Choosing an ND Filter: f-stops, T-stops and Optical Density

Imagine this scenario. I’m lensing a daylight exterior and my light meter gives me a reading of f/11, but I want to shoot with an aperture of T4, because that’s the depth of field I like. I know that I need to use a .9 ND (neutral density) filter. But how did I work that out? How on earth does anyone arrive at the number 0.9 from the numbers 11 and 4?

Let me explain from the beginning. First of all, let’s remind ourselves what f-stops are. You have probably seen those familiar numbers printed on the sides of lenses many times…

1      1.4      2      2.8      4      5.6      8      11      16      22

They are ratios: ratios of the lens’ focal length to its iris diameter. So a 50mm lens with a 25mm diameter iris is at f/2. If you close up the iris to just under 9mm in diameter, you’ll be at f/5.6 (50 divided by 5.6 is 8.93).

A stills lens with its aperture ring marked in f-stops
A stills lens with its aperture ring (top) marked in f-stops

But why not label a lens 1, 2, 3, 4? Why 1, 1.2, 2, 2.8…? These magic numbers are f-stops. A lens set to f/1 will let in twice as much light as (or ‘one stop more than’) one set to f/1.4, which in turn will let in twice as much as one set to f/2, and so on. Conversely, a lens set to f/2 will let in half as much light as (or ‘one stop less than’) one set to f/1.4, and so on.


If you think back to high school maths and the Pi r squared formula for calculating the area of a circle from its radius, the reason for the seemingly random series of numbers will start to become clear. Letting in twice as much light requires twice as much area for those light rays to fall on, and remember that the f-number is the ratio of the focal length to the iris diameter, so you can see how square roots are going to get involved and why f-stops aren’t just plain old round numbers.

A Zeiss Compact Prime lens with its aperture ring marked in T-stops
A Zeiss Compact Prime lens with its aperture ring marked in T-stops

Now, earlier I mentioned T4. How did I get from f-stops to T-stops? Well, T-stops are f-stops adjusted to compensate for the light transmission efficiency. Two different f/2 lenses will not necessarily produce equally bright images, because some percentage of light travelling through the elements will always be lost, and that percentage will vary depending on the quality of the glass and the number of elements. A lens with 100% light transmission would have the same f-number and T-number, but in practice the T-number will always be a little higher than the f-number. For example, Cooke’s 15-40mm zoom is rated at a maximum aperture of T2 or f/1.84.

So, let’s go back to my original scenario and see where we are. My light meter reads f/11. However,  I expressed my target stop as a T-number though, T4, because I’m using cinema lenses and they’re marked up in T-stops rather than f-stops. (I can still use the f-number my meter gives me though; in fact if my lens were marked in f-stops then my exposure would be slightly off because the meter does not know the transmission efficiency of my lens.)

By looking at the series of f-numbers permanently displayed on my light meter (the same series listed near the top of this post, or on any lens barrel) I can see that f/11 (or T11) is 3 stops above f/4 (or T4) – because 11 is three numbers to the right of 4 in the series. I can often be seen on set counting the stops like this on my light meter or on my fingers. It is of course possible to work it out mathematically, but screw that!

A set of Tiffen 4×4″ ND filters

So I need an ND filter that cuts 3 stops of light. But we’re not out of the mathematical woods yet.

The most popular ND filters amongst professional cinematographers are those made by Tiffen, and a typical set might be labelled as follows:

.3      .6      .9      1.2

Argh! What do those numbers mean? That’s the optical density, a property defined as the natural logarithm of the ratio of the quantity of light entering the filter to the quantity of light exiting it on the other side. A .3 ND reduces the light by half because 10 raised to the power of -0.3 is 0.5, or near as damn it. And reducing light by half, as we established earlier, means dropping one stop.

If that fries your brain, don’t worry; it does mine too. All you really need to do is multiply the number of stops you want to drop by 0.3 to find the filter you need. So to drop three stops you pick the .9 ND.

And that’s why you need a .9 ND to shoot at T4 when your light meter says f/11. Clear as mud, right? Once you get your head around it, and memorise the f-stops, this all becomes a lot easier than it seems at first glance.

Here are a couple more examples:

  • Light meter reads f/8 and you want to shoot at T5.6. That’s a one stop difference. (5.6 and 8 are right next to each other in the stop series, as you’ll see if you scroll back to the top.) 1 x 0.3 = 0.3 so you should use the .3 ND.
  • Light meter reads f/22 and you want to shoot at T2.8. That’s a six stop difference (scroll back up and count them), and 6 x 0.3 = 1.8, so you need a 1.8 ND filter. If you don’t have one, you need to stack two NDs in your matte box that add up to 1.8, e.g. a 1.2 and a .6.


Choosing an ND Filter: f-stops, T-stops and Optical Density

Depth of Field

Although I use Ebay quite a bit, I rarely bid in the auctions. It annoys me too much how the price always seems so low and then jumps up exponentially in the closing minutes of the auction as everyone leaves bidding until the last possible moment. But when I saw a Sigma 20mm/f1.8 EF lens I couldn’t help myself and it was me that pounced at the last minute with my bid and won the lens.

The Sigma 20mm/f1.8 on my Canon 600D
The Sigma 20mm/f1.8 on my Canon 600D

What’s so great about this lens? I already have a Canon 18-55mm zoom – what’s wrong with that? The answer is: it’s all about depth of field.

Every filmmaker knows what depth of field is – the range of depth within an image which is in focus. Those of us cursed by tiny budgets to shoot on prosumer video formats have spent many years bemoaning how everything’s always in focus. Then HD-DSLRs came along and suddenly it all changed. Now you can control your depth of field. Now you can throw your background beautifully out of focus and keep your subject crisp and sharp, just like in real movies. But you can’t just turn on your DSLR and expect to get stunning depth of field straight away. So how can you make sure you’re always getting the shallowest possible focal depth? (Not that that is always the best look for every shot, but it’s nice to have the option.)

Let’s go back to basics and look at what affects depth of field. Most of us learnt all this when we first started making films, but let it drain from our brains over the years as our photographic dreams were crushed by the obstinately sharp backgrounds of a thousand Mini-DV frames.

1. Image size.  The larger the image, the smaller the depth of field. That’s why DV cameras with their tiny image sensors give such large depth of field, while at the other end of the scale a 35mm celluloid frame will permit lovely narrow focal depth. It’s also why a “full frame” DSLR like the Canon 5D Mark II will supply smaller depth of field than a “crop chip” DSLR like my Canon 600D.

2. Lens length.  The longer the lens, the smaller the depth of field. We all know this one well enough. How many times when DPing on DV have I heard the director ask me to zoom right in so the background goes nicely out of focus? But in the DV days it never went as out of focus as we wanted it to.

3. Subject distance.  People commonly forget this one. The closer the subject is to the lens, the smaller the depth of field. This is why sometimes you can achieve shallower focal depth by using a wide lens and placing the camera close to your subject than by zooming right in and moving the camera back. It’s also why miniatures will have a tell-tale small depth of field (the distance between lens and subject is miniature, just like everything else in the set-up) unless you take steps to counter it.

Depth of field varying with aperture
At f5.0 (left) almost all of the DeLorean is in focus, but at f1.8 (right) the depth of field is much smaller.

4. Aperture size.  The larger the aperture (i.e. the smaller the f-stop number) the smaller the depth of field. This is the crucial one with DSLRs. This is why I jumped on the Sigma f1.8 lens and why the f1.4 I borrowed on Field Trip was so beautiful. Of course, if you’re shooting in a bright environment then an aperture of f1.8 will give you a very over-exposed image, even with your camera on the lowest ISO. (Remember that you can’t compensate by changing the shutter speed, because that will also change the amount of motion blur in your footage, which unless you’re remaking Saving Private Ryan you normally don’t want to do.) The solution is to use an ND (neutral density) filter to cut down the amount of light entering the lens.

Of course there are far more technical details behind all of this, which frankly I don’t understand but fortunately I don’t need to in order to make films. I hope this post has refreshed your memory or tied together what fragments you already knew. I’ll let you know how I get on with the 20mm Sigma in the field. No pun intended. Well, maybe a little.

Depth of Field