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UV Filters | Are They Actually Useful Protection For Your Prized Glass?

By Kishore Sawh on September 2nd 2015

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The first cameras I ever shot with belonged to my dad and my uncle. I vividly remember that par for the course of shooting with those early 80’s Nikons was using a UV or Skylight filter. It was just what was done, and even recently, after digging out my dad’s old lenses which I love to shoot with on with my DSLRs, they still had those very filters on, long after the lens caps had been lost.

So if you grew up shooting film, you were probably of the mindset that shooting with these types of filters was the thing to do, and largely for protection. Protection from what? Well, a host of things from scratches, front element lens breakage, to sand, water, or any of the elements in general, and of course, UV light that often would give a strange hue to some images.

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But that was then, and this is now, and digital has sort of changed things a bit, as well as have modern production processes. So the question is, should you be using a UV filter still? And does it serve any purpose as a protective element for your lenses? Steve Perry from Backcountry Gallery recently did some rather extensive, albeit not the most measured or scientific tests, to help answer these questions. The video and the conclusions of the tests have caused some brouhaha over the old debate, and about time really.

The Primary Function Of A UV Filter Is?

Steve does initially address the fact that having a UV filter for the purpose of reducing the haze and strange hues is much less an issue for today’s photographer since we’re generally shooting digital cameras, which seem to be much less affected according to his tests. Furthermore, he also addresses the negative effects having a UV filter can bring to an image, such as ghosting and exacerbated flare, which may make you wonder why you would want one in the first place aside from protection.

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This sort of feeds into the argument that those against UV filters would have, that it’s sort of pointless buying an inexpensive piece of glass to put in front of your high resolving lenses. This is something many will argue against, saying that high-quality filters won’t much degrade the quality of the images, but I must ask if you don’t mind a little degradation, why would you spend your dosh on a really high quality, high resolving lens?

Lens Prophylactic

But of course, the meat of the story is the issue of protection, and primarily from impact. Through a series of somewhat controlled tests in a garage, Steve takes a host of old lenses and a host of various brands of filters and tests each to find their breaking point. It warrants mention here that breakage isn’t used solely in reference to the lens’ front element, but the lens function and physical integrity on a whole. What you see from the tests is that impacts, where the front element remains intact, isn’t’ necessarily indicative of the rest of the lens and its function being as intact. Certain forces from something either hitting the front element or the filter or dropping the lens on the filter may protect the front element but destroy an internal one.

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Watching the video will, of course, provide more detail into the method of testing than I’ll provide here, but suffice to say the general conclusion is that UV filters, regardless of cost or brand, have a much lower threshold of ‘pain’ than your lens’ front element, and thus break much quicker and more easily. That said, however, the actual breaking of the filter actually will help to disperse the pressure of the impact, much like how modern cars are meant to crumble in an accident to take the force away from the passengers.

[REWIND: A BREAKDOWN OF COLOR SPACES | YOU REALLY SHOULD HAVE A GRASP ON THIS]

Thoughts

I see very little use for UV filters today, and for protection I find lens hoods offer more protection from force than a filter ever could. I almost always leave my lens hoods on for precisely this reason. That said, however, I do find filters useful in environments that have small particles like sand or rain, and while this test was interesting, it doesn’t represent the bulk of real-world scenarios.

If you’re starting out in photography and want to learn more about topics like this, and how to use even the most basic gear to yield impressive results, then might I suggest Photography 101 as the source to get you right up to speed. What you’ll learn will likely save you time, and save you from spending money on things you don’t need by directing you to the things that matter, and how to use them.

Do you use UV filters? What’s your take on the matter?

See more from Steve Perry at his site and YouTube Channel.

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Fisnik Islami

    UV helps the lens, i dont see the difference between with/out uv filter, but uv covers the lens . my idea

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  2. Michael Yuen

    I once dropped my Canon 85mm f1.2L II lens that was about $1800 at the time. UV filter cracked, lens was ok. The sinking feeling turned into relief. Sometimes you just don’t have the lens hood on, and the filter is good insurance to have.

    Furthermore, the filter also helps with fingerprints, scratches, water spray, and what not. An excellent filter actually can have fingerprints EASILY wiped off.

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    I cringed when I saw Steve destroy a Canon FD lens. They ain’t making that lens no more.

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  4. William Emmett

    I personally add a clear glass protective filter on all my lenses. Canon, which is what system I shoot, makes a point to use a protective filter to complete weather sealing on their “L” quality lenses. The protective filter also protects another important element of the lens, the filter threads. A good hard bump on the outer barrel of the lens could cause it to become “out of round” this will make mounting a CPL or other filter impossible. The threads on the outer element are also important, and the protective filter will protect the threads from dirt, grit and damaging chemicals that will eat away at the threads. Quality filters, such as B+W with its brass ring does just that, protect. You’ll understand when you need a filter wrench to remove a jammed CPL filter, or try to install a ND filter that the threads will not start. Or, when panning a long lens and hit a small tree, or branch.

    WE

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  5. jozef povazan

    I use them on couple and do not use them on some primes at all. And of course 14-24 f2.8 is without it all the time… for protection the hood is in place… Just dropped D3s with 85f1.8G on concrete at the wedding – slipped from my moneymaker lock for the first time ever did not lock properly, and both the lens and camera survived and finished the day easy… the camera has 2 tiny scratches on the lens had a hood so it nicely bounced up from ground… lucky day :)

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  6. John Cavan

    I don’t bother. As noted, the lens hood is very effective and I always use them, even indoors, but the other issue I have with just having a filter on is the possibility of ghosting lights. Throw in the fact that it’s another piece of glass in the pipeline, which does impact light transmission, and I lose all interest.

    Camera stores push them to make money, the “debate” is there to defend that.

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  7. Rick Brewster

    I notice that UV filters blur and cause aberration when doing night time or astrophotography.

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    • adam sanford

      And they can exacerbate flare when shooting into the sun. That’s one of the rare times I pull the UV/clear filter.

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    • Hagos Rush

      I was wondering why I had this the other day only to see that I did indeed have filter on there causing the extra flare that I sure did not need. Brain fart moment

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  8. Hagos Rush

    Also, keep in mind that the impact points are very pointed and specific to an area. In a really life scenario it “may” not be at specific and spread over a large area depending on the object that you decide to run into.

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  9. Hagos Rush

    I will be honest, I use a UV filter for protection sakes to the lens.

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  10. robert garfinkle

    I buy filters, for all lenses. simply, if there is a concern for image quality, I pull it off temporarily, and put it back on when I’m done. Yes, protective measures for sure, if it reduces haze etc, it does.

    If there is anything I can do to prevent “the elements” from coming in contact with my “elements” I’ll do it.

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  11. Paul Empson

    Sand, dust, scratch and raindrop protection are the only reasons I use them… and still will..

    Are there really people out there thinking a think piece of glass would protect against anything more destructive?

    Photographing a speedway event a piece of grit, kicked up from the track and smacked the lens.. the filter didn’t crack, but does have a small, recessed scratch… later, I just changed the filter and carried on: no need to arrange repair and be without my lens..

    The only lens I currently don’t have a filter on is my 85 f/1.8 it’s front element is deep on the body and even deeper when the full barrel lens hood is attached..

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  12. Peter McWade

    Recently picked up a nice Canon 50mm 1.2 lens from the 60’s that still has its original uv filter and the front glass is pristine. Even the filter was kept well all those years. Love the lens and I bet you’d be hard pressed to tell if it had a UV or not when you look at the pics. My opinion, its cheap, really does not degrade enough to notice and keeps the front lens clean. As for fall protection, well, they were not designed to take a whack and were not designed to protect. If you have one, use it. If you don’t have one, go get a good one.

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  13. John Sheehan

    I don’t think the cheap filters offers much protection (some, but not what people think), but it came in very handy for me once back in the 1980s.

    I was at an outdoor park festival photographing bands. Unbeknownst to me, the lead singer of one band didn’t want to be photographed that day. I’m standing on the side of the tiny makeshift stage, snapping away with my Nikon, when the singer comes over to me with a small can of enamel paint (to this day I don’t know if he carried it with him for just this type of thing or if he found it that day), dips his fingers in, and then smears the front of my lens before I realize what’s going on. This was the only lens I owned at the time.

    I took out a tissue to wipe off the lens, but it was a futile attempt. This stuff was not coming off. The singer laughed and told the small crowd of crunchy hippy chicks that he ruined my day. When he looked over at me I unscrewed the filter, tossed it on the corner of the stage near me, and started shooting again. I got one shot of him giving me an evil look. I ran out of film right after that, but I kept acting like I was shooting just to tick him off.

    Without the filter I think my lens glass would have been ruined (never got that crap off the filter, even after it dried it wouldn’t strip off).

    The kicker to the story, is the band’s manager came up to me later in the day and asked if he could get copies of the photos to use for promotions.

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  14. Colin Woods

    I am not in a camp, but I still use them for fingerprint, dust and water drops or spray protection. I’d prefer to clean marks and dust off a filter than my front element.

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    • adam sanford

      People often forget about weathersealing as well — most ‘sealed’ lenses require a front filter to prevent fluid ingress around the front element.

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  15. Cristian Rojas

    Well, I once dropped my camera and the lens hit the ground sideways… the UV filter broke, I had to take the lens for professional cleaning to remove the shatter pieces of the uv filter from the glass, but my lens glass remained intact. I still carry the metal ring in my bag as a souvenir of the time a cheap accessory may have saved my lens.
    Now i just bought my first FF camera and im about to buy an expensive lens (probably Loxia 50 mm,) and I am debating weather or not to degrade the IQ. But i think Id rather compromise on a bit of IQ than having a little water or sand in direct contact with my expensive lens… And of course, I just keep going back to that time, and well. Why risk it. Just my opinion.

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  16. Isaak Kwok

    Good article! Personally, I still have UV/clear filters on all my lenses. More for peace of mind than anything.

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    • Barry Cunningham

      I do to, but I have been feeling increasingly stupid about doing so for the past few years.
      The lens hoods on my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L and 100-400mm lenses provide 3 to 4 inches more protection than the filter.
      I also have been known to take the filter off when I wanted the last ounce of resolution for a macro. Probably just superstition and doesn’t make any difference anyway.

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  17. Stephen Jennings

    I’ve never had the desire to put a crappy piece of glass in front of an extremely expensive piece of glass for “protection.”

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  18. adam sanford

    This is right up there with “I prefer f/2.8 over f/4 with IS.” There are two camps, and they never change their minds. Forums all over the interwebs rant back and forth on using filters for protection vs. going with the naked front element.

    For me, a clear/UV filter is common sense insurance from unwanted front element bumps and scratches — but *that’s it*. It won’t stop a bullet or a 6 foot drop directly on to a metal spike. But if you buy a decent sort (B+W are recommended), it won’t modify your IQ at all. I use them or a CPL without reservation, because lenses are not solely [perfect] or [dropped] — they take all kinds of minor contact in their use, and I for one don’t want that kind of mileage on a > $1,000 lens.

    Also: hoods don’t solve everything. They sometimes are reversed, can offer little depth of protection (like a hood for an ultra-wide lens) or sometimes don’t even make it into your bag at all for space reasons. I like using hoods, but for the front element, they sometimes represent the seat belt *you choose not to use*.

    But that’s how I see it. I have no delusions of changing anyone’s mind with this post. :-)

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  19. Skirmantas Rinkevicius

    Good review good solutions.

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  20. Dalibor Tomic

    I never use UV fileters, just lens hood :)

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