A beginner's guide to black mist filters (& why they are amazing for your photography)

A beginner's guide to black mist filters (& why they are amazing for your photography)

Whitby harbour - Photographed with a 1/8 strength black mist filter - f/14 | 1.5s | ISO 640

Black mist filters have the power to transform your images with a stylish cinematic & analogue look. Learn how they work & see sample images by Focus Editor Philip–created with the impressive NiSi Black Mist Filter Kit

Kit used for this guide:

- NiSi Professional Black Mist Kit 77mm
- NiSi 52mm - 77mm Brass Adaptor Ring
- Fujifilm X Series mirrorless camera

What are black mist filters in photography?

Simply put, a black mist filter (sometimes known as a black diffusion filter, pro mist, or Cinebloom filter) is a filter placed in front of a camera lens that will give images (or video) a soft, diffused, ethereal look—commonly associated with the “cinematic” or analogue visual styles of photography and videography. These are usually set to a particular strength (or power) with different intensity levels for the effect.

In effect, black mist filters are simple pieces of photography kit that have the power to transform your images by giving them a beautiful, diffused cinematic & analogue look.

Images with an analogue and cinematic look are hugely on-trend right now. And while these styles have been popular within some photographic circles for a while, they have only recently become far more mainstream. If you look at images anywhere in print or online right now, you’ll notice many photos in the cinematic or filmic style with that distinguishable, soft-contrast, dreamy look, which can be easily achieved authentically by photographers of any skill level, with the help of a black mist filter.

In this guide, I explain more about how black mist filters work and what conditions for photography they work best in, along with some sample visuals created with black mist filters to demonstrate the aesthetic you can achieve with them.

Fuji Camera with a black mist filter attached to it
A black mist filter mounted on the front of a Fujifilm X-T30 mirrorless camera

Why are black mist filters useful for photographers?

Black mist filters help photographers get a diffused, soft, cinematic and analogue look for their photos in-camera. Meaning images get that ethereal quality at the time of the shoot, and there’s much less need to do extensive editing in post-production to achieve a similar look afterwards–photos have that authentic quality straight off.

And while you can certainly create cinematic and analogue looks for your images in post-production with the likes of Lightroom, Photoshop, Camera Raw, Affinity Photo etc., it's generally much better for your photography skills, in the long run, to get as much of the desired look for your image at the time in-camera.

Therefore black mist filters can be a highly valuable piece of kit for photographers particularly interested in the cinematic or analogue look or for any photographer who wants to experiment with a different style for their work or refine their skills behind the lens.

Further info on the cinematic look:

If you would like more information on getting the cinematic look for your shots, see our 11 tips for cinematic images and also our video on how to get a cinematic look in Lightroom.

Investing in a black mist filter kit doesn't need to break the bank either, there's a huge range of filters out there to suit every budget. You can get single filters of a particular strength, or a full kit with different filter strengths, so you tailor your camera setup depending on how strong you want to the effect to be.

How do black mist filters work?

Within its glass, the filter contains black particles that diffuse and scatter light across the scene when attached to the front of the lens. That, in turn, produces a delicate effect that reduces contrast and sharpness across the scene, while adding a subtle glow to highlights. It also introduces a controlled amount of haze or mist–giving the image a beautiful soft quality.

The filters commonly come as circular filters that screw onto the front of the lens, and as previously mentioned, there are different strengths (or powers) available. The higher the power, the more black particles in the filter, and the greater the effect, these are generally measured as fractions, or percentages indicating the intensity.

The kit

Premium filter manufacturer NiSi Optics were kind enough to provide me with one of their beautiful Professional Black Mist Kits to try out with my Fuji X-T30 mirrorless camera for this guide.

The kit comprises three circular filters of different strengths, ⅛, ¼ and ½–the higher the fraction, the greater the effect.

I also used a NiSi adaptor ring to fit the filters with my lens (It’s worth noting, in general, that if you use several different lenses, buying filters at a specific thread size and then getting separate adaptor rings to fit different lens sizes is much more economical than buying individual filter kits for each lens).

The kit also included a handy lens cloth and a holdall (which has a velcro fastener and very convenient for attaching to your tripod).

Nisi black mist filter kit
Contents of a Nisi black mist filter kit
NiSi Professional Black Mist Kit comprising of three circular filters of different strengths, ⅛, ¼ and ½, a holding pouch and a lens cloth
Nisi black mist kit pouch

What conditions work best for photography with black mist filters?

Low-light and nighttime:

As mentioned, black mist filters are intended to add soft, diffused conditions to a scene and enhance atmosphere in your shots. In my opinion they work particularly well for low-light and night shots, such as street shots and cityscapes with artificial light sources, as the filter diffuses the light and gives the scene a soft, misty, glow. This effect looks fantastic with light sources such as street lamps and illuminated signs where the diffusion is particularly noticeable, and really adds to the scene.

I took the filters out at dusk to capture precisely that type of scene, and I'm pretty pleased with the results. For the images below, I used the strongest strength filter (1/2) to get the biggest effect - which it certainly did and shows how powerful the black mist filters can be.

In the images below, where street lamps are a significant light source, you can see the glow the filter creates. It's beautiful–and something that can't be easily replicated in post-production.

Hexham at dusk, Northumberland
Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/8 | 1/80s | ISO 6400
Illuminated Victorian lamp in Hexham at dusk
Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/5.0 | 1/80s | ISO 800
Hexham Abbey at dusk, Northumberland
Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/5 | 1/80s | ISO 8000

Even when creating an image without a significant light source (such as a lamp), like the shot below. The filter still gives a gorgeous, noticeably diffused look across the scene, even if it is just that bit more subtle.

Hexham Abbey at dusk, Northumberland
Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/5.6 | 1/80s | ISO 6400


The filters also work very well for daytime shots, particularly portraits, and if there's a good source of available light in the scene coming from behind the subject or the camera is facing the direction of the premier light source, such as the sun (known as backlighting). This type of lighting can be harsh, and the black mist filter is ideal at diffusing the light, making it lot softer.

As seen in the shot below, which comprises a tricky lighting condition with the direct light source in the sky, the ¼ strength black mist filter has helped diffuse the harsh light source, and I think it works very well for this image.

Whitby pub photographed with a black mist filter
The abandoned Glasgow Botanic Gardens railway station - Photographed with a 1/4 power black mist filter - f/11 | 1/180s | ISO 1250

I'm not a portrait photographer (it's not my speciality), so I haven't done much in the way of those types of shots with this filter. However, I did photograph the neighbourhood cat (see below), and I'm very impressed with the portrait's slightly misty, diffused, low-contrast look. It fits very well, and I imagine for other types of portraiture, in particular, wedding photography, black mist filters are a hugely valuable asset.

Pablo the cat - Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/5.6 | 1/180s | ISO 800

On the hunt for atmosphere (with more sample photos)

My initial evening shots got me immediately hooked on the look the filters created. So, on the hunt for an ideal location to capture even more misty, diffused, atmospheric scenes with the filter, I went to one of my favourite towns steeped in atmosphere–Whitby, North Yorkshire!

Famous for its gothic abbey (and Dracula), I thought it would be the perfect place to venture out for the evening with the black mist kit. The results didn't disappoint, see below, especially for photographs of Whitby's cobbled streets and Victorian street lamps. The black mist filter felt like the ideal companion for these.

Whitby at dusk photographed with a black mist filter
Whitby harbour at dusk - Photographed with a 1/8 strength black mist filter - f/14 | 1/10s | ISO 4000
Whitby pub photographed with a black mist filer
Whitby pub - Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/6.4 | 1/60s | ISO 3200
Atmospheric Whitby at night
Atmospheric Whitby streets - Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/6.4 | 1/60s | ISO 3200
The 199 steps in Whitby at night
The 199 steps - Photographed with a 1/8 strength black mist filter - f/5.6 | 1/60s | ISO 5000
Whitby East Pier at night
Whitby West Pier - Photographed with a 1/2 power black mist filter - f/11 | 1/40s | ISO 4000
Whitby seafront at night
Clairvoyant - Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/8 | 1/60s | ISO 4000
Whitby waterfront at night
Whitby Blue Hour - Photographed with a 1/2 strength black mist filter - f/8 | 1/60s | ISO 4000

Some comparisons

To give you a bit more of a clearer insight on how the filters change the look of the scene, take a look at these with/without filter comparisons below:

Comparison of images using a black mist filter
black mist filter comparison
black mist filter comparison
black mist filter comparison

What strength is best?

This depends on the amount of effect you're looking for, and there's no straightforward answer; it's all down to personal preference.

For me personally, I like the ½ filter strength and the really amplified effect it gives, especially for the likes of street photography at night. However, this amount of effect isn't going to be for everyone, or for every type of image scenario. I found that if you're working with strong light sources in your images or long exposures, it's better to use a lower strength (like the church image above) as the filter effect can become a bit too amplified with a higher strength and a longer exposure.

What works best for your photography is going to be down to a range of factors, and I would highly recommend trying different strengths of filter effect to work out which look you prefer, and for what type of scene.

However, if you can only work with one for now (for example you're looking to purchase just one circular filter at a fixed strength), a good middle ground is the ¼ strength filter.

This image below was taken using a ¼ strength filter and I think it works perfectly for the scene. The effect with the lights is strong enough for the filter effect to be noticeable, but not strong enough that it is overwhelming the scene, and adds a lovely cinematic effect to the image.

Train going through level crossing
A cinematic moment at the railway crossing - photographed with a 1/4 power black mist filter - f/8 | 1/30s | ISO 1000

Final thoughts

If you want to add atmosphere to your photography, particularly night and street scenes, and if you're looking for an authentic soft and diffused cinematic or analogue look for your work, then I certainly advise  investing in a black mist filter as part of your kit bag. They are great value for the look you're getting when you use them, and the effects really are beautiful in the right conditions.

And as mentioned earlier. Generally speaking, in photography, you should always get as much of the desired look for your shots as possible in-camera. It means less work in post-production and your images are more authentic from the start. Getting your shot looking exactly how you want in-camera is also a brilliant way to build on your photography skills, and a black mist filter is a great tool to do precisely that.

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