If you want to get a rise from fellow photographers, hop onto any online photography forum and discuss ultraviolet (UV) lens filters. You can say they’re excellent or that they’re worthless. Either way, you’re sure to kickstart a less-than-friendly debate. Like most online debates, there’ll be no winners.
For whatever reason, few topics are as polarizing among photographers as UV filters, also often referred to as protective filters. The benefits of a UV filter are simple. They act as a protective filter on the front of your lens, preventing the front element from being scratched, covered in dust, or in some cases, cracked.
Filter manufacturers sometimes espouse further benefits, claiming UV filters help absorb ultraviolet light and reduce bluish color casts outdoors. The effect of UV filters on color cast is often negligible, particularly in the age of digital cameras. Because of this, this guide will use the terms “UV filter” and “protection filter” interchangeably and will recommend both actual UV filters as well as clear glass protection-only lens filters (since they are essentially used for the same purpose these days).
While there are questions about UV filters and their benefits, there are likewise some certainties about them.
UV filters protect the front of your lens from many common issues, including scratches, dust, sand, and water.
Bad, low-quality filters will markedly reduce your image quality, whereas good ones will probably not affect image quality.
Finally, whether you should use one is rarely a simple question.
Table of Contents
UV Filters for Protection
UV filters protect the front of your lens from many potential problems. If you scratch a UV filter, even a relatively expensive one, that’s still less of a hassle than damaging your lens. While some front element repairs aren’t expensive, they consume time. Other front elements are costly to replace and cost much more than even the most expensive UV lens filters.
Few photographers would argue against using a protective filter when working in a sandy or dirty environment. If even a grain of sand gets inside your lens, which could happen through the front, among other possible points of ingress, you’re in trouble. Further, trying to wipe sand or grit off your lens is a surefire way to create a nasty scratch.
When it comes to water, the situation is murkier. Saltwater is terrible for camera gear, but relatively clean freshwater isn’t too big of an issue. It’s easy to wipe a bit of rain off the front of a lens, especially one coated with fluorine, like many modern lenses for mirrorless and DSLR cameras.
Image Quality Impact
When it comes to the issue of image quality, you get what you pay for with UV filters.
Putting a layer of glass in front of your lens affects the transmission of light. The amount by which transmission varies depends upon the quality of the glass and its coatings. Some filter manufacturers state the transmission of their filters, while others omit the information. Just because one manufacturer states a value and another doesn’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean one filter is better than the other or that the manufacturer is inherently more trustworthy.
There are few platitudes regarding camera equipment and photography accessories. However, one thing you can say with reliable certainty is that more expensive UV filters are often good. Unfortunately, saying that inexpensive ones are necessarily bad is jumping the gun. Some relatively affordable UV filters deliver strong performance.
Regarding transmission alone, the fine folks at Lensrentals tested a reasonably large sample of UV filters using sophisticated laser measurement. There you can see the measured transmission levels of UV filters from many of the major players in the filter industry, such as Leica, Nikon, B+W, Heliopan, Hoya, Zeiss, Canon, Tiffen, and more. All the filters that cost over $100, of which there are four, deliver 99.5%-or-better measured transmission.
Seven filters ranging from $20 to $70 meet that same mark. As we said, expensive filters are almost always good, but inexpensive ones aren’t always bad.
The higher the transmission, the better, all else equal. You don’t want to use a protective filter that reduces the amount of light reaching your sensor by a noticeable amount, as that will force you to use a slower shutter speed or higher ISO.
However, “all else equal” isn’t precisely the situation with light transmission. Light going through a filter doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of the light hasn’t been changed. If light passes but gets bent strangely, image quality can be negatively impacted.
A filter with a wavy or uneven surface will affect how light passes through the filter, even if it’s successfully transmitted. This can create aberrations or blur.
A complete assessment of every UV filter is impossible, impractical, and unnecessary. Instead, we can skip that level of tedium and jump straight to the reliably practical conclusion: Reputable, established companies make high-quality filters for reasonable, but not cheap, prices. Cheap filters from companies most photographers haven’t heard of are bad and not worth putting in front of your lens. As much as good UV filters won’t negatively affect image quality unless you’re doing staggering levels of pixel-peeping, bad UV filters will.
We have used filters from the following companies and trust that they will deliver high-quality performance:
The following companies make good and not-so-good filters. Avoid the cheapest options from these companies and you will receive a high-quality UV filter:
- K+F Concept
There may be UV filters from other manufacturers that are perfectly acceptable, but this lengthy list will ensure that you can find a good UV filter for your lens at a palatable price. You’ll also be able to find a UV filter in the appropriate size for your lens unless you’re trying to protect the front of a $15,000 super-telephoto prime, then you’re out of luck.
Best Protection Filters Under $50
This isn’t an exhaustive list of the best UV filter options under $50, but these are solid, alphabetically-ordered choices that include a robust design, multi-coating on both sides, and promise good light transmission.
Hoya HD Protector
The Hoya HD Protector filter, which has been replaced by the more expensive HD3 model, offers strong performance if you can track one down. It’s still available through various retailers, and the 77mm and 82mm sizes cost just under $50.
K+F Concept MCUV
With sizes ranging from 37mm all the way to 127mm, which is extremely unusual (and more than $50), the K+F Concept MCUV filter is an affordable option that includes 28 multi-layer coatings and strong light transmission performance. The 82mm version is frequently available for around $35, which smaller versions costing even less.
Marumi Exus Lens Protect
The Marumi Exus Lens Protect filter is a bit tricky to find these days, but if you can, it’s a great option for around $50. The Japanese-made filter uses high-quality optical glass with strong transmittance.
Best Protection Filers Under $100
Now let’s move up a step in price range to the under-$100 range.
B+W UV Haze MRC 010M or B+W MRC Master 007
The B+W UV Haze MRC 010M and B+W MRC Master 007 UV filter lines push the limit of the price tier, coming right up against the $100 cutoff. B+W is a well-known, very well-respected player in the filter game. You can’t go wrong with B+W filters.
The Canon Protect series of lens filters cost around $70 and meets the Canon standard. It’s a completely good choice.
Chiaro Pro 99-UVBTS
Chiaro’s best UV filter, the 99-UVBTS, delivers 99% light transmission and features a side- and top-knurled design to make it easy to remove. It features Schott glass. The 77mm version is available for around $70, give or take $10 depending upon discount prices.
Hoya NXT Plus
The Hoya NXT Plus line is good choice at around $65, this multi-coated filter also uses Schott B270 optical glass and has nice knurled sides.
Nikon Neutral Clear
Simple, effective. Nikon’s protection filter line is a fine choice for around $95.
PolarPro QuartzLine UV
For $100, the PolarPro QuartzLine UV series gives you a stylish, color-neutral UV filter that protects your lens.
Sony Multi-Coated (MC) Protector
Like Canon and Nikon, Sony has a line of filters that purely serve as clear protective filters. If you like Sony gear, you can’t go wrong with this Sony-branded Zeiss T* filter. The 77mm version is $70.
Best Protection Filters for More Than $100
At this point, we’re reaching “you might be paying too much” territory. However, if you want the absolute best in performance and optical quality, this is the section for you. Like many things in photography, you pay a fair bit more for just slightly better performance. You need to heavily pixel-peep to see the difference between these UV filters and the best ones under $100, and even then, you might not see a difference. That said, if you want the best, here it is.
B+W T-PRO UV
The B+W T-PRO UV series will give you a thin B+W UV filter that promises great performance. It’s different from other similarly-priced B+W filters because it has a titanium ring, so if that’s up your alley, this $130 filter is a good choice.
Hasselblad Multi-Layer Nano Coating UV
Hasselblad’s new Multi-Layer Nano Coating UV filters are a new addition to the company’s offerings. It’s also expensive. Very expensive. Hasselblad’s name means quality, and in this case, quality is $260. It’s excessive, but in fairness, almost certainly a great UV filter.
Heliopan UV SH-PMC
Heliopan’s UV SH-PMC filters are among the company’s best options. The $130 filter uses Schott glass with extensive coatings and it has a brass filter ring. It’s a robust design that promises strong optical performance.
Hoya HD3 UV
The $130 Hoya HD3 UV filter is the brand’s latest and greatest UV filter. It pairs high-quality optical glass with 32 multi-layer coatings.
Zeiss T* UV
Zeiss makes fantastic filters. Its circular polarizing filter is among the best available, and its UV filter is no different. The 77mm version is $124. If you’re wondering what makes this different from Sony’s Zeiss UV filter, not much separates them on paper. However, the Zeiss T* is worth considering by virtue of it passing strict, lab testing with flying colors. Sony’s protective filter is surely good, too, but Zeiss’ own version has a proven track record that allows it to justify a premium price.
Should You Buy a Protection Filter?
“It depends” is an unsatisfying answer to the big question, “Should you buy and use an ultraviolet protective filter?” Fret not. There’s a path to an actual conclusion. It will just be a slightly meandering one.
You should do a cost-to-benefit analysis when considering putting additional glass in front of your lens. It’s not that a good UV filter will negatively affect image quality because it almost surely won’t. But, it is an added cost for an already expensive hobby. If you’re using a relatively inexpensive lens, even if it’s good quality, there’s little point in spending >$100 on a filter to protect it from the unlikely event of damage. After all, you’re careful, right?
Using a protective filter makes sense when using an expensive lens and one you’re sure you’d hate to pay to get fixed. The level of risk you assume depends, well, on you.
Some photographers only work in a controlled studio environment, and their gear is unlikely to experience high-risk situations. Other photographers work in adverse weather, climb over rocks with exposed gear, and generally experience more frequent damage to their lenses. We trust that you can honestly assess the risk your photography workflow entails.
We also trust that you can evaluate your personal risk tolerance. It’s an essential factor when considering a protective lens filter. Some photographers swear by UV filters because they don’t want to damage their lenses. Others would never put a protective filter on a lens because they either don’t face many risks or are wholly unfazed by any threat.
However, for photographers who avoid protective filters because they’re worried about a UV filter rendering their expensive lens somehow worse, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Good filters are, for lack of a better word, good.
On the other hand, another bit of practical advice is that you should never put a bad, low-quality UV filter on any lens, whether it’s a cheap entry-level lens or a professional flagship. A lousy filter may be more noticeable when paired with a fantastic lens, but there’s no good reason to use a low-quality filter on any lens.
Most of us have witnessed photographers put a crappy, no-name, thick, plasticky UV filter on a premium, professional lens. Don’t be that person. Suppose you don’t care about image quality, which is the only possible explanation for exercising that form of abuse against your lens. In that case, there’s little reason to have spent thousands of dollars on a high-quality lens in the first place.
How to Use a UV Filter
Even if you want protection, you might not always want it. If you want to always leave your UV filter on, that’s your prerogative. However, even high-quality filters, which don’t negatively affect sharpness, can sometimes still cause problems in certain situations.
For example, good UV filters can still cause ghosting when shooting at night. You may notice issues with strong point sources of light coming in at certain angles. The same goes for tiny points of light, like stars. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to remove the UV filter.
Another situation when the filter should come off is when shooting with other filters. Since UV filters only really offer protection and not color cast correction, as some manufacturers claim, if you’re shooting with a polarizing or neutral density filter, you should remove the UV filter first. There’s no reason to stack extra filters since the topmost filter will protect the front element of your lens.
It’s also worth taking a peek at the front of your lens before screwing on any filter, as some filters can touch the front element of a lens if the filter’s frame is thin enough. While thin filters are generally desirable from an image quality perspective, assuming they maintain multi-layer coating, there can, in some instances, be such a thing as too thin a filter.
You should also invest in a filter wrench to remove filters from lenses. The threads on lenses can wear down over time, making them more susceptible to cross-threading. It’s an issue you will want to avoid. You’ll be grateful for the wrench if you get a filter stuck on your lens.
Finally, photographers who care enough about their lenses to protect them probably want to have microfiber lens cleaning cloths handy. They’re just as useful for filters as they are for front elements.
Attempting to tie a neat bow around the topic, the most important thing to say about UV filters is that if you care about image quality, under no circumstance should you ever put a cheap, low-quality UV filter in front of your lens.
The next-most essential part of any UV filter guide worth its salt is to point out that high-quality UV filters perform double duty. They protect your lens from many common issues and do so at no appreciable cost to light transmission or sharpness. That’s not to say that even the best UV filters cannot affect image quality because they can in certain situations.
Ultimately, whether you should use a UV filter depends on risk, both the level you assume during your photography and the amount you’re willing to tolerate. If you fall on the side of “I should use a UV filter,” then by all means, do. But don’t cheap out on one.