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There is a big debate as to whether protective lens filters are worth using. On the one hand, they protect your lens from the elements. On the other hand, they can degrade image quality. A chain of questions comes up in the debate: “Do high-end filters affect image quality?” and if so then “How much is the quality affected?” and if it does then “Is it worth it to protect your glass?” Well there is no clear-cut answer. Photographers all have different needs and therefore different opinions on what works better. Here are some things to think about if you're considering buying/ditching your filter.
Filters can protect the front of your lens from elements like rain, snow, dirt, and possibly gravity. It also protects from scratches and smudges that can be difficult or impossible to remove. Many beginning photographers will often buy a filter for their first lens because they are afraid of damaging it in someway. An expensive camera like a DSLR is a big investment, and it only makes sense to want to protect your investment. So many purchase a filter, but they are unaware of the negative side effects it can have.
There are some photographers who say that your lens is only as valuable as the filter you put on it. So a $2,000 lens with a $20 filter is essentially a $20 lens. While this may be overstating it a bit, it has a good amount of truth to it. Cheap filters can lower image quality a good amount. You often hear photographers talking about lenses in the thousands of dollars because they are better quality and that image quality is all about the lens. So it does seem kind of silly to invest in such an expensive piece of equipment for its superior quality and then slap a extra little piece of plastic or glass over it.
As with any product, there are bad and good quality filters. Cheap plastic filters will often result in a loss of sharpness, contrast, color tone, and sometimes cause strange artifacts from reflections. Then there are high-quality filters, like Hoya, that have special coatings on them to reduce all of these issues. However, they don't eliminate them. Adding an extra element to your lens is always going to cause some loss in sharpness, even if it's only a small amount. It may not be noticeable with cheaper lenses. But with a high-end lens and a close look, you'll often find that the filtered images are softer.
Really it comes down to this: Do you need the protection of a lens filter? Are you shooting somewhere where there's going to be a lot of rain or wind/dirt or other conditions which could seriously damage your lens? If yes then it would be a safe bet to use a filter. An image that's a little less that tack sharp is better than a damaged lens. As for accidental drops, a filter may protect your lens, but it isn't always guaranteed. If you're in a studio using your camera on a tripod or just walking downtown on a sunny day, then there's not much of a reason to use a filter.
If you are still a bit hesitant and worried about possibly dropping your camera, buy a lens hood. A hood goes around the lens so it won't affect image quality, and it can protect you lens to a certain degree. If, in a worst case scenario, your camera fall lens first, the hood will most likely protect the front glass element.
Image credit: santiaga22 / 123RF Stock Photo
Article by: Spencer Seastrom