To Filter or Not to Filter

A child is silhouetted against approaching emergency lights during the Asher, Oklahoma Christmas parade earlier this month.
A child is silhouetted against approaching emergency lights during the Asher, Oklahoma Christmas parade earlier this month.

It’s been a completely amazing holiday season for me as a journalist and photographer. Our readers have gotten into the very welcome habit of calling me when they or their groups have a festive event, and I have covered a dozen or more items, from hayrides to sweater contests, and everything else that is photographable about Christmas.

This week a friend of mine asked if I would do the honor of photographing his surprise marriage proposal to his girlfriend under the brightly-lit footbridge near the entrance to Ada’s iconic Wintersmith Park. It sounded like fun, so I agreed. I also invited my good friend and former Ada News intern Mackenzee Crosby to join us, just because we both love being behind the camera.

I mostly shot the event with my AF-S 50mm f/1.4, a wonderful lens that I should make a point to bring out and work with more often. The light in the archway was amazing, and the woman unreluctantly said “yes” to the proposal (whew!), so it was a great, fun opportunity.

At the end of the evening, with the light working so well for us, I asked Mackenzee to pose for a portrait. I made a couple of frames, then reviewed on the monitor, and saw some tell-tale artifacts.

“Wait,” I said, “I’m getting sparkles.”

Mackenzee Crosby poses for a quick portrait with the lights in Wintersmith Park Wednesday. In this frame, you can see the obvious butterfly-shaped artifacts on the right side of the frame, caused by reflections between the lens and the uv/haze filter on the front of it.
Mackenzee Crosby poses for a quick portrait with the lights in Wintersmith Park Wednesday. In this frame, you can see the obvious butterfly-shaped artifacts on the right side of the frame, caused by reflections between the lens and the uv/haze filter on the front of it.

What I was seeing is a rare but real artifact caused by reflections between the lens and the uv (ultraviolet) filter I keep on the front of all my lenses. It was creating bright butterfly-shaped highlights directly opposite some bright lights in the frame.

I took the filter off, and they instantly disappeared.

Many photographers won’t use a filter on the front of their lenses due to this possibility, arguing that any additional reflective surface in the system can degrade image quality.

Thus the question remains: should your lens be wearing a filter?

A filter on the front of the lens has saved several of my lenses from destruction. Between blowing rain and dust, the occasional camera-drop, colliding with players at sporting events, and, on one occasion, a direct collision with a doorknob, filters have been directly responsible for saving my lenses. It’s a good feeling too: instead of having to send a lens to be repaired, or even replacing it, I fumble through my shoeboxed of filters and find a fresh one to replace the broken or scratched one.

Also, I am often in the field when the front of my lens needs to be cleaned, and usually the only thing I have handy is my shirt tail. Do I want to clean the front element of a $1500 lens with my shirt tale, in the field? I have no problem cleaning an $8 filter with my shirt.

So, yes, a filter is a good idea if you make pictures like I do: every day, in all kinds of harsh conditions. The trick is to keep your eyes open for problems your filter might be giving you, and make good notes about when and how this might happen.

Mackenzee Crosby poses in Wintersmith Park after I removed the filter from my lens, and you can see that the "sparkle" artifacts are gone.
Mackenzee Crosby poses in Wintersmith Park after I removed the filter from my lens, and you can see that the “sparkle” artifacts are gone.

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