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Variable Neutral Density (VND) filters have traditionally had a negative connotation attached to them. This is because of the dreaded X pattern that appears as you rotate the filters to obtain varying degrees of density. The folks at Freewell claim you won’t experience this when using their new Magnetic VND filters. They’re not wrong. During three days of testing, I never once faced anything close to this image-killing X when using these filters. What’s more amazing is that they double as CPL filters if you flip them around. Freewell has done an outstanding manufacturing job with these filters. Read more to see how they fared in our review.
Too Long Didn’t Read
These filters feel good to use. Yes, you need to be careful as with any type of photography filter, but you don’t have to worry as much as when you’d use all glass square / rectangular ones. They’re light but don’t feel hollow. Their magnetic capabilities make them really easy to swap around when you’re out in the field. No more unscrewing and fumbling with filter threads on location. Just set your base ring to your lens, and from then on, it’s just magnets doing their magic.
Need to increase the density? Just turn the VND filter clockwise. Feel like you need some polarization? Just flip over the same filter. What is reassuring was that these filters snapped on tight: no jiggling around whatsoever, even when rotating them. The best part was the absolute lack of the X pattern that has become synonymous with most variable ND filter models. Freewell really nailed it with this one. They even throw in a Mist ND filter for some cinematic styling to your photos and videos. It’s all about convenience and quality with this kit.
Pros and Cons
- Magnetic system lets you remove and attach VND and CPL filters quickly
- Supports 1 – 9 stop neutral density range (with precise markings between 2-5 and 6-9)
- Comes in a variety of filter thread sizes, with support for step-up rings
- Comes with a mangetic cap to protect your filters (when on the lens) inside your camera bag
- No X pattern / banding whatsoever. How on earth did they manage this?
- Robust (I dropped one onto a rough concrete floor and it survived. Without a scratch)
- Colour casting on some occasions
- Vignetting on some occasions, even at 24mm
Hong Kong based Freewell Gear has been around for a handful of years. They mostly specialize in manufacturing filters and add-on lenses for drones, action cameras and pocket cameras (such as the DJI Osmo). The Magnetic VND kit appears to be their foray into filters for consumer and professional lenses.
Even if it isn’t the first magnetic filter system we’ve seen, it makes your ears perk up when you hear that it’s a VND + CPL system in a single filter. It’s as simple as flipping the filter around. The kit comes with two such filters: a 2-5 stop VND that doubles as a CPL when flipped, and a 6-9 stop VND that doubles as an ND32 CPL. Both of these need the usage of an underlying base filter that magnetically attaches itself to the base thread ring (screwed onto your lens). The kit comes with the one-stop VND base as well as a Glow mist VND base (both of which can be used without any filters on top of them).
Taken from their Indiegogo page:
The Freewell Magnetic VND Kit includes 7 features (VND2-5, VND6-9, CPL, ND32/CPL, GLOW MIST, VND2-5XMIST, and VND6-9XMIST) and a total of 20 functions in one comprehensive kit. Made of premium high-definition optical glass with protective coating on both sides, Freewell Magnetic VND filters are waterproof, dustproof, stain proof, oilproof, and scratch-resistant to ensure continuous and reliable performance in any weather or shooting condition.
The filters come in a sturdy, zipped clamshell case.
The inner pockets are thin with soft padding, so a filter might snap onto one in an adjacent pocket. The outer casing is hard and can take a few knocks. The image here shows the case holding the magnetic filter cap on the left, the base filter ring with the one-stop VND base (magnetically attached), and the 6-9 stop VND filter.
The base filter ring has a nice red color, making it easy to pick out first from the case when attaching it to your lens. The circumference also has corrugation to help you grip it firmly and helps reduce accidental drops.
The base ring (on the left) takes either the Glow MISTXVND base filter or the one-stop VND base filter (seen on the right).
Once the base ring has been screwed onto your lens and the base filter magnetically attached, then you can add either the 2-5 stop or 6-9 stop VND filter on top.
Both base filter and VND / CPL filters have precise markings to align correctly when snapping them on.
Freewell even gives you a magnetic filter cap so you can keep the filters attached to the lens in your bag without damaging them. This is useful because you can’t use your regular lens cap or lens hood when the filters are attached to your lens.
Ease of Use
The experience of using the Freewell magnetic filter kit at the beach was very liberating. I own 100x100mm square ND and polarizing filters, and I am paranoid about dropping or smudging them. As a result, they rarely get taken outdoors for such shoots.
With the Freewell kit, I screwed on the base ring to the lens beforehand. Once I set up the camera on my tripod by the shore, the magnetic system made swapping and rotating easy. The edges of the filters are easy to grip.
Tripods are usually frowned upon in public here, so I had to make do with some handheld shots. Since the VND system works by rotating the filter, it was easy to go handheld. I didn’t have to put down my camera to change density settings. With just some quick turns of the filter, I was able to go from 2 to 5 ND stops, as seen in this image. This was super handy to do. I was apprehensive about Freewell’s claims of the absence of X patterns, but my first test put my mind at ease.
While out on the streets, the filters attached to the lens don’t attract any extra attention, unlike square filters with their holders.
The CPL filters are straightforward enough. Flip the ND filters around, and you can then use them as circular polarizing filters. I did, however, observe a colour cast while testing them. The above picture shows 2 images shot within a second of each other. There’s a warm cast over the first one, and the second is a lot cooler.
Freewell 2-5 stop and 6-9 stop filters
I observed clear vignetting at 24-26mm during my first test using my Nikkor 24-70 f4 lens. I did not expect this, as Freewell claims that these filters have no vignetting above 16mm. Later on, I realised that my lens already had a UV filter attached, which I hadn’t removed before attaching the Freewell base ring. Removing this helped get rid of the vignetting, but only on that day. It later crept up during another day, but not to the extent seen in the above image.
This was a 25 second shot with the filter rotated to the 5 stop mark on the 2nd day of my test. I removed the UV filter from my lens, but as you can see, there is still vignetting at 24mm.
Again at 24mm, this time with the lens turned more towards the setting sun on the right. Vignetting is still prominent in the corners. I didn’t have a wider lens with a 72mm diameter (that would work with the filter kit I received), so I couldn’t see how much worse the vignetting could be at wider focal lengths. This is something that I think Freewell might need to look at since they claim no vignetting above 16mm.
Freewell Glow Mist ND filter
As someone who does a lot of video work, I found this lens an exciting addition to the kit. Even for stills, especially streets with signboards and lights, it adds a soft, dreamy glow.
There is also a 1 stop loss of light that will need to be factored in when using this filter.
The glow around the signboard is more prominent in the left half (shot using the Glow Mist base filter) of this 2 part image. The right half is slightly brighter and was shot without the mist filter.
- Magnetic system is strong. The filters snap on easily and firmly to the base ring
- Glass filter survived a 3 foot drop onto pavement with no damages whatsoever
- No X pattern when rotating VND filters to increase or decrease density
- Filter markings help with aligning and also snap into place with a tactile response
- Support for step up filters
- Case needs to be laid flat or hand held to use. I wish it had a belt fastener as this would make taking filters out of the pouch a lot quicker outdoors. The chances of dropping a filter when you’re holding the case with one hand are a lot greater
- CPL gives a colour cast at times
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed using these Freewell filters, mostly because of how easy they are to use. Two sets of square filters from other brands have been lying idle for years because they can be cumbersome. On the other hand, this set doesn’t have me worrying about them being damaged easily when I handle or store them in my camera bag. The dual nature of the ND/CPL filters also means that I don’t have to carry more filters around when heading out to landscape shoots. You also get that glow mist filter as an added bonus that short film makes are bound to enjoy a lot. In total, you’re able to get 20 different usages out of this filter kit at a starting price of USD $349. Head over to their Indiegogo page to grab one for yourself.