Do UV Filters Really Protect Your Lens? Shocker: Not Really

Steve Perry of Backcountry Gallery has a multitude of great, down-to-earth photography how-to videos, but the latest one tackles an age-old question we've all had numerous fights over. In spite of Perry's self-proclaimed non-scientific standards, perhaps we can finally put this one to rest.

Perry tests numerous aspects of lens and UV filter strength in the tests done for this video, including some scratch resistance, overall strength, strength of the front element with or without a filter on, strength of the filters themselves, and other effects of bumps and drops on lenses.

The conclusion is more thorough in the video, but in short, aside from protection against some scratches and dust in certain circumstances, filters don't do much at all to protect your front element, or the rest of your lens for that matter. When shooting digitally, they don't even have an effect on your image since digital sensors are not sensitive to the blue UV-created haze that shows up in many landscape film images. In fact, they merely pose a greater risk of introducing ghosting and flare with specular highlights. And if your filter breaks on a fall, no, it almost certainly didn't protect your lens from breaking — your lens would have been just fine, regardless.

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32 Comments

I really have to say the opposite. I recently was at a shoot walking on the sidewalk when my strap broke and my camera fell lens first. My hood broke into many pieces and my filter shattered. The filter protected not only the front element of my lens but also the threads. I was still at the shoot and now my filter was jammed on so I had to use a hammer a tap and a screw driver to remove all the glass and clean it. Moved on and kept shooting. That $50 Hoya Filter saved my lens. Yes its not a full proof way but it is like putting a screen protector on your phone. It helps even a little and that could save you thousands of dollars.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Man, shooting photojournalism in a major city, UV filters saved my lenses several times. Especially wide angles like the 16-35 where the hood doesn't offer much protection. Doing pro sports or covering a protest, your front element is going to get smacked around. I've replaced multiple filters but never had to replace a lens.

Andrew, if you said that UV filters helped protect the coatings on your lens, that would probably be closer to being true. The tensile strength of most filters isn't all that strong because they are flat, brittle pieces of glass. The thick, curved, molded front element of your typical 16-35mm lens is several times stronger than any filter. Never mind the fact that it also has less surface area, and it also is probably attached to the rest of the lens in such a way that any impact it incurs can be distributed and dissipated more easily than the comparatively-rigid mounting of a filter.

Andrew Richardson's picture

You said a lot of big words there, but my point was they have protected my front element from scratches. That's what I said and it's true.

How do you know it protected your lens from scratches? Did you do two drop tests, one with and one without to prove that's the case? All you're doing is throwing out an antidote and assuming the filter did something without any concrete proof.

David Flores's picture

This test is pretty ridiculous.. I hardly doubt the statistics support a final destination type of death for a UV filter, let alone a lens (no matter the cost).
Personally, I have only had one experience where something flew at my glass while taking a photos, and it was the massive lens hood on my Canon 70-200 that saved my lens. I had to replace the hood, but $7 was well worth the cost as opposed what I could only assume would have been a dented lens or damaged front element.
The point was clearly made in the video that buying a cheap filter would hardly change image quality, so it seems smart to protect your $400 front element from scratches, finger prints, paint, dust, water, etc. depending on the shoot. I take mine off when it i'm in a controlled environment or when I am settled on location. It is indeed insurance for your lens, its up to the photog if they want to shoot naked or not.

This was by far the best video (or article) I've seen on the question of whether or not to use a filter for lens protection.

Here's another 2 reasons why not to use a filter:

A small mark (dirt, smudge or scratch) on a lens will not much affect the image. This is because such small lens marks are nowhere near the object plane and don't get focused on the image plane. Such lens marks may cause some diffraction issues, but unless the dirt or scratches are huge, this would not be noticeable.
On the other hand, small marks (dirt,smudge or scratch) on a filter can be close enough to the object plane to matter. In some focusing circumstances (think super closeups and macro) this could allow those filter marks to partially focus onto the image plane and appear as blurry lines and blobs in the final image.

An additional factor to consider is that when a filter gets smashed there could be a heck of a lot of really tiny bits of glass that get showered all over the lens front element. This abrasive glass powder can be difficult to safely clean without scratching the front element, especially if the impact occurred in the field and you have no brushes and vacuums available.

Ti Yam's picture

Real world scenario proves otherwise. I have seen many cases of UV, CPL or Clear filters save the day (when the hood is off). Knocking, hitting, falling. Doesn't matter if is a crack, shatter or major scratch, the end results is the same, i.e. lens need to send back factory for front optics change, which is many times more expensive than a UV filter. If digital sensors are not sensitive to UV, then use a clear filter. This is the worst advice I heard from Fstoppers.

Adam Ottke's picture

I wouldn't even call any of what I said or what Steve Perry says as "advice." No one said to do one thing or another. But if I were telling my best friend what to do, I'd say skip the filter unless you're maybe in a desert/dusty region with high winds (because yeah, those can be nasty...and I just don't like the idea of any of that hitting my lens). But I'd be completely comfortable advising a friend to skip UV filters altogether in just about any other case.

If you watched the video (and this is/was true without/before the video), having a UV filter break is not evidence of protection of the front element... The front element will survive 10 times (not a real number...but you get the idea) what the UV filter will ever survive. Partially, this is because the glass is innately stronger. Also, I'm sure its curvature and the fairly strong support it gets from being mounted into the lens barrel also help. But in terms of shock protection, there's not much a filter can do -- it just passes the shock right on. In rare instances, sure, it might protect your threads. But that's fairly cheap to get fixed when considering it MIGHT happen to ONE of your lenses every couple years (unless you're Jimmy Chin??? I'd have to ask him, though...).

So I don't it's bad advice at all. Save the money on buying 6-8 filters for all your lenses and instead repair the ONE that might actually get damaged from time to time. Less hassle, same difference.

mark millar's picture

If even cheap filters don't degrade the image that much, why not take the precaution. I can always remove the filter to avoid ghosting or flare.

I would also assume that the results would be different if we were talking about indirect hits to the filter / front element. Someone here mentioned protests (Andrew I believe), but also tree branches, sparklers, gravel, etc. The flat nature of filters versus the convex nature of front elements will mean that front elements are indeed stronger when you're talking about direct impact by a thin piece of metal. I am convinced that filters would provide more protection for indirect blows.

Last, in the field, I'm more likely to give my filter a quick wipe than I would the front element. The difference being that I'd pay $150 to get a clean shot, but perhaps not $450.

Again though, as the original video suggests, to each there own. I'm not going to draw strength from convincing some to use a filter who doesn't want to.

When we were in Cambodia Patrick bumped our camera with a 70-200 over and it landed on the front of the lens. He had some filter on it, I think it was a polarizer. The filter shattered and some how it didn't even scratch the front element of the lens. The lens and camera survived but maybe that didn't have anything to do with the filter.

This video is very well done. It's pretty amazing how sturdy our lenses are. People are so afraid to clean their lens with anything other than a microfiber cloth and this guy can't even scratch the front element with a falling metal weight.

Same here. Suddenly, I don't feel all that bad about using my shirt on occasion to wipe off my lens.

The main reason I'm not a fan of UV filters is that I use other filters regularly. So I'm either stacking them up or fooling with them, which gets them dirty and/or wet very quickly. And sometimes if you have more than one on your lens, you can see the edges in the frame (there are a number of variables but it does happen).

I'm not super paranoid about my lenses though. I know some people who handle them like a delicate specimen or something. They are made to be handled. The people designing them know we are going to grab, bump, drop, and smash into things. Something that people pay top dollar for had better not shatter like an iPhone.

Adam Bender's picture

A filter saved my 17-40 lens element once. I don't like using them, but in that instance I'm happy I did.

I've broken two lenses in my life. The first was a telephoto lens (~60mm front element) mounted to a camera on a tripod that was at maximum height (~6ft). Someone bumped into the tripod, pushing the camera forward, and everything landed lens face-first on concrete. The thing that broke was the lens mount and the data ribbon cable for the contacts. That's it. Everything else inside was fine. The second was a normal zoom dropped from waist height, again, right onto the front element. The zoom ring jammed.

I don't think an additional filter would have helped in either of these cases. There are so many other fragile parts inside of a lens that break more easily than the front element of most lenses.

While I applaud the rigor of the test, the video was a bit of a TLDR for me. I don't have the time to waste on the physics but the point of impact was 1/4 20 rod dropped 2-4 feet or so with up to four pounds of weight. So unless you plan on dropping your camera on really pointy rocks from shoulder height or swinging it roundly like a bolo into really pointy things I'm not sure how useful the methodology is. For me, my camera strap is what I rely on to keep big impacts from occurring and the filter is for places like Tanzania where the red dust would play hell with front elements, or in a zodiac at either pole, or in the rain pretty much anywhere. I can be a lot more casual quickly cleaning up a filter than I can a front element. If I trash the filter I can always change it out. I think when you work in more austere environments you learn that an ounce of prevention is worth well over a pound of cure and potentially lots of lost shots.

Katherine Poole doesn't get it! I doubt that anyone ever reasonably expects a filter to protect any part of a lens when receiving a frontal attack from a blunt object. But, let's be reasonable. Most of us exercise enough care to avoid those kind of accidents. It's not those major incidents for which a filter is used as a protective device. It's the minor banging around in the case, around the neck, or laying it down on the ground. Without a filter screwed in place, these minor impacts are very likely to bend the threaded edge of the lens where the filters are attached. This type of minor impact CAN chip the edge of the lens, but most likely will ding up the threads so that NO filter can be attached. It can also warp or force the end of the lens assembly out of round so that it will not properly retract into the lens housing when zooming or focusing. The filter frame will take the brunt of the impact of these minor bumps and banging around. The fact that the filter is threaded into the lens keeps the lens threads from being forced out of round. That is the reasoning behind the advice to always have a filter in place. Cheap insurance for minor bumps and bruises.

Anonymous's picture

Kathleen, I had the same thing happen as Daniel -- and my hood shattered, but so did my filter, because after the hood shattered, the front of the lens continued on to the concrete, where the filter also shattered. But the front element of the lens remained totally unscathed, and is in perfect working condition to this day. See the photo below, taken just after I got home.

So I would disagree -- a filter can definitely save a lens. And this was not the fist time -- it has happened to me personally twice -- saved a lens by having a filter AND a lens hood. Both are instrumental in protecting a lens.

Hopefully you and the author of this article will not find out the hard way what a relatively inexpensive filter can save you from.

Every one of my lenses has one, except my 600mm, but only because no one makes one that big. But my 400mm does . . . Now, and forever. I'm not replacing a multi-thousand dollar lens if all I have to do is replace a much less expensive filter.

BTW, the test in the video is not a real world test -- seldom will something fall on your lens' front element (or the filter protecting it). 99.9% of the time, the lens falls on something, and unless it's a bolt sticking up, the filter will give its life for the lens.

Paul Tucker's picture

...and WWIII breaks out.

OK, so this isn't really news, at least it shouldn't be. Filters protect against minor scuffs and scrapes - but impact damage and drops aren't going to be fazed by a filter because it doesn't prevent glass compression. A lens hood **can** prevent glass compression, but even still, it has to be dropped or impacted at the correct angle where the hood takes all of the force, but it's obviously open at the front - so you might get lens scratches depending on what hits that front element.

Either way, there's no one object that protects from every situation. Every tool has its merits. Every tool has its weaknesses.

Anonymous's picture

Sorry to disagree, Paul, but the photo in my post is of a shattered filter on a lens that, with the camera attached, fell a full 3 feet, hood down. The hood did its job, and shattered, but the lens/camera kept going, straight into the concrete street. Filter shattered, but there was not a single mark of any kind on the lens.

A month later, it happened again when I lost my footing on very uneven terrain. Same result. The lens was again unscathed, even though both the hood and the filter were a wreck.

Filters only protect against minor scuffs & scrapes? I disagree.

Paul Tucker's picture

Hi Don. I'm glad to hear the lens survived, but it sounds like the lens hood did the heavy lifting here on protecting against the impact. In other words, without the lens hood, would the results have been the same? I can't know because I wasn't there. Most assuredly though, the lens filter definitely protected the glass from scraping against the concrete.

Regardless though, I'm happy to be wrong if it means another lens lives a long and happy life. Either way, your lens survived by your valiant efforts at protecting it. :)

Mary Ann Wamboldt's picture

I am a paintball photographer and I have never put a filter over my lens. When I first starting taking pictures for paintball I researched ways to protect my gear while on the field and found a very interesting article from another photographer who decided to put his filter to the test using his sons paintball gun. Three direct hits to the lens from 10 feet left no damage to the lens (just a mess). However a single hit with the filter on left considerable damage to the lens. The filter broke and drove the glass from the filter into the lens damaging the surface. My camera and lens has been hit several times on the field and it has faired very well. I cover the lens with a couple of sports socks to keep paint off the outside of the lens. Of course, everyone has a different opinion about lens filters I just feel strange trying to protect my $2500 lens with a $100 filter.

Joel Cleare's picture

Can't argue with that.

Joel Cleare's picture

My favorite argument. I dropped a few L- lenses on and off my camera. No filter and minor battle wounds that didn't decrease the resale of my lenses. I'm not shooting in a war zone ( city streets ) so I've never used a clear filter as protection for mishaps. I just can put a filter on my $5k+ worth of camera gear if it doesn't enhance the image. I've cleaned my lenses in the field with dry micro cloth. I use wet cleaning wipes seldom. Never scratched a lens. And I clean them a lot. I

I still haven't seen stories where a lens broke because they didn't have a lens filter.

Maybe it's just 20+ years of habit, but I'm heavily invested in 77mm B+W filters for my L series lenses, and cheap Hoya filters on our little EOS M and M2 cameras. This happened recently, and I'd like to think that whatever destroyed the filter would have at least done a little damage to my glass. Luckily, it was only the M2.

Regardless of what the "findings" in this video may be, in my experience UV filters do provide an additional layer of protection which, though not perfect, is better than nothing.

I've had more than a couple of UV filters shattered by (small) flying pebbles (risks of shooting on dirt roads with moving vehicles going back and forth) and the beak of a small bird that apparently didn't see me. In all cases, the UV took the whole hit, shattered, and the front element of my lens was unharmed.

One might argue that if the UV had not been in place, the pebbles and the blind bird wouldn't have damaged the front element of the lens and it could very well be true... but it could not be. And I'd rather avoid flares by using decent UV filters and keep them obsessively clean than risk unrecoverable damage or very expensive repairs on Canon L glass

To me, hoods and UV lenses are a must on every lens I take out on the field

300 - 350 for front element replacement vs 50 dollar filter, that the video author even tries to compare something that is 6x to 7x more expensive, is funny

Also do you test bags with a sledgehammer and then claim you don't need a bag to protect your gear? :D

Adam Ottke's picture

The point is you're gonna have to get a filter for each of your lenses....and you probably -- if at all -- will only ever break one... Meanwhile, you'll break more filters because of their relative weakness...

Michael Clark's picture

300-350? A front element for the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II runs about $180. I've never used a filter on mine and I've never found anything yet that has scratched it when managing to get past the hood..

I hear the "I had a filter on and when x happened, the filter shattered, proving it saved my lens" line a lot with this everlasting debate, but what gets forgotten is that the front filter is brittle, it will shatter much easier than lens element will and so doesn't really tell you much in that respect. However, more relevantly, I wonder how many people have looked at the cost of replacing the front element? It's not as expensive as you might think...

Sorry, didn't mean this as a reply to your post, but it's sort of appropriate. Element replacement can be cheaper than $300, it does depend on the lens, so you could be paying a lot more for filers than you would otherwise pay for lens repair.