A variable ND filter is an essential piece of equipment for any photographer that works in natural light. This type of filter can be easily defined in two terms; a Neutral Density (ND) filter is used to block part of the light from reaching the sensor of the camera, while the variable attribute means that one can adjust the power of the filter.
This is especially useful when photographing or filming subjects in bright light and the photographer needs to reduce it by other means than the in-camera settings. The variable feature is extremely important as it allows exactly adjusting the needed Neutral Density value.
What features to look for in a variable ND filter
There are a lot variable ND filters on the market, so searching for the best variable ND filter might seem a bit daunting. There are a few simple features to look out for if you’re choosing the best ND filter for DSLR cameras.
- Compatibility: First of all, not all filters are compatible with all lenses. Knowing what lens you want to use means that you should choose filters that will work on your brand and model.
- Stopping value: Next big feature of variable ND filters is their stopping value and there are situations which require more or less strength. Preferably, you will want to choose a filter with a bigger interval, as this is the best feature of variable filters.
- Build Quality: The best variable neutral density filters should also feature a good build and preferably a nice design also, as these will determine its results and durability. There is also the question of using a circular or a square filter design.
- Sharpness: A good variable ND filter will also have to be sharp, as cheap and questionable filters might have a bad impact on the sharpness and color qualities of the final image.
- Price: The price should also be taken into consideration, as usually the best variable neutral density filters are more expensive than regular ones, without the variable feature.
The best advice when searching for the best variable ND filter is to thoroughly research before deciding on what to purchase, balancing the pros and cons of each choice in combination with its price. There are certain features that should always come into consideration, but for your convenience, here are 3 of the best variable neutral density filters available now.
Best Variable ND Filter – Top 3
- Wide range of values, from 0.3 to 2.0 ND (equaling 1 to 6 stops)
- High quality build with slim design
- Provides extremely clear images with almost no effect
- The brass ring allows for smooth operation and offers hard stops
- The matte finish hinders any color casts in the final image
- Some vignette problems with the wide angle lenses
- Some vignette in the corners at the widest focal lengths
- Cheap looking plastic carrying case
One of the best options on the market, the Heliopan 77mm Variable ND Filter excels in several domains, offering some of the crispest and best looking results. With a recognized tough construction, featuring quality glass from Schott and brass ring for fast and easy adjusting. It is a slim version and offers versatility, as it has a 1 to 6 stops variation, useful for most situations.
The ring offers the convenience of having hard stops to repeat certain settings, yet the variation is smooth and the markings surely offer an advantage. The slim design hinders the unwanted vignette from the corners of the image, only the widest lenses having slight issues at the wide end, although these are negligible.
To adjust the density between the 0.3 and 2.0 (1 to 6 stops), the photographer or videographer has to slightly twist the front ring. Although the slim shape allows for less color cast problems and a better design, it does not allow the attachment of other filters on top of it.
All of these great features come with a main disadvantage, the price obviously. Great quality comes at an expensive cost of about $380, although you could keep an eye on certain discounts at times. If money is not an issue and you need one of the best variable ND filters, this is certainly a great choice.
- Allows the selection of an f-stop and camera speed.
- Superior build quality with high-quality Schneider glass
- Excellent results at 1-6 f-stops with no impact on the final result
- Step rings are available in common sizes to adapt to smaller lens thread diameters.
- When approaching maximum filter density an anomaly may occur that makes a black X show in the center of the image. Although this can be fixed, it is a slight inconvenience.
Coming at a higher price than both Heliopan and Tiffen filters, the Schneider VariND certainly boasts in high-end features. The most sought after characteristic and extremely useful for photographers and videographers is the possibility to select the aperture and shutter speed, independent from the ambient light. It also offers a wide range of stops, from 1-1/3 to 10 stops, although the best results will be produced between 1 and 6 stops.
The Schneider Optics TrueMatch VariND Filter certainly is one of the best filters on the market, maybe the best and this comes at a high price, up to $400, but it is all worth it. The only true problem comes from using the high values of the density, when a black X-shape can appear in the center of the image. This can be fixed by adjusting the variable lighter filter.
- Fits with all lenses with a regular filter thread.
- Diameter sizes: 37mm, 49mm, 46mm, 52mm, 55mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm and 77mm.
- Reduces exposure with 3 f-stops
- Sturdy build quality
- Depending on your needs, 3 f-stop reduction might not be enough
- Filter causes a very slight yellow cast but this can easily be fixed
Most of the features of Heliopan Variable ND Filter are also present in this model by Tiffen, with a sturdy and quality build, almost absent influence on the image and ease of use. However, this option is cheaper in comparison and some differences do exist.
First of all, the Tiffen Variable ND Filter only offers a 3 stop f-stop reduction, half of the Heliopan filter. This means a lot when one needs to reduce a large amount of light. However, it represents a viable choice for its quality and price. It is very practical, as it allows to be used with most lenses, featuring a regular filter thread. The one small problem that one might encounter is a very slight yellow cast, although this can easily be fixed in post-production.
The competition is really tough among these three but if you want to buy one of the best variable ND filters you should never go out of this list.