Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood?

Posted on 27 December 2007

(This has become one of the most-read articles at this site. For some reason, the question of whether or not it makes sense to add these little filters to your lenses seems to generate a lot of interest… and sometimes a lot of lively debate. From time to time I make small unannounced updates based on new information or questions that have come up. Note that there are links to a couple of related posts listed near the end of the article.)

Sellers sell, and many buyers buy, UV (ultraviolet) filters for their DSLR and other cameras. The advantages are said to be twofold: some reduction of haze that is invisible to the human eye but which the camera purportedly might register, and some protection for the front element of your lens.

On the other hand many photographers wouldn’t think of putting an extra layer of unnecessary glass in front of their lenses. They would rather accept the (rather small) possibility of a scratch on the front element of a lens than possibly reduce the quality of their images, and/or they prefer to protect the lens by using a lens cap and lens hood.

I’m in the latter camp. I don’t own any UV filters* and I can think of darn few situations in which I’d want to use one. (One possible exception being the use of some of Canon’s sealed lenses on which the seal is completed by adding a front filter – and here only if I were to use the lens in an extremely hostile environment, and with a fully environmentally sealed camera body such as that of the Canon 1 series.) My preference is to handle my camera and equipment relatively carefully, keep the gear protected when not actually using it, use a lens cap, and to almost always use a rigid lens hood.

Level of Protection – Nothing can provide complete protection for a lens or other camera equipment. A filter can provide some protection and so can the cap/hood combination – either or both can offer some protection from objects striking the front element of the lens. With the filter the assumption is that a force that might damage a lens element will instead be absorbed by the filter, and even though the filter may then be ruined the cost of a filter replacement might be less than the cost of replacing or repairing a lens. When using the cap/lens combination, the assumptions are that the cap provides even better protection than a filter when it is in place, that the cap will be on the lens when one isn’t taking a photo, and that the hood provides additional protection in many situations. (It is worth mentioning that the hood can provide real image quality benefits, too.)

To me this seems like a “six of one, half dozen of the other” question. Clearly the filter is the only option that provides a “cover” over the lens while shooting. On the other hand, a hood somewhat compensates for this to the extent that it extends in front of and to the sides of the lens. The lens cap is more protective than the filter, and can be handled more roughly when the lens isn’t actually on the camera, thus making packing a bit less fussy. While there are stories of lens accidents that resulted in damaged filters and (relatively) undamaged lenses, there are also stories of broken filter shards damaging the lens and the observation that some filter-damaging impacts would not have affected the lens if a hood had been installed.

Dust on Lens – The filter will keep dust off the lens… by letting it collect on the filter instead! To the extent that you worry about a clean front element, you’ll need to clean the dust off the filter just as often as you would have cleaned it off the lens element, so there is no advantage to using the filter in this regard. (Experienced shooters will point out that dust on the front element probably has far less effect on your photos than you might imagine, and typically no effect at all. They might also point out that to the extent that dust might affect your photos, it would do so more if the dust were further from the lens… as it is on the filter.)

I continue to be baffled by photographers who obsess over perfectly clean front elements and seem terribly concerned about the process of cleaning the lens – they often cite possible contamination of the front element as their reason for using a filter. I want to say, “Just clean the front element!” It is no more difficult to clean the front element of the lens than to clean a filter – you do it the same way. There is virtually no risk to the lens from cleaning it – lens glass is very tough material and won’t be damaged by normal cleaning. And it isn’t even necessary to keep your front element perfectly clean. A bit of dust on the lens is totally insignificant in a photograph. Don’t believe me? Next time you clean the front element do the following: Put the camera on a tripod, make an exposure before cleaning, don’t change anything, clean the front element, duplicate the exposure. Now see if you or anyone else can actually detect any difference. (Being paranoid about tiny bits of dust on the front element can be a sign of gear obsession – get over it. :-)

Convenience – The filter might initially seem to win hands-down on this count. Assuming that you purchase a filter for each lens you own, once installed you can forget that the filter is there for the most part. If you use a filter instead of (as opposed to along with) a hood, the smaller bulk of the lens/filter combination provides packing and carrying advantages.

However, one complexity arises on occasions when you want to use other filters instead of the UV filter. You must either replace the UV filter with, say, your polarizing filter (probably the best idea, for several reasons) or you’ll need to attach this filter to the front threads of your UV filter – in which case you may have vignetting issues, particularly with ultra-wide lenses, if the assembly of the two filters extends far enough forward to enter the field of view of your lens. You also now have two added layers of glass in front of your lens. The issue can become more complicated if you use step-up or step-down rings, and your hood may no longer fit.

With the cap/hood approach you’ll need to get in the habit of removing the lens cap, stashing it somewhere handy, remembering where you put it when you are done shooting, and remembering to put it back on the lens. If you cannot store the hood in its operating position on the lens, you’ll need to attach it (whether you store it separately or reversed on the lens) and remove it when you are done. If you leave it on the lens it takes up more space and can make it awkward to pack your gear – this is especially true with the wide, shallow hoods used on wide angle lenses. Less convenient, indeed. On the other hand, much of this becomes intuitive and second-nature after a while, and what seems here like it might be a lot of trouble becomes fairly automatic. It is a non-issue for me in almost all cases since I tend to store/carry lenses with hoods already in place when possible.

Image Quality – A first question might be, “Does reducing ultraviolet light improve my photos?” The answer could be stated as, “Well some want you to think so, but almost certainly not.” It turns out that, at least as far as I’ve been able to determine , modern DSLR camera/lens systems are not sensitive to UV light like film cameras purportedly are/were. If so, and assuming that you are using modern lenses, there is likely to be no benefit from the UV filtering capabilities of these filters. So it is safe to say that a UV filter will not improve your photographs. (With this in mind, if you do decide to use a filter for “protection,” it probably makes more sense to use a high quality clear glass filter rather than paying extra for UV filtering you don’t need.)

A remaining question is, “Does a UV filter degrade my images in any way?” From what I’ve read, a few things are clear, while others are less so.

Filter quality does make a difference. Cheaply made filters can reduce image quality in several ways. On the cheapest filters, optical distortions in the glass can impact image quality, poor quality coatings can lead to contrast reduction and to reflections and excessive lens flare. If you care about getting the best image quality, putting cheap filters on your lenses is not an option.

The situation is more positive with high quality UV filters. Although they may not add anything to image quality, their potential for degrading the image is vastly reduced – to the point that in most cases any degradation is negligible, with possible exceptions being the introduction of some additional flare in certain conditions and/or internal reflections from the back of the filter in others. (There are quite a few reports of “ghost images” in night photography, for example.)

For those who care about image quality, one approach to using these filters might be to use only the very best UV filters and to consider removing the filter in situations in which flare could be an issue. Or, perhaps even better, only add a filter in truly risky environments. In other words, don’t simply stick one on the lens and leave it there, but perhaps use one on those rare occasions when the perceived advantages might seem to outweigh the disadvantages.

Cost/Insurance – Here things become complex. If you are concerned (and you should be) that using cheap filters may lead to degradation of your images in at least some circumstances you’ll want the best filters you can buy. You certainly don’t want to spend over $1000 on a first-class lens, only to degrade the optical quality you paid dearly for by putting a piece of cheap glass in front of it. In fact, if image quality is your major concern – and it sure concerns me – and you decide to use filters, you will want to use an excellent quality filter on every lens you shoot with, regardless of cost.

A quick check (likely outdated by the time you read this) of UV filters at site-affiliate B&H shows good filters costing between about $80 and $150. (77mm is a common thread diameter for many high quality Canon L zooms.) Unless you are willing to forego the convenience advantage of the UV filter by swapping a single filter between all of your lenses – assuming that they all have the same filter thread diameter – you’ll want one filter for each of your lenses. With four lenses in your kit you’ll spend between about $350 and $600 for good UV filters.

“Fine,” you might say. “That is less than the cost of replacing my most expensive lens.” True, but keep in mind that you are buying limited insurance, not absolute protection for your lens. In other words, if something happens that might damage your lens the filter will reduce but not eliminate the possibility of damage to the front element only. To make an admittedly imperfect analogy, would you invest half the cost of your car in insurance that would cover some types of damage to the front end only?

And don’t forget that a damaged front element does not necessarily render the lens a total loss or reduce its value to zero. Some rational photographers feel that a small scratch or nick in the front element that does not affect image quality is nothing to worry about, and that it is, like a scratch on your three-year-old car, the sort of thing that naturally happens to equipment over time. Others note that the cost of replacing a front element is often a lot less than the cost of replacing a lens, so when you calculate the cost/benefit of the filter you should consider that cost rather than lens replacement cost.

In order to justify the cost of a UV filter as “insurance” you need to figure out the relative value of several factors. (This isn’t a lot different than figuring out how large of a deductible to pay for on your auto insurance.) How likely is it that you’ll damage your lens? What percentage of the value of the lens will you pay to “insure” it with a filter? Of all the possible ways that your lens could be damaged, how many of them will be be affected by the use of a filter? Are you comfortable with other side effects of the filter including possible effects on image quality? What are the odds that you will damage one of your lenses in a such a way that the filter would have saved it? 10%, 50%?

While there are objective answers to some of these questions, for others the answers may be relative to your personal approach to photography. Do you tend to handle your lenses carefully or casually? Are you able to absorb the costs of filters for all of your lenses, but unable to cover the cost of repairing or replacing one damaged lens? (That is a bit hard for me to imagine…) Is it a choice of a filter versus no protection or of a filter versus cap/hood? – and what value do you assign to the increment of additional protection you believe comes from choosing one over the other?

In some cases the answers might be clearer than in others. For example, it makes little sense to put a $100 UV filter on the very nice, $75 Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. It also doesn’t make much sense to put a cheap filter on this lens and degrade its image quality. It might make sense to occasionally put a $100 filter on a $2000 lens that becomes sealed with the addition of the filter if you use the lens in an extremely hostile environment – e.g. desert dust storms – and you work with sealed bodies.

Real Insurance – Speaking of insurance, you do have regular insurance on your cameras and lenses, right? Regular insurance – the kind you purchase from an insurance company – will cover loss/damage to your lens that a filter can’t help with: damage to areas other than the front of the lens, theft, and so forth. It seems bit silly to spend hundreds of dollars on the minimal/arguable protection from filters and not spend a relatively small amount of money on real insurance that protects you far more thoroughly from loss/damage. If you are imagining that you need the insurance of a UV filter, then you certainly must also be purchasing a real insurance policy on your gear, right?

Bottom Line – As with many issues in photography, opinions vary. There are those who swear by UV filters for lens protection and those who believe that the protection that they might provide isn’t worth the cost – in funds or possible image degradation.

I can understand how one could decide either way, especially with photo retailers almost insisting that you get UV filters for your new camera/lens. For my part, I don’t use UV filters on my lenses, and I haven’t for years. I’m relatively careful with my gear, carrying camera and lenses in padded cases for the most part and using lens caps and hoods. However, I also regularly shoot in the situations that seem to concern many filter users: ocean spray, desert dust, light rain, snow, and so forth. While I cannot eliminate risk of damage, I think that the chances are relatively low – such that the substantial cost of high quality filters would be a poor investment. In addition, I’d rather not risk degradation of image quality, and I’m not about to spend the very large sum that it would take to put the best UV filters on all of my lenses.

Bottom line: If you ask me, I recommend not bothering with so-called “protective filters.” I recommend using lens caps and a hood. (Leave questions and comments below.)

Related posts:

Notes

* I wrote that I “don’t own any UV filters” near the beginning of this post. I was a bit surprised to find an old 58mm UV filter in an odd corner of my closet recently, so I guess I do own one!

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.


63 comments to Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood?

  • Good observations. My strategy (after noticing the flare that the UV filter was adding to my shots) was to eliminate the UV filter. Since I am often using a polarizing filter that is my “UV” filter replacement. It is expensive compared to a cheap UV, but it serves a much more useful purpose.

    In addition to the CPL, you’ll find a lens cap AND (if applicable) a hood. The hood of my 17-40L is a bit painful to manage because of its size. But I am a bit “careless” in my handling of my equipment and have been known to lean over and bonk my 40D on a rock or have it swing into my tripod as I shuttle things around.

    My shooting sequence now consists of: observe, point the camera, realize that the lens cap is on ;-( remove it and stash it in my left front pocket, repoint and fire. When I start moving again, the hand automatically grabs the lens cap and puts it back on. I even have a “cap keeper” on the cap – not to hang on the barrel of the lens like you’d expect, but to dangle out of my pocket so it’s easy to grab the cap. I now worry more about scratching my front element with my lens cap than with some foreign body.

    I’m a little squeamish about cleaning my front element. I’m always worried about dust or worse creating a scratch or dislodging a coating… So the next topic is: “cleaning your front (and rear) elements – when, how and why?”

  • Hi Steve:

    Sounds like you work much the same way I do – even to the point of forgetting to remove the lens cap and the idea of leaving it in a pocket. Like you, I also find that the process of removing the lens cap, doing the shot, and putting it back on has become virtually automatic.

    The 17-40 hood is a bit of a problem, as is the case with hoods on ultra wide lenses in general. If you use a crop sensor camera, you might be able to get away with using a different hood. I had good success using the hood from the 24-105 on the 17-40. Your “lens keeper” idea is an interesting one – never thought of using it that way.

    A few quick thoughts about cleaning the lens. First, lens glass is actually pretty tough and durable stuff. I think that sometimes people are a bit too cautious about this. As long as you exercise reasonable care I don’t think it is too likely that you’ll damage the lens. I wouldn’t grind away at it too hard, but that is common sense. It also helps to know that a bit of dust on the front element will almost never actually be visible in a photograph. It takes a pretty awful mess on the front element to create any visual effect.

    My personal approach is a) don’t obsess over front element cleanliness, b) use a lens cloth and a bit of lens fluid when necessary, and c) if the right stuff isn’t available I’ll carefully clean it with almost any soft, clean cloth.

    Dan

  • sawsedgeNo Gravatar says:

    Good article, good points, and well written, thank you for posting it.

    I didn’t use filters for a long time, preferring lens caps and rubber hoods… but then my daughter came along and naturally she loves playing with cameras as much as I do… she is in a grabby phase and so I put filters on my most-used lenses… once she’s old enough to restrain herself from smudging the front elements the filters will come off to be used only in certain conditions. I still use lens caps and hoods though, and always will.

    She’s also marked up my new lcd monitor… I wish I’d kept my CRT a little longer.

  • sawsedge:

    Sounds like you need a UV filter for your CRT!

    Dab

  • SuzieNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for the excellent advice. I have just bought my first DSLR and like many beginners, I have that worry about my kit/lenses getting damaged easily. I was almost sucked into buying protective filters, but after reading your advice I will channel my money into more worthwhile camera equipment.

    Cheers

  • SteveNo Gravatar says:

    I have always used filters for protection.
    Over a 15 year period I have had 3 filters damaged, one was on a camera that had a lot of use by both myself and staff, the filter was cleaned fairly often and generally not very well looked after. Over a number of years the filter became very badly scratched by the rough cleaning, a new filter was a small price to pay compared to an expensive lens replacement. The other filters are on very expensive lens (only had the lens for about 5 years) and both have saved an expensive front element replacement. I have found that good quality filters have little negative effect on the captured image.

    • Interesting point of view and, from what I’ve seen, a somewhat unusual experience, Steve. I’m very surprised that your filters have become “very badly scratched by the rough cleaning.” I wonder if the nature and frequency of your cleaning might be a problem? First, some photographers become obsessive about the cleanliness of the front elements of their lenses – or, in your case, filters – and they really overdo it in two ways. First, they clean far more often than necessary. A bit of dust and so forth on the front element has precisely no visible impact on photographs. (It is easy to test this. The next time when you find the filter dirty enough that you think it needs cleaning, mount the camera on a tripod and point it at a good test subject and make a photograph before cleaning. Then, without moving the camera, complete the cleaning. Finally, make a second test exposure. Have a neutral but careful observer take a very close look at the two resulting images and see if they can consistently tell them apart.) Second, lens glass is pretty durable stuff. Unless one is doing something unusual and unnecessary in the cleaning process (steel wool, anyone? :-) the effort required to sufficiently clean the lens should not damage the lens.

      A few thoughts regarding your experience with filters saving the front element. First, I wonder if the same result might have occurred through the use of a hood? With long lenses this seems likely, though perhaps not so much with very wide lenses and their shallower hoods. Second, your history of lens damage suggests that you are somewhat unusual. I wouldn’t suggest that you are clumsy… ;-) However, it does sound like you’ve had some unusually bad luck. That said, if one learns by personal experience that he/she is unusually likely to damage equipment, extra caution may be in order.

      Thanks for posting.

      Dan

      • KPaNo Gravatar says:

        I have experience on filter getting damaged and saving the lens. This happened during a field trip and cleaning the lens. As exoected, the scratch did not have huge impact on the captured image quality except when the lightning conditions made exceptionally bad flare. In this case replacing ~100$ filter was much cheaper that replacing the front element.

        That said, I tend to use protective filters on my lenses, but filter quality needs to be sufficient: bad filters do degrade image quality to significant degree, mostly due to glosting and flare when shooting against the light.

        Most of my photography takes place on the field conditions, including week long self supported hiks with tent accommodation in varying weather. This sets some requirements for protection against elements, and cleaning.

        So in my opinion, there are cases when “protective filters” are justified, but as with most of the things in life “one size does not fit everyone”.

  • SteveNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Dan
    Just to clarify, the filter on the camera used by staff was abused as over the years it was used by many people and cleaned by many. The other two were om my own personal gear. They were damaged, scratched not by cleaning but when hiking through bush and scrub, over rocks etc getting to waterfalls and other interisting places, mostly inaccessable places. I try to keep the camera from harm but if it is in my backpack I would miss a lot of wildlife shots. I always use a lens hood. Having a filter on also gives me confidence to go places that otherwise I may not.

  • Jim MaherNo Gravatar says:

    Dan,

    A couple of quick comments. I think the UV filter is totally a personal choice. I used to never use one until I realized it just about completely got rid of lens flare and now I always use one. My problem is I tend to drop my camera at night when I’m trying to get a shot so between using a grip (with two cracks from drops) and the filters it’s a little extra security for my slippery hands.

    The other thing you might try on testing for lens and sensor dust is take a wide open shot of blue sky without any clouds in the middle of the day. One shot will pickup any dust you have on your sensor and lens. It works every time.

  • Thanks for the posts. A couple comments…

    Steve, I shoot in some places that pose some risks to my gear. (For example, I do a fair amount of cross-country backpacking and hiking, etc.) One solution that has worked really well for me, especially when carrying a full backpack, is one of the Lowepro Topload Zoom bags attached with their chest harness system. The camera rides inside this bag right in front of me, is very well protected from all kinds of risks (the bag even has a built-in rain cover), yet makes the camera immediately accessible. I can even fit second lens and some filters, etc into the bag, so everything is easily and quickly accessible without have to get into the backpack… and well protected.

    Jim, I do a good amount of small aperture landscape photography, so I usually don’t have to go looking for sensor dust – it finds me! I’ve been very happy that the dust reduction system in my 5D2, and I rarely see more than a few spots – and they usually go away on their own after a few on/off cycles to activate the sensor vibration system. After using a “regular old 5D” for two years and becoming very adept at monthly sensor cleaning sessions… I have yet to have to clean the 5D2 after a year and a half of use in environments ranging from desert to mountains to seashore.

    One final thing about the protective filters. Both of you seem to have had an unusual number of incidents of dropped cameras and lenses. I don’t think of myself as overly cautious, but I’ve never dropped a lens and only come close to dropping a camera. However, if I thought I was more susceptible than most people to dropping my gear I might reconsider the approach to protection.

    Take care,

    Dan

  • contasNo Gravatar says:

    I am using Contax N 28-80mm on Canon 5DMII-once I tried to protect the lens by put on a Hoya UV (0) filter, images I got that time are without 3D character,that I usually got with this lens before -Firstly , I thought because of bad filter (or fake one ), I am waiting a Ebay Contax filter for a better result with protection while I found this thread.Thank Dan for sharing- I can understand that the best way to make good image is the lens itself, and the best way to protect the lens is your care .

  • I typically use both hoods and UV filters on expensive lenses. The only drawbacks I’ve found is occasional flaring on shots with direct sun, like sunsets low in the sky, etc. But it’s nothing that can’t easily be corrected in Lightroom or Photoshop, and the piece of mind from not scratching $1000+ worth of glass is an easy decision to make IMO.

  • This totally makes sense, Dan. Thank you for awakening my realization of the perpetual fraud.

    The only reason I’ve ever used one on the front was because I was brainwashed from day one as a beginner and then later as a seller of cameras.

    In 33 years I’ve never experienced damage to the front element (“knocking on wood right now”) because of diligence in care and usage … plus I have always used lens hoods for just this very reason.

    Mine front filters are coming off in about 1-minute. I’ve had glare issues because of them and now I hope this resolves that part.

    ROCK On, Dan!
    -Michael

    • Hi Michael:

      I’m not going to go quite as far as to call the situation a “fraud,” but I certainly don’t think that automatically sticking a filter on the lens for “protection,” especially a supposed UV filter, makes all that much sense in the vast majority of cases.

      Dan

  • Fraud might be the wrong term when I posted above. Misleading would be more like it. In the sales end of the camera store there is not that much mark up and commission on the actual brand name body and lens. The real mark up and commissions are on the after market add-ons like Non-OEM lenses, filters, straps, books, and warranties. That is one of the primary reasons the whole “UV Filter use for protection” came about … it was an easy way to boost your commission on the sale. It’s just now policy and standard practice to pitch it for protection as you could easily get $5-10 in commission per filter sold. One of the sales industries long time dirty tactics. I used to be one of those salesmen. :-)

  • [...] respond to the question frequently – so frequently that I eventually gave up and just wrote a post on the subject that I could refer people to when they [...]

  • Dan SmithNo Gravatar says:

    You say ” To make an admittedly imperfect analogy, would you invest half the cost of your car in insurance that would cover some types of damage to the front end only?”

    This is indeed a *very* imperfect analogy. To arrive at the “half the cost” figure you have improperly added together the cost for buying good, expensive filters for ALL your lenses and compared that cost to ONE expensive lens. Fairer would be to ask would be “Would you invest $90 for insurance that would cover some types of damage for your $1,500 lens?”

    In any event, one, small datapoint. I own a Panasonic GF1. I always had a B&W MC UV filter on it (multicoated, the top end). Last summer, I fumbled with the camera, and it dropped onto concrete from a distance of 4 feet. It landed facing forward, on the lens.

    The filter was cracked in various places. A few little pieces of glass floated between the filter and the lens (A 45-200mm Panasonic). The filter could not be removed, as it had warped on the side.

    I wondered if the camera had itself broken. I shot some pictures through all that stuff. Here were my findings:

    1) I went to a repair shop. For $15, the filter was removed. The lens was unblemished, no scratches, nothing.

    2) Pictures I shot through a virtual minefiled of cracked filter and shards of glass came out somewhat soft. Yes, you read right. Somewhat soft. Not totally distorted. I was shocked.

    The moral of the story for me:

    1) My UV filter saved the lens.

    2) I no longer worry about a little dust on the filter :)

    • Dan, I’m glad that your filter seems to have been the only thing damaged.

      Any kind of insurance comes down to an analysis of the level of risk, the “costs” of protecting against that risk, the level of certainty that the “coverage” will prevent or reduce the loss, and the downsides that come with the protection.

      My points are two:

      1. While I cannot prove the negative (“a filter will never prevent damage”) and, in fact, don’t question the possibility that in some cases a filter might reduce or stop certain types of damage, your story falls into a category I like to call “the badge saved my life” stories. Somewhere out there is a story of a police officer who was shot in the badge and the badge prevented the bullet from killing him. Let’s stipulate that such a thing might have happened. One conclusion to draw is that since a badge saved this officer and anyone might get shot (can’t rule it out!) that everyone would be wise to wear badges to protect against being shot in the chest! ;-) The relevance here is that the actual odds of damage to a lens of a type that would be prevented by the filter are very, very low. That alone might not be convincing since there is, I believe, some small possibility of such damage. However…

      2. There are several costs for this small amount of coverage. One is the simple monetary cost. I currently own eight lenses. Putting filters on each of them would cost perhaps $800 or so*. Compared to the small likelihood that I’ll suffer a $800 loss from front element damage that might have been prevented by a filter, this cost doesn’t look so attractive as an insurance benefit. In addition, I virtually always use a lens hood and I leave a lens cap on my lenses until I put them on the camera and am ready to shoot – so the likelihood of damage is reduced even further. And another cost is that in at least some cases it can be anticipated that there will be negative effects on image quality from adding an unneeded filter. To cite one specific problem that we frequently see, internal reflections between the front element of the lens and the flat rear surface of the filter frequently cause “ghost” images in night photography.

      I don’t worry about dust either. A bit of dust – on a filter or the lens – is a completely insignificant thing.

      While I understand that individual photographers are going to come to different conclusions – and that there are certain extreme situations where I might make a different choice – I stand by my analysis.

      Take care,

      Dan

      BTW: In financial terms, it would be better to invest that $800 in real camera/lens insurance or even to put it in the bank to cover all or part of the cost in the unlikely event of catastrophic lens damage. (I’m often surprised to find that people who are so concerned about their lens that they will invest in the dubious protection from a filter… don’t bother to get real insurance on their photographic equipment.)

  • StephenNo Gravatar says:

    Dan;
    A better analogy would be the seat covers, bonnet and headlight protectors that most people put on their cars.

    As said previously I have high quality UV filters on all of my expensive lens, and I have had to replace one filter due to scratches and noticed recently that two other filters now have small scratches on them. Without the filters I would have had three damaged lens. I walk, climb, crawl and have carried my camera on bicycles, boats, canoes, horses and elephants. My gear gets fairly rough time.
    Steve

  • [...] “Protective” filters - Some believe or have been told that they need so-called “protective UV filters” on their lenses. The thought is that these filters will protect the front element of your lens from possible damage and there is an old school notion that reducing UV (ultraviolet) light will improve certain types of photographs. DSLRs are not sensitive to UV light and there are some compelling arguments against using filters for protection in normal shooting. My thoughts on this are posted elsewhere on this blog. [...]

  • I agree with Steven,I use only high quality filters on my L series lenses, but I think that everyone has the right to have their own opinion.

  • Giancarlo:

    I can’t disagree with you about everyone’s right to have an opinion! :-)

    Dan

  • Jim DossNo Gravatar says:

    Probably not going to add anything to the filter/no-filter (Ford/Chevy) debate, but wanted to add an observation.

    I have kept a UV filter on all my lenses for years, but I’m not particularly careful with my gear. I stuff my camera in my day pack without putting on the lens cap, sling it over my shoulder while scrambling in the desert, and seem to bang it around a lot. I also lay my camera on the floor, by my feet, while I’m driving so it’s handy (only when I have a passenger).

    A few years ago, while exploring the backcounty on Death Valley National Park, my 7D, with the Canon 24-105 attached, slipped off my shoulder and fell. I grabbed the strap just as the lens hit a rock. There was a filter on the lens at the time (no lens hood), which struck the rock pretty hard. The filter ring bent, but the glass did not break. I’m convinced that the filter saved the lens that day. Still, a lend hood might have done the same, but probably would have transferred more force to the lens since it is longer and would have hit the rock with more force.

    I finally managed to get the damaged filter off the 24-105 last last week. I haven’t replace it yet, and probably won’t.

    Back in the mid-1980s I worked in a camera store in Jackson, Wyoming for five years. Being a tourist town, we saw a lot of people coming in with camera questions and the like. We sold a lot of gear, too. We were told to push filters, probably because of the markup. A $30 filter netted about $25 in profit – often more than the sale of the lens did!

    This may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not: On a average I personally saw about one person a week (in the summer when Jackson was at its busiest) come into the store with a broken filter. 100% of them did no damage to the front element of the lens. Again, I’m convinced that the filters, in many cases, saved the lens.

    There were many “real” professional photographers in Jackson, Wyoming at the time I worked at Mountain Camera. We served them all. Many were wildlife/outdoor photographers: Tom Mangelson, Jim Elder, and Wolfgang Bayer to name a few. I was surprised (at the time) that none of them used any sort of protection filters on their lenses. I saw and played with their gear often, as they were in the shop several times a week. I’d look over Mangelson’s slides of his latest trip with him there in the store on the provided light table, but I digress.

    I was amazed at how dirty almost all these wildlife/outdoor photographers kept their gear. It’d often be covered in dirt, dust, and sometimes mud and snow. The front elements were always filthy. I can remember several of them cleaning their lenses with their tee shirts! They’d just huff and wipe.

    Since then, that’s the way I clean the filters on my lenses – huff and wipe with whatever happens to be handy. But I probably won’t be doing that with the 24-105 since I got that stuck filter off and the front element in naked. :-)

  • Wonderful information here. A great discussion, that I have thought about for some time now. I have a cheaper uv filter on a 28-105 lens I have, and it is never as sharp as it should be. My tokina 11-16 is razor sharp and has no uv filter. After reading this I am going to take my uv filter off. Thanks Dan for the awesome discussion.

  • CAROL B.No Gravatar says:

    Having just googled to find out more about filters i came across your site. perfect, as today my camera bag holding my ready to use 400mm lens broke and smashed to the floor. the lens cap was wedged in, and after evenctually removing that found that the fillter was well cracked and damged… so was interested in your previous subsciber having the same problem… took the photos of a marsh harrier that i went out to do, and found that everything worked ok. even with the cracked glass…. managed to remove the filter with a metal jar opener, and the lens is not damged….so!! did the filter save my lens ???… i feel that i will replace it for my own peace of mind.

    • Good to hear that your lens is OK!

      As to whether or not your filter saved it, there are way too many variables here for me to be able to say. I’d guess that the answer is no. You lens cap would have protected the front element from anything striking it – and I would always have the lens cap on when the lens is in the bag – so the filter almost certainly had no effect in that regard. I’ve heard that an edge strike on the front of the lens – e.g. from the side rather than straight on – can crack the filter even though the blow would not have damaged the lens.

      Dan

  • JJNo Gravatar says:

    I know this is an old post, but I thought I’d add one thing.

    Most of the time, I would never bother with filters, but I have one lens that cost about £500, that I bought but wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep. I keep a filter on that, so that I can confidently sell it on ebay in the best condition possible…. If I decide I’m definitely keeping it, I’ll probably take the filter off!

    • I hear that a lot, and I can sort of see the logic in it. I suppose that if you were going to try a lens for a week or a month that this might make the most sense. However, even here there might be some counter arguments. For example, while the lens resale value might well be reduced a bit if in the unlikely case that you happened to accidentally scratch the front element, the reduction in value would likely be no more than the cost of the high quality filter and it could well be less.

      In any case, if you do sell it, I’ll agree that your buyer will be grateful for your careful treatment of the lens! :-)

      Dan

  • RainerNo Gravatar says:

    I prefer to keep a High Q UV on my expensive Lenses. No matter how careful one is even dust can cause abrasions if only slight over a short perid of time. How ever” Over a much longer period of time dust abrasions may bring about a slighht dulness to your Lens element hence a slight or noticable reduction in quality. I also use it for added protection. Glad I did. One of my Lenses rolled out of my bag and on to harsh Beach Rockery. The UV Filter got the brunt of it and broke. In turn it saved my lens from any damage. I’ll stick to the added protection

    • Rainer:

      You repeat some of the oft-repeated reasons that people say they choose to use UV filters: that dust might eventually damage the lens or that you had a situation in which you dropped a lens that had a UV filter attached.

      I have a number of lenses that are over a decade old, which have been heavily used and certainly not babied, and which I clean with whatever fabric I happen to have handy. They continue to produce excellent image quality with no signs of degradation whatsoever. (People often worry too much about pristine lenses – it turns out that lens glass is a very tough material unlikely to be affected by normal cleaning, and that some dust or even tiny nicks on the front element have absolutely no effect on the photographs.)

      The “I dropped my lens and the filter saved it” stories are a more interesting subject. I addressed that to some extent in my original post – both in regards to what a filter can and cannot protect for, the cost/benefit analysis of buying high quality filters for all of your lenses, the potential that shards from a smashed filter itself could damage the front end, the advisability of using lens hoods, and the choice to invest funds that might be spent on a filter on actual insurance that covers a wider range of possible losses instead.

      Each person will come to his or her own conclusions, and I’m sure I can’t talk everyone out of casually using UV (or “plain glass”) filters in this way.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • Thanks for a clear, concise, well written article on lens filters. I think your article will make me want to better protect my lens while they are not being used…the lens cap needs to b on the lens, not in the bag!

    As for dust on the front, I have seen that it matters little. What about dust that somehow gets underneath the front element…do you think that should be removed?

    Thanks you Dan,

    jerry

    • Hi Jerry:

      I’m a firm believer in keeping the lens cap on the lens when it is in the bag. I think there is perhaps almost as much potential for damage to an unprotected lens there as there is in a number of more obvious situations. Regarding dust under the front element or elsewhere inside the lens, if you look closely at just about any lens you will likely spot some “stuff” inside. Again, it really doesn’t have any effect on your photographs, so unless it is unusually bad I would just live with it.

      Dan

  • StephenNo Gravatar says:

    Many Canon L lens are not weather shielded without a filter. Another good reason to use one. Good article here: http://www.foto-biz.com/Canon/Weatherproof-lenses

  • Stephen, you are correct that some (but not all) Canon L lenses are said to become “weather sealed” with the addition of a screw-in filter, though what that means is somewhat open to interpretation. A real-world way of thinking about this is that if

    a. you are working in a truly hostile environment (rain, chemicals, dust storms, etc.), and

    b. you have one of these lenses and won’t use others, and

    c. your camera body is also sealed (e.g. – it is a 1-series body and not a 5D, 6D, 7D, etc.)…

    it could make sense to add the filter when using those lenses and those bodies in those circumstances.

    However, when it comes to adding filters to lenses on non-sealed bodies for protecting the front element, what I wrote still stands.

    Take care,

    Dan

  • AntonNo Gravatar says:

    Learned a lot from the discussion, but didn’t find anything regarding shooting water.
    I’ve recently bought a Canon 10-22 lens. I’m a big fan of seascapes, but never really did one myself yet.
    I plan to visit Black Sea in summer hoping to practice shooting seascapes, and the question is – do you need a UV filter when shooting salty water?
    And another example.
    A few years ago my wife had just bought a camera, with a 18-55 kit lens, and went to shoot friends wedding party. Lens was without UV filter at the moment, and someone ocassionally spilled shampagne on her lens, directly to the front element. And since then there is a serious color problem present on all shots. You wouldn’t notice it straight from the camera, but a sligh curve reveals it right away – believe me, you will never shoot a clear blue sky with that lens.
    So back to the question, wouldn’t UV filter save a lens in case of salty water or spilled alcoghol?

    • Anton, you bring up two of the general sorts of concerns often mentioned by those who believe that using a “protective” UV filter is worthwhile: that salt spray is an issue when shooting along the seashore and that stuff (spilled wine, greasy fingers, etc) might get on the front element of the lens.

      As to the question of whether you need a UV filter when shooting around salty water, if you are asking whether the filtering of UV light has any value in this circumstance, the answer is essentially no. If you are asking whether the UV filter is necessary to protect your front element from salt spray, I lean toward saying “no.” (I suppose I might imagine a few very unusual situations in which it might be worthwhile if you use a sealed camera body.) A small amount of mist – whether from the ocean or from fresh water – on the front element should not be a problem. Simply wipe it off and keep shooting. Keeping a lens cap on between shots is probably a good idea. If your concern is specific to the salt content of the water, that really shouldn’t pose any particular problem for lens glass either, though I suppose that if you let it dry on the lens surface you would want to be especially careful when you do clean it later on. If the issue is sealing the lens from moisture or salt damage… I do not believe that the 10-22 lens is sealed, in which case adding a filter will leave the rest of the lens subject to water intrusion. Also and perhaps even more importantly, if you are shooting a cropped sensor Canon camera your camera body is not sealed from salt spray… and the internal electronics of the un-sealed camera are likely even more susceptible to damage from salt water than the front element of the lens. If using a filter encourages you to continue shooting in situations where a lot of salt water is getting on your gear, I think that could be very risky for your camera.

      I’m perplexed by your report that champagne permanently damaged the front element of a lens. My suspicion is that you may need to do a more thorough job of cleaning that front element – perhaps the use of some lens cleaning fluid or similar might have resolved this problem. In addition, given the very low cost of the EFS kit lens (used for perhaps $125 or less), it makes more sense to just replace one than to invest in a high quality UV filter on the off-chance that someone might spill something on the lens.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • oriNo Gravatar says:

    great article ! i just toguht about adding expencive filters for all my lenses and after reading your great article i decide to leave it that way and keep the hood on.

    what the best way to clean the lenses from dust/ocean spray and etc,and what tools do i have to buy for that mission?

    thank’s alot.

    • People have a variety of ways of cleaning lenses. I’m something of a minimalist about this. I tend to simply use a lens cloth and gently blow some moist breath on the lens before using the cloth to clean it. It is important to work gently and not rub too hard, since if you got something in the cloth you might scratch the lens. If I don’t have a lens cloth I’ll use almost any soft, clean cloth. Occasionally I may use some lens cleaning fluid if necessary.

      Dan

  • Dan,
    Good discussion – especially your last comments on salt in sea mist/wind.
    One other problem. I was shooting in redwoods yesterday and shot straight up a trunk. The next few shots of another scene all had strange spots, so I checked the lens and sap had gotten on (difficult to remove). Probably a good idea for a filter when doing that type of shot in a forest, especially pine/spruce/redwood. In other situations I would not keep the filter on.
    Karl

    • Sap on the lens? Wow! I shoot in the forest all that them and that has never happened. That could be difficult to clean. I know how I would handle it if I got sap on fabric or other materials, but I’m not positive how I would clean a lens or camera that had been affected by this.

      Dan

  • I have tried a number of lens cleaning solutions and found Kinetronics Precision Lens Cleaning Solution to be the best by far. The cheapest way to buy it is as Kinetronics Digital Scanner Glass Cleaning Kit, much larger bottle, only a few dollars extra. http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/357729-REG/Kinetronics_KSDSK_Digital_Scanner_Glass_Cleaning.html
    I have read on the net that Nikon advises not to use your breath as it contains chemicals that may damage the lens coatings, not sure if this is true?
    Steve

    • “I have read on the net that Nikon advises not to use your breath as it contains chemicals that may damage the lens coatings.”

      I think that has been debunked, and I believe I read that Nikon may have retracted that claim.

  • [...] Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood from G. Dan Mitchell – I like Dan and wanted to throw specifically another pros two cents in [...]

  • Great article and well put. I had a UV filter damage (caused by a negligent third party) and contemplated buying a replacement (they paid for the current cost of one). However, when I tried some sample shots without a UV filter, I discovered a remarkable difference in the image quality – it was much better and colour saturation seemed truer to life. Maybe it was my imagination, but I’ll definately be testing it for real when I travel abroad very soon. I doubt I’ll buy a filter for it either……. :)

  • VictorNo Gravatar says:

    Have always put filters on my lens once I bought them. Already experience an object hitting my lens. Good thing I have the filter to protect the lens since it left a mark on the filter.

  • [...] G Dan Mitchell Photography:  UV Filter or Lens Cap and Hood? [...]

  • [...] Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood from G. Dan Mitchell - I like Dan and wanted to throw specifically another pros two cents in [...]

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  • DaveNo Gravatar says:

    The comments are of little value without specifying the brand of filters used. i have a Canon EOS setup and would not dream of putting on anything other than a Canon filter. Why buy an expensive lens and downgrade the quality with a cheap piece of glass on the front?

    • Dave, to be clear, the overall thrust of my article is to discourage the vast majority of photographers from spending money on UV filters for the purpose of “protection.”

      There are some situations in which adding filters might make sense, and serious photographers who recognize these unusual circumstances will most likely choose to purchase very high quality UV or clear glass filters from the best manufacturers. (I’m not doing a product review of filters here, so I’m not recommending specific brands and models.)

      In general, the Canon filters, while no doubt competent in many ways, are not regarded as being among the best filters. Among the “anything other than Canon” filters are a number of filters that are used far more often by serious photographers.

      Take care,

      Dan

      • Quite agree with Dan’s comments – and to be honest, since I’ve taken off my ‘clear’ UV filter, my images are more natural in colour. If clumsiness is a problem, or accidental damage is likely, then an attached lens cap cover is far more sensible than choosing what make/brand of UV filter to use. But everyone to their own……….

  • alvinNo Gravatar says:

    thanks for this very helpful discussion

    one of the things i learned from owning a camera for a year now is that you wont enjoy shooting if you are always after the protection of your lens.

    • Alvin, that starts to blend over into a discussion of the purpose of lenses and how/why we value them. Some seem to regard them almost as objects of art rather than tools, and it can start to seem like it is more important to protect the supposed perfect and pristine condition of a brand new lens than to actually use the lens for the purpose for which it was intended. Others, and I’m in this camp, recognize that a tool that is used is going to show some wear – and that this is a sign of a lens that is being used to make photographs.

      Dan

      • alvinNo Gravatar says:

        i learned that when i had my first camera the lx5.i was over protected before until this yr i bought a canon eos m.now i enjoy using my lx5 thinking if i have treated the camera before like what i do now maybe i did not miss many photo opportunity but the dilemma never ends
        with the canon eos m with the 22mm..are you familiar with how it looks like? the lens is very small and i find it very difficult to wipe.i see few dust around the lens which i cant remove i havent tried to use a blower or a lens pen yet though…

        honestly im considering in buying a uv filter because im going to an island trip..but before i even read your article i am already hesitant in doing so because it might just degrade the iq of my photos

        can you give me a friendly advice on the best way to protect the lens aside from always putting the lens cap if not in use?..im afraid i might miss some shots again because i will always look into my lens..like taking pictures while on the boat and its windy….what is your best practice when shooting in the beach? thanks :)

        • Alvin:

          Using the UV filter to keep dust off turns out to be not all that useful – you still get dust on the filter! And while dust on the lens is not likely to be visible in a photograph (in fact, some people worry way too much about this), if it would be visible it would be more so on a filter that places it a bit further in front to the lens and closer to the focus point.

          (When I get stuff on the lens that doesn’t come off with normal cleaning with a clean cloth I might use my breath or a bit of lens cleaning fluid to help loosen it. Be sure, though, to not clean too vigorously – you don’t want to damage the lens.)

          Aside from using a UV filter there are a number of things you can do to reduce the chances that you’ll damage the front element of your lens:

          – use the lens hood – this narrows the area that is ope at the front of the lens.

          – use a lens cap – it may seem like a bother at first, but you’ll soon become so used to it that you hardly give it a thought.

          – carry the camera in some sort of bag when you are not actually making a shot – unless you are actively making photographs, carrying the unprotected camera over your shoulder without a case increases the odds that you’ll damage it.

          – learn instincts that help protect the camera and lens. It is a bit difficult to explain how this comes about, but let me tell you a story that other photographers may be able to relate to…

          A few years ago I was hiking down a rough trail in the Sierra on my way back from a pass at the Sierra crest. I was wearing a camera backpack with lenses, tripod, and hiking gear. I was carrying my camera in front of me in a chest-mounted Lowepro case. As I hiked through a steep, rocky section I momentarily let my attention drift and I tripped on a rock and started to fall downhill. With barely any conscious thought I brought an arm up to protect the camera and grabbed a tree to catch myself. I almost wrenched my arm out of its socket… but I protected the camera! ;-)

          Dan

  • alvinNo Gravatar says:

    using the lens cap is really not a bother to me. i got used to it when i was using my lx5 for 9 months before i replaced it by an atolens cap.

    i really like what you said
    “Using the UV filter to keep dust off turns out to be not all that useful – you still get dust on the filter! And while dust on the lens is not likely to be visible in a photograph (in fact, some people worry way too much about this), if it would be visible it would be more so on a filter that places it a bit further in front to the lens and closer to the focus point.”

    thanks Dan i really aprreciate it it helped me a lot

  • MikeNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent article.

    I may have missed it but I also live in the Southwest and one of the issues I have been using the filters for is to keep blowing sand or salt water from damaging the front of my lenses such as at the beach or deserts.

    How would you handle that?

    Thanks
    Mike

    • Hi, Mike:

      I don’t live in such a place, but I frequently shoot in Death Valley and along the Pacific coastline, where similar issues can arise. There are a few things to consider here.

      First, if you are shooting with a sealed body camera, such as one of the 1-series bodies from Canon, and you are working in a hazardous circumstance, then sealing the front of the lens, too, with a filter can be a good idea. If you are not working with such a body, when conditions are bad enough that there is a real danger of damage to your lens there is also danger that the sand/water is going to get inside your non-sealed body, so sealing the lens may just encourage you to risk your camera body. In any case, I can imagine extreme conditions in which the filter could be useful.

      However, most often when we (or “I” anyway) shoot in such places, we aren’t really risking the lens in any significant way. For example, while I have photographs of and even inside of dust storms in Death Valley, I made those with little or no risk to the camera. In many cases I shoot from just at the edge of the dust cloud… and put away the camera gear once inside the miserable dust storm. (For anyone who hasn’t been inside one, it is not a pleasant experience!) On a few occasions, I’ve been able to shoot them from inside my vehicle, setting up my shot with the windows closed, rolling a window down partway to make the shot, and then quickly closing up again.

      When it comes to salt water from shooting at the ocean, I don’t find the filter to be much use at all. Here, I’m not thinking about a situation in which waves are soaking the camera (a risk to more than your lens!) but the proverbial “ocean salt spray” concern. Frankly, I don’t see that this is a risk to the lens, and I simply wipe it off when/if it starts to interfere with image quality. If I had a filter on the lens, I’d have to clean it just as frequently and in exactly the same way.

      In the end, everyone has to think this through for themselves… but I don’t even carry so-called protective filters.

      Take care,

      Dan

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