Ultimate Guide: 10 Best Variable ND Filters

by Tom Shu

If you are in a hurry and just want to find out what the best variable ND filter is, then I’d recommend the PolarPro Variable ND Filter as the best one!

Variable ND filters are one of the most important accessories you can invest in for your camera especially if you want to capture cinematic looking footage. They can be useful for photography too if you use them the right way, but I’ll talk about why I think that might not be the best idea in the next section.

As for now, here are my 10 favorite variable ND filters that I found after many hours or research and sleepless nights. They are separated into 3 different sections, premium variable ND filters, mid-range variable ND filters, and budget variable ND filters, so I’m sure you’ll be able to find one that works for you!

Here are the variable ND filters that we will go over:

 

Why Should you Only use a Variable ND Filter for Video?

silhouette of guy with camera

I know some of you who are reading this article might be looking for a variable ND filter for photography. If this is you, I think you’re better off with a solid ND filter and should stop reading this article.

The reason why I say that is because, in the long run, a variable ND filter will cause more problems with your photos than a solid ND filter.

Here is why.

In photography, there are two main situations where you will need some sort of ND filter:

  • When you are shooting with a wide aperture like f/1.8 in bright lighting conditions.
  • When you are shooting long exposure in a scene with a medium amount of light.

In the first situation, you can get away with using a variable ND filter. If that’s all you’ll be using an ND filter for, then a variable ND can work for you.

However, in the second situation, a variable ND is not great for long exposure photography. In some conditions, such as if it is cloudy or if you are shooting in the shade, a variable ND will work fine.

The downside is once you start shooting long exposures in bright light conditions such as sunrise, your photos tend to start falling apart, especially compared to a solid ND filter.

These are some of the downsides of using a variable ND filter for long exposure photography:

  • Many variable ND filters do not have the clearest markings to show you how many stops of light you are blocking. Since you don’t know how many stops of light you are decreasing, it’s hard to get your settings 100% right. The variable ND filters with clearest markings that we will go over are the PolarPro Variable ND – Peter Mckinnon Edition, Freewell Variable ND Filter and Moment Variable ND Filter
  • When shooting in brighter conditions, there is a good chance extra light will leak through the variable ND filter causing a softer image. This is because a variable ND filter is made with two layers of circular polarizing pieces of glass.

High-quality variable ND filters are usually more expensive than high-quality solid ND filters, so wouldn’t you want to save some money and have the confidence that it will work in every situation you would need an ND filter in?

photo of variable nd filter on log

How a Variable ND Filter Affects Image Quality?

When picking out a variable ND filter, it’s important for you to understand how it can impact the overall quality of your image. Like anything else, you won’t run into any problems if you use it right, but there are some things to watch out for which will negatively affect your image quality.

Color Cast

With most variable ND filters or even a solid ND filter, you will likely get some sort of color cast to your image. This isn’t a big problem because you can just correct it in post-processing. Premium ND filters usually don’t have as heavy of a color cast as cheaper ND filters.

Cross X Pattern Issue

When you push your variable ND filter too far past its darkest setting, you will likely see an X-like pattern in your image and it is even more pronounced in wider lenses.

To get around this issue, some variable ND filters like the PolarPro – Peter Mckinnon Edition, B+W XS Pro, Moment Variable ND Filter, Freewell Variable ND Filter, and the K&F Concept have hard stops to prevent you from pushing the filter too far.

This is what the X pattern looks like. In this image, I’m using the Hoya variable ND filter, which is a mid-tier filter on the Sony Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 lens.

example of cross polarization in the sky from nd filter

Cross Polarization Issue with Wide Angle Lenses

If you plan on using your variable ND filter with a wide-angle lens, this is something to watch out for.

Remember, variable ND filters are essentially 2 polarized filters stacked on top of each other. How strong an effect the polarizing filter has on the image depends on the angle it is from the sun and it usually works best with the sun at 90 degrees.

Since a wide-angle lens covers an area that is greater than 90 degrees, the areas closest to 90 degrees in the image will have the strongest polarization effect and will make these areas of the image darker than other areas.

Usually, the more expensive the variable ND filter is, the wider a lens you can use. Another way you can help with this issue is to use a larger mm variable ND filter than you need and use step-up rings for each lens you have.

This is also a great way to save money and I’ll talk more about this next.

How to Save Money with Filters?

illustration of a piggy bank

Who doesn’t like to save money?

Variable ND filters are already expensive enough and the last thing you want to do is to have to buy a separate filter for each lens you have.

One of the best ways to save money on variable ND filters is to buy the biggest one possible and then to use step-up rings to fit it on the different lenses you have. It’s better to buy the biggest variable ND filter because then you’ll know you can always use a step-up ring no matter what additional lens you get.

nd filter on the side of yashica a camera

All you have to do to use a step-up ring is to screw it onto your lens and then screw in the variable ND filter into the step-up ring.

Make sure you get a high-quality step-up ring like this one from Breakthrough Photography. Cheaper step-up rings might have light leaks and they are usually made of lower quality material which could damage your variable ND filter and camera threads.

When looking at a step-up ring, in most instances the first number in the product description is the camera thread size and the second number is the filter size.

So, for example, this product, “Breakthrough Photography 55mm to 82mm Step-Up” would fit a 55mm lens size and an 82mm variable ND filter.

What to Look for in the Best Variable ND Filters for Video?

two nd filters side by side

There are so many different variable ND filters on the market at all different price points, so it’s important to understand what you’re investing in.

When it comes to variable ND filters and filters in general, the old saying “you get what you pay for” really is the truth.

Because there is such a wide price range, I think the most important thing is for you to be true to yourself. If you’re a casual filmmaker or just shoot video of family and friends, a low-tier variable ND filter will work perfectly fine for you.

However, if you shoot video professionally and need the best quality possible, your best bet is to buy the best variable ND filter in your budget.

Here are the characteristics and features you should consider when choosing a filter:

  • What Type of Video Work Do you Do?
  • What Quality Lens Do you Have?
  • Can you Get Away with a Solid ND Filter?
  • Build Quality
  • Hard Stops
  • Actual Usable Stops
  • Additional Accessories

infographic illustrating what to look for in a variable nd filter

What Type of Filmmaker are You

illustration of a person on computer editing video

As I mentioned before, one of the most important things to consider is what type of filmmaker you are or aspire to be. If you only shoot video every now and then and don’t plan on getting too deep into videography, then a lower tier variable ND filter will work perfectly fine for you.

On the other hand, if you are creating videos professionally or plan to do so in the future, then you should definitely consider buying the best variable ND filter your budget allows for. When it comes to all filters, you usually get what you pay for.

What Quality Lens do You Have

camera with nd filter on it

Similar to the previous question, it’s also good to consider what quality lens you have for video shooting. If you invested in a high-quality lens, its best to use a high-quality filter too. The last thing you want to do is to throw a cheap filter over your expensive lens and have it affect the image quality.

Can You Get Away with a Solid ND Filter

illustration of the situations when you could choose a solid nd filter vs variable nd filter

Another question to ask yourself is do you really need a variable ND filter or can you get away with using a solid ND filter?

The reason why I ask is that a solid ND filter is cheaper, will give you better results, and you won’t have to worry about the potential negative impacts of a variable ND filter (ex. cross x pattern, vignetting, etc.)

If this sounds like the type of video work you will be doing than a solid ND filter might be a better fit for you:

  • You will be shooting mostly at night.
  • If you shoot mostly indoors.
  • Will be shooting in a controlled setting like a studio most of the time.
  • Are still mainly focusing on photography.

 

Build Quality

Not every variable ND filter is built equal and you usually get what you pay for. Higher-end variable ND filters will have multiple layers of coating that help with internal ghosting and reflections.

They are also made with higher quality material such as aluminum or brass which allows them to be extremely durable and lightweight. If your budget only allows for a cheaper ND filter try to get the best quality you can buy and read the product reviews.

Since budget variable ND filters are made of cheaper material, they could damage the threading in your lens, which is very difficult to fix.

Actual Usable Stops

illustration of the usable stops of an nd filter

Here’s one tricky thing about variable ND filters. Even though a variable ND filter is listed with a stop range from 2-8 stops it’s usually not usable throughout this whole range.

Because of how variable ND filters are made, the image quality usually starts to deteriorate as you get to the maximum stops of the filter. The more expensive a variable ND filter is, the more usable stops there usually is.

Hard Stops

Other than build quality, I think this is the most important feature to look for in a variable ND filter.

Some variable ND filters such as the PolarPro Peter Mckinnon Edition, Freewell, Moment, B+ W XS Pro, and the K+F Concept have hard stops that prevent the filter from turning past a certain point. This will prevent many of the image quality issues that we have gone over such as the cross x pattern.

Accessories

Accessories have nothing to do with the image quality, but when you’re a premium on a variable ND filter, it’s nice when the filter comes with additional items.

Best Variable ND Filter Reviews



Premium Variable ND Filters

 

1.) PolarPro Variable ND Filter – Peter McKinnon Edition

If you’re a follower of Peter Mckinnon then you might have heard of this PolarPro Variable ND filter already. What I like about this filter is that it feels like they have paid attention to every detail to make sure every part of the filter is what a filmmaker might need.

There are two versions of this filter to choose from, a 2-5 stop filter and a 6-9 stop filter.

PolarPro recommends the 2-5 stop filter for a general run and gun use and the 6-9 stop filter if you shoot in bright conditions with a wide aperture such as f/1.4-2.8. The 6-9 stop filter is a little bit more expensive, so if you’re thinking about getting this filter, take some time to think about what conditions you generally shoot in before buying it.

The image quality when using this filter is one of the best in this article and it’s visually similar to having no filter or using a solid ND filter on your lens.

One of the best parts of this filter is that it has hard stops so you don’t have to worry about going past its maximum range.

PROS:

  • About 4 usable stops in the 2-5 stop filter.
  • Premium quality variable ND filter that does not impact your image quality.
  • Hard stops prevent you from reaching its maximum range and help to minimize the impact on image quality.
  • Clear markings on the side of the filter lets you know how many stops of light you are blocking.
  • Includes an ingeniously designed rubber lens cap, a hard carrying case, and a soft carrying case.

CONS:

  • The price point is on the high-end. Other than the higher price point, there is not much else wrong with this variable ND filter.


illustration of box which links to amazon



2.) B+W XS Pro Variable ND Filter

The B+W XS Pro variable ND filter is another premium filter that is targeted to the professional videographers and filmmakers out there. Similar to the PolarPro Variable ND filter that we just went over, it controls its polarization effect very well and keeps the image looking natural.

The B+W also has hard stops and clear markings which prevents you from moving the variable ND filter to the extremes.

I’m getting a little nit-picky here, but the downside is that the B+W markings are small dots, which makes it harder to determine the stop you are on when compared to the PolarPro.

Overall, if you have the budget, you can’t go wrong with this variable ND filter either.

PROS:

  • About 4 ⅔ usable stops.
  • Premium quality variable ND filter that does not impact your image quality.
  • Hard stops prevent you from reaching its maximum range and help to minimize the impact on image quality.

CONS:

  • The price point is on the high-end.
  • The PolarPro comes with additional accessories that this filter doesn’t.
  • The markings on the PolarPro are easier to read.
  • Includes a plastic case to carry your filter which is not as premium as the PolarPro or Singh-Ray.


illustration of box which links to amazon



3.) Singh-Ray Variable ND Filter

The Singh-Ray Variable ND filter is the most expensive filter that is in this article. It comes in two versions; the regular ring (cheaper) and the thin ring (more expensive).

The thin ring is a milled down version of the regular ring and helps prevent vignetting issues if you’re using a wide-angle lens.

I think the big question is how does it stack up to the PolarPro and B+W XS Pro filters in the high-end variable ND filter category and is it worth the extra money?

Well, in short, I don’t think it makes much sense in choosing the Singh-Ray over the B+W XS Pro or PolarPro. All three of these ND filters perform very well and don’t affect the quality of your image that much. They also have the best range of usable stops when compared to the other filters on this list.

Yes, the Singh-Ray has the most usable stops at around 5 stops, but this slight advantage doesn’t make up for the premium in price.

The other bummer is that the Singh-Ray doesn’t have hard stops like the PolarPro and B+W XS Pro. It’s easy to avoid going past the maximum point without getting the dreaded X pattern, however, at this price point, I think having hard stops is a must-have.

PROS:

  • About 5 usable stops.
  • Premium quality variable ND filter that does not impact your image quality.
  • Includes a leather pouch to carry your filter in.

CONS:

  • The overall value given its high price point doesn’t make sense when compared to the PolarPro and B+W XS Pro.
  • It does not have hard stops like the PolarPro and B+W XS Pro.
  • The markings are not as clear as the PolarPro.


illustration of box which links to amazon



Mid-Range Variable ND Filters

 

4.) Tiffen Variable ND Filter

photo of s single nd filter in front of white wall

I have had a lot of experience with the Tiffen Variable ND filter and I think it’s one of the best values given its price and functionality. This was actually the first variable ND filter that I bought and I used it for every shot in my short film Spirit of Matsu.

Although some people don’t like it, one of my favorite features of the Tiffen filter is how much wider than your lens it is.

For me, this made it much easier to adjust the filter while out shooting when compared to a filter that sits flush to your lens like the other ones we have gone over. Of course, this does not apply if you end up getting the biggest ND filter and use step-up rings for each lens.

You do start to see more of a polarizing effect on your image in this price range. Additionally, the Tiffen filter does not have hard stops so it is easy to accidentally go past its maximum range when shooting.


illustration of box which links to amazon



5.) Hoya Variable ND Filter

The Hoya Variable ND Filter is another mid-range filter that shares many similarities with the Tiffen Variable ND Filter.

If you don’t use step-up rings, the biggest difference between the two is that the Hoya Variable ND sits flush on your lens versus the Tiffen filter which is a little wider than your lens.

They are both around the same price, don’t have hard stops, and don’t have the clearest markings on the side of the ND filter.

I’m not sure if it was only with my copy of the Hoya filter, but I felt like the Hoya filter adjusted way too easily. Since it doesn’t have hard stops, it makes it way too easy to accidentally go past its maximum causing the dreaded X pattern issue.

PROS:

  • About 4 usable stops which is slightly more than the Tiffen Variable ND filter
  • Good value for its price range and its quality.

CONS:

  • It does not have hard stops like the PolarPro and B+W XS Pro in the premium category or the Freewell and K+F in the mid-range and budget category.
  • It adjusts too easily which makes it difficult to prevent it from going past its max range when you’re in the field shooting.
  • Includes a plastic carrying case that is not as premium as the soft carrying pouch of the Tiffen.


illustration of box which links to amazon



6.) Freewell Variable ND Filter

Freewell is the only China headquartered company in this article. The reason why I bring this up is that since their headquarters and manufacturing are in China they are able to keep costs extremely low especially given the quality.

Most of the other variable ND filter companies either manufacture in a country with higher manufacturing costs like B+W in Germany and Hoya in Japan or they design in the US and manufacture in a different country like PolarPro or Tiffen.

Surprisingly, the Freewell Variable ND Filter held up pretty well in a head to head comparison to the much more expensive PolarPro Variable ND Filter and shares a lot of similarities with it.

The Freewell Variable ND Filter also comes in 2 versions like the PolarPro; a 2-5 stop variable filter and a 6-9 stop variable filter. Like the PolarPro filters, this should give you better image quality because there isn’t such a wide range of stops the filter has to accommodate for.

It has a nice slim profile and includes a magnetic cap that is extremely well designed and convenient to use.

PROS:

  • Good value for its price range and its quality.
  • Hard stops prevent you from reaching its maximum range and help to minimize the impact on image quality.
  • Includes a well designed magnetic cap which is very fun to use and a plastic case with a magnetic clasp.

CONS:

  • It does not come with a soft carrying case like the Tiffen.
  • For its price point and quality, it’s hard to find any other negatives with this variable ND filter.


illustration of box which links to amazon



7.) Moment Variable ND Filter

This is the same Moment that makes premium cinematic lenses for mobile devices and in early 2020 they got into the cinematic filter game too. Although the Moment Variable ND filter is a great filter, it sits in a strange place when looking at its price point compared to the competition.

The Moment Variable ND filter is almost double the price of the Freewell, Tiffen, and Hoya filters and about ⅔ the price of the PolarPro Variable ND filter.

For the additional cost, you would think it would outperform the other filters in the mid-range category, however that is not the case especially with the Freewell Variable ND filter.

The Moment Variable ND filter also comes in 2 versions like the Freewell and PolarPro; a 2-5 stop variable ND filter and a 6-9 stop variable ND filter.

Similar to the Tiffen filter, the Moment filter is wider than its filter thread. I like this feature, but this also means you won’t be able to use your lens cap or lens hood with it.

PROS:

  • Hard stops prevent you from reaching its maximum range and help to minimize the impact on image quality.
  • Much more clear markings than the Tiffen or Hoya and shows how many stops of light you are blocking.

CONS:

  • Higher price point than the other filters in the mid-range category.
  • It doesn’t come with a usable carrying case.
  • Wider than your lens so you will not be able to use your lens cap on it and might make it harder to carry around.


illustration of box which links to amazon



Budget Variable ND Filters

 

8.) K+F Variable ND Filter

The K+F Variable ND Filter is one of the best cheap variable ND filters out there and competes very well with the more expensive filters that we have gone through already.

Depending on which model ND filter you pick from K+F, you could find one that is about half the price of the Tiffen, Hoya, and Freewell filters in the mid-range category.

Many people call the K+F filter the cheaper cousin to the B+W filter and it’s for a good reason. It has 4 usable stops, is built with hard stops, and gives you surprisingly good image quality for a budget option.

PROS:

  • One of the highest-rated budget variable ND filters.
  • Hard stops prevent you from reaching its maximum range and help to minimize the impact on image quality.
  • Great quality especially for the price point it’s at.

CONS:

  • Depending on the model you choose, you might just have to pay slightly more for a mid-range option.
  • There is a heavier color cast, but that can be expected with a budget filter.


illustration of box which links to amazon



9.) Gobe Variable ND Filter

If you’re really on a tight budget, the Gobe Variable ND filter and the Zomei Variable ND filter which we will go over next are the cheapest options.

The design of the Gobe is similar to the Tiffen and the Hoya filters. It does not have hard stops built-in and the markings on the side of the filter are not very clear.

Similar to the Moment filter in the mid-range category, the Gobe sits at a weird price point which is slightly cheaper than the K+F and about double the price of the Zomei.

The biggest downside at this price point is that it makes much more sense to either spend a little more and get the K+F or go with the cheapest filter in the Zomei. For double the price of the Zomei, you don’t get double the performance.

PROS:

  • At one of the cheapest price points in this article.
  • Design is similar to the Tiffen and Hoya filters in the mid-range category.

CONS:

  • At the current price point, it makes more sense to increase your budget and go with the K+F or save money and go with the Zomei.
  • It doesn’t have hard stops like the K+F filter.
  • It’s about double the price of the Zomei but the performance is similar.


illustration of box which links to amazon



10.) Zomei Variable ND Filter

The Zomei Variable ND filter is by far the cheapest filter in this article. If you’re looking to save the most money, this filter might be a good choice for you.

Yes, like most budget filters you will have to deal with a heavier color cast, a softer image, and worse flaring, but if you keep your expectations in check, you can save a lot of money.

The Zomei performs just as well as the Gobe and honestly is just a little bit worse than the Tiffen and Hoya in the mid-range category. If you don’t have the most expensive lens and just need a filter to shoot casually with, the Zomei isn’t a bad choice.

PROS:

  • The cheapest option filter in this article. A 77mm Zomei variable ND filter is under $30
  • Still has about 3 ⅓ usable stops.

CONS:

  • It will affect your image quality, but that can be expected at the price point.
  • It doesn’t have hard stops like the K+F filter.


illustration of box which links to amazon



The Results

I hope after reading through this article you have a better idea of what to look for in a variable ND filter and have been able to find the best variable neutral density filter that fits with your camera lifestyle.

As I have mentioned already, the most important thing is, to be honest with yourself and what you need to get the job done.

If you’re a professional or plan to charge money for the work you do in the future, I would highly recommend the best variable ND filter that you can afford. These ND filters will not affect your overall image quality as much and will save you time when you’re out shooting and during post-processing.

On the other hand, if you just shoot casually or don’t have the most expensive lenses, check out the mid-range or budget options that we covered. For you, it won’t make as much sense to invest in a top tier filter.

The Freewell in the mid-range category and the K+F in the budget category is not that much worse off than filters in the premium category, so this is one place where you could save your money.

Best Premium Variable ND Filter – PolarPro Variable ND Filter

If you have the budget, you can’t go wrong with the PolarPro Variable ND filter. It gives you an incredibly consistent image quality, it has hard stops so you don’t have to worry about going past its maximum range, comes with 2 very useful carrying cases, and a well thought out rubber lens cap.


illustration of box which links to amazon



Best Value Variable ND Filter – Freewell Variable ND Filter

If you’re looking for the best value variable ND filter, I would highly recommend you look into the Freewell Variable ND filter. You don’t get all the goodies that you get with the PolarPro Variable ND filter, but you can get both the Freewell 2-5 Stop Variable ND filter and its 6-9 Stop Variable ND filter for the price of 1 PolarPro filter.

The best part about the Freewell Variable ND filter is that the image quality it provides is not that much different than the premium category variable ND filters. It also has hard stops and comes with a very cool magnetic lens cap.


illustration of box which links to amazon



Best Budget Variable ND Filter – K+F Variable ND Filter

If you want to save the most money possible, while getting a decent quality lens, you should definitely check out the K+F Variable ND filter. It comes in at about ⅔ the price of the Tiffen, Hoya, and Freewell filters in the mid-range category and the quality it provides are just slightly worse off.

The K+F also has hard stops so you won’t have to worry about going past its maximum range. The one thing to keep in mind is that depending on what model and size K+F filter you choose, it might make more sense to bump up your budget a little more for a Freewell filter.


illustration of box which links to amazon

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