With a multitude of ND filters how is the photographer to know which one to confidently buy? In this ND Buying Guide you’ll discover which density is right for you depending on what you shoot, and which to avoid.
6-stop Neutral Density
Best ND Filter for Landscape Photographers
If you’re a landscape photographer who wants to shoot long exposure sunsets, sunrises, waterfalls and moving water, the 6-stop ND is without question the best performing and the most versatile ND filter. I use the 6-stop ND 90% of the time when shooting long exposure landscape photography, and if I had to carry just one into the field this would be the one.
Why is the 6-stop ND the ideal ND for landscape?
2-4 minutes is the ideal exposure range when shooting sunset, sunrise, twilight and other golden hour moments, when shooting at ISO 100 between F11 to F18, a 6-stop ND puts you right squarely in the 2-4 minute exposure range for golden hour.
A 6-stop ND can also more than double exposure time when you drop from ISO 100 to 50, thereby increasing it’s versatility quite a bit.
What types of subjects is the 6-stop ND best for?
The 6-stop ND the ideal ND filter for shooting waterfalls, sunsets in the mountains, on the coast or in the desert, and even in urban environments where you want to reduce human subjects from a composition.
The 6-stop has the greatest versatility of the various densities, and it can be maximized further by stacking a 3-stop with a 6-stop for a total of 9-stops.
Is the 6-stop ND right for me?
If you shoot landscape 80% of the time or more, get the 6-stop.
If you’re a wedding or portrait photographer shooting human subjects at low F-numbers at low ISOs, or if you’re a landscape photographer who wants to maximize golden hour light get the 3-stop.
If you shoot abstract B&W, urban environments and midday long exposures get the 10-stop, however also consider shooting a 6-stop at ISO 50 or stacking a 3-stop + 6-stop for greater versatility.
6-stop ND Gallery
All 6-stop ND Gallery photographs by Graham Clark.
Grand Teton Sunrise
Even without moving subjects in a landscape image, an often overlooked use case for a 6-stop ND is to capture a wider range of colors within a long exposure. Here in the above Grand Teton Sunrise photograph the peaks were changing colors from dark red to light yellow, and this 120 second exposure captured the color change as light pink.
3-stop Neutral Density
Best ND Filter for Wedding & Portrait Photographers
Best ND Filter for Filmmakers
Second Best ND Filter for Landscape Photographers
If you shoot weddings, portraits, video or any other type of shooting where you need the lowest F-number for shallow DOF combined with the lowest ISO for best sharpness and saturation, the 3-stop ND is the best performer.
Towards the end of sunset the 6-stop ND exposure times will hit 4 minutes, which is the maximum I recommend shooting as anything more than 4 minutes will result in lots of sensor noise in shadow details. But there’s so much golden light left!
Remove the 6-stop, put on a 3-stop and you immediately go back down to 2 minutes with the same parameters, adding 15 seconds in-between each exposure to account for light loss.
Some compositions and subjects simply don’t call for 2 minute or longer exposure times, such as the one above. Without cloud definition the above Banff National Park Sunset photograph may not have been as impactful, and no meaningful change occurred in the water with the increased exposure.
One often overlooked technique with a 3-stop ND filter is using ISO 50 to double exposure time close to what a 6-stop would be, which further increases the versatility of the 3-stop.
A 3-stop could be used during sunset and sunrise if shooting at ISO 50, but the 3-stop really shines about 30 minutes after sunset, after the exposure exceeds 4 minutes with the 6-stop.
A 10-stop is completely useless for sunsets, sunrises, or any shooting during the golden hour because it goes way past the ideal exposure range, usually leading to exposure times that exceed the sunset or sunrise itself.
3-stop ND Gallery
All 3-stop ND Gallery photographs by Graham Clark.
10-stop Neutral Density
Best ND Filter for Abstract Black & White
Best ND for Urban Long Exposures
The 10-stop ND filter excels for pushing exposure times out very far for abstract and urban subjects, especially in harsh, direct light.
Pushing exposure times out very far when shooting otherwise ordinary subject matter can create incredibly dramatic results if the composition is strong and the technique sound.
Unfortunately, the 10-stop ND cannot used for sunsets or sunrises, and it is for this reason the 10-stop should be avoided completely when shooting golden hour light.
If at ISO 100 between F11 – F18 with a 6-stop ND puts you in the 2-4 minute range, a 10-stop ND would push the exposure past 8 minutes, which doesn’t work for two important reasons: sensor noise after 4 minutes makes an image essentially useless, and the sunset sometimes doesn’t last that long.
The 10-stop ND does however become very useful between 10AM – 4PM, when the light is directly overhead and flat, or in environments such as Alaska or Iceland where daylight can last a full day.
10-stop ND Gallery
All 10-stop ND Gallery photographs by Deepak Ghosh.
Neutral Density Conclusion
What you primarily shoot will ultimately determine which of the ND densities are most important to you. Here are my recommendations to a few of our most frequently asked questions:
Which ND filters are the best for landscape photography?
The 3-stop and 6-stop are by far the best performers and at the same time allow for the greatest versatility. If you’re shooting golden light (sunset, sunrise, twilight etc.) the 6-stop will always be your go-to ND for 2-4 minute exposures, with the 3-stop coming into play after you’ve hit the 4 minute mark at ISO 100.
By stacking the 3 + 6 you get an effective 9-stops in those rare instances that you need to go that high. This increases versatility while at the same time may introduce a small amount of vignetting between 16mm and 18mm on a full-frame setup, but the tradeoff is in my opinion definitely worth it if you shoot landscape photography 80% of the time or more.
If I had to just get one ND filter for landscape photography which would you recommend?
X4 ND 6-stop ND. And by dropping your ISO down to 50 the you can easily double exposure time, but just make sure to add +15 to +20 seconds in-between exposures to account for light loss.
If I’m a wedding photographer or a portrait photographer which ND is best for me?
The 3-stop is the preferred ND filter for 90% of wedding and portrait photographers. This will allow you to control shutter speed below the cameras maximum 1/4000 or 1/8000 and lower your shutter speed to control flash sync more effectively.
If your camera goes down to ISO 50 then get the 3-stop. If your camera only goes down to ISO 100 you may consider the 6-stop.
If I want to shoot abstract subjects and I’m not interested in shooting golden light, is the 10-stop ND the best filter?
Yes! The 10-stop ND is perfect for pushing exposure times out very far in bright or normal light conditions, especially where there’s movement.
Shooting with one single 10-stop over a 3-stop stacked with a 6-stop means you have no vignetting down to 16mm on a full-frame setup, where as stacking two X4 NDs adds a small bit of light falloff down to 18mm and wider.