UV Filter for Protection!?

I see the question asked a lot. Should I get a UV filter to prevent my (expensive) lens from being damaged should something bad happen? Or “the salesperson told me I’d get better photos if I used a UV filter.”

In a nutshell my answers are no and wrong.  The thinking that a $25, $50 or $150 piece of glass in front of a $1,000 lens is going to somehow protect the lens element from harm seems a bit absurd except in a very few scenarios which I’ll address in a moment.  Moreover, to assume that a thousand dollar lens’ image quality will be improved by a filter is unlikely.

Here are some of the arguments for NOT using a filter (clear, UV or any other for that matter).

  1. A filter creates another surface that may cause additional flare, glare or reflection.
  2. For all but the most perfectly polished and coated filters, optical degradation is certain with a filter.
  3. Filters can introduce color casts and vignetting.
  4. Putting a thinner shatterable piece of glass in front of a lens provides a source of sharp shards with which to to scratch the front lens element.
  5. Those who leave a filter on all the time often find their protection becomes unremovable preventing them from using a more useful filter like a polarizer or neutral density filter.

But… That Filter Might Save My Bacon!

Think about it. In what scenario will a filter protect the lens? A blow by a golf ball, baseball or softball? Nah, a direct blow will shatter the filter and drive shards of glass into the front element.  A drop onto the floor, lens first? Maybe. The filter holder may provide a little extra protection to the lens barrel, but again, when the glass filter shatters you’ve got shards of sharp up against your expensive glass.  What about a fall onto a rock?  Yep, a filter might help a little, but a lens hood would help a lot more – as would a lens cap.

Block UV rays

What about the argument that a UV filter will “block UV rays” and improve the contrast and exposure?  That is part true – if you’re shooting film. DSLRs are far less sensitive to UV light than film and that filter is more likely to become a source of glare, flare, internal reflection and vignetting.  That UV filter is also yet another expense and item to carry around.

When Does it Make Sense to use a UV/Clear Filter?

If you have burning metal or corrosive substances flying at your camera, I would certainly prefer that they strike a cheap(ish) piece of replaceable glass rather than my expensive lens. Also, some lenses are only well sealed against rain and dust if you put a filter on them. So an excessively wet, dusty or sandy environment might be a good candidate for filter use.

Under Fire [C_041883]

What Do I Do to Protect My Lens?

Aside from being careful, I would argue that using a lens hood is an almost ideal solution. A lens hood helps keep things away from the front element and it also serves the important additional photographically USEFUL function of keeping off-axis light out of your shot. Off-axis light can cause significant glare and flare and attendant loss of contrast.  Even the best filters are little or no help with off-axis light.

My personal policy is also to “cap the lens” whenever  I am not shooting and definitely before I move anywhere. The cap stays accessible in my back pocket and it goes on the camera before I move it. Much like my seatbelt is always fastened before I start the car.

7 thoughts on “UV Filter for Protection!?

    1. Steven Christenson

      Do you have a suggestion on how to better limit off-axis light? A properly matched lens hood is about the best you can do. Keep in mind that lens hoods are designed to work best at the lowest focal length of a zoom lens – otherwise they would cause vignetting.

      1. Enrico

        Well I’m not saying not to use the lens hood. Just check your image after you took it or the lens before you take it.
        I use my hand or hat to provide shade.

    1. Steven Christenson

      But… Daniel, we said above “So an excessively wet, dusty or sandy environment might be a good candidate for filter use.” That seems to cover your beach scenario.

      By the way, I recently discovered the joy of using a clear plastic shower cap when confronted with excessively misty environments (like at a beach or waterfall). Being clear allows one to compose the shot, adjust the settings etc. Works better than my “cover it with a towel” scenario. AND, the shower cap can be moved so that it covers the camera and not the lens.

      Great timelapse, by the way. I used to live in North Carolina and haven’t been back to Hatteras since they moved the lighthouse (long ago)

      1. Daniel Lowe

        You did say that – I had some ugly comments by a person who asked my why I wasn’t using “Singh-Ray” filters, I had to shake my head — even with 2 filters, it was a challenge, many nights I lost a sequence due to “lens fog”; this was overcome with charcoal hand warmers and a insulating layer to keep the lens warm.

        I do think some of the lens flare in the lighthouse timelapse was due to using an UV filter.. but there was really not alternative for the other shots, the Outer Banks has water everywhere. It is less of a problem at most other locations, and using a lens hood helps to minimize debris and lens fogging.

        I’ll have to try more shots without the UV filters, although I use a polarizer frequently.. I actually DO have a Singh-Ray in the mail to me now.

        Cool light paintings. Thanks for watching!



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