UV Filter or No UV Filter: Can You Tell the Difference?

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Some photographers refuse to place a UV or clear filter, or any other type of photographic filter, in front of their lens—worried about sacrificing image quality in the name of a layer of protection. It’s a fact that the more glass elements that light has to pass through, the greater the chance that the light is bent, altered, or degraded in some way. This fact is what keeps some photographers from using UV or clear filters on their lenses—the search for the ultimate image quality.

Note: This article was originally published 10 years ago. The text and images have been updated, but many comments below are from the original article.

However, you cannot deny the protective benefits of a UV filter from fingerprints, dust, smudges, etc. I have even dropped a few lenses and had the UV filter shatter, but the front element of the lens remained untouched. Did the filter, in paying the ultimate sacrifice, protect the lens? No one knows for sure. Regardless, I am glad that the potential loss was only felt by the relatively inexpensive filter and not the lens itself.

So, can you see a visual difference in two identical photos—one with a UV filter and one without? We’ve done the test for you!

Let’s take a look and see the results….

Example: Here are two images from a FUJIFILM XF 90mm f/2 R LM WR lens. The first image is from the au naturel lens and, in the second image, the lens sports a Heliopan 62mm UV SH-PMC filter.

The two images were captured as raw files and processed identically.

100% crop.

200% crop.

Can you see a difference between the two images? I cannot.

Even when we do some serious pixel peeping at 200%, the images look identical.

While I encourage all photographers to use a UV or clear filter on each and every lens that they own, there are times I have removed my UV filter when out shooting to avoid lens flare that was happening at the UV filter despite the filter’s multi-coating. Why wasn’t the lens itself flaring? Possibly because the UV filter, positioned at the far front of the lens, was getting hit by light waves directly at the “right” angle.

Other websites have concluded that most high-quality UV or clear filters will not have any effect on image quality, but some inexpensive filters may. Regardless, I feel that a quality UV filter is an almost mandatory addition to your lens.

What do you think of the filter debate? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

18 Comments

Personally whether to use a lens shade or a glass lens protector, or none depends on your own shooting style or individual requirements.

For some people OAL(overall lenght) is not important so a lens shade is ample protection for the lens, and also protects against stray light.

For me a short OAL is important, especially when I am carrying 4 or 5 lenses, the added length of a lens shade makes carrying and changing lenses more cumbersome   I know one photog who uses both a lens protector AND a lens shade!

Personally, I was using Tiffen's UV filter, but recently I discovered Hoya's EVO Protector line, it is advertised as having fingerprint-resistant coatings, I find that so far it works pretty good, if  I do get a fingerprint on it etc I just wipe it off with my shirt tail, smudges on the front lens element will definitely degrade your picture.

I don't know how much it would cost to replace a front lens element but I image it would be pretty expensive, so expensive that it would probably be worthwhile to buy a whole new lens rather than repairing the old one. If had a lens protector you would just replace it at a nominal cost.

Hi Ronald,

You make a great point here about the lens length. (By the way, in the nautical and aviation world, the acronym is LOA—length overall.)

Very often, especially with big zooms or telephotos, they won't fit into a regular camera bag with the lens hood attached or even reversed, so carrying the hood can be an issue.

Like you, I would rather be rubbing fingerprints off of a filter than the actual coated front element of my lens.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

I know "I am beating a dead horse to death," but here it goes. Putting on a filter probably only  affects sharpness by a very small amount, but for me, I think the principle shortcoming is that it reflects a bit of the light like probably a few percentages.

If a clear filter does affect sharpness,  you can probably can't see it, but I bet you can  measure on an optical bench which is probably only available at optical companies etc. I find that Ken Rockwell's discussion on MTFs interesting. BTW you don't have to be an engineer to read or understand this, it is  written pretty much in ordinary language that most anyone can understand. If you are picking nits, you can probably understand the lingo.

I recently ran across this piece from Ken Rockwell.

"How to Read Modulation Transfer Functions (MTFs)"

"I brought it up to date, and added more reasons why you shouldn't waste too much time trying to compare MTFs, because each brand measures them differently and because even legitimate MTFs exaggerate differences that aren't visible in actual shooting." --- Ken Rockwell
[Link removed.]

Hi Ronald,

This horse will never die! :)

If you want to dig deeper on the subject, a lens rental company blog did a pretty comprehensive UV filter test with their precision gear and found some interesting results. Also, that same blog has an entertaining and enlightening article on manufacturing variations between lenses. An MTF curve for a lens, regardless of the standards used is only the MTF curve for that particular serial number lens. All of the other ones will be different.

Thanks for stopping by again!

Best,

Todd

Here are my thoughts - a standard Tiffen 77mm UV Protector Filter sells for $13.99 here on the B&H website. B&H makes at least 100% markup, SO the filter costs less than $7 to B&H, Tiffen has to make at least a 100% markup to stay in business, SO the filter costs less than $3.50 to make. The metal ring of the filter has to be 3/4 of the price, SO less than $2.33 to make the metal ring and less than $1.17 for the glass, if both items are made, in house. If not, even less. 

If one does the same math on a manufacturer's lens, they are investing a fair amount more in all of the coatings that are added to the lens to protect and eliminate all unnecessary light flare, uv, etc, etc and polishing of each element. The hood is also designed and made to keep out the maximum amount of stray light without vignetting. The lens is designed with the hood in mind and the two work perfectly, together. A hood will protect a lens from light flare, damage, fingers, dropping, etc, etc. 

SO, why in the world world would you place a, less than $1.17 piece of monster glass in front of your expensive glass? 

Hi Noah,

While I can't back you up on the mathematics, you make a fair point here.

If I may, I can counter your lens hood argument a bit...

1) I have a 17-month-old son who has fingers that can easily find there way past my lens hoods...Undeterred by the hood, he actually insists on touching the glass!

2) In my previous life, I flew military helicopters. Having detachable lens hoods was not an option for FOD prevention purposes. A filter was the only protection that I could get in a fairly dirty and busy environment where I wasn't always the only one handling my gear.

3) I once dropped a camera bag and shattered a UV filter on a lens inside the padded bag. Would the front element have been damaged? I don't know. And, yes, a hood would have absorbed the impact, but, if the lens had been wearing a hood, it wouldn't have fit into the bag.

So, the hood isn't always practical or possible in every scenario, but, you are correct, they do a great job protecting a lens.

A fantastic writer on another photo website did a scientific UV filter comparison/test finding that good filters have no real affect on image quality. And, truth be told, I sometimes remove the filter when shooting!

Thanks for stopping by!

Best,

Todd

I can't imagine buying a $13.99 filter for a good lens.  I do spend $60 or more on a better filter to match the quality of the Nikon optics.  Once in a while I'll temporarily take the filter off for a troublesome shot.  The ability to magnify and examine the images on the modern cameras is a wonderful boon for these issues.  I have had expensive lenses saved by a filter.

Hey Gary,

Good stuff! Thanks for chiming in.

I agree...on an expensive lens, you should go with an expensive filter. That isn't me up-selling for my employer, its more of a fact of life.

Just an FYI...a lens rental website did a comparison of UV filters and gave the Nikon filters very high marks (actually one of the highest ratings). I have some for my Nikon glass and are very happy with them!

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Todd,

I agree with the Nikon filters and have often used them since the days when a goodly number of the filter sizes were 52mm.

gary

Good stuff, Gary! #brandloyalty :)

Thanks for showing this.

I wasn't really expecting to see a difference.. and maybe it's just me.. but I think it looks better without.

A bit sharper is all, but I will have to compare this on my camera also.  Hm.

Hi John,

Just based on physics alone, there should be a difference, but you really have to go pixel peeping to see it!

I still think the benefits of a UV filter outweigh the teeny tiny loss in sharpness.

Best,

Todd

I would have like to see some night scenes with light sources. Even the best UV's I've used have ghosting. 

Hi Robert,

You are 100% correct. I mention this in my conclusion, but did not specify "night shooting."

I, too, have gotten unwanted ghosting and flare while shooting at night with top-quality UV filters.

In those instances, I will sigh, shrug, and unscrew the filter. I then get the shot and then remount the filter and press on. It is not common enough to make me ditch the filter completely as I'd rather have the protection 99% of the time and remove it to deal with the ghosting when I have to.

Thanks for reading Explora!

Best,

Todd

I easily see the difference. Surprised you do not.Is your browser color managed? There is a sharpness difference as well.

Hi Bob!

Your eyes must be better than mine! Even at the 200% crop in Photoshop proper (not using the images above), I barely noticed a difference. Yes, there is a tiny difference, but is it enough to make a "real world" impact to your images? Please don't make me invest in even more expensive expensive UV filters! :)

Best,

Todd

Using a UV Filters for all Lens are the easiest ways to start, indeed!!! They're not as difficult because it was not as being mentioned and upon. Finally, I rather preferred after over before in so it could be more clearer, indeed!!!

Thanks for reading, James!

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