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Are there any real downsides to using a UV filter?

I know that a poor quality UV filter can effect image quality ... but, assuming I use a good quality UV filter, will that actually be an issue? Is there any other reason not to use one?

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As an objective counterpoint to many of the assertions below--bolstering some of them, casting doubt on others--check out the lenstip review on UV filters. Filters were rated on transmission, flare, and vignetting. Some of the photos of the highest-rated filters actually seem to improve color saturation and contrast slightly. The lowest rated-ones did not perform even as well as an old piece of window glass! –  whuber Apr 14 '11 at 4:28
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@whuber: (1) site has been already mentioned below (2) can't find your conclusion of improving saturation nowhere stated in article (3) content: cutoff frequency of silicon nitride-coating of CMOS nowhere mentioned (4) content: dubious claims of susceptibility of coating to soap. –  Leonidas Apr 18 '11 at 1:28
    
@Leonidas I am glad you consulted that review. Yes, it has its limitations. I hope that you and others might be inspired by this to identify and report on other reasonably objective sources of information bearing on the question, so that we can accumulate--and criticize--a body of knowledge rather than amassing a collection of largely unsupported (and somewhat conflicting) opinions. I am not criticizing the opinions that have been expressed, but only expressing a desire that they be backed up with facts. –  whuber Apr 18 '11 at 15:23
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See meta.photo.stackexchange.com/questions/981. I'd love to see some objective, analytical information here, since this is such a contentious topic. The lenstip article is a start, but is not without flaws. (Bounty added to the question for that purpose). –  mattdm May 2 '11 at 18:38
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10 Answers

up vote 59 down vote accepted

Yes.

  • It degrades image quality - adding more elements to a lens always reduces image quality; better filters will just do so less. One specific thing that happens is light reflecting between the front element of the lens and the filter, which can be reduced (but not eliminated) with coatings on the filter.
  • It makes it more difficult to use other filters. Either you have to remove it before adding the other filter, or you have to stack, which can introduce vignetting.

Whether the IQ reduction is noticeable and/or whether this is a good tradeoff is another question. :)

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+1 on vignetting –  reuscam Jul 15 '10 at 20:02
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Good UV filter comparison can be found here: lenstip.com/113.1-article-UV_filters_test.html. –  Karel Jul 22 '10 at 3:23
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+1 - Reflection is an even bigger problem at night, with the high-contrast lighting. –  ex-ms Jul 25 '10 at 1:56
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So does it reduce image quality if I take a step backwards and introduce another 2 feet of air between the camera and the subject? Just because something in theory might make a difference doesn't mean it will in practice. –  Henry Jackson May 2 '11 at 21:37
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Another two feet of air doesn't introduce two more surfaces where the index of refraction changes, so you won't get any reflections from that air. Filters do, so it's a bit more than a theoretical difference. –  Evan Krall May 3 '11 at 2:33
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No. It also protects the lens glass from scratches and dust.

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technically, anything that gets in the way of the light travelling to the sensor/film will have optical consequences. –  Rezlaj Jul 15 '10 at 19:51
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Agreed wholeheartedly about the use of it for protection. This is a picture of my wife's 10-22mm that I love to use for illustrative purposes: flickr.com/photos/erica_marshall/425731394 –  esm Jul 15 '10 at 19:55
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Yes. There are downsides. –  Dave Van den Eynde Jul 15 '10 at 20:19
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Still don't understand the downvotes. The question is about REAL downsides. A REAL downside of using a UV filter would be something that prevents you from achieving something. For example using DX lens has a REAL downside: can't be used on full frame cameras or using built-in flash has a REAL downside: hard shadows and washed out faces. I guess what I'm trying to say is that comments are for opinions and downvotes are for WRONG answers. So please read the original post before downvoting. –  Zepplock Mar 30 '11 at 0:50
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you don't answer the question, hence the downvotes. –  jwenting Mar 30 '11 at 5:58
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When the lens are designed they usually try to minimize the number of optical elements as each extra element will affect the image. Good filters make no noticeable changes, however it's still an extra element which can, for example, add a reflection in some rare cases.

Also, if you are using a wide angle lens, then choose low profile filter, otherwise you may get a vignetting.

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Mutli coated UV filters are intended to reduce sun flare - so if thats the effect you are going for, then you may want to consider losing the filter.

Some anecdotal evidence, I (read as: my wife) dropped my 50 mm f/1.4 on a vacation. We had a uv filter on it, and it cracked it in several places, and jammed the lens cap into the filter threading. After some work with a pair of needle nose pliers, we were able to pry it of. Thankfully the lens itself was fine.

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a $7 UV filter also saved my $600 18-200mm lens after it was dropped as well. I would never not put some filter on a lens. –  Josh Goldshlag Jul 16 '10 at 2:32
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Multi-coated UV filters are not intended to reduce the flare that would be present if the filter wasn't attached. The multi-coating is intended to reduce the amount of flare that the UV filter produces, which is quite a lot. Any UV filter will add flare. –  Dave Van den Eynde Jul 18 '10 at 8:59
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otoh I had something similar happen (also with a 50mm :) ), but there the filter scrammed so bad it took enough force to remove to permanently damage the threading on the lens. Glass dust from the cracked filter also caused small scratches on the front element, was lucky none got into the lens body... Later another lens fell on its thread, causing a minor chip in the edge of the front element that has no visible effect on the photos produced since. In fact it's now better with chip and no filter than prior without chip but with filter. Suffice to say I no longer use "lens protectors". –  jwenting Mar 30 '11 at 6:02
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I use one mainly to protect the lens from dust and scratches.

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+1 - I think guarding against dust and lens scratches is an acceptable trade off for some degradation of the image. I'd like to see some studies that show how much degradation of image quality is produced by using a UV filter. –  Frank Hale Feb 23 '11 at 15:51
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-1: Same reason as for Zepplocks answer: you don't address the question. –  Leonidas Apr 18 '11 at 1:44
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Cost of the filter is a very real downside. In case of a consumer-grade lens and a good UV filter, you might find yourself spending something around 1/5 of full replacement cost on "insurance" against dust (hardly affects image quality, removable), dropping and scratches (worse, but happen seldom).

If you use the lens in good conditions and/or rarely, you have certainly paid more than the risk is actually worth, while you could have used the money towards some other piece of equipment that would actually broaden your photographic abilities (e.g. a polarizing filter).

A lens hood would give you most of the same "insurance coverage" plus better optical quality for less cash. It makes access for possible scratchers and stainers harder; and in case of a fall, I would expect a hood to absorb the shock even better than a filter. And instead of degrading image quality with extra glass, it will enhance it by keeping stray light away.

In some environments with air pollution (sparks, paint, chemicals, oil, sandstorm, salty water, smoke), lens hood does not provide enough protection and using a protective filter does make sense.

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+1 I don't use a filter on my $100 50mm f/1.8 because a good one would cost a very substantial proportion of the purchase price! –  fmark May 3 '11 at 10:34
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Some of my lenses, purchased second-hand, were actually cheaper than a decent UV filter for them would be :) –  Imre May 3 '11 at 20:37
    
But would you put a protection filter on, say, a new 70-200 f/2.8 that set you back $2400 USD? I'm not trolling, I'm trying to establish a reference point. If cost is the reason for not applying a 'protection filter', then where does the cost become a tipping point, either way? –  Therealstubot Aug 16 '12 at 22:45
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Such lenses usually have big hoods and are often bought over cheaper alternatives because of the advantages of image quality. Many fast super-telephoto lenses don't even take front filters. Another expensive category that often doesn't take filters is ultra-wide lenses. I do sometimes use a polarizer on my most expensive lens (an f/4 tele zoom), but not because of protection. –  Imre Aug 17 '12 at 8:24
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I have never looked at a picture and said to myself: "Oh wow this picture was so shot with(out) a UV-Filter..." because no one has ever seen the difference. It is just a tool like any other tool. Use it against scratches and if it makes trouble for you in a certain situation remove it from your lens and shoot without it. You won't use your flash every time just because it is attached to your camera, right?

You are usually on the right track using a good UV-Filter because it

  • protects your lens from dust and scratches, scratch the filter and loose 100$ instead of 1000$
  • doesn't notably affect your image quality in conditions where no strong light sources are in front of you
  • it does apparently filter out some nasty UV-Rays, well same here haven't seen them before :-)
  • you want to use a thick UV filter to simulate some vignetting on a wide angle?

But as aforementioned it is not a flawless tool because

  • sometimes you want to use more useful filters like CPL or ND Filter so you have to remove the UV usually
  • you want a slim filter to avoid vignetting on the wide angle side but please get a filter that still allows you to use your standard lens cap otherwise this will turn into a rather annoying trade off
  • keep in mind that you can protect your lens from scratches but not so much from dust with a lens hood also, so maybe it is more useful if you are not shooting with a hood
  • if the light is strong you will have more reflections because with the filter there is another layer prone to all sorts of optical issues. But still, when you are shooting towards the sun that is because you wanted to achieve something special right?
  • more glass to detach means more glass to clean to have perfect conditions. No matter of the quality of glass, it has to be very clean in the first place otherwise all fancy arguments about optics are quite useless.
  • UV filter can be an issue for shooting video. I am not quite sure why, but in a moving picture a slightly dirty, even dusty filter stands out much more than in a still picture, so be extra careful here.

After all I am shooting with UV most of the time because it protects my lens when I am outdoors and some punk runs into me at the traffic lights. Again, when I am shooting pictures I have to think about more crucial things of my composition than the UV filter, because a high quality filter simply does its job - keeping the aforementioned bullet points in mind.

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I think some of the other answers here illustrate that people have looked at a picture and seen a difference. –  mattdm May 3 '11 at 12:10
    
you want a slim filter to avoid vignetting on the wide angle side but please get a filter that still allows you to use your standard lens cap otherwise this will turn into a rather annoying trade off: Dr.Elch is correct. B+W XS-Pro Digital filters (3.4mm thickness) are designed to accommodate the lens cap, but B+W Slim-Line filters (3mm thickness) are not. See schneideroptics.com/info/faq/bw.htm#qu26. –  DragonLord May 26 '12 at 20:38
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Another downside is that filters tend to add artifacts and reflections to an image due to the different sensitivity to light (than film). As a result, if you have a filter on, even a high end one, you can get weird artifacts. I have only found this to happen when taking night shots of bright lights, and then it is unmistakeable.

Here is an example of a forgettable image I took, but one that shows the artifacts being produced by the large porch lights on the house.

The nice thing about a filter is that its removable, nothing is permanent. I leave B+W UV filters on all my lenses, as it protects them and also keeps greasy fingers from the elements. When taking night shots or critical shots that don't need the filter, I take it off. Its easy to do.

edit: found another that's even more apparent.

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Can you show a with/without filter comparison? –  fmark May 9 '11 at 12:07
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Others have already discussed most pros and cons, but I'll just have to add this one thing: Some lenses don't like any filters, no matter how good or expensive.

For example, Canon EF 85/1.8 USM with an UV filter will create tinted reflections all over the picture from bright lights. This especially bad when shot wide open. I've tried and experienced this with two of these lenses and with high-end coated filters from B+W and Hoya. Ultimately I just gave up and never use any filters with this lens.

I guess this probably happens because the front elements of the lens throw some kind of reflection out of the lens in an angle small enough that any additional glass surface will reflect it back in.

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The use of any filter will result in the reduction of image quality. The extra air-glass interface that a filter introduces, no matter its quality, will degrade image quality. However, a high-end filter, such as one made by B+W or Heliopan, will keep this degradation to a level that is not perceptible under normal shooting conditions. Furthermore, if a clear or UV filter is attached to the lens, you'll need to remove it to use a polarizer, ND, or other filter, which can be inconvenient.

Light bouncing around between the filter and front element (or any other two air-glass interfaces) can degrade image quality by causing flare and reducing contrast. High-quality filters minimize this degradation by using anti-reflective coatings that reduce the amount of light reflected by the glass and increase light transmission. Low-quality filters have poor or no AR coatings and therefore can visibly degrade image quality.

I personally do keep clear (not UV) filters on my lenses (mostly B+W), so that I don't need to clean the front element of the lens directly, which can wear down the coatings on the lens--I'd rather replace a filter than replace the whole lens. You'll need to decide whether this protection and cleaning advantage outweighs the aforementioned loss of image quality and inconvenience. To me, it does, but you need to decide for yourself.

Another commonly cited reason for using a filter is that it can reduce the chance of the front element becoming scratched or broken altogether due to impact. However, a lens hood is generally more effective at providing this kind of protection, and this isn't the reason I keep clear filters on my lenses.

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