Circular ND filter shootout

Introduction

pulpit rock-nisi-001
Pulpit Rock – NiSi Nano 10-stop ND – F8, 2.5s, ISO 200

When I first started out my foray into the world of neutral-density (ND) filters, I was more than a little intimidated by the various types and brands out there. What was the difference between the brands? Why are some so expensive and some so cheap? Which one should I get?

I’ve been down this road before and over the years I’ve acquired (through my affliction with GAS) and tried several brands so I thought I’d do a quick comparison of the following brands:

Gobe 10-stop ND (Twin Peak version) AUD$48

B+W XS-Pro MRC Nano 10-stop ND AUD$128

NiSi Nano IR 10-stop ND AUD$99

Breakthrough X4 6-stop ND $149 (USD I think)

All the filters tested have a 58mm diameter to fit the XF14mm F2.8 lens.

Test conditions

All the images were shot on an X-H1 and the XF14mm F2.8 lens. I shot in RAW and edited in Lightroom. I made slight exposure adjustments to get the exposure consistent across the images, but otherwise, no further adjustments were made. White balance was set in camera to Daylight.

I found variations amongst the 10-stop filters where they DID NOT reduce the light by EXACTLY 10-stops. There were variations of around 2/3 stops which is a minor issue but this is why I had to make those minor exposure adjustments in Lightroom to get them consistent.

It was a beautiful sunny day (approx 3pm) with clear skies and the location of the shoot was Pulpit Rock down at Cape Schanck, Victoria.

 

No filter

ndtest-nofilter-001
Pulpit Rock – No filter – F8, 1/400s, ISO 200

This is the control shot with no filters. The XF14mm F2.8 is an excellent landscape lens that renders sharp images corner-to-corner with good detail, colour and contrast.

 

Gobe 10-stop ND (Twin Peak version)

ndtest-gobe-001
Pulpit Rock – Gobe 10-stop ND (Twin Peak version) – F8, 3s, ISO 200

Gobe is a relatively new brand and their filters are all relatively cheap compared to other brands. They classify the grade of their filters with 1 to 3 peak symbols with 3 peaks being their highest grade that uses German Schott glass – only found in their UV and Clear filter lines. Their ND filter lines are classed as 2-peaks, made with Japanese optical glass and 16 nano-coatings. The ring is made from some sort of magnesium-aluminium alloy so the filter itself is quite light.

I was aiming for a shutter speed of around 3-5 seconds to get the definition in the water I was looking for so the 10-stop ND filter was perfect for this. For $50, you get a perfectly useable 10-stop filter with a slight magenta colour cast. There is also visible vignetting in the corners. When zooming in to 100% there is a bit more loss of detail/sharpness compared the more expensive filters, but is otherwise not what I would consider significant.

I was actually surprised by the results from this Gobe filter. This would be my recommendation to someone looking to try out long-exposure photography for the first time who also don’t want to spend a lot of money, and the quality is pretty good!

 

B+W XS-Pro MRC Nano 10-stop ND

ndtest-b+w-001
Pulpit Rock – B+W XS-Pro MRC Nano 10-stop ND – F8, 3s, ISO 200

This particular ND filter uses Schott glass for increased optical clarity and colour fidelity – well that’s at least what the marketing blurb reads. I agree with the optical clarity claim – the details in the rocks are well-preserved. However there is a strong magenta colour cast and the vignetting was the worst out of the group. The nail in the coffin is that this is also quite an expensive filter.

My version of the filter is quite old – maybe 6 or 7 years old – and glass technology has advanced since that time so maybe their current versions actually perform better than mine. However the high price with the issues described above, compared to other excellent options out there, make this a hard one to recommend.

 

NiSi Nano 10-stop ND

ndtest-nisi-001
Pulpit Rock – NiSi Nano 10-stop ND – F8, 3s, ISO 200

I’ve been using NiSi for a few years now and I’ve always been impressed by their quality. Details and sharpness is well-preserved and there is a very slight magenta cast that is easily corrected in post. There doesn’t appear to be any vignetting as well.

It sits in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of price but the performance is somewhere close to the top. I would recommend this filter to anyone looking to invest in great quality filters for the long-term.

 

Breakthrough X4 6-stop ND

ndtest-breakthrough-001
Pulpit Rock – Breakthrough X4 6-stop ND – F13, 1s, ISO 100

Breakthrough is also a relative newcomer to the scene and their X4 line of filters also feature Schott glass and MRC coatings. The metal rings also have a ridged design which makes it easy to tighten and loosen the filters which is a great feature. The filters are also the most expensive one in the group. Breakthrough are an American company, but they don’t claim that their products are made in the USA.

I wanted to try their 10-stop filter but they didn’t have any in stock at the time so I went for the 6-stop instead. So first, one caveat: a lower strength ND filter should exhibit less colour cast compared to a higher strength filter, so comparing this to the other 10-stop filters is not a far comparison.

Having said that, there is no doubting the quality of this filter. There is virtually no noticeable colour cast or vignetting, and the details, clarity and sharpness are as good as any I’ve seen. The only sticking point is the price. If the nice-to-have feature of a ridged ring, and the superior optical qualities of this filter is what you want, and you can afford the price, then I’d recommend this one.

 

Conclusion

There are several other brands I would have liked to test (Haida, Formatt Hi-Tech, Hoya, Tiffen) but unfortunately I don’t have those on hand.

If you’re looking to dabble in long-exposure photography, but you don’t want to invest in a square filter system (which is a significant investment), then a circular ND filter makes sense. Even for a seasoned landscape shooter who wants to pack light, having a circular ND filter slipped into a pocket can give you another creative option.

The main disadvantage with circular filters is that they come in specific diameters so you can only use them with lenses that match (eg. a 58mm filter will fit the XF14mm and the XF18-55mm but not the XF16mm or the XF10-24mm). So do your research and consider what lenses you will likely use and then get the filters to match.

 

 

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