Best Solid Neutral Density Filter (2020) / Eight NDs Reviewed and Compared / Plus Free Giveaway!


Lately I’ve been shopping around for a
solid circular neutral density filter for use with both the video and
photography. But I have found this process to be easier said than done
because there are lots of ND filters out there from different brands, all claiming
to be high quality and superior in one way or another. In the end, I couldn’t
decide, so instead of getting just one ND filter and wondering forever whether I
bought the right one, I made a rather impulsive decision. I decided to try them
all. So I acquired 8 – yes, 8 solid neutral density filters
representing an aggregate of all the top selling, highest-rated solid NDs across
B&H, Amazon and Adorama. I’ve been testing and comparing these filters for
a couple of weeks, and in this week’s video I’m going to spare you the
struggle of choosing an ND filter for yourself by sharing with you everything
I’ve learned. I’m also going to be handing out awards in different
categories, including picking one of these filters as the best solid circular
ND filter for your money in 2020. Oh and by the way, as a way of saying thank you
to those of you who have helped grow this channel over the past couple of
months, I’ll be giving away one of the best filters from this review to someone
watching this video. Maybe it’ll be you! More information on that coming up. How’s it going everyone my name is Todd
Dominey. I make videos about photography, gear and photo processing here on
YouTube. Very excited to be sharing this video with you this week because this
video took a lot of time to produce, so it feels really good to be sitting here
with you sharing the results from this test. First I want to get this out of the
way and let you know that this video is not sponsored, nor have any of these
filters being given to me for free. I also don’t have any kind of relationship
with any of these companies so this is a totally fair comparison across the board.
The filters I will be comparing today in alphabetical order are…the B+W XS-Pro 803, Breakthrough Photography X2, Breakthrough Photography X4, Freewell
Quick Swap Magnetic filter, Gobe, Hoya, PolarPro Quartzline, and finally
Tiffen. In all, eight, three stop neutral density filters ranging in price from
$39 all the way up to $180. If you already know what neutral density
filters are and why you would use one, feel free to skip to the timecode
displayed above. For everyone else though, neutral density filters are basically
sunglasses for your camera lens. You can do things creatively which wouldn’t be
otherwise possible. For example, slowing down your shutter speed to smooth out
motion – most commonly water and clouds in landscape photos. Those slower shutter
speeds also come in handy for video and shooting at more natural cinematic frame
rates like 24 frames per second at 1/50 of a second. Neutral density
filters also make it possible for you to shoot at larger apertures in bright
light to give your photos or videos a more dramatic, emotive, shallow depth of
field, which in layman’s terms just basically means blurry backgrounds.
Neutral density filters come in a variety of strengths typically measured
in numerical stops. A three-stop filter – which is the type of filter I’ll be
reviewing today – is a good general purpose filter. Six stops, eight stops, ten
stops, and higher block more light for even slower shutter speeds. For all types
of photography and video, ND filters are an essential piece of gear to own. There are two types of ND filters: aluminum and brass. The Hoya, Tiffen, Gobe, Freewell and
Breakthrough Photography X2 are all made of aluminum. The Breakthrough
Photography X4, PolarPro and B+W are made of brass. What’s the difference? Well,
both are metal, which is obviously better than plastic, but brass has one distinct
advantage over aluminum. Brass doesn’t get stuck. Aluminum filter threads when
attached to step-up rings UV filters or the threads on the front of your camera
lens have a tendency to lock up and get stuck, which can be a real pain if you’re
on the road traveling and you can’t easily separate the ND filter from the
step-up ring or lens. Nearly every filter in this review
has a glass coating which beads water when wet and wipes dry without smearing.
The budget Tiffen on the other hand doesn’t bead and smears when dried. From
a design perspective, the most unique filter in this review is undoubtedly the
Freewell Quick Swap ND filter. I love its ease of use, for unlike a threaded
filter like all the others, this Quick Swap filter can be instantly attached
and removed from the front of your camera lens. This seeming feat of magic
is accomplished with this magnetized UV filter or a empty attachment ring. Both
are magnetized, and you basically just choose one or the other. These rings
thread onto the front of your lens and then you can magnetically attach the ND
filter to the front. Oh and by the way, the Freewell filter also comes with a
magnetized lens cap — pretty cool! Okay let’s look at the first set of test
images. For these images I’m shooting with a Canon 5D Mark 4 with the Canon
24-70 millimeter f/2.8 Mark 2. Here is the control image without using an ND
filter, and now the same image shot with each ND filter in alphabetical order.
First the B+W XS Pro, Breakthrough Photography X2, Breakthrough
Photography X4, Freewell, Gobe, Hoya, PolarPro, and finally Tiffen. Now,
as you can see, some filters contributed quite a bit of color cast, while others
contributed barely any at all. The ones with color cast turn the scene a bit
blue like the Breakthrough Photography X2 or a little yellow like the Tiffen.
With digital RAW photography, fixing color cast is pretty simple. You would
open the file in a photo editor — typically Lightroom or Photoshop or
Camera Raw — and then use the white balance eyedropper tool on a neutral
color in your scene like the middle gray square in this XRite ColorChecker
Passport. Then in theory, all of the ND filter images should appear very
similar to the control. And…they do! Here’s a quick walkthrough of all
previous images with their white balances corrected on the top of your screen
and the original control image on the bottom. So what this test proves is that
color cast introduced by an ND filter can be corrected fairly easily when
shooting digital RAW photos and that sometimes — once corrected — it can be hard
to tell the difference between one filter and another. But that’s only true
with RAW digital photography. Video is a little bit different. Editing non-RAW
video is similar to editing a compressed JPEG image. There’s only so much white
balance shifting you could do in post before the colors in your footage begin
to fall apart. Also, fixing color cast with white
balance doesn’t mean that colors will then be accurate. Is red as seen through
the ND filter the same red as the control? Or does the ND filter shift its
color to a slightly different red? To test for color accuracy I opened up all
of the white balanced images in Photoshop and then set their layer blend
modes to Difference with the control image on the bottom. Then by sampling
each color in the XRite ColorChecker Passport, I was then able to quantify how
much each individual color shifted. The result? Well, in my test the filters with
the least amount of color cast and the most accurate colors were the B+W XS-Pro, the Freewell Quick Swap filter, and the Breakthrough Photography X4. To get a different look at color cast and contrast I visited a local park on a
cold windy overcast day. Perfect light though for testing ND filters with this
amount of density. Here is the control video shot without an ND filter at 1080
resolution, 24 frames per second, 1/50th of a second shutter speed, ISO 200, and a
lens stopped down to an aperture of f/11. This footage is straight out of camera
without any edits. With an ND filter attached, I was then able to open up the
aperture on my lens to f/4 which created a more shallow depth of field to help
separate me in the foreground from the background. You can especially see this
with the blurry tree that’s over my shoulder. And now just like before, video
captured with each ND filter in alphabetical order without any color
correction applied in post. B+W XS-Pro, Breakthrough Photography X2, Breakthrough
Photography X4, Freewell, Gobe, Hoya, PolarPro, and
finally Tiffen. So in this test, the B+W, Breakthrough Photography X4, the Freewell magnetic filter and the PolarPro Quartzline — these four filters I think
produced the least amount of color cast and I think they also just looked the
best too. There’s something about the way these filters handled the the contrast
of the scene and handled the highlights and the shadows. I’m just really
impressed with how these four filters looked with all of the video footage
that I shot outdoors. Next I want to quickly talk about
sharpness because sharpness is something that all of these ND filters seem to
tout in their marketing collateral. I have to tell you this part of the review
is actually going to be very short, because I took a close look at every
image from the indoor test in Photoshop by layering them all up and comparing
them, and overall I could find very little difference between these filters.
If I had to be picky, the more budget-friendly Gobe and Tiffen do
appear to be a touch softer than the rest of these filters, but that’s really
about it. I wasn’t able to see any noticeable decrease in sharpness or
clarity with any of these other filters. Every lens displays some amount of
natural vignette it’s just part of how the optics of lenses and cameras have
always functioned. So when testing for vignette with ND filters, we’re not
looking to see whether any vignette exists but rather how much additional
vignette is contributed by the presence of an ND filter being attached to the
front of the lens. For this test I shot a large piece of photo paper using this 24
to 70 millimeter lens set to f/2.8 and used a focal length of 50 millimeters.
At 50 millimeters, none of these filters appear to have any issue with
vignette. So let’s try something a little bit harder. I’m going to use the super
wide angle setting of 16 millimeter, full frame on this 16 to 35 millimeter lens.
And to attach these filters, I’m going to use a 77 to 82 millimeter step-up ring
because the filter thread on this 16 to 35 millimeter lens is just a little bit
smaller than the 24 to 70. This should be a challenging test for the filters
because not only are we shooting super wide full frame but also because the
filters will be positioned just a few millimeters away from the front of the
lens because of this step-up ring. To help you see the difference between the
images I’m going to flip back and forth between the control and each one of the
ND filtered images. First the B+W XS-Pro Breakthrough
Photography X2, Breakthrough Photography X4,
Freewell, Gobe, Hoya Pro-ND, PolarPro Quartzline, and finally, Tiffen. So there
are some very interesting results from this test.
First, the Gobe, Tiffen and Breakthrough Photography X2 filters added the most
vignette across the surface area of the image. Second, some of these filters
exhibited a more serious problem that I was talking about earlier known as
mechanical vignette, which is vignette that is caused by the filter itself
blocking light. That kind of vignette can typically only be removed by cropping a
photo or video. At 16 millimeters with a step-up ring, the PolarPro Quartzline
shows just a touch of mechanical vignette in the corner. The Hoya Pro-ND
shows a bit more because this is one of the thicker ND filters in this review.
And then there is the Freewell magnetic filter. Now, this result comes with a
pretty big asterisk on it because as I explained before the Freewell filter is
a magnetic filter, not a threaded one, so in this setup it is using both my
step-up ring, the magnetic attachment ring, and then the ND filter after that.
So when you put all three of these things together it creates a really
thick grouping of filters that when attached to the front of a
wide-angle lens like this…I mean, no wonder it has the kind of problems that
it does and you’re able to see those and black corners on it because it just
sticks out from the front of the lens so much that it’s blocking that wide angle
field of view at 16 millimeters. I actually contacted Freewell and spoke
with someone there and they pointed me in the direction of these
magnetized step-up rings. With those magnetized step-up rings,
their ND filter would then be just as thin as the other filters in this review —
actually thinner than the Hoya filter — and the reason that is is because
then you wouldn’t need this third magnetized ring which comes with the
filter anymore. You would just use the magnetized step-up ring and then attach
their ND filter directly to it. And when you do that, then the ND filter is just
as thin as the others. So its performance should be just as good, but unfortunately
that means that the Freewell filter will have to be disqualified from this
test because it wouldn’t be fair to judge it against the other filters
without the proper step-up ring. As for the rest of the filters, the top filter
with the least amount of vignette was the B+W XS-Pro, followed very closely
behind by the Breakthrough Photography X4. Alright, now it’s the time you’ve been
waiting for. It’s time to announce the winners! First, the winner for best
packaging and brand experience goes to… the PolarPro Quartzline. This filter
comes in this large beautifully designed box which I mean looks like an award
unto itself with how it opens and reveals the ND filter case inside. The
filter case by the way is made of this very durable plastic and has a
magnetized clasp on it as well — making it really easy to open and close. You
could easily travel with this and sling this around in your camera bag and your
ND filter will be very protected in this case. It’s so much better than the cheap
clear plastic boxes most of these other filters came with, including the two most
expensive filters in this review: the B+W and the Breakthrough Photography X4. The
latter of which introduces itself with this strange warning sticker on the
front like you’re about to break the seal on something dangerous. The PolarPro packaging on the other hand is beautiful, inspiring and makes you feel
like you’ve purchased something premium and special. This is
expensive packaging, and I’m sure it’s eating into PolarPro’s profit margins
with these ND filters. But in the long run, I mean…from a brand perspective? I
think it’s so worth it because it communicates attention to detail, quality
design, and honestly it makes me want to own everything they sell. Next award: best
value for the money. This award goes to the filter which also happens to be the
cheapest — the Tiffen. Yes, it has a fairly strong love it or hate it color cast
and noticeable vignette on a wide-angle lens, but at $39? I mean, it’s a pretty
decent option for the money. Personally I’d rather invest in a quality filter
and use that filter for years and years but if you’re on a budget, it’ll do the
job. Next award, Most Innovative. Hats off to Freewell for designing such
a clever system and for thinking through all the things a photographer might need
in addition to the ND filter, including a free UV filter, a lens cap and those
magnetized step-up rings I mentioned earlier. It really is a complete system
that you buy into. It also rather surprisingly has a decent case which is
important if you are you know taking the magnetic filter on and off the front of
the lens. It’s a really nice case and again so much better than these cheap
plastic ones. You know…I have to admit. I was somewhat suspicious of it
being magnetized and whether it could really stick to the front of a lens, but
I mean…look at this. I mean, the magnets…don’t get me wrong they’re
not super strong…you can just take this thing right off…but what
you want to do is when you get this magnetized ring on you want to make
sure it’s…don’t just flop it on there like this. Just kind of like put it on and then just kind of push around it
a little bit just to make sure that it’s that it clicks in and it really is in
there because once it’s in there I mean you can shake this all day long
you can you can bump the lens around the camera. I’m sure I’m probably giving
people at Freewell a bit of a heart attack right now watching me do this, but
really I mean the magnets are strong enough to where you could use it on a
gimbal, you could shoot freehand with it (handheld I mean). Once this on there, it’s on there, and it’s it’s not coming off unless you
take it off. So hats off to Freewell. Really clever system. Next award, Easiest
Filter to Use in Cold Weather While Wearing Gloves. Seriously, for landscape
photography? It’s a thing. This award is a tie between the PolarPro Quartzline and the Breakthrough Photography X4. I took all of these
filters on and off a bunch of times during this review including outdoors
while wearing thick gloves, and I’m telling you these filters were
so much nicer to use than their thin, aluminum smooth counterparts. Alright,
and now the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the award of the night. Best
ND Filter. This award goes to the B+W XS-Pro 803. Overall, this filter had the
least amount of color cast, the most accurate colors, barely any optical
vignette, and no mechanical vignette when used on a super wide angle lens. It’s
also made of brass which means you should never have a problem removing it
from a lens. Its neutral color cast, high color accuracy, and non-existent
vignette makes it an ideal filter for shooting video. For landscape
photographers who shoot at super wide angles, you will get the least amount of
vignette with this filter attached to your lens. I have to admit. I’m kind of
disappointed by this result. I mean, I was really hoping a different filter would
win and prove that sometimes you can get better quality at a lower price, but
that’s not the case here. The B+W filter is the most expensive filter in this
review costing $180, but unfortunately it also happens to be the best. But you know
what, let’s hand out one more award: Highest Quality at the Lowest Price. That
award goes to the PolarPro Quartzline. This filter costs $130 — 30% less than the
B+W and provides fantastic color accuracy in minimal vignette. It’s also
made of brass, has that awesome etched ring that I just love, comes with this
beautiful case, and has a lifetime warranty compared to the 10-year
warranty of the B+W. So unless you have to have the absolute best, the PolarPro
Quartzline provides the biggest bang for your buck. Which may leave some of
you wondering about another high-performing filter in this review
the Breakthrough Photography X4. This filter performed nearly as
well as the B+W, is also made of brass, and has that really nice etched
ring around the outside like the PolarPro. It also uses high quality German
Schott glass which the winning B+W filter also uses. But the X4 retails for $169,
which is just a hair cheaper compared to the B+W
and almost $40 more than the PolarPro. It performed brilliantly in
the color cast accuracy and vignette tests, but in my opinion not quite as
good as the B+W for nearly the same price. Don’t get me wrong the X4 is a
fantastic filter. I would be perfectly happy owning and using it, but let’s put
it this way. If the B+W wasn’t included in this review, the X4 would have won. Okay so as I said at the top of the
video as a way of saying thank you to everyone who helped grow this channel
over the past couple of months I’m going to be giving away one of the three best
filters from this review: the Freewell Quick Swap, Breakthrough Photography X4,
or the PolarPro Quartzline. All fantastic premium ND filters, and if you
win, the choice is yours. To enter this giveaway all you have to
do is leave a comment below. Say anything you want, but if you’re looking for
inspiration, how about a favorite quote from a family member,
author, photographer, musician, whatever! Drop a comment below to enter the
contest. Liking this video and subscribing to this channel isn’t
necessary to enter but would be appreciated. This contest will remain
open for a month and then I’ll announce the winner in a video on Friday March
13th. There’s more about this contest in the description below if you’re
interested in the official rules. That’s it and good luck. Please remember to give
this video a thumbs up if you found it to be informative, if you learned
something from it, and also subscribe to keep in touch. I’ll see you next time.

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