The Neutral Density Filter That You Probably Don’t Know About, But Should

Photography is an art and craft revolving around controlling light.

The more we know about controlling light the better off we are as creators. But in addition to that, we need the proper tools to control light. Without the right tools, we limit our potential to create work based on our vision, which is a frustrating thing. It’s also important to have quality tools that are reliable and produce predictable results. One of the most straightforward ways to control light is with a neutral density filter but there are some very important things to look out for when finding the right filter.

Editor’s Note: The is a sponsored blog post from Hoya Filters being provided in part for funding our first Analog photography zine: Emulsion

With filter

Using a neutral density filter will allow photographers to get effects like shallow depth of field for portraits and blurred motion when panning, or make water streams look like fog. Neutral density filters are crucial for filmmakers allowing them to record using the 180-degree shutter rule even in bright sun.

Simply put, a neutral density filter cuts down on the amount of light that hits the film plane or the sensor. A good ND filter will reduce the light evenly and have a neutral color balance. Neutral density filters come in two types, Solid and Variable.

Without filter

Sadly though, the market has been flooded with cheap quality filters often endorsed online by new photographers with untrained eyes. Buyer beware; a poorly made ND filter can negatively impact your photo to the point that it can’t easily be fixed in post. The last thing you want to do is spend your time and money on the wrong filter, and set up a beautiful shot only to be ruined by the cheap glass. Don’t do it! A good filter will last you a lifetime. A poor filter will cost you more than its price tag.

Using a well made ND filter will not only help control light but it will help keep colors clean, allowing you to capture a good image that in post makes a spectacular one. The materials and manufacturing process of a filter are just as important as how your lens is made, if not more. When I see people spending thousands of dollars on a nice lens only to ruin the quality of that glass with a crappy filter I cry a silent tear for them.

A huge problem with poorly made ND filters is color shift. People try to hide the color shift by using some pseudo “film” preset but it’s obvious and the damage is done to the raw file, and in the case of analog film photography to the film. It’s pointless to spend hours in post so just get the right filter. The Hoya Solas IRND is a special ND filter designed to prevent infrared contamination of captured colors. This is huge, people. With the Solas IRND, photographers get consistent color balance across all densities which makes using them predictable and straightforward. The Solas come in densities between 1 and 10 stops. In addition to the Solas IRND Solid filters, Hoya makes a Variable ND filter with a 1.3 to 8.7 stop range as well.

Variable ND Filters

Variable NDs are super convenient to use for filmmakers and photographers working with fast changing light. For instance, my last music video had a compressed budget (surprise right?) so I shot it as a run-n-gun. This meant that I was using three primes and three Variable NDs; one mounted on each lens for the entire shoot. We could not control the quality of the light but we could control the amount of light and its quality falling onto the sensor. My preference was to have Solid NDs since they are more predictable but we had to use Variable NDs which got the job done. Cheap NDs are plagued with issues like color shifts but Hoya helped solve this issue by baking into the glass a “depolarization” layer.

When you need a Variable ND there are some things to be aware of even with a premium filter like the Solas Variable IRND. Because of the nature of a Variable filter, it’s difficult to precisely repeat the results with every shot, which is why when I’m shooting quickly I keep an ND on every lens. Yes, it costs more but remember, good quality glass lasts your life. If you rotate the Variable ND filter too far you’ll begin to get an “X effect” across your frame. Also, the “X effect” can be hard to see on some LCD screens so be sure to check your EVF when using Variable NDs. Also for primes with very large apertures, you’re more likely to run into the max amount of light absorption that the Variable ND can handle before getting that dreadful “X” on your image. In this case, you’ll need a set of Solid NDs.

As I mentioned throughout this article, the biggest pitfall to watch out for is cheap filters. Don’t buy one from a company you don’t know, or buy one from a brand that used to be a leader but was then bought out and suffered from lower quality in the name of profits. Your photography and your video work is far more valuable, and as I also mentioned, a good filter will last a lifetime. You can use a Solid ND for predictable results, especially on primes, but when you need to work fast or absorb light in fractions of a stop use a Variable ND.

It’s nice to know that the Hoya Solas are made in Japan with the same quality manufacturing Hoya has always been know for. You can rely on the Solas to give you predictable results time and time again which is refreshing in today’s “race to the bottom” mentality that many accessory manufacturers seem to employ. The Solas are available in 49mm to 82mm filter sizes.