I don’t remember where I read that UV filters were used as insurance for lenses. However, since then I have always had one on each of mine. Even for the lenses of my smaller 1 inch sensor cameras. There are few things worse in photography than having to replace a lens that you broke because you dropped it or it crashed into something in the shot. And while a UV filter can’t protect the entire lens from damage, it can certainly save the front elements of the lens many times over. The lens body protects all other lens elements, so why leave the front element exposed to potential damage?
For the purposes of this article, which discusses the benefits of protective filters for your lens, I will consider UV and transparent filters be the same. I’ve seen polarizing arguments about the use of UV filters and their alleged degradation of image quality. This is true if you use filters that are not from reputable manufacturers. Why add cheap glass to an expensive lens and then complain that the image isn’t sharp enough? Some claim that adding a clear or UV filter to their lens reduces sharpness. If you look at the pixels enough, then yes, you’ll probably see some loss of sharpness.
Can you really tell if an image was taken using UV filters?
But the average person looking at an image on their computer screen cannot tell the difference between images taken with a UV filter and without. How much of a sharpness freak do you really have to be to not want to use a protective filter on your lenses? On more than one occasion I bumped my lenses while working outside and the UV filter saved the front element. (And I’m someone who treats my camera gear like a baby, often cuddling it far more than most people would.) My latest accident with a lens has further solidified my belief that everyone’s lenses should have UV filters. Think of filters as insurance – it’s much cheaper to replace a UV filter than a broken lens.
What happened to my goal?
Just two months after buying a new Nikon Z 24-120 f4 S lens, it suffered a tragic fall from my camera. It looks like I didn’t properly lock the lens to the camera mount. He fell headfirst, straight onto the rough sidewalk outside the parking lot where I had parked for a morning photo shoot. My heart sank and my wallet screamed as the sound of cracking glass filled my ears.
I picked up the lens from the ground with tenderness. The germaphobe in me was nowhere to be found. The front UV filter had cracked into several pieces and glass dust was all over the front element. I don’t even think I had a wind tunnel in the backpack that day. I carefully tried to remove the broken pieces of glass from the filter ring. It wasn’t easy trying not to get glass dust on my fingers. I was sure that my objective was ruined.
Snap, crackle, pop
Something sounded loose inside the lens. “Here’s the autofocus motor,” I thought. Over the next four to five minutes, I carefully picked pieces of glass from the filter wire. Then I looked carefully at the front element. There was still dust on it, but the UV filter had served its purpose: no damage to the lens elements. The UV filter had taken the brunt of the impact through its appearance. For probably the second or third time in my career, a UV filter has saved my lens from damage and/or breakage.
I tried to take some pictures in the street. There was a slight grinding noise from the AF motor at first, but focusing was precise. No noticeable back or front focus. I couldn’t change the lens for today’s shot because I didn’t have another. The 24-120 was the only option I had for the day. But it worked like a charm. That says a lot about the toughness of the lens itself. However, it would have been a whole different story if the front of the lens itself had been broken off.
It’s not just a matter of breakage
The less you expose your lens to the elements such as dust, sand, rain, humidity and beach air, the longer the coatings it has will last. I always worry about accidentally scratching my lenses if I touch them, so it’s a big peace of mind for me to have to clean the filter in front. Also, the thinner they are, the less chance there is of vignetting if you plan to stack other filters like CPL or ND filters on top.
Buy a good one. You will not regret it
We have already written about the effectiveness of transparent filters as insurance. You don’t have to buy a very expensive one. UV filters were previously used to remove ultraviolet rays from images. Over the years, lens technology improved and the digital age was ushered in. UV rays weren’t as much of an issue as before. Where I lived, clear filters were not easy to get, but UV filters were plentiful, so that’s what most of my lenses carried when I started digital photography.
If you can buy clear filters, you don’t have to buy the most expensive you can afford. But please don’t buy a cheap one thinking it’s just insurance for your lens. This will end up making your images blurry and soft. I had to throw in a UV filter last week. It was from a company that is quite reputable in the photography industry, but I may be avoiding their products from now on. A few of theirs I’ve owned have started showing streaks on the filter coatings. Also, the one I put aside started scratching too easily.
If you are planning to buy a clear or UV filter to protect your lens, here it is on Amazon you can browse.
The Phoblographer may receive affiliate compensation for products purchased using links in this blog post.