Good Times with Bad Filters

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OK. First and foremost this is a fun post. It is not episode 362 of "Should you put a UV filter on your lens". Some people use them. Some don't. There's not enough bandwidth to ever end that argument.

But here at Lensrentals, we have a ton of filters. We have some really good, very expensive filters. We have some OK, middle of the road filters. And because some customers, uhm, happen to return a very cheap filter in place of the one they were sent, we've obtained some crappy filters. Brand names aren't necessary. If it cost $22 in 77mm size, it's a crappy filter.

Anyway, one of the techs has to clean all those filters, make sure the threads are OK, and test them out. Honestly nobody likes to do it, so it gets put off until we need some filters or there's just nothing else to do. So the other day Kenny is cleaning filters and testing the threads by mounting them one in front of the other until he made a nice mountain of 50 UV filters.

50 UV filters, cleaned and neatly stacked.

Not being the kind of people to let well enough alone, we decided to mount them to a 5D Mk II and 300 f4 we had handy and take a few pictures.

The well protected lens.

And of course see if the filters affected image quality. See if you can tell which images was shot with the 50 UV filters, and which without:

Shot of the building across the parking lot without filters (above) and with 50 UV filters (below). The one with the filters is actually better than I expected.

Of course there's a lot of vignetting and haloing on the full size image:

Compared to no filters

Roger, do you have anything constructive to say, or are you just wasting blog space again?

Yes, actually I do. Fifty filters stacked is pretty ridiculous. But in that stack of 50 filters, as I said, there are some very good ones and some very bad ones. Lets compare a stack of each, shall we?

First, I had Kenny put the worst filters on the top of the stack (all were nonbrand, or brands we know are cheap and bad) and take a picture of the stack at an angle. All were freshly cleaned and if you look straight through them reasonably clear. Like a filter should be. But if you stack them and try to take an angled picture through several layers of them, the results were ugly.

View through a half dozen cheap filters stacked on top of each other. Try counting the filter rings inside the stack.

Yes, I know they don't look clean in the image, but every one of those filters was freshly cleaned, and checked under a light. And if you look straight through them they were pretty clear. Looking at an angle tends to show you the weaknesses of a filter much better than looking straight through it. And remember: most of the light rays coming into the lens are coming in at an angle, not heading directly to the sensor in a straight line.

Now lets compare the stack with the expensive, top of the line filters (B&W, Heliopan, etc.) stacked the same way.

Stack of expensive UV filters one atop the other.

Hmmm. I'm starting to think there might be a difference here. But the proof is in the pudding. Lets modify our original experiment to something only slightly ridiculous. Instead of shooting through 50 filters, lets take the shot through 5 top of the line filters and another through 5 bottom of the line filters.

Here's a 100% crop of a bumper sticker across the parking lot shot first with no filter, second with 5 stacked high end UV filters, and then with 5 stacked low grade UV filters.

100% crops of a bumper sticker shot through no filters, 5 stacked good UV filters, and 5 stacked cheap UV filters.

Now stacking 5 filters doesn't have a ton of real world implications. Most people rarely stack two. But it is a fun demonstration that there really is a difference between good filters and cheap filters.

The good filters do a remarkable job: 5 stacked filters means 10 air-glass interfaces before the light even gets to the lens. That there's only a little bit of image quality loss through all those filters is pretty impressive. This crop is from the center of the image, there's more degradation to the sides, but still, it's an impressive performance. And certainly lends credit to the idea that a high quality, multicoated UV filter has little effect on image quality.

Five bad filters, though, is another thing entirely. I'm completely aware, for those of you who are going to feel the need to point out the obvious, that nobody shoots with 5 UV filters. And I understand that one cheap UV filter wouldn't have nearly as bad an effect on image quality as 5 of them. But I don't think you can disagree that the good (and expensive, I know) filters have much less effect on image quality than the cheap filters.

BTW - before anyone asks, I avoided name brands of cheaper filters for a reason: many filter manufacturers make both pretty good, and pretty bad filters. You can tell the difference by the price or by reading carefully about the number of coatings, etc. A Tihoya $29 "high quality" filter is not the same as a Tihoya $79 "Professional" filter. This wasn't meant to be a filter review, just a fun demonstration of the obvious.

Roger Cicala


June, 2011

214 Responses to “Good Times with Bad Filters”

John said:

Roger, in your vast experience of renting hundreds (thousands) or lenses thousands (millions?) of times, have you ever seen an example of a filter preventing damage to a lens?

Thanks for a great post!

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:


I'm sure they've prevented damage from blowing sand or sparks or perhaps even salt spray. Whether they can actually make a difference if a lens is dropped I doubt, but it would be rare - certainly it could happen, but somewhere between "not very often" and "very nearly never". FWIW my opinion is the math people often use is wrong: the filter doesn't protect the $1,500 lens, it protects the $150 front element. I just don't think it's cost effective.

Mike said:

I use filters on my walk around lens to protect from kids sticky fingers, dust, spray, or whatever environmental things are around. I'm not disciplined about the lens cap.

On the other hand I have dropped my D300 with Sigma 18-50 2.8 lens first four feet onto concrete. The lens hood was a great shock absorber. A small chip on the lens hood, slightly mis-threaded filter. I put a little pressure with a pipe wrench on the uv filter to pop it back strait. Other than the chip on the hood, all is good.

I'd say the shock absorbing property of the lens hood was more the savior than anything.

This is probably a case of better lucky than good....

GregL said:

I often use several filters, particularly for b&w film pics (orange, NDGrad, polariser). Some of my filters are cheapos; that 5 filter test has me feeling circumspect about even 2 filters (ie. typically NDGrad and polariser). I think I'm going to have to do a bit of testing.

Eric said:

I had an 80-200 roll off a desk in high school and ruin a perfectly good filter. It cracked and bent, but the lens threads were fine.
So it does happen. That was almost 30 years ago, though, so it doesn't happen often...

Eric said:

did anyone notice the stack of "cheap" filters is way out of focus? that might have something to do with the quality issue. the b & w stack is sharp. could this be called "stacking" the deck?

James Kelley said:

Did you try the bumper sticker shot with one of the best and then one of the worst - a bit more real world don'tcha think?
No names of manufacturers necessary but an interesting test.

Sky_walker said:

Well, i use filters for lens protection and I think it works very well for me. I have one (kit) lens, that I an my family members occasionally use, it has never seen any filter and right now you can clearly see how the coating is damaged on the front element - both cracks and holes can be found.

So all my other, more expensive lenses use filters.

It's a great protection against fingers, people trying to wipe-out dust or fingerprints, sand, water, etc. IF you use your lenses alone - than feel free to skip the UVs. But if you plan to borrow your lenses to people around - I strongly recommend getting a filter.

tigrebleu74 said:

Well, UV filters on digital cameras aren't very useful anymore in the first place. There is already an excellent UV filter on the sensor of most digital cameras.

So unless you plan to do a shooting at high altitudes, were UV radiation is stronger, a simple, clear protection filter will do a fine job at... protecting your lens!

Of course, a good quality protection filter will still be better than a low quality protection filter...

Henry Posner said:

"have you ever seen an example of a filter preventing damage to a lens?"

I shot a food fight in a college frat house dining room once. Terrific mess but the filter saved me having to send an expensive lens through a washing machine and let me complete the rest of the day's assignment.

I've also shot football, rugby, soccer, rodeos where being able to give a filter a good swipe also met me finish the gig.

Henry Posner
B&H Photo-Video

Stephane said:

ANY piece of glass stops almost all UVs. Why do you think any cheap sunglasses boast the "98% UV Block "sticker? The UV filter is the most idiotic filter, unless you shoot on top of Mt Everest on a sunny day. They are a relic from the days where you bought a lens for life. Today, you'll probably replace it before you'll have a chance to scratch it...
Adding a so-so filter on a good lens is like fitting your Ferrari with Ford Focus' wheels! I find if painful to watch people with good equipment exposing their $20 filter to the sun in front of their lens hood kept in storage position of course.

Craig said:

I've nearly busted a lens twice. Guess what? The filter busted instead.

Scales USa said:

Although I own many filters, both very good and very cheap, I've moved away from everyday use of them. i might put one on if i'm concerned about protection from blowing sand but thats rare.

I have noticed a tiny improvement in sharpness, but with a very good filter, its not significant.

Thanks for the fun experiment!

Brian Zinchuk said:

I actually did have a situation where my UV filter saved my 70-200 f2.8 VR, not once, but twice. Once, we were at the fair, and I was switching lenses. I handed it to my wife, and she dropped it, straight down onto the front onto asphalt. The UV filter shattered, the lens survived.

A second time, I was taking my shoulder bag out of the back of my SUV. I had fallen out of the habit of zipping up the large Lowepro pouch for same lens. Whamo! It fell straight onto the concrete from about 4 feet up. Again, the UV filter saved it.

On my 18-35, the UV filter also saved it as my then 18 month old dragged my camera off the kitchen table by the strap.

I am a firm believer.

Brian Zinchuk

Josh said:

Must have been a bitch to disassemble.

Bo said:

LOL... THANK YOU - finally a great meaningful UV filter review.!

Having read all of this carefully, I will make sure never to stack more than 4 shitoya filters from the cheap bin. and I deeply appreciate the thought of renting the fine lensrentals lenses and keeping whatever expensive filters might accidentally fall off in the camera bag. Im sure nobody will notice the wallmart Haya star-quality $8.99 substitute being returned.

Thanks guys.


Bryan said:

I work in a camera store, and at least once a month we have someone come in that has dropped their lens. The UV filter is shattered, but the lens itself is fine. Depending on the lens, and how it is impacted, lens filters can help reduce the chance of the lens being severely damaged. We pretty much only recommend UV filters as extra protection for the lens.

Steve said:

I wonder what the SPF of that stack is :)

Jon H said:

With that stack of 50 UV filters attached, you're ready to shoot some aging TV soap opera stars.

Adam said:

I've had a filter save my front element twice. (15 years of photography) Maybe I'm just really rough on my lenses.

Austin said:

A couple of years ago I dropped my brand new 17-40 f/4L (sans UV filter) onto a sidewalk. Luckily, the lens hood caught most of the impact and the lens worked perfectly for the next two years until I sold it.
On the other hand, about a year ago a 70-200 f/2.8L (sans lens hood) slipped from my grasp and landed facedown on the street. I was horrified as I saw little sparkly dust on the ground next to it, but the UV filter had taken one for the team. That lens is excellent to this day.

So one could make the case for both, I suppose :)

Geode said:

I have had a number of people ask why I don't put filters on my lenses, and then I ask them why would I? They respond, well to protect the lens. In 40 years of photography I have never dropped a lens, and the only time I damaged a lens was with a cheap lens the cap didn't fit well and put a few small sleeks in the coating of the front element when it was in the camera bag. On top of that, the only thing a filter can do is degrade optical quality. The only to get the very best shots out of those high quality expensive lenses is to ditch the filter, and cheap lenses, are well, cheap to replace, so if you do scratch them no big deal.

Edwin Herdman said:

Well, that's a pretty good experiment and interesting results! Though I would doubt the air portion of the "10 air-glass interfaces" matters at all to the final quality: With that 300mm lens you're already shooting through plenty of air.

@ tigrebleu74:
I used to think the same, but I've heard that it can make a difference - especially in long-range images. Propaby a polarizer is a better bet most of the time.

@ Bryan:
The main test is - how often has somebody dropped their lens without a filter and had it shatter? And then - If the UV filter shatters, how often do bits of the glass poke up and scratch the front element? Filters have no cushion for the thread, and depending on the lens that front element may be recessed a ways and small enough not to have been impacted anyway. For large front element lenses like telephotos/zooms, since most of the impact force is transferred right through the brass ring of the filter it may be more an indication the glass and lens design is strong than it is that the filter was actually protecting the front element. The only situation I could think of would be that the UV filter is hit by something protruding, and slows down the collision before shattering so that the force exerted on the lens itself is reduced, rather like a crumpling car design. But this can't be the majority of cases since most falls hit flat surfaces edge-on.

bart cummins said:

thanks for the fun read & cool experiment. good points made about the uv's maybe not helping a whole lot. though i swear by my circular polarizer.

Bill Tyler said:

I response to Edwin Herdman's comment about the air. It's not the air as air that's the issue, it's the places where air touches glass. Any time you go from a medium, such as air, with one index of refraction to another medium, such as glass, with a different index of refraction, you get both transmission and reflection of the light. So the number of air-glass transitions is indeed significant. Lens and filter coatings were developed to mitigate this effect, which is why they are important.

Scott said:

I dunno. Probably if you drop a lens, a filter is not going to help. But I used to do work that required me to move fast and not carefully, and I HAVE had filters give their lives protecting the front element and filter threads when I've blanged them against door frames, car doors and big rocks.

lol2011 said:

LOL You guys are hilarious using the reasoning that stacking 5 bad or good filters in front of a good lens and not getting a good image as reasoning to not use ONE good protector filter. I look forward to selling you new lenses when you damage the front coatings. If you stack 5 filters good or bad to shoot you need help. Though I will sell you those too...

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Oh, there's never a problem getting someone to sell you filters. Highest profit margin in the camera store :-)
But the point isn't "don't use filters", the point is "crappy filters are worse than good filters". Not rocket science.

Yves Rubin said:

Thank you Roger! Although a bit extreme, this is the best demonstration that you shouldn't have a filter, and if one is a careful person, the front element of the lens should be just fine for a long time...

James said:

"Stephane says:
ANY piece of glass stops almost all UVs. Why do you think any cheap sunglasses boast the “98% UV Block “sticker?"

Sorry, you are miss-informed, Glass does not stop all UV.
"Ordinary glass is partially transparent to UVA but is opaque to shorter wavelengths"

And cheap sunglasses are mandated by the government to block UV to protect peoples eyes, as there were cheap import sunglasses that had no UV block and literally cooked peoples retina causing vision loss.
"Sunglasses manufactured with reflective, tinted, polarizing, photosensitizing lenses and meet ISO 8980 - 3 or ANSI Z80.3 for UV and visible light transmittance requirements"

Dilbert said:

Roger, I've once dropped a camera with lens attached, lens first. The lens had a UV filter attached to it. The UV filter was shattered. I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't of had it there, but I'm not in a rush to try it out.

I've come to rely on the lens hood for protection as much as or more than the lens cap. When it's slung over my shoulder and I'm bush bashing, every extra bit of protection helps. Why isn't it in a bad? (1) full of lenses (2) take too long to get out and ready if something happens

Jon said:

I work at a camera store. I see at least half a dozen customers EVERY WEEK who come in to replace a damaged filter. Some have been damaged when something ran into the filter. Others when the camera was dropped. Most when cleaning it.

A good lens hood is a better solution to prevent damage when a lens gets dropped. A stepping ring is next, as it deforms easily in the event of a sudden impact. A filter is less effective, but still helpful. Nothing on the lens obviously means no protection.

As anyone who has ever realized long into (or after) a shoot that there was a big fingerprint on their lens can attest, the front element has little impact on the final image quality. But even a cheap filter on the front of the lens (which, again, has very little impact on IQ) will provide a lot of protection in daily use. I see it all the time with customers, and I've experienced it myself.

Jon said:

Forgot to mention, every pro I've ever known lost their lens caps years ago. I was assisting a friend at a wedding the other day. I went to shoot while he set up some light and had to laugh out loud when I saw that none of his lenses have front or rear caps. Yet his images are stellar.

Mind you his cameras and lenses spend a lot more time in the shop than mine do. Apparently he finds that preferable over taking the time to protect the gear.

To each his/her own.

hugh crawford said:

If you really want to use a filter to protect your lens when you drop it, buy the cheapest filter you can, preferably with a threaded ring made of brass or anything that is not aluminum, remove the glass, and screw the ring onto your lens. Lens shade work even better of course.

Dark Goob said:

Even a crap filter will often save your lens if you drop it. The aluminum ring (or brass on B+W) compacts nicely and translates the shock into the glass, which typically shatters radially but not inwardly. More than five times I've seen a lens come in for repair which had been saved by the filter in this manner, usually without even damage to the filter thread on the lens. So, at least on a big heavy lens, I'd put a UV filter, even a cheap one, instead of nothing... just in case. But on a pancake lens or micro four thirds 14-42 Zuiko, etc., there's really no point... the lens opening is so small and non-protuberant that it's very unlikely to be impacted by something.

barry said:

Unfortunately, when I dropped a lens the filter shattered and damaged the lens by scratching the front element.

Chio said:

Excellent. Though I would've like to see examples with only filter too. My camera fell down from a tripod, luckily with the cheapish 17-85mm I got, and the filter was completely broken. Nothing happened to the front element of the glass.

As for lens caps - I rarely use them, so it's nice to have some protection.

Bruno Z said:

Seems like this whole everlasting "filter for protection" debate could arguably be subdivided into 2 different issues: dirt & smudges, and accidental drops.
Regarding the first, obviously if you have the habit of getting your front lens so dirty that you feel the need of a filter, so be it.
Now for the second crowd which is just using it as an insurance against an accidental drop, why don't you guys just leave a step-up ring on the lens? No detrimental optical effects (on the contrary, shades a tiny bit), oh-so-cheap, and the bendable aluminium will protect your lens rim as well if not better than any filter. If your lens falls on a stick bit on the frontal lens itself, then I believe that filter or not the damage will be the same, the filter glass itself is very thin with straight faces and offers very very little mechanical protection...

Larry said:

I am surprised that Roger would not install a filter on the lenses they rent out if it were up to him.

Doesn't the fact that Lens Rental does this already indicate that there are benefits to using the right filter, i.e., the high quality filter? Why buy all these filters if not to protect the lens? Why suffer through the indignities of receiving of receiving the lens back with cheap filters after the customers took out the expensive filter and replaced this with cheap filters?

Then there is the matter of cleaning. It is s much easier to clean the filter than to clean the front element of the lens. Even with just 2 or 3 filters at the end of a hard day, it is so much easier to clean the filters than the front elements of the lens. Imagine how the task looks like when one has to clean 50 front element in the lenses versus 50 filters. The space occupied and the weight involved makes cleaning 50 lenses a daunting task not to mention require a considerable storage and working space. Cleaning 50 filters is much easier and can be done within a small space.

Uncle Toopula said:

I want to see multiple choice 100% photo crops where the viewer has to pick a) shot without a filter b) shot w/ a single b+w UV c) shot w/ a single el cheapo UV. Finally, d) shot after front element is scratched up.

Robin said:

The real comparison is between one expensive new filter and one apparently perfect 20 year old Hoya bought at a camera fair for 2 or 3 pounds or dollars which is the only sort of filter many people ever use. Pity this key test wasn't done.
What was interesting was how bad 5 expensive filters were. Many zoom lenses consist of 15 or more elements and yet give state of the art contrast. So what's the problem - the coating or the flat sufaces? Pentax used to make a slightly curved 'ghostless' UV filter, convex at the front and concave at the rear to combat known defects from the use of flat glass surfaces.
The main purpose of a filter used to be to avoid fingerprints/rain etc reaching the front lens element and subsequent cleaning damaging the coating. Also some lenses had 'cold' transmission (which really mattered when you were using Kodachrome) and many photographers wanted to warm them up with 1A or 1B skylights.

Jure said:

I use only cheap filters. You must admit that by using only one filter it is almost impossible to see the diference and that 99,99999% of hobby photographers use more only one or - better - none.
:o )

Rol said:

Good article Roger and supplementary explanation JeffT (June 16, 2011 at 7:49 AM).

I think some of the reasoning specifically about the use of UV filters could be a hang over from film. I have certainly used quality UV filters with film to fractionally 'warm' a picture by reducing the high end blues.

As for lens protection, when out and about, multi-coated lenses (compared to a filter) are tricky to keep clean, so I've often used a UV or 'skylight' filter for convenience. A couple of times the filter has taken a scrap, so I've been able to replace it and continue shooting.

Interestingly, the only lens I have where the front element has been damaged, was damaged whilst being repaired by a professional service some years back. Unfortunately as it was expensive and discontinued many years ago, I've as yet not found a suitable replacement...

Paul Lazzaro said:

Back in the analogue seventies, I worked in a camera store, and we used to check filter quality by holding them almost horizontal, then looking at some distant object through the maximum thickness of glass.

The amount of 'rippling' was often substantial, and with ample stocks to look at/compare in moments of boredom it was fairly clear to see which big brands at the time were buying their glass from the cheapies and re-branding it!

Nikon and Leica were always first class, and I recall Hoya was the first independent whose stuff also measured up well, and were also early into multicoating their range/slim mounts as well.

It was all too easy to jam stacks together, so a little hacksaw notch diagonally across the front and back rings meant you could
always separate them. Today's useless fact!

Michael said:

There seems to be a lot of debate on whether or not a filter really does protect a lens, and a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting both those who say either that one does or that it doesn't matter. I won't join that debate.

I will point out, however, that whenever I see a lens for sale on ebay, the condition of the front lens element is very frequently an issue (whether advertised by the seller or inquired upon by the buyer), and that lenses with even very small scratches on the front lens element seem to sell for somewhat less than those which don't. Indeed, a selling point often seems to be whether or not that front element was protected by a filter during the ownership of the lens.

What I take from this is that whether or not a single UV filter actually does matter when it comes to actual lens protection, it may, on the other hand, count for a great deal when it comes time to sell the lens, especially for more expensive lenses where the buyer is likely to be more critical of the lenses' condition. When it comes to selling, buyer perception is everything, whether it is grounded in practically reality or not.

Akira said:

Can you get a front element replaced for $150 as Roger states? In that case, the cost of a good filter doesn't make a whole lot of sense except that you're without the lens during the repair. Also, in the case of a drop, I think that the filter ring protects the barrel, which is why the filter shatters when dropped like that (it happened to me when a lens rolled out of my bag). A barrel replacement will be more than $150. Of course a lens hood would prevent that problem. I like to use a (low-profile) filter on my 10-22mm though. The front element moves within the barrel, which means that the inner parts of the barrel can be exposed. Also, the front element isn't a flat piece of glass like it is on most lenses.

sinan said:

Creative experiment, thank you Roger.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Akira, the price varies depending on the lens. Some are more. Some quite a bit less (the Canon 70-200 f4 for example, the front element is $83). In general wide angle lenses have more expensive front elements.

RHB said:

How do the Ultraviolet (UV) Pro 1 Digital Multi-Coated Filters and Ultraviolet Clear Pro 1 Digital Multi-Coated Filters stack up against the more expensive B&W tested above? I've read the Hoya Digital Multi-Coated are supposed to be just as good. That's mostly what I've been using and I certainly don't notice any issues. I've used B&W but I don't like the caps on their thin filters and their polarizers are bumpy and hard to clean. So I've stuck with Hoya and like the price better as well.

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