One of the biggest and hard-fought debates I regularly see online is about UV filters. Many photographers swear by these relatively expensive pieces of glass, and they predominantly use them to protect their lenses.
A lot of other photographers disagree with this idea and suggest using a lens hood instead. What is common in all of these debates is that no side ever convinces the other. For this reason, I decided there was no point in asking the end-user because the opinions are held far too firmly. Instead, I thought to myself, why not just ask the companies that make these products? I mean, surely they could provide some insight and clarify exactly what their filters are supposed to be used for.
Over the last month, I have been in discussions with several filter manufacturers. Here’s what the manufacturers of UV filters have to say…
The first company I spoke with was Zeiss and it quite clearly confirmed that UV filters were only designed to correct optical issues.
“They are only developed to solve optical problems (polarizer- reduce reflections, color saturation).”
I asked if Zeiss offers any cover or warranty support for filters if they fail to protect the lens or break from impact. Zeiss confirmed that it is not their intended use and therefore not a basis for a claim.
“But they are not developed to protect against high mechanical stress. And therefore the attached filter isn`t the base to submit a warranty claim.”
I understand the question about the warranty is somewhat a silly one to ask. The reason for the question was to ensure there was a certain level of clarity. Zeiss did mention that UV filters could prevent scratches, but the idea that it could offer any protection from falls or impacts is not at all what they have been designed for.
Aside from producing some of my favorite lenses, Sigma also produces filters. One of the filters they produce is the WR Ceramic Filter. I was certain that these filters could offer protection against impact damage, but based on the answers I received, it’s not as clear.
In regards to UV filters, it is pretty cut and dry: they’re not designed for protection. They could prevent scratches and minor surface issues, however, protection against impacts and falls are not what they were intended for.
“Basically, the UV filter is designed to reduce the influence of ultraviolet rays during shooting. Therefore, there is no purpose of protection, but it can be said that it has the effect of preventing scratches on the lens as a result.”
When I asked the same question about the Sigma WR Ceramic Filters, the response was somewhat mixed. Sigma confirmed that they had been designed to offer protection to the lens, but the company could not confirm the level of protection. Sigma did, however, confirm that even the Ceramic Filters were not designed to protect against damage from falls.
“Any shocks are assumed, but impact damage by falling is not covered.”
B+W (Schneider Filters)
Schneider opted to send me some information via email. I would have preferred to have spoken to someone to clarify any misconceptions, unfortunately, it seems this was not something they wanted to do.
Having said that, the PDF they sent was quite effective in answering most of my questions. It described exactly what its UV filters were designed for. The majority of the information contained in the PDF was dedicated to transmission and optical benefits. The PDF makes an extremely brief and passive point about protection, but even then, there are no claims about protection against impacts or fall damage.
“But above all its unique dirt and water-repellent surface makes cleaning the filters easier. In this way, filters can also perform a protective function for the front lens.”
As a customer, I have now bought several ND filters from Hoya. I think they make brilliant products and the prices are very reasonable too. I do recommend Hoya and for this reason, I was slightly disappointed in the lack of clarity.
When speaking to them, Hoya confirmed that its Protector filters and UV filters were designed to protect lenses.
“UV filters as Protectors are also designed with the intention to offer lens protection with no negative effect to the image quality.”
When I asked about the kind of protection the UV filters offer, Hoya simply replied that they don’t make any claims like that.
“We do not claim this as a manufacturer.”
I tried being more specific and asked about protection against fall damage or projectiles and I received a similar response.
“There are no specific levels of protection for UV filters.”
I was hoping for more specific answers from Hoya, but unfortunately, this was not something I could get from it.
The thing I love about Gobe filters is that they’re incredible value for money and they don’t compromise on quality. I don’t understand how they are able to retail their products at such low prices, but I’m not complaining.
I asked Gobe similar questions that I asked everyone else and the answers were very similar too. Gobe confirmed the primary reason to use UV filters is to cut the amount of UV light that hits the sensor. Gobe did mention that its filters can offer protection to lenses too.
“They are designed to cut out UV light which sharpens the image, particularly when shooting long distance. They also protect precious lens glass from the elements and accidents, the reason UV lens are used for protection is because they can almost always remain on the lens and you can stack all other filters on top of them.”
When I asked about protection from fall damage or projectiles, Gobe confirmed that this was not what they are intended for.
“No, our UV filters do not make lenses break proof. You can purchase smash proof UV filters if you want better protection for your lens glass though the optical clarity is sacrificed when compared to our German Schott Glass UV.”
The kind of protection Gobe confirmed was from scratches.
“Yes, any filter provides an added layer of protection from scratches, a UV is a great option because it can stay on the lens all the time.”
Anecdotal Evidence is Mostly Useless
Based on the research that I have done and the discussions that I’ve had with the manufacturers, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that UV filters can protect lenses from impact damage. If anything, the evidence is quite heavily stacked against this claim. Based on this, how does this belief continue within the industry?
For the most part, its anecdotal evidence provided by photographers. I assume that many of us have seen images of a broken filter attached to a lens; accompanied by a story about how the filter protected it. This type of “evidence” isn’t worth anything and should not be used to quantify this claim. There are so many variables that are not accounted for, and to come to such a grand conclusion is impetuous and quite foolish.
The video linked above by photographer Steve Perry confirms that UV filters will break far sooner than the front element on any lens. This is a key reason you can’t trust images that show broken filters on lenses. The impact that caused the damage was probably not anywhere near enough to harm the lens in any significant manner.
The glass in UV filters is thin and brittle. Using UV filters to protect your lenses, is like wrapping yourself in a sheet kitchen foil, and hoping it doesn’t hurt when you fall.
UV Filters Are Not Insurance, Insurance Is Insurance
I have heard a number of photographers call UV filters “cheap insurance”, which is horrible advice. The question many seem to ask is, would you rather have a cheap filter break or pay for an expensive front element to be replaced? Well, my answer to that is neither.
I would rather pay the excess on my insurance and have the lens repaired or replaced. Insurance is actual coverage and not just perceived coverage. Also, during the time between when I receive the repaired lens or replacement, my insurance company can help provide equipment to use in the meantime. UV filters cannot do that.
If you own expensive camera equipment or you are a professional photographer, then you absolutely need proper insurance. UV filters are not anything remotely near a substitute.
When the manufacturers themselves do not claim that UV filters protect against impact damage, I think it is safe to say that this idea is mostly nonsense. I can assume that manufacturers know more about their products than most photographers do. In fact, several of the manufacturers confirm that protection is not what they have been designed for.
Despite this, I think that people who believe UV filters offer any kind of impact protection, will not be changing their minds anytime soon. I doubt any kind of statement from the manufacturers or even evidence will change this practice. Nonetheless, I felt it was important to get some clarity from the manufacturers and work towards dispelling this myth.
About the author: Usman Dawood is the lead photographer of Sonder Creative, an architectural and interior photography company. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
Image credits: Header illustration based on photo by Eli Duke and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0