Are UV Filters Worth It?

There is a long-raging battle in photography about UV Filters. Some see the UV filter as essential whilst others think they are a waste of money. In this article, I want to answer the question are UV Filters worth it, by sharing my experience and applying a little logic.

What Are UV Filters

I will apologise in advance, but we need just a little bit of science here.

UV or ultraviolet light occupies part of the light spectrum, just below what humans can see. The visible light spectrum kicks in at around 380nm at which point some near UV light is still visible, but most isn’t. If we don’t remove the UV light when taking photos, it can damage image quality.

The UV filter screws into the front of the lens and prevents UV light entering the lens. It does though allow visible (and Infra-Red or IR) light to pass.

When I first started in photography (shooting film), the UV filter was an essential accessory. Camera shops always had them in stock and were keen to sell them when you purchased a lens. This trend seems to continue to this day, providing you can find a camera shop.

Do You Need a UV Filter?

At this point I can hear lots of people shouting you don’t need a UV filter, but others are shouting yes you do.

The truth is, most modern digital cameras will have a UV cut filter covering the sensor (along with an IR cut filter). These remove most of the light that’s outside the visible spectrum. Theoretically then, you don’t need another UV filter on the front of the lens. That is unless you are shooting with film because you don’t have a sensor and your camera won’t have a UV cut filter.

But there is a second purpose for the humble UV filter, and that’s to protect your lens.

Recently I was out photographing with a friend. When we arrived at our location, I pulled my tripod out of the back of his car followed by my camera bag. When I picked up my bag and swung it onto my back, one of my lenses (a Nikon 16-35 f/2.8) fell out of the bag. Actually, it didn’t just fall, it flew across the car park. What happened was the tripod leg had caught the zip on my bag, opening it. When the lens hit the floor, the lens cap flew off, but the UV filter absorbed the impact. The filter was damaged, but the lens was fine.

Protection from the Elements

Fortunately, such accidents are rare. But if you’re a Landscape Photographer, you probably need to protect your lenses from the elements. Take the following image as an example.

This image, shot from Higger Tor in the Peak District at dawn, looks idyllic. What you can’t see is that wind was so strong, you could barely stand. When I tried to use a tripod, it blew over before I could put the camera on it. I took this shot handheld, sheltering behind some rocks.

What you also can’t see is that it’s raining hard and my UV filter constantly needed cleaning. Not just from rain but from debris blowing in the wind. There is no way I would have exposed my lens to such abuse if I didn’t have some form of protection.

So, Are UV Filters Worth It?

At this point, we know that film photographers usually do need a UV filter on their lens whilst digital photographers don’t. Having said that, the UV filter does provide additional protection from accidents and more importantly, the elements. If you spend your life in a studio shooting fashion images, a UV filter probably isn’t going to benefit you. But if you regularly find yourself up a mountain, in all weather conditions, you should consider some form of lens protection. If you shoot street photography in large cities, you might also benefit from the lens protection the UV filter provides.

If you’re now thinking that a clear glass protector filter is all that’s required, and you’d probably be right. Personally, I’ve used clear glass protectors in the past and I’ve been very happy with them. The difficulty though is in obtaining the filters at a reasonable price, in the size you want. Their availability is far less than the UV filter and in some cases the quality is questionable.

Do Filters Damage Image Quality?

Now one of the arguments against UV filters and even the clear glass protector is that they will damage image quality. It is, after all, adding an additional layer of glass on the end of a lens. And given the cost of some of these filters, the optical quality must be questionable. Let’s look at an example.

I was recently out shooting with a couple of friends at sunset. We were on a rock edge in the Peak District, shooting directly towards the sun, although initially, it was behind a thick cloud. My plan was to wait for the sun to peek out from behind the cloud and then catch it using a small aperture. This would create a starburst effect around the sun.

Except it didn’t happen. Instead, I just got the messy image you see below.

No matter what I tried, I just couldn’t create the star burst effect. Worse still, my friends didn’t seem to have a problem and were happily shooting into the sun.

I finally discovered the problem a few days later. I had removed a high-quality filter from this lens to replace the one I had damaged when I dropped my Nikon lens. At the time I couldn’t find the filter I wanted in stock, so I used a cheap one with the intention of replacing it. Except I never did get around to replacing it, or a few others.

Effects of Poor-Quality Filters

Looking at my images, I can see a clear correlation between the quality of the lens filter and the quality of the image. Where I use low quality UV filters many of my images suffer from unwanted flare when shooting towards the sun. If I try to create a star burst effect I can’t. Worst of all, many of the images show signs of dirt on the lens which I can’t seem to prevent, despite continued cleaning of the lens/filter. There are even some where I can see the surface of the lens reflected onto the image by the filter.

Once I realised my problem was poor quality filters, I replaced them with B+W UV/Haze filters (you may have another preference). I had wanted the B+W clear glass protectors but they were out of stock. On the next outing I tried capturing a few images, shooting directly into the sun. Despite not having the sun partially covered and using a Kase 0.9 Reverse ND Grad as well, I was able to shoot this.

Although the sun was fully exposed and there was high cloud/atmospherics in that area, I could create a starburst effect. The image was also free from flare and the light had a lovely quality to it that I was able to capture.

Summary

In summary, I would say that UV filters aren’t necessary unless you’re shooting film. Though it you’re shooting landscapes or working in an environment that could damage your lens, do consider some form of lens protection. But if you do decide to use a UV filter or clear glass protector, be sure to buy quality.

If you’re interested in how different UV filter perform, I found this excellent article over at Lensrentals.

It’s also worth remembering that if you’re using other filters like ND or grads, they also need to be of the highest quality. That’s why I switched to Kase filters and after more than 12 months of hard use, I remain convinced of their quality.

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