Why You Don’t Need a UV Filter for Digital Photography

Why You Don't Need a UV Filter for Digital PhotographyWhile stopping in my local electronics store for a small tripod, the salesperson recommended that I pick up a UV filter to protect the sensor from UV rays. He explained that UV filters are an often overlooked necessity for photographers and DSLR videographers who shoot a lot of footage outdoors.

Unfortunately, this advice comes about 20 years too late. UV filters are still readily stocked in stores that deal exclusively with digital cameras. The pitch is that UV light can make your images cloudy or slightly bluer than they should be. This was a considerable issue back in the day of analog photography when film was sensitive to UV light. Today’s modern film and digital sensors are considerably less sensitive to UV. In fact, you might even argue that UV filters do more to damage your photo than help it.

The filter isn’t technically part of the lens, and that means it can’t actually add something to the image. There are polarizing, color, and other filters that do a great deal of good in situations where glare and other bothersome elements come into play, but UV filters really don’t. The intention of these filters is strictly to remove invisible light before it gets to the sensor. This comes at a cost of having a sheet of glass in front of your lens. You may be exchanging a non-issue for a hit in contrast.

This is a hot button issue in the photography world, and one that concerns me as I enter the world of DSLR videography. The question of whether or not these filters are relevant to modern digital cameras is an important one to professionals and not so much to hobbyist photographers.

What About Lens Protection?

Where I personally don’t see UV filters as a must-buy for the purpose of UV protection, I do recommend them to people who worry about the lens getting scratched while they’re out in the field. A pro-level UV filter is usually remarkably clear and really doesn’t take away from your shot at any noticeable level. What it can do is protect your lens from bumps and scratches.

The front piece of your lens isn’t exactly serviceable. You’ll end up paying more to fix an element in the lens than you would for the lens itself in many cases. If you shoot in hazardous environments such as crowded streets or while hiking in nature, a good clear lens filter might be exactly what you need to keep your lens out of harm’s way.

The threading at the end of a lens is also particularly vulnerable. Plastic components can break, metal components can bend and warp, and just having a threaded cover in place can significantly reduce the chances of a forward impact causing any permanent damage.

What Kind of Filter Should I Get?

This depends entirely on what it is you’re hoping to get out of your shots. There are several different types of lens filters that pull double duty as protective elements, and some of them actually do have a dramatic impact on your photos.

Linear and circular polarizers can improve color saturation while reducing unwanted glare. ND (Neutral Density) filters can help improve the way your camera responds to light conditions without having to dig through the menu during a shoot.

A UV or haze filter could prove helpful in some situations. It’s the sales pitch that should change. These clear filters are intended to have as little impact on the look of an image as possible, and that makes them worthwhile lens protectors. Many photographers and videographers prefer to go it naked and let the lens see the world without a piece of glass blocking an otherwise completely natural view. It’s up to the person behind the camera to determine what works best for them.

Photo: pointnshoot

7 comments On Why You Don’t Need a UV Filter for Digital Photography

  • I use a UV filter on my dSLR but for the protection of the element reason, not for the UV vs. Sensor reason.

  • I have been an analog and digital photographer for over half a century. I have replaced several scratched UV filters over the years instead of having to replace the lens, so I always get the filter at the same time I purchase a new camera.

    After purchasing a new UV filter, I take identical “before” and “after” pictures to verify that the filter has no negative effect on the image. If it does, it gets returned.

  • When it mattered (when we still had “Kodak” and “Ilford”) I would say 30 years.

  • I Strongly support the lens element protection reason. Leaving the front element vulnerable is not wise.

  • I can’t help being against UV filters. I can’t see attaching a $50 or $60 piece of glass on a $1700 lens. I have found that a lens hood protects my glass a much as I need. I guess I’m one of the few photographers that don’t see a use at all for UV filters. I feel that my lenses are valuable enough for me to take extra care to prevent scratches and dings without putting cheap glass on them. I know some photographer don’t shoot without them but I just can’t get past having a cheap piece of glass on my valuable lenses.

  • It’s a lot less of an issue now days but is still useful in rare cases.
    I agree with bern that you should always test filters immediately following a purchase to test the quality especially when it comes to UV filters since you may only use the filter a handful of times. Especially with todays digital camera’s which can handle light much better than traditional film.

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