nd filter

High Speed Sync vs Neutral Density Filters

HSS vs Neutral Density

I was reading online forums again (yeah, I know...)... I saw a discussion where a photographer was trying to figure out exposure settings for outdoor flash vs ambient light using neutral density filters. He was adamant that he did NOT want to use high speed sync (HSS) because HSS robs the flash of a lot of its power.

This got me thinking... Doesn't using ND filters also rob the flash of power? If you put a 6-stop ND filter over the lens you are effectively lowering the power of the flash 6 stops and also lowering the amount of ambient light 6 stops. If you use high speed sync to raise the shutter speed by six stops you lower the ambient light 6 stops. You also lose power in the flash, about the same 6 stops. Seems pretty much equivalent.

NOTE: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links and I might be compensated if you purchase equipment using the links. But you will also get a discount by using the link or the code CORNICELLO10 on the Interfit Photographic web site. Win/Win situation!

So, time to do some testing. Camera is a Canon 5D mkIII with an 85mm f/1.8 lens. All of the photos were made with the white balance set to Daylight. Flash is an Interfit Photographic S1 with high speed sync capabilities modified with a 24-inch collapsible beauty dish. Ambient light meter reading was 1/125 at f/9 and the flash was a bit brighter (f/13). I wanted to make the photographs at f/1.8. 

I needed about 5 and 2/3 stops of neutral density. I had two 0.9 (3-stop) neutral density filters handy, so I stacked them on top of each other and made the first series of photos below with normal sync. Then I removed the filters and switched the Interfit S1 to high speed sync mode and made a similar set of images above the normal sync speed of the camera. The third set as the Interfit S1 in HSS mode plus TTL metering. All the photos were imported into Adobe Lightroom Classic with no adjustments made to them and then I made the following groups via the Print module. The power level on the strobe was not changed between shots in the first two sets of photos. In the third set the strobe was in TTL mode, so it did vary the power (raising it as the shutter speed increased) to maintain the proper exposure.

While this test isn't super scientific, the things I notice are a definite color cast in the photos made with the ND filter, the ND photos do not appear to be quite as sharp as the HSS photos (a complaint I often hear about variable density ND filters, but these were two single density filters), and the ND filters I used required me to take off the lens shade (something I rarely if ever do) to attach them. The ND filters make it more difficult to see through the viewfinder (6 stops more difficult, I don't want to do the math to figure out how many times darker that is). I could/should have bumped the flash power up a third of a stop or so because of the extra density. The background would have remained the same with the subject being a little bit brighter. But it is what it is. All in all a bit of a pain to work with, but it gets the job done if you have a strobe unit that doesn't do HSS.

In the middle set, using the flash in manual exposure mode with high speed sync. Again, I should have/could have bumped up the power of the flash as I went above 1/3200 sec. on the shutter speed. But the last three are still OK and salvageable. 

The set with the S1 in high speed sync mode and TTL exposure seems to be the winner to me. I was able to adjust the shutter speed to make the trees in the background lighter and darker while at the same time keeping the exposure on the subject pretty consistent. I did not make any adjustments on the flash.

Until fairly recently, I hadn't used HSS or TTL all that much with my flashes. I've been a pretty strict manual mode and in the studio type of photographer. Working with the Interfit S1 strobes has changed my mind about this. What are your thoughts about using neutral density filters to balance flash and daylight versus using high speed sync? 

For those interested in how to figure out the exposure using ND filters, here is how I do it.

  • Take a normal meter reading at 1/125 sec. shutter speed (this gives me leeway to raise the shutter speed slightly to darken the background without going over the sync speed of the camera)
  • Example: ISO 100, 1/125 Sec. at f/11
  • Adjust the output of your flash to read the same f/stop (f/11 in this case) or a bit higher WITHOUT THE ND FILTER (I went for f/13 above)
  • Decide on the aperture you want to use for depth of field. In this case I wanted f/1.8
  • Figure that from f/13 to f/1.8 is 5 and 2/3 stops
  • Find a 5 and 2/3 stop neutral density filter or adjust your aperture to match the ND filter(s) you have. If you have a 3 stop filter you can go from f/11 to f/4, with a 4 stop filter you can go to f/2.8, with a 6 stop filter you can go to f/1.4 (I opted for stacking two 3 stop filters above)
  • Take the photo with the ND filter(s) in place
  • Adjust the shutter speed up/down to darken or lighten the background
  • Adjust the power of the flash up/down to get the proper exposure on the subject
  • Deal with focus and color issues

To figure out the exposure with high speed sync

  • Decide on the aperture you want to use
  • Set the camera to that aperture
  • Make sure your flash is in HSS mode
  • Adjust your shutter speed up/down to darken or lighten the background to how you want it to look
  • Adjust the power of the flash to give proper exposure on the subject or use TTL if available

Do note that HSS on speed lights will run through batteries quicker. The folks at Interfit, though, tell me that the S1 battery actually lasts longer in HSS mode. HSS may also shorten the life of the flash tube. But everything is a tradeoff in photography.

Testing the FOTGA 58mm variable neutral density filter

Does this thing work?

I’m not totally sure when/where I got this filter. I see that I bought a “neewer 58mm ND Fader filter” from Amazon back in November 2012 for $11. Maybe this is what they sent me back then and I just wasn’t paying very close attention to the brand. Anyway, I never used it all that much and when I did, I had some concerns about focus and sharpness. But I never really did any testing.

This week I started putting together a presentation on using speedlights and other flash units outdoors and needed to use an ND filter for some of the examples. So, I brought out this Fotga 58mm variable ND filter and decided to do some tests with it. I wanted to see a couple of things—focus and color shift. At $11, I wasn’t expecting the color to remain neutral. Many so-called neutral density filters, even at much higher cost, aren’t all that neutral. I’ve seen many reports of green, blue, and magenta color casts in ND filters. I had no idea what to expect in terms of sharpness. A variable ND filter is basically two polarizer filters combined in a rotating mount, so there are 4 more glass (or plastic) to air surfaces between your camera and subject. So I expect to see some effect on the sharpness of the image.

So, I set up a chart made up of radial lines and a Passport Color Checker with a Canon EOS M5 mirrorless camera and 85mm f/1.8 lens. The camera was mounted on a sturdy tripod and I used a cable release. The camera was set to ISO 100, aperture priority mode, tungsten white balance (I used the 250 watt quartz modeling lamp in an Einstein flash with a Photoflex Medium Silverdome NXT softbox). and f/5.6 (for something in the middle of the aperture range). I actually tested at a variety of f/stops, but am presenting the 5.6 images here, the others were similar). The filter was set to the 4th tick mark on the ring and the exposure time without the filter was 1/13 second and with the filter was 1/4 second (1-1/3 stops different).

Let me start by saying that the build quality on the filter seems pretty good. The filter elements spin smoothly, but are not so loose as to accidentally change the settings. The filter appears to be plastic. It easily screwed into the 58mm threads on the 85mm lens.

Yes, there is a color shift when using this filter. It was consistent at all ND settings of the filter, from Min to Max. There was a -200K to -300K shift in temperature and a +9 shift in tint. That is, the filter warmed up the image by 200-300 degrees Kelvin and added some green. Both easily corrected in the raw files in Lightroom.

Sharpness suffered slightly. I don’t know how to measure it, but you can see crops of the same section of the chart below. Without the filter you can clearly see the texture of the paper the chart is printed on. With the ND filter it is harder to see the texture. Still, for $11…

One interesting thing is the markings on the filter. I consistently noticed that between the MIN setting and the 4th hash line on the filter there was no change in exposure. That is at Min and f/1.8 and 4th line at f/1.8 the camera metered the same 1/40 shutter speed. At Min and 4th line at f/4 it remained at 1/8, and at f/8 it remained at 0.5 seconds shutter speed. Moving to the 8th hash line and to the MAX setting gave expected changes in the exposure.

Someone asked to see the comparison at f/1.8, so here it is:

Conclusion? This works for me in the limited uses I have for an ND filter. It should work great for cotton candy waterfalls, even providing a little warmth (like adding an 81a filter for those of you who still remember filters in the film age). In the studio, I have a strobe that can go way down in power when I want to photograph wide open, so I don’t need it there. I don’t do much outdoor fill flash with a studio strobe right now. And if I do, I will get a strobe that offers high speed sync, such as the Interfit S1, to handle wide open apertures instead of dealing with the hassles of ND filters in the field (dark viewfinder, auto-focus not working, trial-and-error metering and exposure settings, etc.). If I was doing critical work or client work that required a neutral density filter I would be looking at the Singh Ray filters, but their cost is a little bit more than $11 (more like $340 - $390 for a 58mm filter, depending on choice of standard or thin ring size). 

Other reviews of the FOTGA filters mention eBay and long delivery times. It looks like they are also available on Amazon, and I just ordered a 72mm for $13.99 to test on some telephoto lenses. Amazon says it should arrive in 2 days. I will add more to this post when I get to test the 72mm version.

Anyone else using these inexpensive variable ND filters?

Donation Amounts

Instead of providing affiliate links and pushing you towards one store or vendor over another, I am trying something different. If you find the information in my blog posts to be helpful please consider making a small donation to me via paypal using the button below.

Or, better yet! Please take a look at and buy my new book on studio portraits. Thanks!

Thank you for following along! If there is a photo topic you would like to see covered here please let me know in the comments section.

John Cornicello