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  • Writer's pictureAbdul Qudoos

UV Filter vs Polarizer: Which Camera Lens Filter Should You Use and When?


UV Filter vs Polarizer

Photographers have an arsenal of creative tools at their disposal to enhance and transform images. Two of the most common accessories used are UV and polarizing lens filters.


They may look similar to the untrained eye, but these filters serve very different purposes. This guide will break down how UV and polarizing filters work, their effects on images, and ideal use cases.


We’ll also give you recommendations so you can decide when to use UV or polarizer filters to take your photography to the next level. Let’s get started.


What is a UV Filter?

A UV filter, also known as a UV haze filter, absorbs ultraviolet light waves that the human eye cannot see. UV light often makes outdoor scenes appear hazy or foggy in photos.


By filtering out UV rays, these filters produce:

  • Sharper images

  • Clearer skies

  • More accurate color rendition


However, some sources claim that low-quality UV filters can actually decrease image sharpness.


UV filters are designed to be left on lenses at all times for protection as well. They safeguard expensive glass against dust, moisture, scratches, and accidental bumps.


With a high-quality UV filter, you shouldn’t notice any decline in image quality. Lower-quality filters may introduce lens flare or reduce contrast.


What is a Polarizing Filter?

Polarizing filters eliminate glare and enhance saturation. They work by blocking light that oscillates on a horizontal plane while allowing vertical light to pass through.


Because the sun produces intense horizontal light waves, a polarizer can have dramatic effects, especially for outdoor photography.


Benefits of using a polarizing filter include:

  • Darkening blue skies

  • Minimizing reflections

  • Boosting color saturation

  • Cutting through haze

  • Enhancing contrast


Polarizing filters come in two main types – linear and circular. Linear polarizers are cheaper but can interfere with autofocus on modern DSLR lenses. Circular polarizers are compatible with any camera.


Key Differences Between UV and Polarizing Filters

UV and polarizing filters may appear similar to screw-on lens accessories, but they vary dramatically in their effects on images. Here’s an in-depth look at how they differ:


1. Cost and Value

  • UV filters are inexpensive, usually $10 - $50 for high-quality brands. They provide protection.

  • Polarizing filters cost $75 to $200+ for pro-level brands like B+W xs-pro. They actively enhance photos through polarization.


2. Effects on Images

  • Properly designed UV filters have no perceptible effect on image quality, sharpness, contrast, etc.

  • Polarizers noticeably darken skies, reduce reflections, and boost saturation and contrast when used. Creative effects are very apparent.


3. Frequency of Use

  • UV filters can be left on lenses at all times for daily protection and haze reduction. Set and forget.

  • Polarizers are selectively used for specific scenes where reducing glare/reflections or enhancing saturation will benefit the image.


4. Durability

  • UV filters allow lenses to take the brunt of bumps, scrapes, sand, moisture, etc. They are sacrificed instead of bare glass.

  • Polarizers have no protective benefit for lenses. Their effects wear off over time with use and cleaning. Durability varies by brand.


5. Optical Function

  • UV filters simply absorb UV wavelengths under 400 nm that are invisible but can cause atmospheric haze. Minimal optical effects.

  • Polarizers manipulate visible light through selective filtration of specific polarization angles. This directly impacts the image.


6. Resulting Photo Effects

  • UV filters reduce UV haze for slightly clearer distant scenes with better color accuracy.

  • Polarizers remove reflective glare, enrich color saturation, enhance blue skies, and heighten contrast for dramatic effects.


The capabilities of UV and polarizing filters diverge into different purposes. Both can serve important roles in an outdoor photographer’s camera bag when used strategically.

UV Filter

Polarizing Filter

Inexpensive

More expensive

Protects lens

Doesn't protect the lens

No effect on the image

Can alter the image significantly

Leave on the lens at all times

Use selectively

Absorbs UV light

Blocks reflected light

Reduces haze

Deepens saturation

Clear filter

Can appear dark

Now that we’ve compared the core functions of UV and polarizing filters, let’s break down how they impact your pictures.


How UV Filters Affect Your Photos


uv filter

UV filters are designed to provide protection and cut haze while minimally impacting image quality. Here's an overview of their effects:


Subtle Changes to Image Quality

With high-quality UV filters from reputable brands like Hoya and B+W, you should not notice any decline in sharpness, contrast, or color rendition. Lower-priced filters may introduce subtle issues like flare or softness.


Always inspect a UV filter carefully before purchasing. Look for any scratches, bubbles, chips, or other defects that could show up in images.


Reduction in UV Haze

UV filters absorb ultraviolet light that the naked eye cannot see. This alleviates the atmospheric haze or fogginess that often appears in landscape photos.


Images will have greater clarity, especially for distant subjects on clear sunny days when UV light is most intense.


Protection From Lens Damage

The primary benefit of UV filters is protecting expensive lenses from dirt, dust, splashes, or scratches. Leaving these filters on lenses at all times reduces wear and tear.


This is the main reason many photographers use UV filters as daily lens covers. It provides peace of mind when changing lenses in rough conditions.


How Polarizing Filters Impact Photos


polarizing filter

While UV filters have subtle effects, polarizers noticeably alter images to decrease reflections and boost saturation.


Darker Blue Skies

By filtering out horizontally polarized light, polarizers make blue skies appear darker. This creates more separation between clouds and sky for dramatic landscapes.


Light scattered in a blue sky is largely horizontally oriented. As you rotate the filter, the sky transitions from pale to richly saturated.


Reflection Reduction

Polarizers block intense reflected light from non-metallic surfaces like water, glass, and snow. This allows you to cut through bothersome glare and reflections for clearer shots.


Rotating the filter lets you dial in the exact amount of reflection reduction needed.


Boosted Color Saturation

With haze-causing scattered light diminished, colors may appear more brilliant when shooting through a polarizer, especially primary colors like red, green, and blue.


Saturation increases are often most noticeable in open shade on a sunny day. But colors only get enriched, not created.


Greater Contrast

By darkening skies and minimizing glare, polarizers heighten contrast in ways that make the overall scene pop. Details become more defined and dimensional.


This contrast enhancement is particularly effective for black-and-white photography, transforming flat tones into striking high-contrast images.


Potential for Underexposure

Since polarizing filters block up to two stops of light, images can become underexposed. Compensate by increasing ISO, opening the aperture wider, or slowing the shutter speed.


Circular polarizers typically lose 1-2 stops, while linear polarizers may cut out 3 or more stops of light.


When Should You Use UV vs Polarizing Lens Filters?

Now that you understand the distinct advantages of UV and polarizing filters, when should you use each?


Ideal Uses for UV Lens Filters

  • Landscape Photography - The subtle haze reduction from a UV filter improves clarity in the scenic. Leave on the lens for protection.

  • Beach Photography - Filters guard against sand damage. UV absorption crisps up beach vistas.

  • High Altitude Photography - Greater UV intensity at higher elevations makes filters beneficial.

  • Permanent Lens Protection - Leaving on a UV filter shields glass from dust, dirt, rain, etc.


Best Uses for Polarizing Lens Filters

Polarizing filters truly shine in these photography scenarios:

  • Cutting Water Reflections - One of the most popular uses is darkening water surfaces. Polarizers bring out the detail below the surface in oceans, lakes, and rivers.

  • Boosting Skies and Foliage - The color and contrast benefits are incredibly useful in landscape photography.

  • Reducing Glass Glare - If shooting through glass or other reflective surfaces, polarizers cut unwanted glare and reflections for a clearer view of the subject.

  • Outdoor Portrait Photography - Reducing facial shine and saturating the greens and blues in outdoor backgrounds benefits portrait sessions.


Using UV and Polarizing Filters Together

Can you stack a UV and polarizing filter together for combined benefits? Absolutely!

Follow this best practice order:

  • Step 1) Attach a UV filter to the lens for protection first

  • Step 2) Add polarizer filter on top of the UV filter

  • Step 3) Rotate the polarizer filter ring to adjust the effects


The UV filter closest to the lens guards the glass. The polarizer on top then provides its specialized effects for reflection reduction and color/contrast enhancement.


You may need to adjust exposure slightly to compensate for the additional light loss of two filters. But creative effects get combined for unique landscape and outdoor images!


However, it’s important to note that using UV and polarizing filters together might not always be beneficial. Stacking filters can lead to image degradation, increased chances of lens flaring, and vignetting (corner darkness).


Buying Recommendations and Tips for Using Filters

To harness the full advantages of UV and polarizing filters, follow these handy tips:

Purchase Quality Filters

With both UV and polarizing filters, quality matters. Avoid cheap options that can introduce flare, haze, or other defects.


Look for trusted brands like Hoya, Tiffen, B+W, or Breakthrough Photography for performance you can rely on.


Get the Right Size

Filter threads must match your lens to avoid vignetting. Check the filter size needed for each lens before buying.


Step-up rings allow the fitting of larger filters to smaller lenses when needed.


Adjust Settings to Compensate

When shooting with a polarizer, increase ISO, open the aperture wider, or slow the shutter speed to offset the light loss. Bracket exposures to be safe.


Take Test Shots

Every lighting situation responds differently to filtration. Take test shots with any new filter to see effects and make adjustments.


Keep Lenses and Filters Clean

Dirt, grease, or smudges on UV and polarizing filters can degrade image quality. Keep them squeaky clean.


Consider Variable Neutral Density Filters

If you want filtration flexibility, variable ND filters allow dialing density up or down as needed.


Final Words

UV and polarizing lens filters shouldn’t be considered a substitute for quality glass or good technique. But used judiciously, both can enhance outdoor photography in meaningful ways.


UV filters excel at providing durable lens protection and slight haze reduction. Polarizers offer more dramatic effects by cutting glare and boosting saturation for bluer skies and richer colors.


Hopefully, this breakdown gives you confidence in discerning when to use UV or polarizing filters to take your photography to the next level!


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