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Photography Myths and Stereotypes | Can UV Filters Actually Ruin Your Images?

By Matthew Saville on June 9th 2016

I’m excited to bring you another new series, in which we investigate some of the biggest myths and stereotypes that photographers have debated over the years. Who knows, maybe there’s a lot of truth to some, or maybe some are completely outdated or downright false. But, if we never test things for ourselves, we’ll never know! Stay curious, my friends. (And if you have any suggestions for things you’ve always been curious about, please comment below!)

In this article we’ll consider something I have always heard others talk about, and wondered myself, yet never actually investigated: UV filters and ruining image quality. Some elite photographers scoff at them and swear they’d never use one, as if it’s a terminal disease they don’t want to expose their lenses to. So, is it really that bad? Does using a filter soften your images, ruin colors, or harm them in other ways? Watch the video and continue reading to find out.

PHoto Myth-Busting: Do UV FIlters Ruin Images?

In case you’re not a fan of judging fine detail in a compressed Youtube video, below you’ll find sample images that show the difference (well, lack therof, in most conditions) between shooting with and without a UV filter.

Sample Images With And Without A UV Filter

WITH FILTER-100-percent-crop100% Crop – With UV Filter

WITHOUT FILTER-100-percent-crop100% Crop – Without UV Filter

Yeah, I couldn’t see a difference either. I re-shot this test scene a dozen times, by the way. Here are a couple other samples, with a different lens and the worst possible cheap-o UV filter I could find: (A Sunpak standard, un-coated UV filter)

With-Without-UV-Filter-Sample-Comparison-SLR-Lounge-1 With-Without-UV-Filter-Sample-Comparison-SLR-Lounge-2

If you stare at the images for five minutes, or layer them in Photoshop and go back and forth incessantly, you might be able to detect a faint difference in the fine detail in shadowy areas. But, I think my eyes are just playing games with me at this point, I’ve inspected the images for so long.

By the way, just for reference so that you CAN see a difference, here is what it looks like when you put finger smudges all over a filter:

With-Without-UV-Filter-Sample-Comparison-SLR-Lounge-3

LENS FLARE WHEN USING UV FILTERS

While it’s good to know that a decent UV filter won’t soften your images or alter colors, (like a 5-10-stop ND filter often does) there is unfortunately one thing to watch out for in certain conditions: Flare.

In our testing, even with all kinds of high-tech coatings a filter would still add at least one or two of those annoying flare “dots”.

Do UV Filters Ruin Images_8

It’s worth noting, though, that whenever serious flare was a problem in our tests, as you can clearly see above, it was already very present in our images, so the use of a filter only made it worse.

Either way, if you shoot with the sun in your frame at all, I would recommend thinking twice about just leaving a filter on your lens all the time.

CHEAP UV FILTER 85 PRIME HIGHLIGHT

Incidentally, there is something very important to remember about those pesky flare dots: They’re not just a problem on sunny afternoons, they’re also a major issue in low light or with any sort of man-made light, especially with certain fast primes. If you’re not careful you could end up with a lot of weird dots in your images even with the best types of UV filters. (The above image was captured on the old Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D, using a high quality B+W MRC filter.) Again, however, it’s worth noting that many times the flare is already faintly present even without a filter.

WHat Is The Best Way To Protect Your Lenses?

When it comes to protecting your lenses while shooting in the field, there are three options available to you: your lens caps, your lens hood, and a UV or clear protective filter.

My recommendation? You should be willing to utilize all three options as necessary. Don’t dismiss a UV filter as a protective option, should you find yourself going on a trip to the sand dunes some day! Neither should you toss all your lens hoods in a junk drawer. And, of course, whenever it is practical while shooting you should use your lens caps!

Do UV Filters Ruin Images_6

Personally, when I’m shooting in everyday conditions, my first line of defense is a lens hood. I’ll leave my UV filters at home on an “ordinary day” at a wedding or portrait session, especially if I’m shooting a lot indoors with nasty reception lighting.

When I’m using my lens pouch belt system and Spider Holster, I’ll even leave my lens caps in my rolling case. I need to be able to swap lenses rapidly and frequently. However if I find myself in a dusty, sandy, or wet situation, I grab a UV filter from my Fishbomb lens pouch.

Verdict

Don’t listen to the trash-talk that some elite photographers dish out about filters ruining images. UV filters are a useful tool that every photographer ought to own, especially those who shoot in conditions that could ruin a lens’ front element, or require costly service.

Do UV Filters Ruin Images_7

Even if you don’t always shoot in bad weather, make sure that you at least invest in a half-decent UV filter or two. It will come in handy on your next photo shoot, or at least on a trip to the beach or the desert.

We tested a Hoya EVO antistatic UV filter, as well as a Breakthrough X-1 standard UV filter. We have also used innumerable other filters, from B+W to Sunpak. Some of them are worse when faced with extreme flare conditions, but all of them have little to no effect on things like sharpness or color vibrance.

Avoid cheap no-name filters though, the ones that often come with a kit that you might buy on Ebay. Those might in fact affect your images’ colors or fine detail, depending on how junky they are. Then again a single finger smudge, whether on your filter or your lens’ front element, will cause far worse damage to fine image detail and clarity, than any filter could.

Thanks for tuning in! Hopefully this investigative article will help you make the right decisions for the types of photography you enjoy shooting, and create better quality images while protecting your gear as well.

Again, we would love to hear your requests for future “Myth Busting” experiments! If you’ve always been curious about a certain stereotype in photography, let us know and we’ll investigate it.

Take care and happy clicking,
=Matt=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

11 Comments

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  1. Mark Carpenter

    The possibility of smashing the lense is a risk I am willing to accept to have the sharpest, cleanest images possible.

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  2. suzette barnett

    Thanks Matt, I appreciate you documenting this because I’m loosing some sharpness and suspected the UV filter. I shoot primarily outdoors with one of the higher quality UV filters so I leave it on almost all the time without any issue. Since you asked, I’d be interested to see a range of examples of shooting with and without a lens hood though :)

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  3. Frances Pike

    OH I have to say that my camera took a fall on a hard floor and I had a UV filter AND hood on my Nikon 24-120mm lens at the time. The hood broke AND the UV filter was smashed, but aside from a negligible scratch on my lens from the broken UV filter glass, the lens was completely fine. So from this experience I will never go without a UV filter and lens hood.
    And insurance ;-)

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  4. David Blacker

    I did use a UV filter on my 50/1.8 when i first bought it cos I couldn’t find a satisfactory lens hood, but discarded it cos of the lens flare issue mostly at night. I’d get a sort of double image of any light source. I figured the light would bounce off the lens and then bounce back off the filter creating the double image. Eventually got a tubular aluminum hood that I keep on permanently.

    With my other lenses — a 24/2.8 and 18-200 I have Hoya polariser a on most of the time which are high quality and protect well when coupled with hoods.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Yeah with a lens that has such a small front element as a 50mm f/1.8, you’re far better off just permanently attaching a solid hood than using a UV filter. Plus, those 1.8 primes often have nasty low-light flare issues. I almost never use filters on any of my fast primes when shooting general candids or portraits.

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  5. Sean Goebel

    Lenstip has done systematic testing of UV filters of many brands. Many filters are quite good, but others are abysmal. Every time I see someone with a Tiffen filter on a Zeiss lens, I can only shake my head.

    “The Tiffen filter was particularly unfortunate in our testing. It costs almost as much as the winner – the Hoya HMC – and it performs a bit worse than a clean piece of regular window glass! We regret that we weren’t able to get the best products from this company. We can only hope that those would do much better. ”

    Source:
    http://www.lenstip.com/113.4-article-UV_filters_test_Description_of_the_results_and_summary.html

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  6. Richard Olender

    I don’t use them….never will

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  7. Mark Carpenter

    Awesome article Matthew,

    I have had to prove this to a few photographer’s in the past who would never dream of removing their UV filters.  A UV can add a lot of time to your post production or even make a shot completely unusable.

    P. S. Breakthrough Technology makes absolutely incredible filters!

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  8. Pye Jirsa

    Fantastic article matty!

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  9. adam sanford

    Nice story, Matthew. Agree! Also:

    1) Most (non supertele) lenses that claim they are weather sealed are not sealed until you use a front filter.

    2) If you are shooting either children or dogs –> certain front element contact with hands, noses, etc.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Good point, Adam, and there are UV filters out there that are more weather-sealed than others, actually. Breakthrough Technology, which was one of the UV filters we tested, does offer a weather-sealed UV filter. (Although it’s not the one we tested.)

      Also, yup, smudges on your front element are bad no matter what, but what’s even more annoying is the extreme care you have to take when cleaning a front element, compared to the minimal care that I put into wiping down a UV filter when I’m shooting in the rain or something. It actually enables me to to get shots that I otherwise would not get, not without probably eventually scratching my front element.

      Even then, it’s not that expensive in the long run to replace a filter every now and then. I’ve got one polarizer that I’ve been using for over 10 years, and it’s just barely getting to the point that I need to replace it. And that’s after a decade of carelessly wiping it down in rain and dust/sand storms.

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