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Neutral density filter

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Neutral density filter

Demonstration of the effect of a neutral density filter

In photography and optics, a neutral density filter or ND filter is a filter that reduces or modifies the intensity of all wavelengths or colors of light equally, giving no changes in hue of color rendition. It can be a colorless (clear) or grey filter. The purpose of a standard photographic neutral-density filter is to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. Doing so allows the photographer to select combinations of aperture, exposure time and sensor sensitivity which would otherwise produce overexposed pictures. This is done to achieve effects such as a shallower depth of field or motion blur of a subject in a wider range of situations and atmospheric conditions.

For example, one might wish to photograph a waterfall at a slow shutter speed to create a deliberate motion blur effect. The photographer might determine that to obtain the desired effect a shutter speed of ten seconds was needed. On a very bright day, there might be so much light that even at minimum film speed and a minimum aperture, the ten-second shutter speed would let in too much light and the photo would be overexposed. In this situation, applying an appropriate neutral-density filter is the equivalent of stopping down one or more additional stops, allowing for the slower shutter speed and the desired motion-blur effect.


  • Mechanism 1
  • Uses 2
  • Varieties 3
    • Specialist neutral density filters 3.1
      • Variable neutral density filter 3.1.1
      • Extreme ND filters 3.1.2
  • ND filter ratings 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


For an ND filter with optical density d the amount of optical power transmitted through the filter, which can be calculated from the logarithm of the ratio of the measurable intensity (I) after the filter to the incident intensity (I0),[1] shown as the following:

Fractional Transmittance (II0) = 10-d, or
d = - \log_{10} \frac{I}{I_0}


Comparison of two pictures showing the result of using a ND-filter at a landscape. The first one uses only a polarizer and the second one a polarizer and a 1000x ND-Filter (ND3.0), which allowed the second shot to have a much longer exposure, smoothing any motion.

The use of an ND filter allows the photographer to use a larger aperture that is at or below the diffraction limit, which varies depending on the size of the sensory medium (film or digital) and for many cameras, is between f/8 and f/11, with smaller sensory medium sizes needing larger-sized apertures, and larger ones able to use smaller apertures. ND filters can also be used to reduce the depth of field of an image (by allowing the use of a larger aperture) where otherwise not possible due to a maximum shutter speed limit.

Instead of reducing the aperture to limit light, the photographer can add a ND filter to limit light, and can then set the shutter speed according to the particular motion desired (blur of water movement, for example) and the aperture set as needed (small aperture for maximum sharpness or large aperture for narrow depth of field (subject in focus and background out of focus)). Using a digital camera, the photographer can see the image right away, and can choose the best ND filter to use for the scene being captured by first knowing the best aperture to use for maximum sharpness desired. The shutter speed would be selected by finding the desired blur from subject movement. The camera would be set up for these in manual mode, and then the overall exposure then adjusted darker by adjusting either aperture or shutter speed, noting the number of stops needed to bring the exposure to that which is desired. That offset would then be the amount of stop needed in the ND filter to use for that scene.

Neutral density filters are often used to achieve motion blur effects with slow shutter speeds

Examples of this use include:

  • Blurring water motion (e.g. waterfalls, rivers, oceans).
  • Reducing depth of field in very bright light (e.g. daylight).
  • When using a flash on a camera with a focal-plane shutter, exposure time is limited to the maximum speed—often 1/250th of a second, at best—at which the entire film or sensor is exposed to light at one instant. Without an ND filter this can result in the need to use f8 or higher.
  • Using a wider aperture to stay below the diffraction limit.
  • Reduce the visibility of moving objects
  • Add motion blur to subjects
  • Extended time exposures

Neutral density filters are used to control exposure with photographic catadioptric lenses, since the use of a traditional iris diaphragm increases the ratio of the central obstruction found in those systems leading to poor performance.

ND filters find applications in several high-precision laser experiments because the power of a laser cannot be adjusted without changing other properties of the laser light (e.g. collimation of the beam). Moreover, most lasers have a minimum power setting at which they can be operated. To achieve the desired light attenuation, one or more neutral density filters can be placed in the path of the beam.

Large telescopes can cause the moon and planets to become too bright and lose contrast. A neutral density filter can increase the contrast and cut down the brightness, making the moon easier to view.


A graduated ND filter is similar except the intensity varies across the surface of the filter. This is useful when one region of the image is bright and the rest is not, as in a picture of a sunset.

The transition area, or edge, is available in different variations (soft, hard, attenuator). The most common is a soft edge and provides a smooth transition from the ND side and the clear side. Hard edge grads have a sharp transition from ND to clear and the attenuator edge changes gradually over most of the filter so the transition is less noticeable.

Another type of ND filter configuration is the ND Filter-wheel. It consists of two perforated glass disks which have progressively denser coating applied around the perforation on the face of each disk. When the two disks are counter-rotated in front of each other they gradually and evenly go from 100% transmission to 0% transmission. These are used on catadioptric telescopes mentioned above and in any system that is required to work at 100% of its aperture (usually because the system is required to work at its maximum angular resolution).

Practical ND filters are not perfect, as they do not reduce the intensity of all wavelengths equally. This can sometimes create color casts in recorded images, particularly with inexpensive filters. More significantly, most ND filters are only specified over the visible region of the spectrum, and do not proportionally block all wavelengths of ultraviolet or infrared radiation. This can be dangerous if using ND filters to view sources (such as the sun or white-hot metal or glass) which emit intense non-visible radiation, since the eye may be damaged even though the source does not look bright when viewed through the filter. Special filters must be used if such sources are to be safely viewed.

An inexpensive, homemade alternative to professional ND filters can be made from a piece of welder's glass. Depending on the rating of the welder's glass, this can have the effect of a 10-stop filter.

Specialist neutral density filters

The two most common are the variable ND filters and the extreme ND filters such as the Lee Big Stopper.

Variable neutral density filter

The main disadvantage of neutral density filters is that to be entirely flexible in your shooting you need to carry a range of different NDs. This can become an expensive proposition, especially if using screw filters with different lens filter sizes which would require carrying a set for each diameter of lens carried. To counter this some manufacturers have created variable ND filters. These work by placing two polarizing filters together at least one of which can rotate. The rear polarizing filter cuts out light in one plane. As the front element is rotated, it cuts out an increasing amount of the remaining light the closer the front filters comes to being perpendicular to the rear filter. By using this technique the amount of light reaching the sensor can be varied with almost infinite control.

The advantages to this are that you get multiple ND filters in one package, the disadvantage is a loss of image quality caused by both using two elements together and by combining two polarizing filters.

Extreme ND filters

To create ethereal looking landscapes and seascapes with extremely blurred water, or other motion, has needed the use of multiple stacked ND filters. This had, as in the case of variable NDs, the effect of reducing image quality. To counter this, some manufacturers have produced high-quality, extreme ND filters. Typically these are rated at a 10-stop reduction, allowing for very slow shutter speeds even in relatively bright conditions.

ND filter ratings

In photography, ND filters are quantified by their optical density or equivalently their f-stop reduction. In microscopy, the transmittance value is sometimes used. In astronomy, the Fractional Transmittance is sometimes used (eclipses).

ND1number Notation
ND.number Notation
NDnumber Notation
Lens area opening, as fraction of the complete lens
Optical density
f-stop reduction
% transmittance
Fractional Transmittance
1 0.0 0 100% 1
ND 101
ND 0.3
1/2 0.3 1 50% 0.5
ND 102
ND 0.6
1/4 0.6 2 25% 0.25
ND 103
ND 0.9
1/8 0.9 3 12.5% 0.125
ND 104
ND 1.2
1/16 1.2 4 6.25% 0.0625
ND 105
ND 1.5
1/32 1.5 5 3.125% 0.03125
ND 106
ND 1.8
1/64 1.8 6 1.563% 0.015625
ND 2.0
1/100 2.0 6 2/3 1% 0.01
ND 107
ND 2.1
1/128 2.1 7 0.781% 0.0078125
ND 108
ND 2.4
1/256 2.4 8 0.391% 0.00390625
1/400 2.6 8 2/3 0.25% 0.0025
ND 109
ND 2.7
1/512 2.7 9 0.195% 0.001953125
ND 110
ND 3.0
ND1024 (also called ND1000)
1/1024 3.0 10 0.098% 0.0009765625
ND 111
ND 3.3
1/2048 3.3 11 0.049% 0.00048828125
ND 112
ND 3.6
1/4096 3.6 12 0.024% 0.000244140625
ND 3.8
1/6310 3.8 12 2/3 0.016% 0.000158489319246
ND 113
ND 3.9
1/8192 3.9 13 0.012% 0.0001220703125
ND 4.0
1/10000 4.0 13 1/3 0.01% 0.0001
ND 5.0
1/100000 5.0 16 2/3 0.001% 0.00001

Note: Hoya, B+W, Cokin use code ND2 or ND2x, etc; Lee, Tiffen use code 0.3ND, etc; Leica uses code 1x, 4x, 8x, etc[2]
Note: ND 3.8 is the correct value for solar CCD exposure without risk of electronic damage.
Note: ND 5.0 is the minimum for direct eye solar observation without damage of retina. A further check must be performed for the particular filter used, checking on the spectrogram that also UV and IR are mitigated with the same value.

See also


  1. ^ Hanke, Rudolph (1979). Filter-Faszination (in Deutsch). Monheim/Bayern. pp. 70 ff.  
  2. ^ "CAMERA LENS FILTERS". Retrieved June 12, 2014. 

External links

  • Neutral Density Filter Calculation Chart
  • ND Filters: Everything You Need to Know
  • Neutral Density Filters and Graduated ND Filters
  • Neutral Density Filters: What are they & when to use them ?
  • Neutral Density Filter FAQ at Digital Grin Photography Forum
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