A long time ago I wrote a blog post called Good Times with Bad Filters about how cheap UV protective filters are different from good ones. It was mostly in fun.
Today I've got a post about how cheap UV filters may hurt your lens. It's not in fun.
Here at Lensrentals we see lenses come back with scratched front elements every so often. Not a big deal, it happens. But since the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 Mk II lens came out we've seen a whole lot of them come back with scratched front elements. The weird thing was it was always in the center of the lens and often circular in pattern like the one below. (Ignore the dust, this front element had been taken out for replacement and sat on my desk for an hour before we took the picture.)
At first I thought maybe there was a problem with the new coating Canon was using, but it seemed a coating issue wouldn't occur just in the center.
It turns out that the combination of the slightly bulging front element of this lens and a 'less than best quality' thin or ultra-thin filter is the culprit. Let me make this point first, though: The vast majority of filters do NOT touch the front element of this lens. I went through a number of filters before I found one that did. But it can happen and that's worth knowing.
This 24-70 had a front element that was about to be replaced because of some scratches near one edge (which is why I didn't mind putting filter after filter on it to see if any caused a problem), but the center was absolutely clear.
I went through 8 filters with absolutely no issues. The 9th filter, though, seemed to come in contact with the front element. It's hard to be certain about that by just looking and feeling. So I dusted on the back side of the filter with a little carbon black. Notice I covered a fairly large area of the filter with it.
Then I put the filter on the lens, took it back off the lens, and took a picture of the front of the lens. Notice the circular pattern of the carbon,which is fairly clingy. Other than a few specs, it doesn't come off the filter except where there was glass-to-glass contact. This is a much smaller area than the large smear of carbon I put on the filter.
And when we blew the carbon off the lens, there were a couple of scratches that hadn't been there before.
READ THIS PART
This is a good demonstration about what MIGHT happen. I will add that I've put another dozen brand name filters (Heliopan, B&W, etc.) on this lens with absolutely no problem and no sign of glass-to-glass contact. It seems that you need the proper combination of a thin-line filter with glass close to the back of the filter, and a lens with a slightly bulging front element (this lens has one, but so do lots of others) to even worry about it. I would also think that wider front elements (this is 82mm) might allow more play or sag in the center making this more likely.
For those of you who can't wait to go post something about how the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 II has a problem, let me assure you that's not the case. I had to try a number of filters and the one that I used in the demonstration is a 'discount' filter that someone sent back to us in place of the name-brand filter we sent them. The other name-brand filters I tried were all fine.
I've also seen this 'center circular' scratch pattern on a few other lenses and we'll start watching for it now that we know what it is. But I don't have enough records to go back and figure out which of the numerous front element scratches we've seen were of this type.
My suggestion, though, is that you stay away from ultra-thin filters on these lenses, especially discount ultra-thin filters. If you look across the front of your lens from the side, you can get an idea how far up the center of the lens bulges. Then look at the back side of your filter and see how far the glass is from the bottom of the threads. If those two distances seem similar - well, be careful!