Mist filters come in all shapes and sizes. Kolari Vision’s clip-in filters sit between your lens and sensor in compatible mirrorless camera systems.

Pro Mist filters. Black Mist filters. Cinebloom filters. While the name varies from one company to the next, all of these filters are more or less the same thing: diffusion filters designed to soften an image by a pre-defined strength, usually defined by a fraction (1/8, 1/4) or a percentage (20%, 40%). But how do these filters diffuse light and what kind of effect do they provide at different strengths? We’re here to break it down and show you with a collection of sample images.

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Whatever a particular company calls their light diffusion filters, they’re all designed in a similar way: at some point in the filter manufacturing process (which usually consists of laying various coatings atop a piece of optical glass), small black speckles are sprinkled on top of the piece of glass. How many of these ‘specks’ are sprinkled on top determines how strong the diffusion effect will be: more specks means more prominent diffusion, fewer specks means less diffusion.

Take a close look and you’ll see the black speckles heavily distributed across this full-strength Pro Black Mist Filter (52mm). Click to enlarge.

These mist filters are typically found in the usual circular style, with different diameters designed to fit into the filter thread of a given lens. Multiple filter and accessory manufacturers have their own versions. Tiffen’s Black Pro Mist filters are arguably the most well-known, but NiSi, Hoya, Moment and Prism Lens FX all have their own versions. And at least one company, Kolari Vision, is already making ‘clip-in’ mist filters, which sit between the lens and sensor in mirrorless cameras. The added benefit of this design is that it also doubles as a way to protect your sensor and can be combined with traditional filters mounted to the front of your lens.

With the ‘what’ and ‘how’ out of the way, let’s dig into the ‘why?’ That is, why would you want to use a filter just to soften the image of the (likely expensive) lens you’re putting it on (or behind)? As with most decisions in the world of photography, it comes down to creative choices and personal preference.

Mist filters, generally speaking, will make highlights seem less pronounced, make shadows a little less rich, and overall lower the contrast of the scene. As seen in the image above, mist filters also add a soft glow around light sources that would otherwise have hard edges or sharp flares and streaks. In some ways, a mid-strength mist filter can emulate the look of film by bringing back the halation effect seen in most film stocks, particularly those without an anti-halation filter.

This diffusion effect also pays dividends in portraiture, as it can subtly soften subjects’ skin, smoothing out wrinkles and blemishes that you may otherwise have to smooth out in post-production. As you can see in the image below, pores get smoothed out and small imperfections become less noticeable and should be easier to remove in post-production with the softer, more even skin tone to sample from when using cloning tools or Magic Wand-like tools.

No Filter Tiffen Pro Black Mist Filter (full-strength)

It’s not a look everyone is going to appreciate or want in their images, but its popularity speaks for itself with how many different companies are making their own versions for photographers and videographers alike.

Below is a collection of images captured with both clip-in and front-mounted mist filters from Kolari Vision and Tiffen, respectively. The strength of the filters will be visible in the images’ descriptions.

It’s worth noting that the different strengths won’t be identical across different manufacturers’ offerings. Tiffen’s 1/4 strength might look different than NiSi’s or Kolari Vision’s 1/4. Most manufacturers will have their own comparison charts showing their various strengths compared to non-filtered images, so it’s probably worth choosing which company you’d like to go with first, then picking a strength after looking over their offerings and accompanying product pages. Below is an overview video from Tiffen showing off the different strengths of its line of Pro Black Mist filters:

For those who want to pull double-duty, some filter makers are also making combo filters with both mist and neutral density (ND) layers combined into one filter so you don’t have to layer multiple filters atop one another. For these, you’ll want to make sure you get both your mist and ND strengths just right to suit your shooting needs.

Disclaimer: Kolari Vision provided review units for the 1/8 and 1/4 strength clip-in filters used in this article. The Tiffen Pro Black Mist filter was purchased specifically for this article.