Why Do Photographers Need a UV Filter For Their Lenses?

It happens often: you go to buy a lens and you’re offered the option of also purchasing a UV filter. But do you really need one? Photographers are often confused as to whether or not to get one. For many years, photographers have used UV Filters for a number of reasons. In fact, most photographers who started in digital most likely didn’t get one.

So here’s the explanations for them all.

What Does a UV Filter Do?

UV Filters do a few things. First off, they cut down on ultraviolet rays from coming into the lens which can degrade image quality or cause other problems with the image. Early UV filters actually used to degrade image quality themselves but that changed greatly within the past 10 years.

Take a look at the image above and below: chances are that you’re not going to be able to tell which one has the UV filter on or not.

UV rays tend to destroy image quality; and to explain, consider the fact that you’re never going to look directly into the sun. It’s way too bright and even writing that sentence made my eyes hurt. The same thing goes for a camera lens and a piece of film or camera sensor.

Besides protecting your image quality, UV filters do other things like protect the actual front element of your lens from scratching or even worse.

Years ago, baseball player Wil Myers hit a ball right into a video camera’s lens. Camcorder lenses are quite a bit more expensive than standard camera lenses, so if the filter wasn’t there to protect the lens then the lens would’ve been a complete goner.

Older Lenses

In the olden film days, photographers REALLY needed to have UV filters. Film is an organic piece of matter, and so it needed protection even when it was in the camera and even for a second or 1/1000th of a second. Old school film lenses (and digital lenses) typically made before the year 2007 may require a UV filter of some sort when mounting them to your camera.

The image above was made with a Bessa R and a 50mm f1.5 attached using Kodak Ektachrome. The lens didn’t have a UV filter on but if it did, the photo would have been even sharper. To each their own though, as the image already is very sharp.

Newer Lenses

Newer lenses made after 2007 typically don’t need a UV filter when mounted to digital cameras. After this year, the manufacturers started making filters with higher quality glass and metals/plastics. This is due to the advancements in lens coatings which help filter out and negate the effects of UV filters. This is also why, since around 2011, the entire industry of optics has advanced so much. Zeiss started making the biggest splash with their Otus lens lineup but then Sigma did as well with the Art lineup of lenses…then Tokina, then Tamron, then all the primary camera manufacturers.

So when shooting with digital cameras you may not NEED a UV filter, but honestly they’re still pretty good to have. I remember one night in my early 20s. My camera was in my bag and it fell off of a table. The lens attached to the camera took a hard, direct hit onto the floor. But the camera and lens kept working only because the UV filter had smashed and took the impact. Glass was shattered inside of the camera bag and yet I was relieved to find my camera kept working.

A lens hood can more or less do the same thing but to a certain point. Plus, it doesn’t continue to negate extra UV light from the area around you.

Let me show you a bit more of a difference.

Here’s a photo using a brand new Zeiss Milvus lens shot on Ilford Delta 400. Pretty crazy sharp, right?

Now here’s a photo using the same brand new Zeiss Milvus lens using CineStill 50D. That film is by far one of the sharpest I’ve ever used.

And now here is a photo using CineStill 50D with an old Olympus Zuiko lens. Quite different, right? The newer lenses are certainly capable; but if you’re one of those people who is smitten with that old school lens look, then simply just go for those lenses and attach a UV filter. Honestly, I’d gladly argue that UV filters are less necessary with black and white film when using newer glass. When using older glass, they’re still necessary, but less so than with color.

Lomography makes a film for example called Lomography Slide 200 X Pro–which is designed more or less for cross processing. This photo was shot with a Leica CL and a 40mm f2. Now, the 40mm f2 is super crazy sharp, but the film has a soft look and feel to it when the lens doesn’t have a UV filter.

But then look at this: no filter, black and white Ilford Delta 400 and the Hexar AF. Really sharp, right? So do you need a UV filter? If you want protection for your lens beyond the lens hood, yes. If you’re using classic glass, yes. If you’re using newer lenses and are already fine with the image quality, I’d probably just focus instead on making great photos.