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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