Using Variable Neutral Density Filters In Bright Sunlight

Gary from F8 Photography and Mikey from Lightenupandshoot have crossed paths while traveling through Hong Kong. Lee and I ran into Mikey out at WPPI in Las Vegas a few months ago where he told us of some up coming adventures he had planned for Southeast Asia. These guys are really laid back and excited to break out into a photoshoot at any given time. In this video they take a ferry over to a local island to capture a few images of some friends they made in Hong Kong. Around 2:30, Gary talks about using a Variable Neutral Density Filter to almost completely destroy the ambient light while still shooting wide open at f1.2 and maxing out his shutter sync speed at 1/250. I've never attempted this technique, but it has been made famous by many photographers including Joey L. Does anyone have an opinion about these variable neutral density filters or use this technique in their own work? If so feel free to post an image in the comments below.

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Here just one example. Since I finally bought mine like 3 month back i am constantly using it now.
First time I heard of it was from Joe McNally on one of his workshops a few years back. It gives you 2-8 stops and that brings so many possibilities to what you can do creatively. In the studio and outside on the street...

Hope you like it.

I've done something very similar for a lot of my flower photography

So the big question is, pay up for the Singh-Ray, or save a few bucks and get the Fader MKII? How comparable the quality between the two?

that's the big question..... truly. someone help us out!

If you got the cash go with the Sigh-Ray, you won't be disappointed. If you want to save $200 bucks and don't use long lenses than go for the others. I used a Genus on a 70-200 and it looked bad. Almost like you  couldn't get sharp focus for video. Over on the strobist blog he reviewed several ND options.

 I'd buy a cheapo and play with it before I commit to one that's a couple hundred. When in doubt, Chinafy it. $40 vs. $400?

4lights setup shooting at 1.4, shot some at 1.2 but miss focused

I bought my Light Craft Workshop Fader ND Filter ( ND2 to ND400) 77mm Neutral Density in July of last year and I was anything but thrilled with the results. I took some test shots with and without the filter indoors in a controlled environment and the sharpness loss is incredible. Images look very muddy. Had read some good reviews online but was disappointed with the results. USD 125 down the drain.

 I had the same problem with a Circular Polarizer but then I fine tuned my lens with the filter on and it helped out a lot.

I do not like the variable ND as they are really a circular pola and a linear pola sandwiched together. I have found I like a few fixed ND filters at my disposal. The filter quality is better and ends up being cheaper, but there is the hassle of switching filters.

F8 Photography's picture

 Hi all, this is Gary the guy in the video.  We are using both Lee Filters and the Genus Vari-ND filters on both primes and zooms and have noticed NO loss in sharpness with either system.  I just prefer the vari-ND as it gives me much more flexibility for both video and stills as mentioned in the video.  Of course is difficult to get sharp anyway wide open especially when its dark thru the lens, I have heard a few comparisons to the Genus and Sing-Rhay, etc, I'm in no way affiliated to any of these brands just my personal observation when using this one or the Lee filters, both look pin sharp if the focus is right with no difference (that I can see) to shooting without a filter.  In addition, this particular filter here in Hong Kong is way cheaper than buying a set of Lee filters, plus the holders, etc....(here the price is HK$1000) for this filter we using.

Thanks anyway guys for watching our stuff, hope its enjoyable for you.



Patrick Hall's picture

 Gary, I have a question.  What is the reason for using these with video?  When it is too bright outside, can't you just up the shutter speed?  If you are shooting at 24fps, is it not possible to shoot at 1.4, ISO 100, and say 2000th of a second or are you trying to keep the shutter speeds slower for a specific aesthetic? 

I believe there is a certain look to the motion when the camera is on a much higher shutter. I read an article on cinematographer Phillip Bloom's blog. Also American Cinematographer magazine has a myriad of cinematographers who talk about their using shutter speeds with editing speeds to create certain looks, like Janus Kaminski, who used that choppy documentary shutter look for Speilberg's Saving Private Ryan.

Here is the link from Bloom's Blog on ND's

And, here is a link where I learned how to successfully modify ND filters to make a varying density ND for a third of the price.

John Vicory's picture

@PatrickHHall:disqus  if the shutter speed is too high, the camera will skip a lot of frames, giving a really choppy look. A few friends and I go by the rule that you should probably never put the shutter about 2x the frame rate. For example, shooting at 30fps, you probably shouldn't go about 1/60th for the shutter speed. Varied NDs make it possible to keep the shutter speed comparable to the frame rate.

Another example to what Nicholas mentioned is in the movie Gladiator in the final fight scene where things look sped-up, but in reality it's in real-time. The frame rate would still be 24 fps, but each frame has a very short exposure time. If you think about it, imagine taking 24 frames of motion with a DSLR in a second at 1/24, there would be considerable motion blur and when played back in a video, the blur would "blend" each frame together. But, if you took very short exposures 24 times a second at 1/2000, then there would be no blur and no "intermediate blend" between the frames. Therefore, the motion would appear choppy.

Patrick Hall's picture

 Hmmmm interesting stuff.  As a photographer I had no idea about any of this.  Simple question though, when I pause a DVD or HD video, normally I see a very sharp image.  Shouldn't it be pretty blurry if motion is captured at 1/50th of a second?

Always wondered how Ripley got that very distinct- almost strobe look. Makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the info.

ND is pretty much needed daily when filming outside or trying to get good bokeh for photos. In film, the rule is that your shutter should be double of your framerate. This all goes back to long history of experimentations. All cinematographers learn it. This is due how motion blur works. With different framerate and shutter speed combinations you get different feel of motion blur. This system is not very forgiving. If your shutter is two times of your fps, it gives most natural look which we as humans percieve as normal movement. Taking that into consideration, try to get f1.8 iso 200 on sunny day with shutter of 50(24fps*2=50). Only option is the ND. As the faster the movement of your subject the more irritating it gets when you go higher with shutter.

My last example, getting the same coherent dof for stills and video clips at f2.8 I had to use the ND for filming:

For in depth overview about the matter in hand take a look here:

I just posted a video to youtube showing the effect of shutter speed to video from some footage I got a few months ago of an angle grinder. It's kind of extreme as the subject is moving very fast and the speed difference is great. But you can get an idea of the choppiness for more regular speed stuff by looking at the hand.

The reason for doing it with video is to keep your shutterspeed at 1/50. I've learned that it's the the best if you are shooting 25 Fps. And that way you can get a nice low DOF when shooting outdoors in the sun. Why the shutterspeed needs to be fps doubled, i don't know. Thats some technical stuff.. My videoguy told me..

Chris Malley's picture

I've noticed with the Genus Vari-ND, that because it has the little bar to make stopping down easier, if you attached a lens hood would it/would it not be successful?

 I work at a production company and we had just switched from shooting with a Sony EX1 to using DSLRs. The Sony had a built in 3 stop ND so we never thought about buying one. One bright sunny as hell day we were shooting outside and we had to roll at f16 250 is was terrible. The whole look was ruined. there was no way we were going to use any of that footage. I'm not sure what made it look so bad. We went out that day and borrowed a vary ND.
What a difference! Its like a 3rd adjustment you can do on the fly, I would highly recommend it for video.
I like the sigh-Ray better than the Genus bc it seems sharper but maybe not worth the extra $200 for some people. 

For pictures I've used it in studio to open up to 1.4 or what ever. Its cool bc I can leave my light power the same. 

 Hi guys, 

  I used ND filter sometimes,for low DOF. I also used polarizer sometimes if I forgot my ND filter. Here's an example: 
SB-600 + lastolite ezybox.

John Vicory's picture

 They also have straight ND filters. B+W makes them up to 10 stops, but unless you are shooting landscape and fine art stuff, they are pretty useless because of the focusing problem. I made the mistake of buying an ND 10 stop and have barely used it. The varied NDs are much better. Sometimes the cheaper ones have coloration problems, but other than that, they work great.

Would it be a silly question to ask if; was worth getting?
Price seems a lot cheaper..


David Monteith-Hodge's picture

 I've been using the 7dayshop one on 77mm filter nikon lenses. Use it to play around with 1.4 and killing ambient and sculpt my own lighting instead :) I haven't seen much degredation in my shots. I am working on a review of it.

 I absolutely LOVE my Singh-Ray Vari-ND Thin. It's one of the only filters that I use, and it really gives me incredible shallow depth of field portraits when i use strobes outside. One of the several pieces of gear that I highly recommend!

jojo mamangun's picture

I've done this and absolutely love it. I didn't use a Vari-ND though. What i used was the cheapo cokin filters.


 I use the 2 CPL filters (front one reversed) as a variable ND filter and they are dead cheap off ebay $10 a piece Green.L 82mm CPL. If you go for a ring filter always get the one for your largest lens filter size in my case it's 82mm but I also have other lenses with the sizes 67mm, 52mm and 49mm for those I use step down rings (ebay at $2 per ring) and the 82mm filter. I've tested the quality of the Green.L CPL filter and they seem to be good in my opinion.

 I have been shooting beauty shots with ND filters on. I thought this was a pretty common think to use ND filters. I have only been shooting for 2 years and that was one of the first things I learned. Shooting outside in bright sun is not even a problem for me. When you are shooting studio work and you want to get down to 1.8 or lower with the light right on the subject, the ND filter is perfect.  The trick to using the super dark filters like I do is you need to either manually focus (I suck at this outside of live view) or use a flash light to set the focus because the view finder will be so dark and the lens will struggle to auto focus.