Using UV Filters For Protection – Right or Wrong?

For those of you who don’t know what the hell I am talking about, I’ll briefly explain the issue.

When you buy an expensive lens, you want to protect it’s front glass element from scratches or other accidents. So most likely the photo dealer will suggest you to buy a UV (ultraviolet) protection filter to screw on your lens. But the question is – will shooting with UV filter degrade the image quality?

Lately I found myself bothered with this question a lot. It started when I bought my Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L lens. I bought it second hand, and the guy who I bought if from told me that it was with the UV filter all the time since the day he bought it, so it is completely scratches free. Way back I took an advanced course in optics in university, and I know that adding additional optical element to optical system changes system’s overall performance. This is exactly what you are doing to your optical system, i.e. your lens, by adding additional optical element, i.e. UV filter.

So how significant this “change in performance” is? In other words will the final image suffer in quality because of that?

I felt incompetent to perform tests to find an answer myself so I did an extensive web research, and I found a lot of information on this subject. It seems that there is no single conclusion to this matter, but here is my summary on it, which in my opinion includes all the major points, fact,s and conclusions regarding using UV filter on your lens for protection.

  • Putting UV filter on your lens will certainly degrade lens’s performance.
    • Explanation to this is pretty simple. When you screw on the UV filter on your lens, you basically add one more optic component, but not only that you also add a space filled with air between the filter and lens’s front optic element. So when ray of light hits your lens, instead of hitting the lens’s front element and passing to other optical elements inside the lens, it first hits the UV filter, refracts, passes to the space filled with air between the UV filter and the lens, and only then enters the lens. That ray of light can also be reflected several times between the lens and the UV filter (coating on the UV filters tries to prevent that).
  • The extent of the image quality degradation may vary from invisible to the human eye to a severe degradation in contrast and sharpness (and other image qualities), and it depends on the following factors:
    • The quality of the UV filter
      • I found many photographers complaining about Tiffen UV filters (even about the expensive ones). I even saw a test one guy did showing that using a Tiffen UV filter significantly decreases sharpness and contrast. That guy didn’t write the exact model of that filter though.
      • There is general agreement among photographers that expensive UV filters with double coating are the best choice if you must put a UV filter on your lens. Many photographers recommend the high end UV filters from B&W, Nikon, Hoya (Super HMC), Singh-Ray.
    • The subject that you are shooting – or more important the direction of light. For example if you are shooting into the light, then with UV filter there are more chances to have lens flare (partial solution is to use lens hood).
    • The lens. If the lens that you use is not of high quality, it may already produce less than great images, and adding a UV filter won’t make them worse than they already are.
  • There is everlasting debate whether one really needs the UV filter to protect the lens. Here are some pros and cons:
    • Pros:
      • UV filter gets dirty instead of the lens, so you don’t have to clean the lens that often (just clean the UV filter), thus protecting the lens’s coating.
      • When shooting on the beach, or during sand storms, or in any conditions where there are tiny particles in the air, which eventually land on your lens, you are risking scratching your lens when cleaning. Better scratch the UV filter.
        • Lens cleaning tip – when there are tiny particles on your lens don’t wipe them off because that can scratch the lens. Wash the front element first and then wipe it with micro fiber cloth.
      • If you accidentally drop your lens, or bump it into something, the UV filter will take the blow saving the lens.
        • Actually another opinion is that in such situations if UV filter breaks then its glass might easily scratch the lens.
      • The degradation of image quality resulted from UV filter is negligible in most cases.
    • Cons:
      • This one is somewhat philosophic – why put a 100 dollars piece of glass on a $1500 expensive lens? It means that it is very difficult to produce a high quality lens, and this is why it is so expensive, and by putting a relatively cheap (to the lens’s price) UV filter, you must degrade it’s quality.
      • Lens hood does great job protecting the lens so no UV filter is needed in most situations.
      • Don’t over protect your equipment risking loosing in image quality. Be reasonable, and predict when your lens might be in danger and when not.
      • The hard coating on most expensive lenses is very strong and can withstand numerous washes and cleanings (as long as you do it wisely).
      • Buy Lens Warranty instead of UV filter πŸ™‚

Here is a great test of UV filters in action by Ken & Christine

In conclusion, there is no simple right or wrong here. Having all the information above you must decide for yourself whether to use UV filters or not. I decided to use them when shooting on the streets or in dusty conditions, but to remove them when shooting portraits, studio, or landscapes, in other words when there is little risk to damage the lens. I also use lens hoods almost all the time. If I was a millionaire and money wasn’t an issue πŸ™‚ , I probably wouldn’t use the UV filters at all just to be sure that I am getting the maximum quality that my lens can deliver.

If you have additional information regarding this issue, you are welcome to share it here, and

Remember, you only have to enter your name to leave a comment!

Have a great day,

Greg.

24 thoughts on “Using UV Filters For Protection – Right or Wrong?

  1. Hi Greg,
    Excellent research. Thanks for doing the work!

    Back when I shot film, filters were a “fun” luxury for playtime. Since the digital has UV built in it’s hardly necessary to duplicate the effort.

    REGARDLESS, I will ALWAYS keep a skylight filter on my expensive lenses (at least when traveling).
    The reason: My very first digital 70 – 200 mm, f1.8 was packed, in it’s own case, but slid off my shoulder THE FIRST TIME I took it on a shoot.
    I had placed a warming filter on it for experimental photos. the filter shattered but my lens was in perfect condition, not a scratch. That was 8 years ago and it’s still a fine lens.
    I was most fortunate there was no internal damage either.

    My 2 cents. I’m passing you along to 4 other photo fiends.
    Best,
    Ellen

  2. Thanks Ellen!
    I tend to think that eventually using UV filter for protection comes down to financial reasons, and people who can’t afford to buy another lens if their lens breaks will use UV filter even if it affects the quality of the image.
    And thank you for recommending my blog!

  3. It depends how important is the shot eh?
    For holiday family shots that are going to be shrinked and processed for internet sharing, it doesn’t matter does it. It won’t make a difference.

    But for that once in a life time opportunity, that hi-res shot you do with a tripod, when conditions are just right. Then you must take that
    filter off. And you must put it on again, take another shot and later compare it with the first. Just to see if you were right eh? People who demand quality have one thing in common. No compromise.

  4. I have wrestled with this for 30 years, I appreciate the protection offered by a UV filter but I have noticed some absolutely atrocious examples of filter flare, especially in low light images with small bright highlights. As a result I now have metal lens hoods attached to every one of my lenses (except the 10-17mm fisheye zoom since ti is too wide a view to allow a hood). They are therefore protected from falls and from uncontrolled light but still can get spattered or smudged (which is usually easy to clean.

    I have often put the filters back on and after a few shots take them off again. The metal hoods work, they protect and reduce flare rather than induce it. They also look cool (my superficial nature is starting to show). There is a picture of my setup here http://aicphotography.blogspot.com/ the 100-300mm has a filter attached here but it is now in the bag.

  5. Wow, great topic, I was dealing with the same question UV filter yes x no.
    After reading your post Greg, questions had been answered. Thanks!

  6. I don’t understand the thinking behind β€œmy filter protected my lens when it fell, because the filter broke but not the lens”. Lens glass is thick especially the front element on the other hand filters are cheap thin glass. So the filter broke but did it really protect and take the shock of the fall or was the shock of the fall enough to break the filter and not the elements? I think filters have a use but not as protection from a fall, maybe dust or particles. Ah my 2 cents.

  7. Thanks Greg.. This is really helpful to me as I am pretty new to photography. I have Nikon D5100 with 18-55mm kit lens and 40mm micro nikkor. I use ‘Marumi’ UV filter on the lens. But after reading this article, I re-think the use of filters. As you said, why put cheap glass over expensive one, right? However your article is really informative to me as well as all newbies. I have one question to you in which i need a word answer. Nikon or Canon?

  8. Well, my answer would be Nanon, Cikon, or Cakon πŸ™‚
    Sayed, believe me when I say it – IT DOESN’T MATTER!!!
    It really doesn’t matter. You can take amazing photographs with any camera – it is your talent, vision, and skill that is important. It really is.

  9. I have Hoya UV(0)filters bought in the 80s.

    Just got EOS 600D.

    Hoyas site implies digital more prone to reflections.

    Should I update to their PRO1 filters?

  10. Hi Dan,
    Well, to answer your question first you need to ask yourself – are you sure that you are not satisfied with the filters you have? If you are not, what exactly bothers you?

  11. Hi Greg

    My knowledge of digital photography is zero. All I’ve used before were low end compacts.

    The UV(0)s have given good service with my EOS 100, but they are over 23 years old and presumably designed for film.

    Hoya implies that there are differences with digital and recommend PRO1.

    Is this just puff to sell more expensive filters or is it genuine advice?

    Would the difference in performance be noticeable to a mere novice, who just wants to do everyday photography?

    Sorry, but at 64 I’ve got rather cynical of manufacturers’ claims.

    The article is very interesting. I got the filters to keep dirt off lenses.

    Film photography was so much simpler!!!!

    Dan

  12. In my opinion, you won’t notice ANY difference in performance. If we were discussing polarizing or neutral density filters I wouldn’t be so sure, but in case of UV filters I’m positive.
    By the way if you have more questions regarding digital photography you can shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to help πŸ™‚

  13. Okay, Greg has me convinced. I’m taking my UV filter off and will just be sure to keep my lens cover on when moving the camera around.
    I have used filters for 40 years but I’m going to take mine off and set my lenses free! πŸ™‚
    Thanks for all these enlightening opinions!

  14. Thank you George for your comment, and be sure to tell us if you noticed any difference in image quality after taking the filter off.

  15. Good discussion here. For years I spent upwards of $60 on decent UV filters for nothing more than protection. After conducting my own simple image comparisons, I vowed to not use them unless absolutely necessary. Funny thing is, I happen to own a Sigma 85mm 1.4 that has a couple of small nicks on the front element from the previous owner having a filter get smashed while on it. I got the lens for cheap as a result, and as many of you know, small scratches and digs have no effect on image quality whatsoever, only resale value. Regardless, I agree that the only reason to use a filter is in situations where you don’t want to get the lens utterly sandblasted or have other similar debris flying around. A few nicks/scratches is OK, a whole lens full? Not so much.
    I kept my Hoya HMC 77mm filter that I’d bought for my 17-40L and I’m glad I did, as when my wife and I were on vacation in Aruba, we went to the ocean side and hung out on the gorgeous cliffs there, where there’s also incredibly stormy, angry sea that pelts your camera with salt spray. It was much easier to wipe off a filter repeatedly than it would have been to do so with the lens itself. Still, this is only occasion I would use a filter, otherwise, they’re little more than those crummy “fisheye” and “zoom” attachments you throw on a point and shoot.

  16. A wonderful review but left with a confusion at end, still a question rotates in mind like whether to use UV filter or some protecting lenses or to avoid totally. Its a universal truth that lens hood is an intelligent idea in the place a UV filter.

  17. Hi, Greg,
    Great review. I took up photography over 40 years ago with my first Pentax SLR. The retailer said always keep a skylight filter on the lens for protection and cutting through blue haze on distance shots. Suggested I increase exposure by half a stop.
    Followed his advice ever since and have produced thousands of wonderful photographs.Even on emulsion film can’t tell the difference if the skylight is fitted or not.
    Cameras these days produce sharper images so how can it matter. I doubt the human eye could tell the difference. Anyway, subject composition is more important than technical stuff.
    I’m fitting a skylight on my new Nikon DSLR and its staying there.
    A cautionary note though. Don’t forget to clean the filter. I did and results were awful.

  18. Interesting discussion, Greg. I’ll offer another possibility: A rubber lens hood offers considerable lens protection. It recesses the front element by an additional half inch, or so, even when retracted. More when extended. It also provides a soft bumper that warns of contact from sides and front prior to a solid hit. Barring a direct poke down the center, it provides great protection from the more common abuse… plus the benefits of shading.

  19. My son has once dropped my camera with kit lens on a carpeted floor, lens down. Lens hood broken, lens OK. No filter on the lens. I think lens hood is much more important than filter in protecting lens against drop impact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

eleven − 4 =