I would still use an actual nd filter because I like to get things right in camera rather than spending hours in front of the computer screen.
Rather than taking a selection of nd filters travelling with me, which not only adds more weight, adds more things to get lost or damaged and also adds more bits of photography equipment to clean I thought a variable nd filter would be a good buy. I mean, one filter and the option to slow down the exposure by 1 – 8 stops seemed awesome. I thought that a variable nd filter would revolutionise my travel photography and help me capture the photos I wanted to take with the minimum amount of equipment and the minimum amount of fuss.
The price of filters varies and you can buy super cheap filters or very expensive filters or filters priced in the middle. I am wary of super cheap filters and always tend to spend a little more on a quality product, so that is what I thought I would do with a variable nd filter. In fact, with the variable nd filter I thought I would go for well known, and reputable brand and spend as much money as I needed to get the best variable nd filter I could. I mean, when I’m travelling I effectively get one chance to grab the shot and if I don’t get it on that day then I won’t get the chance again. There are no second chances with travel photography and hence I don’t mess around.
The variable nd filter I decided to buy was a Tiffen one and I bought it online. When I received the variable nd the first thing I noticed was the quality. It was very good, felt nice and weighty and also very sturdy. First impressions were good, and I couldn’t wait to get out and test it out.
The filter easily screwed in to the end of my lens, the action was smooth and it was very easy to use. With a twist of the outer ring I could change the strength of the filter and slow down the exposure by up to 8 stops, which seemed awesome. I eagerly took a few shots at different settings and returned home to have a look at my images.
To say I was disappointed with the results was an understatement. The variable nd filter reduced the image quality to such an extent the photos were unusable and could not be recovered using my normal photo editing software. I was expecting a slight reduction in image quality however not this much. Another thing I noticed is that using the filter with a 3 stop setting there was a small dark cross in the centre of the photo, and that this cross got bigger at the 4 stop setting, bigger still at the 5 stop setting and so on right through to the 8 stop setting. There was no way of getting rid of this cross so the variable nd filter could only be used for 1 or 2 stops and no more. I felt cheated.
Fortunately, I discovered how poor the variable nd filter was before I went travelling. Had I taken the variable nd filter and left all my other nd filters at home I would have been majorly annoyed.
IS THERE A “BEST VARIABLE ND FILTER?”
So what is the best variable nd filter? This is a good question and one I cannot answer because I don’t think one actually exists. I didn’t buy a cheap and cheerful variable neutral density filter and spend a good amount of money on one from a reputable and quality company. I could have got a variable nd filter for the fraction of the cost from Amazon, one of those unbranded generic ones but I didn’t.
Instead I thought I would spend a decent amount of money in order to capture stunning travel photos.
Since using the variable neutral density filter I have spoken with a bloke from the camera store and he says every variable nd filter is the same, and that all of them significantly reduce image quality and the dreaded black cross will appear in photos. I did ask how he could sell them to the public, and the response was that most of the shops sales are online and they provide what the customer wants. If the customer puts a variable nd filter in their “basket” the shop will send the customer a variable nd filter. The bloke did say that when he was asked about using a variable neutral density by a customer instore or over the phone he would do everything he could to dissuade them from buying the product. It’s a shame I did my variable neutral density filter research online and didn’t bother going to my local camera shop in the first instance. I could have saved myself a bit of money.
FORGET ABOUT THE VARIABLE ND FILTER AND USE THESE
Based on my experience with the variable nd filter I would advise not even bothering. Instead, I recommend buying and using an nd filter set, consisting of individual nd filters each one of a single strength. The nd filters I use are made by Hoya, and I have to say I am well impressed with them. The reduction in image quality using these nd filters is negligible, there is no noticeable colour cast and they are very well made.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.
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