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UV or Skylight Filter: What’s the Difference?

UV or Skylight Filter

In the process of shopping for a UV filter, you may have come across something called a Skylight filter and wondered which one you should get: a UV or skylight filter.

The difference between a UV and skylight filter is subtle but notable: UV filters have no color cast to them. Skylight filters have a faint orangish-pink color cast. So UV filters are simply clear glass - that’s it. A skylight filter is just a UV filter dyed with a faint warm color tinge.

Why would you want a warm color tinge on a filter that will be on your camera all the time? Well, for the answer to that, we must go back. Way back. To the days of film! *gasp* Do they still even make film?!

UV or Skylight FilterSkylight Filter on the left, UV on the right
Notice the orangish-pink color cast on the skylight filter

Skylight filters were originally designed for use on traditional analog film and they really just don’t serve any purpose in digital photography. See, when shooting color transparency film like Fuji Velvia or Kodak Kodachrome, there is no adjusting color balance after snapping the shutter. In other words, it’s like the white balance was “baked in” to the film when it was manufactured. These films are usually manufactured with a “daylight” color balance - meaning they will get accurate colors in outdoor scenes in the sun, but not really under any other type of light source. Try using this “daylight” film indoors and you’ll get some seriously ugly yellow colors. Try to use it in the shade and your pictures will be too blue. There were also some films manufactured with an “incandescent” white balance for use indoors and those couldn’t be used outdoors without creating inaccurate colors.

So let’s say you have daylight film loaded in your camera, but you want to photograph someone in the shade. Well, that’s a bummer. Your film is designed for daylight, not shade. So if you take the photo, the picture will come out really blue.

What is a poor photographer to do?

Aha! What if we put yellowish-orange filter on the lens, then took the picture in the shade? The warm-tinged filter should cancel out the blue color cast from the shade, resulting in accurate colors.

Until digital photography hit the scene, this is how photographers would “adjust white balance” on color slide film before digital white balance existed. That’s why warming filters were so common. There was really no other way to adjust color balance than to use filters.

And this is why skylight filters were popular for shooters using color slide film. The faint warm color of the skylight filter helped to cancel out some of the blue created by an atmosphere rich in moisture. For example when photographing landscapes, often times distant subjects like a mountain range will turn out a little too blue on color slide film simply because there’s a lot of atmosphere between you and the mountains. But with a skylight filter, you’ll “cut through” that blue a little bit and get more accurate colors.

Plus, it just so happens that most (not all, but most) nature photography looks better if the colors are “warmed up” just a bit. Fall color, sunsets, sunrises - people tend to prefer warmer colors in these types of shots. So that’s another reason skylight filters were a common choice amongst outdoor photographers using slide film.

But with digital, it’s all replaced by white balance. There’s no need to use colored filters because a tweak to white balance creates the same effect. Rather than use a skylight filter or a warming filter, you could just use a “warmer” white balance setting, like cloudy instead of daylight, or shade instead of cloudy. Or better yet, just shoot RAW and tweak the WB in the computer. Want a little more warmth? No problem, just drag the slider.

So when it comes to digital, don’t bother with skylight filters. They will offer no benefit over UV filters. And besides, if your camera is set to auto white balance, the white balance will just cancel out the warm colors of the skylight filter anyway.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/y2c3bq_IB6Q[/youtube]

UV Filter Use: Does It Degrade Image Quality?

UV Filter Use: Do You Need One?Ah, to UV or not to UV, that is the question. This can be a heated topic amongst photographers. Some argue that UV filter use will degrade image quality, others argue that it’s the best insurance you can get for your expensive lenses. There are merits to each argument and we’ll get to that debate in just a second, but first things first - let’s talk about the purpose of a UV filter.

The best UV filter on the market will do nothing for your photos. That’s the whole point. UV filters are used simply to protect the front of your lens. It’s nothing more than a clear piece of glass that you screw on to the front of your lens and then forget about. You leave it on all the time as insurance. Drop your lens or smack it against a wall when it’s hanging around your neck, the filter will break instead of your lens.

If you get a good quality UV filter, it will protect the front of your lens without affecting the image one bit. If you get a bad one, it might degrade image quality or create more lens flare. And why are they called UV filters? Well, it sounds better than “clear piece of glass to protect the front of your lens.” True, they are supposed to block UV light - and most of them probably do - but it doesn’t matter because UV light doesn’t have any noticeable effect on your photos anyway.

Now the argument in favor of UV filter use is clear (ha! puns...). Put a UV filter on the front of your lens and you got yourself a $40 insurance policy. Replacing a shattered UV filter is much more affordable than replacing a shattered front lens element. And believe it or not, they actually do protect the lens. When I first heard about the purpose of UV filters, I thought, “Come on...like a single piece of glass is really going to do anything to protect the lens.” But they do. Of course it ain’t going to protect against a 5-story drop from a hotel balcony, but it’ll protect against those really frustrating “it just barely slipped out of my hands” kind of mistakes.

B&W UV MRC Filter

My UV Filter of Choice is the B&W UV MRC
Click Here to Purchase Yours from B&H

The argument against UV filters is, shall we say, untenable. Anti-UVers say, “Why would you put a $40 piece of glass in front of your $1,000 lens? A lens is only as good as the glass in front of it. You want to turn your $1,000 lens into a $40 lens? Huh? Do ya, punk?” Alright, maybe they’re not that hostile.

This argument is based in theory, not practice. Sure, it makes sense in theory that another piece of glass is just another chance for image degradation. But I’m betting the people spewing this logic have never actually done a side-by-side shot with and without the UV. This also sounds like the logic of someone who has never damaged a lens before. It’s easy to say “don’t get car insurance” if you’re never had a fender bender.

And by the way, I did do a side-by-side comparison with and without a UV filter. Can you tell which one had the UV filter and which one didn’t? Neither can I...

UV Filter Use: Do You Need One?

Below is a 100% magnification of the above image.
One of the samples below was taken with a UV, the other without a UV.
Can you tell which is which?

UV Filter Use: Do You Need One?

The bottom line is this: If you get a really poor quality UV filter, like the $10 Sunpak ones, then yeah, it might degrade the image a tiny, tiny bit when examined at 100% magnification on your computer screen (but still, I’m betting you won’t see a difference). Buy a good quality UV filter, like those made by B&W, and there is basically no chance of it degrading your photos.

So I generally recommend the use of UV filters to my students. If you want the protection, use one. I do.

Which is Better: Canon vs Nikon

Canon vs NikonOh God...not another debate of Canon vs Nikon and Nikon vs Canon. Does't the internet have enough of this drivel? Yes, yes it does. But the internet forums and Flickr comments are unyielding on this topic and I still get a lot of questions from students about which one is better. It seems it's up to me, Ken Rockwell, and just a few other no-BS bloggers to fight off the hoards of Canon and Nikon fanboys.

If you're a regular reader here, you know that I don't buy in to marketing hype and I often disagree with the masses out there on the interwebs when it comes to topics like how many megapixels you really need and whether or not you should get a full-frame camera. So I'm hoping you'll trust my words here in the Canon vs Nikon debate.

So then, which is it? Nikon or Canon?

My short answer is this: it doesn't matter. It really doesn't. Neither is better, neither is worse. You'd be happy with either of them. I've used almost every model on the market from both manufacturers, I've taught students on just about every model available, I am very, very familiar with the differences between each, and I'm telling you that it's 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. It's Toyota or Honda, Coke or Pepsi, Duracell or Energizer. It's whatever you prefer.

I've even heard stupid things like "If you're into landscapes, you go with Nikon, but if you're into sports and wildlife, you go with Canon." Where that nonsense came from, I have no idea. Neither system is better for one type of photography or another. Certain camera models might be better for certain types of photography than others, but even then it's not often a big deal.

What do pros use more? Probably Canon. More people use Canon - amateurs, pros, whatever. Not because Canon is better but because they have a bigger market share. They have for 10 years running. Simple as that. Maybe it's better cameras, or maybe it's marketing, the color scheme, cunning executives...I don't know.

My biggest idol in photography, Galen Rowell, was a Nikon man. But I shoot Canon, Mamiya, Shen-Hao, Nikon, even Polaroid. So it doesn't even matter what your idolized pro of choice uses. Many of the most iconic and respectable photographers out there don't even make a big deal out of the equipment they use unless they are sponsored by that manufacturer. I use Canon DSLRs, but if Nikon came knocking with a big paycheck and a box full of cameras, I'd be an instant convert.

But really, you should be very suspicious of anyone who is a huge fan of either. There's nothing wrong with loving your equipment, but no one should really have any major loyalty to either brand unless they are getting compensated for that loyalty. Wearing a wristband that resembles a coveted Canon lens or sporting a shirt that proudly states "I shoot Nikon"...might as well wear a shirt that says "I'm new to photography and I'm really just into it for the equipment."

All that being said, I tend to recommend Canon over Nikon when students are shopping for their very first camera. But if they already have their eye on a Nikon or they already have some Nikon gear, I tell them to go with Nikon. But either way, let me break down my viewpoint on this matter into more specific categories:

Image Quality:
It's quite simple, neither has a leg up in image quality. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. I admit that some of Canon's cameras may have better image quality than some of Nikon's cameras and vica versa, but on the whole, neither manufacturer is consistently better in the image quality department than the other. And besides, this is hugely subjective. You may favor a camera with richer blues and greens whereas I may favor one with stronger yellows and reds. Canon and Nikon both create excellent image quality. Even the worst, bottom-of-the-line, entry-level camera from either manufacturer will kick the you-know-what out of the top of the line cameras from 5 years ago.

Megapixels:
Trust me, you don't need as many megapixels as you think. 18 megapixels is way more than enough for prints probably 6 feet long. Anything more than that, like Nikon's ridiculous 36-megapixel D800, will cause more trouble than it's worth. Both manufacturers should knock it off with the megapixel battles. They're forcing us all to get faster computers, bigger hard drives, and more memory cards all for what? So we can share our pictures on Flickr and Facebook, maybe print a 16x24 now and then? You could use an 8-megapixel camera for that. Click here to read an article I wrote about how many megapixels you really need.

Controls and User-Friendliness:
This is the one and only category where I feel Canon edges out Nikon. Canon cameras are more user-friendly in almost all respects and their control layout is more logical. Ah...You feel that? That's the feeling of Nikon fanboys trembling with dissent to that statement. But I stand by it. I don't say this is a personal preference kind of thing. I don't mean that prefer Canon's control layout, I'm saying that Canon cameras are more intuitive and I can prove it. Read this article for my proof. I've taught hundreds and hundreds of students on both Canon and Nikon through group classes, one-on-one lessons, and online photography courses. It's based off this experience that I say many of Canon's controls are easier to learn, they are more intuitive, they require less explanation, and they leave less opportunity for confusion. Of course, not all of the controls are better on a Canon - Nikon does have a leg up on some things like the white balance control and flash options, but Canon cameras are just a bit more user-friendly. But whatever the case, you can get used to whatever control system you want. Once you do, the other camera's controls will seem ridiculous and backwards.

Build Quality:
Some Nikons feel really nice and solid, built like a tank. Some Canons do, too. Those are their higher-end, more expensive weather-sealed cameras. They also each produce some cameras and lenses that feel like they'd break if you sneezed in their general direction. Bottom line is you gotta feel it in your hands to know which one you want. And remember that better build quality usually equates to more weight and cost. Also, I know it seems like you're really punishing your camera with the conditions you shoot in, but you're not. Even the cheapest DSLR can withstand very rough weather and even rougher handling. The high-end built-like-a-tank models are designed to withstand the tortures of real-life combat, 100% humidity, driving rain, mud, rocks, and whatever else a National Geographic photographer can throw at it. The rest of us don't need such protection.

Ergonomics:
Again, both manufacturers make some cameras that feel like they were built for your hands. They also each make some cameras that feel like you need a second thumb just to hold it right. Find the camera that fits your hands best, regardless of manufacturer.

Lenses:
Both companies have huge R&D departments for new lenses, both offer top-of-the-line optics, and both are on the cutting edge of lens design. Each manufacturer has equivalent lens options, too. You'd be hard-pressed to find a lens by either manufacturer that doesn't have a suitable counterpart in the other. I will point out, though, that Nikon cameras are often compatible with Nikon lenses from as far back as the 1970's, which is kind of cool. But let's be realistic...with how insane everybody is today about getting the best quality lens, how many shooters are really going to opt for an old manual-focus lens from an era of lower-quality glass?

Conclusion:
Don't get caught up in the Canon vs Nikon debate. It's all a bunch of hot air. Great photos come from great photographers, not great cameras. Some of the most iconic photos in our history came from equipment that makes a camera phone look like professional gear. What matters is technique, composition, knowing how to use your equipment, and an ability to capture the right moment under the right light. Camera gear are just tools. Nothing more.