Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Singh-Ray’s Trio of Variable Density filters: Which one is right for you?

Singh-Ray Vari-N-Trio -- 30 seconds at f16

By Darwin Wiggett

With the introduction of the Vari-N-Trio, Singh-Ray now has three different versions of their variable density filters available. All three of these filters have one thing in common: they are variable density filters that allow you dial in the amount of density from about two stops up to eight stops. These filters are used mostly to help photographers make long exposures in bright conditions for creative shutter speed effects.

The Vari-ND filter is the base model; it gets you the long-exposure effects with no fuss and at the least cost. This filter is purely a variable ND filter, nothing else. If you just want to play with long exposures with no other filter effects, then this is the filter to get.

The Vari-N-Duo is a variable density filter combined with a warming polarizer. So this filter is really two filters in one. If you are a big fan of the warming polarizer and the effects that a polarizer gives you then the Vari-N-Duo is your convenient solution.

The Vari-N-Trio is the newest addition to the variable density line. Not only do you get the variable ND function with a warming polarizer, but you also get the addition of a color intensifier filter as well. The color intensifier filter intensifies green and warm colors in-camera to make images that have more color punch without having to resort to complex post-processing to get the same results. This filter is for fans of the effects of the Vari-ND and the polarizer but who also wants the richest colors possible captured in-camera. However, you will have to pay more to get all these options in one filter.

In the Field
I went out this fall to further dissect the differences in performance between the three variable density filters. I wanted to find out just how differently the three filters rendered the same scene. Below are two comparison scenes that hopefully will help photographers decide which variable density filter best suits their vision and their needs.

Nigel Creek, Banff National Park, Alberta
I have photographed these two rocks on numerous occasions in the past so I know they would be a good test for the three variable density filters. In the first photo below are the rocks photographed without any filters.

No filters -- 1/15th of a second at f14

This second photo is with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND and it shows how silky the falling water gets when photographed with a long shutter speed.

Singh-Ray Vari-ND -- 25 seconds at f14

The third photo shows the results of the Vari-N-Duo. I used the polarizer on the filter to reduce some of the reflective highlights on the two rocks which gives richer colors in the rocks. The warming polarizer built into the Vari-N-Duo really adds some warmth to the scene.

Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo -- 25 seconds at f14

The final photo is the one taken with the Vari-N-Trio. This filter not only has the benefits of warming polarization (removes reflective highlights and warms up colours), it also has the advantage of intensifying some cool and warm colors. Check out how the water looks neutral while the rocks maintain a rich warm intensity.

Singh-Ray Vari-N-Trio -- 25 seconds at f14

Aspen trees, Kootenay Plains, Alberta
In September I was on the Kootenay Plains in Alberta looking for fall colours. This area of Alberta is often windy and so is a perfect place to use an ND filter to get motion effects in the blowing aspen leaves. The first photo shows the scene as captured without any filters.
No filters -- 1/4 second at f16

The second photo was made with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter and it shows the effect of a long shutter speed on the blowing leaves and branches. Notice the colors are very similar between the two photos showing how neutral the Vari-ND filter renders colors.
Singh-Ray Vari-ND -- 30 seconds at f16

The third photo shows the effects with the Vari-N-Duo; the polarizer has reduced reflective glare on the leaves and warmed up the colors overall.
Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo -- 30 seconds at f16

Finally, the last image was taken using the Vari-N-Trio. Not only are the reflective highlights reduced with the polarizer effect, but the color intensifier has punched up the reds and greens significantly.
Singh-Ray Vari-N-Trio -- 30 seconds at f16

Other Considerations
Most photographers when they look at these comparison shots likely will prefer the Vari-N-Trio over the other variable density filters. In all my tests (and I did numerous), I always preferred the results of the Vari-N-Trio over the other two filters, especially where there were cool and warm contrasts in the scene like in the image below.

Singh-Ray Vari-N-Trio -- 13 seconds at f16

But price is definitely a factor to consider. Some photographers will opt for the Vari-N-Duo because it is significantly less money than the Vari-N-Trio ($390 vs. $540) and they can make color enhancements in post-processing to get results similar to the Vari-N-Trio. I agree post processing color enhancements is definitely a possibility but making enhancements to individual images takes time and increases the workflow in the digital darkroom. Are you a photographer who likes to work on images after the shoot, or do you prefer to capture images as finished as possible in the camera? Only you can decide. For me, I am a firm believer of getting it right in-camera. The less time I have to spend in post-production the better, so my personal choice is to go for the Vari-N-Trio.

So what about the basic Vari-ND? Is there still a place for this filter in a photographer’s bag? I think there is. The great thing about the Vari-ND in a 'standard ring' mount is that you can screw other filters onto the front of the ND filter. So if you already own a 77mm polarizer*, you can add it to the Vari-ND to give you a Vari-N-Duo type effect (but admittedly with far less convenience). But for me, the real magic is in using the Vari-ND filter in conjunction with the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer to create beautifully colored images especially when shooting on overcast days.

For example, the first photo below, I photographed Nigel Creek in Banff National Park on an overcast day without any filters. As expected the image is a bit washed out from reflective glare.

No filters -- 1/13th at f16

Recognizing that the image would benefit from a longer exposure to get the silky water effect and that a polarizer would help remove the reflective glare from the water, I used my Vari-N-Duo for the second image.

Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo -- 6 seconds at f16

Next, I tried out my Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer on the scene and loved the colors the filter gave me. The only problem was I needed a slower shutter speed to get the silky water effect and the only way to get the shutter speed I wanted was to use an ND filter. So I took out my Vari-ND filter and screwed on the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue to the front of the Vari-ND filter and rotated each individually until I got the Gold-N-Blue effect I liked and the long exposure time I needed. The result is the image below:

Singh-Ray Vari-ND in combination with the Singh-Ray Gold-n-Blue -- 15 seconds at f16

The Vari-N-Trio image you see at the top of this story is an "extractive landscape" of the ice formations on the Mistaya River in Banff National Park. It was taken one week ago during our November Fire and Ice Photo Tour using a Sigma 120-400mm lens on my Canon EOS 1ds Mark III. Using the Vari-N-Trio, I was able to shoot a 30-second exposure at f/16 in bright overcast daylight. I like how the filter brought out the colours of the greenish water and reddish-brown rocks.

There is no 'best' version of the Singh-Ray variable density filters. Choose the version that will give you the results you want. If you rarely use a polarizer and only need the ND effect, then the Vari-ND is probably the best choice. Or if you love the Gold-N-Blue Polarizer effect and want to combine that polarizer with a variable density filter then the Vari-ND will also be the answer.

If you love using a polarizer and want to have the benefits of polarization combined with a variable density filter in a reasonably priced package, then the Vari-N-Duo is a great choice.

And finally if you want it all, variable density with a polarizer and a color intensifier, then the Vari-N-Trio makes perfect sense, especially if you want to spend the least amount of time in post-processing your images.

Darwin Wiggett is a Canadian nature photographer who is well known for his instructional workshops, seminars, and tours. If you would like to learn more about using filters to capture the best image possible while in the field, check out the eBook he co-authored with his teaching partner, Samantha Chrysanthou, entitled Essential Filters for Digital Nature Photography over at www.visualwilderness.com. You can learn more about Darwin at his website, www.darwinwiggett.com.

*Vari-ND compatibility with polarizers other than Singh-Ray's LB Warming Polarizer may vary and is not guaranteed.


Ranganayaki said...

Fantastic article. Perfect timing as well as I am thinking of investing in a variable density filter and was wondering on which one to go for!

Han said...


Thanks very much for the review. It is a great read. That said, I do have my unfounded reservations about so many filters being in one? We have been educated not to stack filters (not too many) and getting a 3 in 1 seems to be contradictory? Was there any significant loss in sharpness from using the 3 in 1?

Thank you very much once again.



Michael said...

Awesome article! Thank you very much for doing this!!!

Kevin Thompson said...

Thank you for your post. I am currently looking at all 3 filters and was unsure of which filter to purchase. After reading your post with the sample images I am moving forward with the trio. I will post some images after I return from my fall trips.

Thanks again,
Kevin Thompson