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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.