Nathan Griffin Photographs

Do I Need to Buy a UV Filter?

Owl at Tampa Zoo - not taken with a UV filter

After investing in so much money for a good lens, I can understand why many people succumb to the sales pressure and purchase a UV filter as protection. (Skylight filters can be spoken of interchangeably in this discussion.) It seems logical enough - screw that clear piece of glass on and be forever insured against scratches, cracks, and other mayhem that may come your way. On the other hand, the purchase and use of a UV filter does come at a cost.

Why would you need a UV filter?

After investing in so much money for a good lens, I can understand why many people succumb to the sales pressure and purchase a UV filter as protection. (Skylight filters can be spoken of interchangeably in this discussion.) It seems logical enough - screw that clear piece of glass on and be forever insured against scratches, cracks, and other mayhem that may come your way. On the other hand, the purchase and use of a UV filter does come at a cost.

Back when film was king, a UV filter would help increase color saturation in certain conditions; namely, extremely bright scenes or at high altitude. In the digital age, this need is largely gone as UV light doesn't seem to affect digital sensors in the same way as film. Any slight perceived gain in color saturation gained through a UV filter could be obtained just as easily with a bump from any number of controls (contrast, saturation, etc.) in post-processing. Optically, I can't see any situation where a UV filter will increase image quality.

Tampa Bay Sunset

The reason that so many people feel they need to buy and use a UV filter is for lens protection. If you are in a camera shop and you have just shelled out money for a new lens, the salesperson will undoubtedly move in to sell you the UV or skylight filter. They will probably steer you towards a very expensive series of UV filter to match the quality of the lens you have bought. Actually, it is good advice (if you decide to get one) to purchase the highest quality UV filter you can afford as a cheap filter can truly wreck havoc on image quality. The sales pitch will probably focus on preventing scratches, slowing dust accumulation inside the lens, and avoiding a catastrophic lens fracture from a foreign body impact.

Unfortunately, no matter how much you spend, any filter you place on the front of your camera will degrade the image quality. The extra glass element introduced will increase distortion, decrease (ever slightly) the light that makes its way to the sensor, and will increase the likelihood and severity of flare.

The other downside is cost. For such a simple device (clear glass), a quality UV or skylight filter can sometimes add up to 1/10 the cost of an expensive lens, or more.

First of all, for some people, there are real risks involved in their photographic environment that will justify the use of a UV filter for lens protection. One that comes to mind are motocross photojournalist that often take pictures with gravel and dirt being kicked up at them. If you regularly find yourself shooting out of a moving vehicle, there again will be a real need for front element protection. Front line photojournalist in very dusty conditions may also find the extra protection from blowing sand a good thing.

 

For most of us, the risks we place on our equipment are much lower than these specific scenarios. If you drop the lens on the front element, odds are something else will be damaged internally and a filter will not save you. It might be true that a filter will prevent scratches, but being careful can also go a long way to preventing scratches. As far as preventing dust from getting in your lens, I have news for you; you will still get dust in your lens. It may take a little longer to get in there, but I'm not convinced that a filter can do much to stop dirt from infiltrating into your lens on a long term basis.

Botanical Gardent at Zilker Park in Austin Texas - not taken with a skylight or UV filter

For those concerned about protecting the front element from drops or accidental impacts, you are probably better served by the use of a lens hood. Lens hoods don't degrade image quality and go a long way to preventing some common rough-and-tumble impacts your front element may see.

For myself, I am unwilling to compromise the image quality to have a largely unnecessary filter parked in front of my lens, and I am certainly not keen on parting with so much money for insurance I may never need. I love my current lens and would hate to have anything happen to it; however, I have managed to make it this long with no ill effects and I think most people are in a similar low risk category and can pass on the protective filter.