By Cole Thompson
Utah Hills, created with the Singh-Ray 15 Stop Mor-Slo Filter
After years of experimentation and trying various ND filter combinations, I have assembled what I believe to be the world’s perfect ND kit.
It consists of the following Singh-Ray filters:
5-stop Mor-Slo in 82mm
10-stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
15-stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
20-stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
Vari-ND in 82mm
Step up rings on each of my lenses so they all can use 82mm filters
Those of you who are shooting long daytime exposures will appreciate what this means. I can now shoot with 5, 10, 15 or 20 stops of ND without stacking two filters together or vignetting!
I am in pig heaven. Seriously.
But my perfect kit would not be complete without a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. This is a variable filter that gives you between 3 and 8 stops of neutral density and it works just like a polarizer: turning it one way gives you more ND and turning it the other way gives you less.
It is critically important for me to have this variable filter because it allows me to photograph dynamic subjects (eg: people or other moving objects) quickly without removing the filter to compose the image.
With fixed filters the viewfinder is so dark that I cannot compose without removing the filter. And taking filters on and off takes precious time (which I may not have when photographing people) and sometimes I accidently change the zoom or focus settings, which ruins the shot.
With the Vari-ND I can dial the filter open, compose, and then close the filter down to shoot. I can do this very quickly which is critical.
The Vari-ND filter is the one piece of equipment that allowed me to photograph the ghosts at Auschwitz-Birkenau (below).
If had I visited the camps armed only with my fixed ND filters, I could not have created these images.
Now some of you looking at this list of filters might be thinking: everyone has heard of a 5 and 10 stop… but a 15 and 20???
Yes! Singh-Ray offers a 5, 10 and 15 stop filter and then they recently built a 20-stop Mor-Slo filter for me (which I think they’ll be offering to the public before long). Editor’s note: if you’re interested in a 20-stop Mor-Slo, let us know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why would I want a 20-stop filter? Because it allows me to get an 8- and 16-minute exposure in bright daylight, and now I don’t have to stack to get it! Stacking creates some serious vignetting when shooting wide, here’s a before-and-after of a two stacked filter shot to illustrate:
Being able to go from 5- to 20-stops without stacking is a huge deal for me.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a commercial for Singh-Ray because it’s not, but it is an honest plug. I’ve long depended on Singh-Ray’s filters, they are top quality and the customer service is unbeatable.
So if you’re wondering what ND filters to buy, here is the perfect combination of filters to aspire to.
P.S. Just to balance out all this technical talk, here is a favorite story of mine that puts equipment into perspective:
“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.’” Sam Haskins
An additional note from Cole:
Here is a rough guide to know how much ND you need in bright sunlight, at ISO 50 and f22:
5 stops of ND: 1/8 second
10 stops of ND: 4 seconds
13 stops of ND: 30 seconds
15 stops of ND: 2 minutes
If your camera will only go to ISO 100, then you’ll need another stop of ND to reach these times. And if your camera will stop down smaller than f22, then you’ll need less ND.
A Vari-ND with a 5 stop ND filter is where I started. But if you need to economize and can only buy one filter, I’d start with a 15-stop Mor-Slo filter. It’s not as convenient as the Vari-ND, but it will get you a 2-minute exposure and since you’ll not be stacking, you can shoot wide angle with it.