UV Filters – Do You Really Need Them?

What is a UV filter?

A UV filter is a filter made of glass that attaches to the front of your camera lens and filters out ultraviolet rays. In the past, they were a necessity for film photography, but today most photographers use these filters as protection for their lenses.

There are a lot of misconceptions about UV filters out there. Some photographers swear by them, while others bet that they’re a total waste of money. It is not unusual that in some photography shops, the salespeople bring up buying a UV filter before you leave with a new lens; while others would guide you away from these lenses if you try to buy them. 

A UV filter completely blocks UV light as it enters your camera lens. A good way to think about this is that the filter acts like sunscreen for your camera. In the earlier days, a few old photography films were very sensitive to UV light. If you didn’t use a UV filter while using these films, your photos would end up with a blue haze in them. This was especially noticeable if you were shooting at a location or conditions where there is a lot of UV light, like at high altitudes or on a really sunny day. 

UV Filter

The situation is much different today as modern films and digital sensors aren’t sensitive to UV light at all. Photographs clicked using these sensors do not produce the blue haze the way it did on older films. This means that a UV filter is not needed to block UV light in order to take good photos. 

However, UV filter for camera lens has stayed relevant in the market owing to them being marketed as a protective filter. This is why some camera shops are persistent about purchasing UV filters as protection before you walk out with a new lens. In this article, we’ll clear your doubts on what and when to use a UV lens filter.

The Physical Protection of UV Filters

The basic idea behind UV filters acting as protection is that in a god-forbidden situation where you drop your expensive lens, instead of breaking the front element of the lens, you break the cheaper UV filters instead. In theory, it should be a lot easier to just pick up a new filter rather than shipping your lens off to get repaired. Unfortunately, while the idea sounds plausible, it doesn’t really hold out in reality.

The glass used in UV filters is a lot weaker than the glass in the front section of your lens. This means that the filters will break from drops that don’t necessarily do any damage to your lens, regardless of whether or not there was a filter on it. 

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Also, if a lens was hit hard enough that the front section suffers cracks or visible damage, you can surely expect a considerable amount of internal damage too. Even in the rare cases where the UV filter might have actually protected the front section, the camera needed repairing anyway.

In simpler terms, if you drop your lens with a UV filter and the filter breaks but not the lens, the only damage that you’d probably face is a broken filter. The lens would have been undamaged either way. And in a situation where you drop your lens without a UV filter and break it, a filter wouldn’t have saved it in the first place. This being said, UV filters do offer some protection.

What is to be dismissed is that they offer protection from hard drops. Otherwise, they’re great for protecting your lens from dust, sand, scratches, sea sprays, accidental splashes, and other small environmental hazards. UV filters are flat and can be easily removed, which makes it much easier to clean. Also, in situations where it does get scratched or gets so dirty that it is too difficult to totally clean them out, it usually costs much less to replace UV filters than the lens.

There’s one final thing to consider about UV filters: putting any extra glass in front of your lenses affects the image quality.

The Optical Effects of UV Filters

UV filters in practice do not allow a small percentage (between 0.1 and 5%) of the light to pass through them. This reduces the sharpness and contrast of the images vary slightly, because of the way light interacts with the filter. The effect is barely noticeable and easily fixed on editing software like Photoshop, but it is there. The effect is notoriously visible in cheap filters from low-level brands. 

Filters from companies like Zeiss, Hoya, Nikon, Canon, Sony, and B+W showed the least impact, while filters from brands like Tiffen showed the most. More seriously, UV filters make you more prone to getting lens flare or ghosting in your pictures if you’re shooting a scene using a bright light source or in broad daylight. 

Should You Invest in a UV Filter?

Deciding whether or not you should invest in a UV filter for your lenses isn’t simple. It really depends on how you plan on putting them to use. 

It should be clear from what we have discussed above that a UV filter won’t protect your lens from a lot more than dust and scratches. If you’re shooting on dust prone locations like the beach or in the desert, using one of these wouldn’t be a bad idea. Otherwise, you don’t really lose out on anything without one.

As mentioned above, UV filters do have a slight effect on the quality of your images. Sure, it won’t make a difference most of the time. But if you are a professional and your industry or client demands the highest quality image possible, or your photos have issues like lens flare and other artifacts, you should consider taking off your UV filter.

A UV filter in your bag definitely would not take up a lot of space in your camera bag. But it is entirely up to you whether putting it on your camera at all times is actually worth it. Those who use UV filters generally prefer taking them off if they’re significantly affecting image quality, while others prefer to put them on if they’re shooting somewhere where their lenses are prone to dust.

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