Tiffen Variable Neutral Density Filters

Today it's one of the industry's most popular neutral Density filters, tiffen's variable ND filters!

It's strange, for so long I subscribed to the theory that filters only compromised the quality of high-end lenses, but what good is all that quality if you can't expose a photo with a wide aperture on a sunny day?  Some filters absolutely have their value and purposes, particularly if (like me) you have a series of F/1.4 primes that you want to use during sunny wedding days, or for long-exposures in light conditions. Let's take a look at the Tiffen Variable ND line!


Single Sentence Summary

It frees me to go to F/1.4 in broad daylight, but ironically stops me from using a lens hood to block the sun.

Why I Bought It

I own nearly every Nikon F/1.4 prime lens on the market and I work as a military photojournalist and wedding photographer, I need to be able to shoot with very shallow depths of field in midday sun.  Even when shooting with my D810 which goes as low as ISO 64, and offers 1/8000 of a second shutter speeds, I still found that images were overexposing at F/1.4.  Personally I buy F/1.4 lenses to shoot at F/1.4, and yes, before someone points it out, I know they're not optimally sharpest at F/1.4.  To do that I needed something that would cut the light, something high in quality to ensure that there would be minimal image quality degradation (if any at all), that was adaptive to my quick movements and changes in lighting during military environments.

What I Like

Pretty much anything that is so simple that you don't need a user's manual is a good thing in my books.  I love how simple it is.  There's no complicated threading and un-threading to change filters like the non-variable ones, and they're much easier to adapt than my Lee Filters set.  These ones can go from a 2-stop ND filter to an 8-stop ND filter in a simple twist of the wrist.  Also, it's a smooth twist of the wrist at that, I love how though the stops are indicated on the side of the filter, the filter doesn't click at each one, it just smoothly slides.

Quality-wise I have never found that the filter has compromised any of my images.  I've worked with a number of filters that have, but these (in my experience) have been second to none.  Creatively it also offers the opportunity to shoot longer exposures in daylight, so you can really smooth out waterfalls, or get some cool motion blur.

It's nice to have an option to avoid having to adjust camera settings to adapt my exposure.  There are times when I absolutely need 1/8000 of a second to freeze motion (I shoot jets, rockets, etc. with the military) in bright conditions, where I also need a shallow depth of field.  My point is my settings in certain (surprisingly often) times can't adapt or be pushed because I'm literally at the edge of my camera's limits.  Having an easy to adapt exposure modifier gives me another option, and I'm all for having every option I can.  

What I Don't

Here's a big one: I can't use my lens hoods with one of these on!  Well technically I can make it fit, but I have to put the hood on first, and then screw it in from the front so gently that it's not firmly seated or else it risks getting stuck and I risk never getting it off again shy of breaking the lens hood to gain access.  So, to that end I rarely ever even try to get them working together.  This means that suddenly unintended lens flares are a risk.  Super annoying.

Because the threading on the front of the filter is larger than on the back I need to have a separate different size lens cap when I have one of the Tiffen filters on.  That's not cool.  I move around in large groups of people at weddings, anyone could hit my camera with anything, or I may accidentally catch the corner of a chair.  As I pointed out above using a lens hood is often not an option, which is my 90% solution to protecting my lens, and now because of the different size threading I need to carrying an extra set of different size caps, which is a pain to track.

Speaking about protecting my gear, what's up with the soft case?  Even the most basic UV filter comes with a hard plastic case, I was very disappointed to find out that I had bought yet another thing that I was going to have to baby when I travel (which is pretty often).  The case is very nice, thickly woven and tough material on the outside with a very soft interior to protect it from scratches, but I'd prefer something that can handle impact, something that can survive a bump from my other gear in one of my Pelican cases stowed in the belly of a plane.

I can't complain about the cost, much as I want to.  Like I said previously, having these allows me to use lenses I've spent thousands of dollars on, that I would otherwise not be able to use, how can I complain about spending another $150 to ensure I can use them?  One thing that does get annoying though is that my default prime pairing is a 35mm F/1.4 and an 85mm F/1.4, each of which has a different front threading size, which means I need a 67mm Tiffen and a 77mm Tiffen to use both.  If I'm using my 24-70mm F/2.8 and my 70-200mm F/2.8 together they both need a 77mm.  That means I needed to have a collection of them to cover all of the different lens threading sizes and possible combinations.  The costs add up quickly.

Bottom Line

If you don't own a pro camera, and thus can't drop down to ISO 64, or even sometimes lower than ISO 200, then an F/1.4 lens will be absolutely impossible to use in bright conditions without an ND filter.  To that end I can definitely say that this lens really opens up the opportunity for you to literally open up your aperture.  It comes with two pretty big shortcomings for how I use my camera gear, the hence my score.  I still defend them wholeheartedly, they are my go-to accessory for wedding day posed photos; but you really should be aware of what you're getting into before you commit to these.



I feel like I should point out that the only reason the score is so high is that it provides its function extremely well, and that I've never found my image quality compromised.  That being said, I will always choose to not use them if I don't have to, just because the shortcomings are too much work, and I'm all about keeping it as simple as possible.