Nick Carver Photography Blog

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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.