Protect Your Lens With A UV Haze or Skylight Filter. Or Not.

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on November 27, 2009

Two photographers walk into a bar. The first photographer says, “I just bought an expensive lens and I need to protect it by covering it with a clear piece of glass.” The second photographer eyes the first one suspiciously and replies,  “I just bought an expensive lens, so why would I want to screw it up by covering it with a clear piece of glass?”

lighthouse-hoya-uv-haze-filterIt’s no joke. Like Republicans and Democrats, you can find photographers arguing from either side of the filter aisle.

Which kind of photographer are you? Perhaps you subscribe to a moderate point of vew that goes something like this: “I’ll use a UV/Haze or Skylight  filter on my expensive lens when conditions call for it.” I’m a fervent supporter of the latter view.

So, What Do These Filters Do Anyway?

The UV/Haze filter is designed to cut down on high levels of ultra-violet light which can cause haziness and a bluish cast to your photos. As you gain altitude – think Colorado Rockies – ultraviolet light increases. At sea-level, there isn’t much of it around. UV filters are clear glass.

The Skylight filter accomplishes a similar task by using colored glass (with a slight pink tint) to counter excessive blue in outdoor photography.

When Should I Use UV or Skylight Filters?

Animas River, Colorado Rockies, Colorado, USA. Image G0926B9037 @ AlanHaynes.comThe effects from UV and Skylight filters are subtle and difficult to detect in actual photographs. Any bluish cast can be easily removed in the computer during post-processing.

So, I recommend this: use a UV/Haze  filter when in hazy conditions. If you’re shooting at high-altitude and don’t like post-processing, use a Skylight filter.

What About Using UV and Skylight Filters to Protect My Lens?

My recommendations is, don’t use filters to protect your lenses. There are a couple of exceptions which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Modern lenses are very precisely engineered. They all contain multiple pieces of specially-coated and shaped glass. So, why would we mere photographers – most of us are not optical engineers – want to disturb that careful design by inserting a relatively cheap piece of glass into the equation? Using filters when they’re not needed will result in degradation of images in the form of less sharpness.

Besides,  any kind of physical damage sustained by a filter is most likely going to be passed on to the lens. Think about it. A filter is a very thin piece of glass. It’s not tempered, bullet-proof glass, but delicate optical glass. When attached, it sits mere millimeters from the front element of your lens.

If you were to drop your camera lens-first onto a rock or bump into something hard enough to crack the filter, what are the chances that the lens will survive? I have not done any experiments, but I don’t think the results would be good. If you have – either accidentally or deliberately – I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below.

Now, on to the exceptions. There are some common photographic situations where it makes sense to use a clear filter to protect your lens. If you’ll be shooting in blowing sand or near saltwater spray, then protection makes sense.

If your gear is going to be sandblasted, it’s better to sacrifice a filter to the flying grit than an expensive lens. Similarly, saltwater is abrasive. If you’re likely to be doused, protect your lens with a filter.

So, What Should I Do to Protect My Lens?

When it comes to protecting a lens from impact damage such as that big rock I mentioned earlier, there is one piece of equipment that will work to some extent without affecting image quality: a lens hood.

The rigid plastic hoods that come with most lenses are surprisingly effective in fending off all sorts of damage. This is especially true of telephoto lenses because their lens hoods are big. On my Nikon 70-200mm, for example, the hood adds three full inches to the length of the lens. On a wide-angle lens, even the smaller, tulip-shaped hoods provide protection from many minor impacts.

With the lens safely ensconced in this plastic fortification, I have bumped into all manner of things – walls, posts, parked cars – and never damaged a lens. I haven’t tried it, but I think  that if I dropped the lens hood-first from a reasonable distance, the lens might survive as the hood takes the brunt of it.

For even more protection – and I do seem to be getting klutzier – I’d go with a metal  lens hood. There is a surprising variety available at reasonable prices.

But I Really Like Protecting My Lens With A Filter

If you still can’t shake your addiction to UV and Skylight filters, at least buy the best quality you can afford. Especially if you’re going to keep them on your lenses all the time, you’ll want to get filters with multiple coatings to reduce lens flare and reflection. Top brands in the filter world are B+W, Heliopan, Hoya and, to a lesser degree, Tiffen.

Screwing on a filter to protect your lens is like grandma covering her new sofa with a clear plastic slipcover. They both result in  a look that is not as sharp as it could be. I urge you to be strong. Shake off your filter fixation. Your photos will be better for it.

Essential Equipment

To choose a multicoated filter by the top brands in the filter world, B+W, Heliopan, Hoya and Tiffen, click these links:

Lens Hoods:

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{ 19 comments }

1 Fred Mandabach November 28, 2009 at 10:55 am

Alan,
If I take off the UV filter and now see that I have accumulated dirt/dust/whatever on the lens, what is the safe way to clean it? Someone somewhere has suggested the kit you can buy at Costco to clean eye glasses. Is that wise?
Thanks! Fred

2 Alan Haynes November 28, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Hi Fred,

My first choice for cleaning lenses is a Lenspen. It has a brush on one end and a cleaning tip on the other. First I brush it, then I rub it lightly with the cleaning tip. It’s especially handy in the field.

If that doesn’t work, use liquid cleaner meant for optics – such as the Nikon Lens Cleaner solution – with a soft cloth.

Even if you leave your UV filter on the lens, you’ll need to clean the filter once in a while. The Lenspen and cleaning solution work equally well on filters.

3 Ken November 28, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Hi Alan,
Fellow Poly photographer here. I actually did drop my Nikon 35-75 2.8 macro. I was holding a friends kid and could feel the camera slipping away. The camera dropped right on the lens. Shattered the filter and the lens was fine. That was 6 years ago and the lens still working perfectly. I am sure I wouldn’t have had the same results with out the filter. – Of course after the incident I re-thought the situation and thought why didn’t I drop the kid and save the camera. The kid would have only cried for a little while. (just kidding folks) 8>)

4 Alan Haynes November 29, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Hi Ken,

Good to know that the filter worked for you. Did you have a hood on the lens as well? If so, how did the hood do?

I think the kid should have grabbed the camera for you. They need to make themselves useful somehow. LOL.

Alan

5 Ernesto Corte December 2, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Alan,
I read somewhere that modern digital lenses are coated for UV protection and consequently a UV filter is not needed. Is that true?
Ernesto

6 Alan Haynes December 2, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Hi Ernesto,

I have not heard that – at least, not from any reliable source. Nikon uses what they call “Nano Particle Coating” or “Nano Crystal Coating” on their lenses, but it sounds like this coating is designed to reduce the reflections within the lens between the various elements. These reflections include light in the UV wavelength. These kinds of reflections can lead to lens flare.
I’m no optical engineer, so read about it yourself and draw your own conclusions: “Nano Particle Coating“.
Here’s another article about “Nano Crystal Coating.”

7 Beverly Brock December 4, 2009 at 10:37 am

Alan,

Late on reading your very good article about protect your lens. I use a UV lens I bought it way back when it was thought to be the best for your lens (or the people I bought it from were wanting to make money). Maybe it’s time to do something new no UV.
Thanks for your information
Beverly

8 Katlin Webster March 9, 2010 at 7:38 pm

I always use filters to protect my lenses. Even a small scratch from cleaning or transportation can completely damage a lens and it costs way less to replace a filter than it does a lens. And if you get a good enough quality filter it can protect it from much more than that. Damage is rarely passed on to the lens, unless its really bad damage of course. A friend of mine dropped his camera lens down on a rock. the filter was shattered, but there was absolutely no damage to the camera or lens. They are a good investment and a must have for any photographer. Any blurriness or degrading of the photo is completely undetectable.

9 Kenneth October 1, 2010 at 1:19 am

Having put a skylight filter on my cameras for years, I am going to take a little advice (Yours) and always fit a hood, this is because I have suffered for a long time on slight softening of my pictures, so I will carry filters for when I need them, perhaps future cameras could be designed with airbags!!

10 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen October 1, 2010 at 6:25 am

Kenneth,

Good one. There is already Camera Armor available for most SLRs, so I think airbags is the next logical step. For extra protection, I once tried gluing my lens cap onto my lens, but it tended to make the exposures too dark. :)

Alan

11 CS February 25, 2011 at 3:06 pm

I bought a Hoya UV lens the other day, and have been unsatisfied with the results- photos that are visibly less sharp, or at least in my mind.

Earlier this year, my camera slipped off my coffee table, appearing to land on the lens, with the cap on. It half-shattered the UV filter, which then left me in the delicate position of having to unscrew the UV filter while glass shards were resting up against my actual lens. In this scenario, the UV filter was a much greater hazard to my lens- potential scratching and all.

12 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen March 20, 2011 at 11:45 am

CS,

It’s pretty easy to compare sharpness with and without a filter just by taking a couple of photos and comparing them in the computer. I think most people would find just what you did: the filter reduces sharpness.

And your experience with the half-shattered filter makes an excellent argument against using so-called “protective” filters.

Thanks for sharing,

Alan

13 Scott April 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm

CS, I feel for you, I had the same thing happen to me. Wife knocked camera off kitchen table, nose first, cap rammed the filter and shattered the filter. Cleaned the shards off with a blower, and had nicks on my front element. It was a Nikon 24-70 2.8. Sent to Nikon for my $300.00 repair.

14 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen April 27, 2011 at 6:54 pm

CS and Scott,

Thanks for the evidence strengthening my view that so-called “protective” filters are not worth the money.

Alan

15 Andrew August 17, 2011 at 10:28 am

I’m 30 years experience professional photographer and
never put any protection filters on my lenses. It reduces sharpness and I really don’t like it. What I always try to use is a hood and front cap. Agree with Alan Haynes…

16 JP September 28, 2011 at 2:40 am

I dropped my camera lens pointed down the other day and only the UV filter was broken. No damage at all for the lens itself. Dunno if the lens would have been damaged without the filter.. I’m still using quality UV filters in all my lenses.

17 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen September 28, 2011 at 10:05 am

Hi JP,

I’m guessing that the lens would have been fine even without the protective filter since the lens glass is thicker and sturdier than the filter glass. But who knows? Glad to hear that your lens survived.

Dropping a lens is always a traumatic experience. Even if the glass is not broken, the lens could be damaged inside. It’s a good idea to test focusing and sharpness of a lens after it has been dropped and get it repaired if necessary.

- Alan

18 Diego Galípolo March 9, 2012 at 6:11 am

Just sharing (since you asked)…

A friend accidentaly bumped his UV filter on the edge of the table. It cracked the whole filter. The lenses are still intact.
I agree that those filters diminishese the image quality of our photos, but I alse believe that sometimes they can be do quite a nice job when it comes on protection.

19 Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen March 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Hello Diego,

Photography is all about compromises. The issue of filters providing protection versus diminished image quality is one of those. Glad to hear your friend’s lens survived.

Alan

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