Singh-Ray 77mm Vari-ND Variable Neutral Density Filter is the standard by which many judge other variable neutral density filters. With the ability to reduce the light into your lens from 2 to 8 stops, it offers a compelling choice for doing long exposures of moving objects like streams, waterfalls, etc… However, some say the $340 Singh-Ray is overpriced and old technology, so I thought I’d do a little research and find out if that was true.
Hoya Variable Density vs Singh-Ray Vari-ND Thickness
The Hoya 77mm Variable Density Filter was most interesting competitor to the Singh-Ray when I did my own personal shopping, so I decided to put this one up against my own personal Singh-Ray to see how they would compare. Right off the bat I was impressed that the Hoya offers 1.5 - 9 Stop Exposure Reduction, similar high quality glass, and a much thinner design for only $199.90 (at the time this article was written).
The Hoya has a nice screw case that works well, but scratches easy. It keeps the filter safe so it does its job, but if you are one of those obsessive compulsive types that might annoy you. The Singh-Ray on the other hand comes in a vinyl pouch that looks more impressive but it lets dirt in through the top openings much easier. The Hoya screw on design keeps the filter nice and clean which is important since often times when you shoot waterfalls or streams you are going to be on loose soil where dirt getting on your gear or in your bag is a problem.
When you hold both in your hands you quickly see the advantage Hoya had with a design done much more recently than Singh-Ray. It’s a nice thin model with a minimal lip that didn’t prove to be a problem with vignetting at 24mm with the Canon 24-70mm f/4L IS USM that I tested it with for this article. The Singh-Ray did have some vignetting issues, but they offer a thin version for another $50 more. I don’t really care much about vignetting issues since they are easy to correct and often times I’ll add them back to my image anyway.
Both filters are labeled well and can be rotated to their desired position, but the Hoya had a tighter ring resistance that I liked. It was smooth and fluid, but firm. That said, neither product had any issues with staying put when tested.
Comparison: The Stream Test
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, f/9 @70 mm, 1/10, ISO 100, No Flash on a Gitzo GT1541 – NO FILTER
To conduct my test I went to a nearby stream with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III using the new Canon 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens that I am testing and I put it on a Gitzo GT1541 tripod. With IS off, mirror lockup and the timer on, I proceeded to take a few shots before my wife started to give me the evil eye. ;-) This isn’t a hard-core test, but a simple subjective comparison of how I thought both filters performed from the perspective of a Singh-Ray VariND owner (I don’t own the Hoya).
It was a pretty cloudy day so I was able to get a decent 1/10 sec exposure of the stream at ISO 100, but I didn’t want to go beyond f/9 due to diffraction so I needed a neutral density filter to solve the problem. Now I could have used my Cokin Z-Pro U960 Pro Graduated Neutral Density Filter Kit with the Cokin Series Z 77mm Lens Adaptor Ring, but that’s more of a hassle because you have to switch, add or remove plates to get your desired shutter speed. With these neutral density filters I can just keep cutting light without any hassle.
For all of these shots I show the original in-camera JPEG scaled in the article and full-size in my sample gallery. None of the images are edited so they aren’t the prettiest, but you can get the idea of the performance of these filters.
I chose Auto White Balance for my testing and Evaluate Metering mode, but I used the manual (M) exposure mode to set a correct exposure according to my camera’s meter. My focus point was done manually via Live View and was on the sticks in the water at the top left of the frame. I also always shot at ISO 100 to avoid any ISO changes from skewing the results. In the real world I would have boosted my ISO for some of the near 30 second exposures.
What follows are the results I observed.
Minimum Light Field Test
Hoya vs Singh-Ray in Min Position
On white seamless paper you can quickly see that when you stop both down all of the way, the Hoya’s advertised 9 stops is obviously darker than the 8 of the Singh-Ray. It also seems that the Hoya has a more neutral tone whereas the Singh-Ray seems on the warm side despite being advertised as a neutral density filter.
Here’s my test shots at this setting:
In this position the Hoya could easily do 30 seconds and you’d really need to boost the ISO for a shot like this, but I was pleased overall that I could get a long exposure like this for the stream. As you can see behind the darkness that allows for a nice cotton-like effect that many enjoy from a scene like this.
The Singh-Ray surprised me in that it could only do 1.6s with my unit. I’ve actually reached out to Singh-Ray to see if there might be something defective with my unit as I would have expected something significantly longer than that. However, in repeated tests, this was as dark as my filter would allow. I was very disappointed in this and even more disappointed with the yellow tint. I can always adjust my white balance to get a warm feel, so I don’t want my “neutral” density filter doing that.
I began to wonder if I did something wrong so I rotated the Hoya over to the block next to the Min position and I got a nice 10 second image that was actually neutral!
Maximum Light Field Test
Hoya vs Singh-Ray in Max Position
My original image with no filter exposed to be 1/6 sec, but I had a lot of highlight blinkies so I ended up shooting at +1Ev to get to 1/10 sec for a more reasonable exposure. Here’s how things turned out with my camera set to 0EV in Aperture Priority:
While still warmer than the filter-less version, the Hoya let’s quite a bit of light in. This offers the advantage of not having to remove your filter if you want to shoot something that isn’t stopped down so much (i.e., an unexpected bear showing up to your stream).
Surprisingly the Singh-Ray let the same amount of light in as the Hoya which makes me wonder even more if there’s an issue with my filter (which I did buy used).
UPDATE: Singh-Ray on another day
I’ll contacted Singh-Ray and hoped to update this article if anything changes the results shown here, but they never contacted me. I tinkered with my filter and managed to get better performance on a different day. Here’s the best I could get with the Min setting:
With a self-fix and a different lens (I had to return the 24-70 f/4L IS back to B&H). It’s not a great head-to-head comparison, but you can get see that it could get up to 8 seconds in similar but not identical conditions.
UPDATE: About Auto White Balance (AWB)
I was asked to compare the three with a fixed WB by a few people, so I randomly chose 6500k as my WB and took the shots above on Feb 17th under different conditions. If you look at the water carefully in the original (no variable neutral density filter) you’ll see it has a bluish/greenish cast to it (you have to look at the rocks under the water in the foreground).
To my eyes it seems that the Singh-Ray does warm up the image slightly (enhancing the warm tones) and the Hoya cools it slightly (enhancing the blue/green color of the original).
During this second test I put the Hoya at one stop away from it’s MIN position, hence the 6 seconds exposure versus the Singh-Ray which got 8 seconds because I had it on its MIN position.
There’s appears to be a slight light leak in my Singh-Ray as I got the results I expected this time, but so far Singh-Ray has not made any attempt to reply to my requests to evaluate and/or correct my filter. Apparently customer support – even when it’s a media contact – isn’t terribly important to them.
UPDATE: Cross / X Mark Issue
See my comments below, but the nature of a design like these products offers requires a supported range of adjustments from min to max. With both products if you stay within the supported range, they perform fine without any Cross / X issue. If you get right to the edge of the dark boundary you start to see it appear, so the solution is simple – use the product as it’s designed and stay within the supported range.
I own the Singh-Ray Vari-ND used in this article, so it’s a product I like and trust. However, I’m in the market to buy another one for my 82mm lenses so I thought I’d comparison shop against my 77mm before I made a purchase.
I think what I discovered is that I’ve got a problem with my Singh-Ray that needs to be addressed, but I also discovered that the Hoya is quite good and more neutral balanced. At a fraction of the price, I think I’ll buy the Hoya for my 24-70mm f/2.8L II and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lenses. If I can’t get a response from Singh-Ray I’ll probably replace it with a Hoya too.
If you enjoy long exposures, a variable neutral density filter is the way to go!
Where to order
Click here to order the Singh-Ray 77mm Vari-ND Variable Neutral Density Filter or click here to see other sizes on the B&H web site.
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If you make a purchase using links found in this article, I may make a commission. It doesn’t cost you a penny more, but it does help to support future articles like this. I also borrowed a Hoya filter for this article, but the Singh-Ray was my own personal property.