When you buy a lens online or in a brick-and-mortar store, one thing is bound to happen; you’ll be asked if you want to purchase a UV filter. The real question, though, is, do you need one?
Put a hundred photographers in a room, and you can ask them whether or not UV filters are needed. You’ll likely find that the room will be split right down the middle. Some photographers wear by UV filters, and they leave them permanently attached to their lenses. The other half will scoff and turn their nose up at putting another layer of glass in front of their lens’ element.
So which half of the group has the right idea, and which group needs education? Well, it’s not so straightforward. You see, there is no right or wrong answer to the question. So, in this article, we will look at UV filters. We’ll explore why they used to be essential items, why it could still be a good idea to pick one up, and why you’ll be fine going without.
UV filters: A brief back story
When film was the medium used in cameras, UV filters used to play a massive role in the daily lives of photographers; if you went without UV filters, entire rolls of film could be harmed. This is because the film was susceptible to UV rays, and prolonged exposure would cause the film in your camera to discolor. So, the easiest way to solve this was to create something that could cut down the number of UV rays hitting the film. Thus, we witness the birth of UV filters.
So now we know why UV filters used to be so important. But why would so many photographers believe they need to use them today when we use digital sensors with multiple layers of UV-resistant filters on them already? Well, there are a few good reasons, but, for the most part, they don’t have anything to do with protecting your images — unless you find yourself in very specific situations.
Why you might want to use a UV filter
I am firmly in the pro UV filter camp. If I’m spending $1000-$2,500 on a lens, I have no problem buying a quality UV filter like the Breakthrough Photography X4. Yes, it’s a little pricey at over $100, but the price is worth it to me. It features quality glass that does not degrade image quality and adds a layer of protection. There’s nothing wrong with buying peace of mind. So, let’s take a look at a few reasons why you might want a UV filter.
They act as a shield
UV filters can add a layer of protection to your lens. I live in a state where a fair amount of sand is mixed into the soil. So, sand will start flying when the wind whips things around in Oklahoma. Sand is very abrasive and will easily scratch the toughest glass. I’d rather a UV filter take the brunt of the damage caused by sand. A filter can also protect lenses from projectiles. Would a UV filter stop a flying stone from cracking the front element? Maybe, maybe not. Still, it will undoubtedly give your expensive lens at least a chance of surviving. I’ve seen firsthand what a flying piece of gravel can do to a lens. It’s not pretty.
They help block dust, fingerprints and moisture
A quality filter will have numerous coatings that help prevent fingerprints, dust and even raindrops from sticking to them. For example, hydrophobic coatings will see raindrops roll right off. Other coatings will help repel dust, and oils from fingerprints will wipe away without fuss. A UV filter can also help stop moisture from entering lenses in some cases (Fujifilm X100V). Let me be clear here. I am not saying a UV filter will make your lens weather sealed. But it might give a little more protection to the lens while you try to find cover.
They can still stop image discoloration in some situations
Even images from digital cameras can become tinged with blue in some situations. For example, you might find your pictures discolor at high altitudes where UV rays are more powerful. In addition, if you’re around a body of water that magnifies the effects of UV rays, you might also see issues with your pictures in the form of blue tinges. So, if you shoot around water or at high elevations, you might want to consider using one.
Why you might want to avoid UV filters
So far, we’ve made UV filters sound pretty great. The truth is, you don’t need them if you don’t want them. Modern lenses use multiple coatings to help repel dust, oils and water, and you can use the lens hood as a form of protection to help ward off scratches or damage to your lens. You also need to weigh up a few negatives, especially if you plan to buy cheap filters.
Loss of sharpness, less light and flares
Cheap UV filters can introduce lens flare and ghosting. This is perhaps the biggest reason why so many photographers are against them. In addition, low-quality filters can degrade the image quality by making images soft. Finally, low-quality glass can lower light transmission, so you might not get the image you think you’re creating.
Low-grade filters can introduce pretty extreme vignetting. I’m a fan of light vignetting, but I have used some truly horrid filters in my days that made it look like the slider in Lightroom had been cranked up to 100. If you want to avoid this kind of issue, don’t use UV filters, or at least don’t buy cheap ones.
The bottom line on UV Filters
When it comes to UV filters and whether or not you should use them, it all comes down to personal preference. If you plan on going filter-naked, more power to you. As mentioned above, modern lenses have excellent coatings now, and UV layers on digital sensors help. However, UV filters still provide some benefits to those who choose to use them. They can act as a barrier between your expensive lens and a wayward rock or sand that wants to destroy all glass. In addition, they can help keep your lenses in tiptop shape and in specific use cases, they can keep blue tints at bay.
However, you have to remember that not all filters are created equally. If you plan on buying one, do not cheap out. Buy a quality filter made from optical glass, and at a minimum, Schott glass. Anything else will have a negative impact on your images. Ensure the filter offers high light transmission rates and antistatic, hydrophobic and oil-resistant coatings. It will be much easier to clean. What are your experiences with UV filters? Let us know in the comment section below.