Of all the debates that crop up in photography forums and the comments section of Youtube videos and blog posts, none is more controversial than the efficacy of UV filters.
Should you use them? Do they hurt image quality? Are they good protection?
Everyone has a different take. So, screaming into the void, I’ll try to address some of the arguments for and against UV filters, and provide an explanation why I still use them, and you probably shouldn’t.
But before we dive into whether or not they’re worth your hard-earned cash, let’s address what UV filters actually do.
What is a UV filter
On its face, a UV filter seems pretty straight forward, right? It blocks UV light.
But that’s just what it does. Perhaps the more important question is why you would want to block UV light in the first place.
This is where things get complicated because the role UV filters play today has changed a great deal over the past 50 years or so.
The conventional wisdom is that photographic film is sensitive to certain wavelengths of UV light and, in certain circumstances, can cause a bluish haze.
The problem with this explanation is I can’t find any good studies backing this up.
From what I’ve read, it appears that earlier film emulsions were more sensitive to these wavelengths, but over the years the chemistry has improved.
I’ve come across some forums that claim that this is really only a problem on black and white film and perhaps early slide films, but again, I haven’t been able to find anything definitive on the subject.
So throwing a few thoughts — speculations really — into the mix, another possibility is coated optics, which became the norm in the ’70s and ’80s, eliminated the need for these kinds of filters.
What I can say is, in all my years of shooting film, I’ve never used a UV filter, nor have I ever experienced any problems with hazy images.
To put it bluntly, in the digital age, UV filters don’t serve a purpose beyond protecting your lens’ front element.
The sensors used in modern digital cameras aren’t sensitive to this part of the color spectrum. Essentially, your camera will filter UV light for you — no filter needed.
Image quality vs. protection
Today, UV filters don’t serve much purpose beyond protection for your lens’ delicate front element. Except, your front element isn’t actually all that delicate. In fact, optical glass is pretty damn tough.
There is an argument to be made that over time dust, debris and the occasional wack will wear away the coatings on the lens and degrade the sharpness of the image. But like most arguments for and against UV filters, most are founded on anecdotal evidence rather than a scientific, peer-reviewed study.
Of course, the counter-argument is that any glass you strap to the front of your lens will degrade the overall image quality. And it’s true that some filters will cause ghosting, flares, and reduce contrast of the image.
Inexpensive, uncoated filters — like those from Tiffen — are particularly vulnerable to flares and ghosting. However, most high-end UV filters have multi-resistant coatings (MRC) designed to mitigate flaring and preserve contrast. In my experience, these coatings do a miraculous job.
Of course, many will argue that you don’t need a filter at all if you just use the lens hood that came in the box. In addition to preventing flares, lens hoods also add an element of protection that many argue negates the need for UV filters.
Why I use UV filters
You’ll find UV filters on almost all of my lenses, but what you won’t find are lens hoods or caps.
While I don’t have anything against either, I find them slow and clumsy to fit and remove when swapping lenses. A UV filter is just a transparent lens cap as far as I’m concerned.
It’s a habit picked up during my four years working as a photojournalist in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The UV filter provides an element of protection in my bag while saving me precious time changing out lenses on the move.
The only time I remove the filter is when I run into trouble with flares or ghosting, something that, thanks to modern coatings, is much rarer than you might think.
Should you use UV filters?
If you are comfortable not using a UV filter, I encourage you to save your money. Modern lenses are pretty tough, and lens hoods are highly effective at preventing flares as well as protecting your investment.
If you are going to buy a UV filter, buy one that is multicoated, specifically one that says MRC on the side.
An easy way to check that you’ve got a multi-coated filter is to look for a green reflection when holding the filter to a light source.
MRC filters tend to be a bit more expensive than single or uncoated filters — typically between $50-$70.
Personally I like the B+W F-Pro 010 UV-Haze filters since they strike a nice balance between price and performance.
If you are shooting in sandy or muddy conditions where the filter is going to be getting dirty on a regular basis, many recommend using uncoated filters like those from Tiffen, because they are far easier to clean than more expensive multi-coated options out there.
The filters I recommend
There are plenty of filters out there, especially when it comes to UV filters. So here are four that I can personally recommend.
MRC coated filters
Multi-coated filters are best for photographers that prefer to keep an UV filter on their lenses at all times for general protection.
B+W UV Haze Filter 010 MRC Get it at Amazon
The B+W’s heavy brass body, fantastic multicoating and reasonable price make this my preferred UV filter. My only complaint is the MRC coating can make the glass prone to collecting fingerprints. If you’re willing to drop a little more cash on a filter, the B+W’s XS-Pro filters feature MRC nano coatings, making them much easier to clean.
Gobe UV Filter (2Peak) Get it at Amazon
Gobe is a relatively new brand in the filter market, but so far I’ve been impressed with the quality and value of their products. Gobe’s UV filters in particular are a great value, especially their 2Peak filters, which feature MRC coatings and Japanese optical glass. If you’ve got a little more cash to burn, many of their 3Peak filters use German optics.
Uncoated filters are ideal if you need temporary protection when shooting in less-than-hospitable conditions.
Tiffen UV Protection Filter Get it at Amazon
If you’re after an uncoated filter, my first recommendation is this one from Tiffen. Tiffen filters offer basic protection from the elements while being quite easy to clean.
Amazon Basics UV Protection Filter Get it at Amazon
You might not think much of Amazon Basics filters, but if all you’re after is inexpensive protection for your lens, it’s passable. That said, I don’t recommend leaving it on your lens when you don’t need the protection.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- What is your take on UV filters?
- Do you use them?
- What brand do you stand by?
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