Sunday, January 22, 2017

gear matters :: the (very vexing) variable ND filter

No, this is not a seascape via Spiderman's first point perspective. First point per what? Yeah, for those of you who forgot your Adderall before class that morning, lemme simplify to your much more porn search terminology; Spiderman's POV. Yeah. Thought so. You all know POV I'm sure. Well, it's not. Spidey's POV that is.

I digress.

Today, we delve into some gear matters. Join along why don't ya. . .

The Variable Neutral Density Filter

Speaking of abbreviations, on the mean streets of the photography world you may have heard this piece of gear more commonly referred to as ::

Variable ND Filter


Vari ND Filter


VND Filter

or simply


Or not.

Doesn't matter. So what is it? Ok, let's first assume that you've found yourself here, reading this post, as you have some interest in photography; motion or still.

If you found yourself here looking for kinky superhero fetish type shit then you have come to the wrong place. should email me as I may have a documentary idea ::

Being a filmmaker or photographer most of you should be familiar with filters. Not the bullshit filters on Instagram that we are all guilty of using and abusing from time to time but real purist filters; glass.

Glass that you slide in or screw on. Gradient, colored or for the here and now, Neutral Density.

Without getting all Merriam-Webster on your ass and keeping the theme of simplification today, Neutral Density Filters are basically sunglasses for your camera.

Now why on earth with our keen knowledge of manual exposures would we need sunglasses for our cameras? Here's where I'm assuming you're fairly new to this form of artistic expression.

The reasoning for using an ND filter can be diverse. Maybe you want a really, really slow shutter at high noon, outside, on a cloudless day, at ISO 200, f/11.0, in attempt to turn those choppy seas into a milky mist.


Maybe your in that same environment and you're trying to film a man aguishly, rowing his wooden vessel against the crashing waves. To lose those Zebra Stripes you're getting at 24fps, 1/50, ISO 100 and f/22.0. But you want to crush that DOF (Depth of Field) to get a real nice cinematic look and to show off the capabilities of that fast lens, wide open at f/1.4. The answer? ND filter.

Wait. The post is about this Variable ND filter. What's the difference?

Hmmmm. Metaphor time.

You've found yourself deep deep in the hood, at the intersection of Hooker and Heroin avenue. Here prostitution and the peddling of contraband are fair and open markets.

You, are a fly on the wall. A very smart fly. Twitchy but smart.

With your gift of sight that surpasses most species on Earth (I have no idea if that's true), you try to identify who is the king of this neighborhood; the hierarchy of power.

Confused as anyone who's anyone that may have a bit of pull seems to drive a similar whip.

Ahhhh. The window tint. You and I both know that the darker the tint, the more gangsta you must be. Duh.

Ok, that was so fucking far fetched but I have your attention again don't I? You see people. Reading can be fun. Get off those .gifs and memes. For a minute anyway. WTF?!

I digress.

Just as there are many many different levels of window tint, from barely noticeable to black as night and everywhere in between, there are as many levels of ND filters on the market.

Keeping in mind that the cheapest filters are probably not super awesome, your need for multiple ND filters based on density and, oh yeah, diameter can get very very costly. Diameter? Hey, I don't think there are two lenses in my pack that share the same sized filters. Cha ching. There's actually an economical remedy for that but we will save that for another post.

Before you remortgage the house just to have all the ND filters possible...

Yup. Here it comes.


I'm pretty sure it's voodoo sorcery type of magic here but the Vari ND can miraculously change its density simply by turning the outer metal ring. Turn right (or left depending or which way your are holding it of course) it gets darker and turn the other way it gets lighter.

But seriously, how does it work right? I really don't know. I'm telling you it's supernatural in nature. I'm almost certain I signed my name in blood when I bought the fucker. But isn't an eternity in hell worth the power and control you will have to create awesome exposures here and now? Of course it is.

Imagine the playa that could do this with their window tint. Holy shit.

Well I felt the same way when I discovered this technology.


Sound too good to be true?

Of course.

So you don't have to scroll or swipe to the top again, allow me to repost that photograph.

Speaking of supernatural. Talk about vignetting from another planet. Right!?

Lemme elaborate.

The location :: Ocean City New Jersey. Under a pier right around 14th Street.

The gear :: Nikon D5 (my love Suzy Greenberg)
                  Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
                  [pro]master 77mm Variable ND (standard)

The exposure :: 25 seconds
                          ISO 50

Details :: I wanted wide so I shot this seascape at 24mm. Also, to get that 25 second metering, I had the Vari ND maxed out as dark as she would go.

The result :: Need I say more?

Scratching my head, I thought my camera strap had blown into frame. I fired again. Junk. Maybe a sand smudge. Wiped with my shirt (don't be like me) just in case. Fired again. Nope. Garbage. And again and again trying to eliminate any unforeseen foreign objects that clearly weren't there.

I finally called it quits, realized I bought a crap filter and headed on back to Philadelphia. Such a wasted trip. Nah. I nailed a shot that I was there in search of. No worries.

I toatz ma-goatz thought it was this [pro]master brand, that I had never heard of before, that was the culprit. The 77mm was fairly priced around $60.00USD.

That evening I threw the poly cased filter in what seems to have become my gear graveyard; those wonderful steals and deals that just didn't make the cut.

Frustrated as fuck, I exhumed the filter to run some testing. And here's my findings ::

  • The peculiar vignetting only occurred inclusive of two variables
    • The 24-70mm lens w/77mm⌀ and set at to wider of angles. In this case 24mm.
    • The filter was at its most dense settings; worsening while approaching maximum.
  • The longer the focal length on this 77mm⌀ 24-70mm lens, the less the vignetting occurred. 
Now What?

Well there are a few options here and some or none of them may or may not please you. 
  • Use longer focal lengths to minimize the vignetting.
  • Try not to max out the density if you can compensate with longer shutters, smaller apertures or lower ISOs.
  • Stack filters. I have a 77mm Hoya ND x16 Pro1 filter. With that I can stack the Variable ND and tweak that lower density accordingly. ($$$)
  • Shoot those seascapes at night more easily allowing you to drag the shutter without any filters. These done at night are sometimes more bad ass anyway ;)

After researching and discovering that I, in fact, did not get ripped off by the [pro]master brand and that this issue is pretty standard, I can keep my Vari ND out of its grave and let it live to create another day. 

Having said that, the [pro]master filter is a pretty solid piece of gear. Machined well. Smooth. And compared to some other filters I've used, the White Balance is not totally fucked up. 

Oh, and it's even made in China. #JustSaying

Until next time . . .