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What should I consider when shopping for a lens filter?

I see filters that range from $15 to $115 and more. What are the differences between the $15 and the $115 filter?

I'm asking in the generic sense but if you need specifics, I'm looking to buy a UV filter and a polarizing filter for a Panasonic GF1 w/ 20mm pancake lens.

EDIT: I've read some of the other posts and some refer to multi-coating but doesn't explain what is this and why it matters. What I've gathered from reading related posts is that price is generally the only indication of quality in the case of choosing a filter. Is this right?

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For polarizing filters in specific, see photo.stackexchange.com/questions/14880/… –  mattdm Oct 29 '11 at 22:46
    
For UV, there's several which might be helpful to you: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/filters+uv –  mattdm Oct 29 '11 at 22:49

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You are adding an extra layer of glass over your lens. You want to make it as good as you can afford, so as not to (substantially) alter the light entering the lens, except as you intended per the filtration. So what is "good"? This is the crux of the question because you know you wouldn't screw a filter made of shower glass onto your lens -- but how can you tell once they all look pretty much "good"?

The answer to that question is pretty much manufacturer reputation. The manufacturers at the high end use glass that is relatively free of irregularities and coat them uniformly. Less expensive filters may not be as reliable. Note the use of "may not be." I believe many of us, myself included, take it on faith that there might be a difference but have never seen so much as one pixel change attributable directly to a bad filter.

So... what to do? My recommendation is this:

  • Buy from the more reputable brands -- Hoya and Tiffen at the lower end, Zeiss and B+W at the higher end. The theory here is that if there were a distortion problem, it would probably not be with a filter from one of these better-recognized brands and they would be happy to take care of it if there were an issue.
  • Buy what you feel your lens merits. I have Canon L-Series lenses and I get B+W filters. Do I notice a difference? As I said, no. You might notice a subtle difference in how smoothly a circular polarizer rotates, but in large measure, nada.
  • Think about whether you will be stacking or replacing the filter. If stacking, you need a screw mount on the front; if replacing, you can go with a thin profile filter which may not matter for a 20mm lens, but thicker filters with wider angle lenses can cause vignetting and a bit more light bouncing around in the lens barrel. When I say thick, I mean the actual filter ring, not the glass.

Coated filters may reduce the amount of stray diffraction that results from an extra glass element. Look at your lens. It's coated, right? So you might expect that in a filter. Again, it's a small thing, but cumulative and eventually might -- just might -- affect image quality.

Having said all of that, I have to tell you there are a lot of pros out there who mistreat their filters. I mean smudges all over them. And they bring home the shots because of where they point the camera, not what kind of filter they have. I am not a fan of abusing equipment, but a great image will remain a great image even if you have slightly less than perfect optics.

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Half of the low-end and high-end brands are reversed. Hoya makes superb quality filters. B+W are terrible and not worth their price At least Tiffen's are cheap and low quality. Never tried a Zeiss filter though. –  Itai Oct 30 '11 at 0:18
    
Price. B+W is typically more expensive than Hoya or Tiffen and Ziess is more expensive than anyone. I've had good experiences with B+W so I can't agree that they are terrible -- they are thin, the polarizers rotate smoothly, and they just don't factor into my image making as a distraction. Again, it's a tiny fraction of the stuff that goes into an image from a technical standpoint. If you have had a bad experience with B+W, perhaps you could explain what it was? –  Steve Ross Oct 30 '11 at 0:40
    
B+W filters are not color-neutral. Particularly their polarizers cause a brownish shift. Their UV cuts too early in the violets. It is noticeable directly in the VF. So I sold my entire set of B+W filters which were top-of-the-line. I have the entire range of Hoya Polarizers and several UVs without any variance in color or space. Hoya HD filters are a level above ALL filters I tried with the polarizer showing +1 EV of transmission. –  Itai Oct 30 '11 at 1:32
2  
To say that Hoya filters are "at the low end" is at best an over simplification. Hoya sells some very high-end filters. Many people swear by the Hoya HD filters over B+W, although the Hoya prices are often a bit lower. I have a B+W and Hoya UV filter that are otherwise identical, and cannot tell any real difference between the two. Both are easy to clean, both do the job they should, and neither adds any noticeable flair or other distortions under most shooting conditions. –  Flimzy Oct 30 '11 at 1:51
    
The OP may be right, but only to an extent. I've found that a B+W F-Pro MRC filter clearly outperformed a Hoya Pro1 Digital filter. The Hoya filter had a subpar coating and was much more difficult to clean than the B+W filter. I haven't tried the Hoya HD filters, and they may be much better, but I'd prefer to stick with the one German brand I can trust. –  DragonLord Oct 31 '11 at 3:26

What I would do:

  1. Read up on some of these comparative tests here. This includes value-to-cost ratio assessments, at least for the time the tests were done.
  2. Follow this advice on buying a single good filter of a type and step-up rings, since filters are expensive.
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Seconding lenstip. Still a great resource to show the variety and present a wide range with even measurement. –  smigol Oct 30 '11 at 1:15

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