cheap neutral density filters – any use?

29 December 2009: Note – the entry below describes a ND400 filter that I received in October 2009. Since then, I ordered another, which was faulty and produced a distinct magenta cross patter (see the comments below).  The pattern it produces suggests that the filter is based on two ‘crossed’ sheets of polarising material. Citiwide are currently not able to provide a filter of the same quality as the first one I received, so have refunded me. I am hoping that they will be able to resolve the quality issues as I would be willing to purchase another one, if it works as described for the first copy I received. If I hear that the quality issues is resolved, I will update this page.

I have a B&W ND110 filter already. For those of you who do not know it, it is a very dark filter that allows slow shutter speeds in daylight. You might ask why. Slow shutter speeds will make moving objects blur or disappear in the final image, very handy for atmospheric clouds, waterfalls or getting rid of tourists. The B&W filter reduces light by 1000x or 10 stops, so instead of an exposure of say 1/60, with the filter the exposure is 8 seconds.

The only downside is that the B&W filter is expensive – £35 just for the 58mm version. At some point I want a 77mm version. Also, after successfully cutting down a piece of IR filter for attaching behind the Pentax 10-17 fisheye, I would like to repeat with a strong ND filter. So where do you go for cheap filters? eBay and China or Hong Kong of course! I found a generic Citiwide 77mm ND400 (9 stop reduction) for less than £13 on eBay. At that price I was willing to take a punt. This one was actually purchased as a gift, my intention was to buy a smaller version and get it cut to fit on the back of the fisheye.

Despite the post strike it arrived in the UK from HK in under a fortnight. Initial impressions are good, it is mounted in a slim (3mm) metal mount and seems fine. So how does it compare?

All photos are shot in RAW with the Pentax K100D, 18-55 AL II kit lens at ISO 200. This is the shot with no filter. Camera set to Daylight white balance, f16 1/180second. Click on any of the images to see a larger version.

Below, the real B&W ND110 with Daylight white balance setting. 15 seconds at f16 (approx 11 stops slower).

Again, the B&W ND110 with camera white balance set through the filter. Same exposure as above.

The image below is the cheap ND400 with Daylight white balance (to show the effect on colour this filter has). 30 seconds at f9.5. This filter is supposed to be 9 stop reduction, so one stop ‘faster’ than the B&W, but in practice this is closer to 12-13 stops and was still a bit underexposed.

Again, the eBay ND400, with white balance set through the camera. Not looking too good straight out of the camera. This was another stop slower, 30 seconds at f8 and still a stop or two underexposed.

All is not lost though, despite the obvious colour cast of the filter, it does adjust fairly successfully. This has had a quick tweak for levels in Lightroom. The white balance was set against the white clouds and the vignetting has been adjusted.

Conclusions: There is obviously potential in this cheap filter and I will be buying myself one. For £13 a 77mm 9 stop ND filter is a bargain, the B&W equivalent is £80 and up. But it is not the sort of filter for the impatient. For best results you are going to have to pay close attention to the exposure. Just dialling in 10 stops of compensation does not work and you will have to adjust levels, tone curves etc. Also, depending on how sensitive your camera is to red (and infrared) you may end up getting very odd results that need colour correction, so shooting RAW is essential as JPEGs are not likely to allow enough adjustment without colour clipping. For those of you who like the effect and have the cash to splash – buy the B&W.

9 thoughts on “cheap neutral density filters – any use?”

  1. I bought also this Citiwide ND400 filter.
    My filter is totally too dark, it is ND1500000 or 20 stops.
    White balance cant be set through filter.
    Red casting is sow strong that filter is useless.
    Can you tell more how to get rid of red colour?
    Im using Gimp to editing photos.

    1. Hi Pete, I do shoot in RAW (16 bit), so that will allow a lot more adjustment with setting the white balance when you edit the photo. GIMP is only 8 bit so you might want to try shooting in RAW (if you can) and use RawTherapee to adjust the white balance and levels then import into the GIMP. I think I only managed to set the incamera white balance by pointing it at the hazy sun (with the filter on obviously – this is not necessarily the best practice). Your comment goes to show that the level of fiddling to get this cheap filter to work makes it a waste of time for a lot of people, the B&W also requires a bit of work, but not as much as this.

  2. Thanks for fast reply.
    I have Sony a300, it has 12 bit sensor and noise reduction cant be turned totally off.
    Thats why i shoot only jpgs, i’ll try with raws someday.
    Your first ebay ND400 image is like mines, but i must use bulb mode 144 secs f3.5 ISO800.

  3. That sounds like a lot longer than I needed for my old Pentax! I have a friend who has a Sony a700 and he gets better results than me with the same exposure times. RAW will really help, noise reduction is merely annoying while it takes so long to subtract the hot pixels. The new Pentaxes do not allow turning NR off, which is why I am back to looking at a Nikon D90.

    1. I like the area, but I wonder about the purpose of the ND filter in this case. Most of the time I am using the strong ND filters to enable long exposures in daylight, and you could get a pretty long exposure with that evening light already (especially as we have already established that this filter is much stronger than advertised).

      When I do the long exposure I always think about what effect I am looking for from the moving elements in the photo. For example, do you want to smooth out the water surface in a coastal scene, make the people or cars disappear in a cityscape or create streaky blurs of the clouds? Do a search for ND400 or ND110 on flickr and you can see what others are getting up to.

  4. I have had an email conversation with another person struggling with these cheap ND400 filters. We thought it would be useful for people to see here:

    Message:
    I am an amateur, and i purchased the citiwide nd400 filter just as you did on your page abt the cheap nd400 filter. As a result, I have a super purple tint, kinda the same as the one you have. However, I’m really surprised with the photo you have after “tweaking” with levels with Lightroom.

    That’s why i want to ask if you have a few tips here and there abt how to change the color back to normal, I do have lightroom and photoshop.

    Thanks!

    I do not have the filter at the moment so I am waiting for that to come back to do some proper examples. Here are the tips I suggest:

    • Use RAW if possible, presuming you are using a DSLR or advanced compact as this gives more capacity for adjustment
    • Set the white balance with the filter on. You might have to point the camera towards a very bright light (such as the sun) to do this
    • Use a cloud area to set the spot white balance in your editing software, if there is no cloud it might be worth placing a neutral or white card or item in to give you a reference.

    Hope that gets you started.

    Thanks for the reply. I went to take some photo today morning, by pointing the camera to the sky, and as a result I have this purple cross tint. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but everything around the corners are fine, it’s just that there is this huge purple cross that’s at the dead centre of my photos. Any suggestions?

    From your description it sounds like you are using a wide angle lens the filter you have is a crossed polariser type. I have tried crossed polarisers to create a variable ND filter, but with poor results like you are describing. See http://picasaweb.google.com/pano180/FilterTesting20090802# or http://picasaweb.google.com/pano180/CrossedPolarisersAsVariableNDFilter#

    I had noticed a difference from the centre to the edge using this Citiwide ND400 with my lens (I was using a 77mm filter on a kit lens, so not that wide angle). The one I tested was a gift for someone and I am still waiting on my own version to arrive from Hong Kong for proper testing. I think that the quality of these Citiwide filters is not really up to scratch for serious work. The person I gave the original one to loves the colour and effects, but I can see myself buying a proper 77mm B&W ND110 version pretty soon (I have a 58mm B&W ND110 and it is very good. No cross effect at wide angle and only a minor colour shift).

    So, I am beginning to doubt the worth of this item, but as my own copy is on a very slow boat from the suppliers, I have not had a chance to play with it since my initial brief experiments. Current advice? Keep saving for the proper B&W version.

    1. Update: I received my own copy of this ND400 from citiwide now. Post from Hong Kong has been very slow, it took a month. This is the second copy I have had from them, but it is not the same as the first copy I received. This newer copy also produces the distinct ‘cross pattern’, which suggests that they are using crossed polarising filters to get the ND effect. The first copy I had was much more even, so I am hoping that they will be able to replace it with a better copy. I am waiting for their response at the moment. I am also hoping that this has been a temporary lapse in quality. If you can live with the colour shift it is actually a useful filter and I wish I had not given the first one away!

      From 2009-12-17

  5. @David : I feel its worth spending on nd110 or hoya or lee nd.SHots you have posted form those cheapos have considerable degradation of image quality .

Comments are closed.