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By Jim Heid | Thursday, November 07, 2013

Should You Bother Using a Lens Shade?

Ben Long demonstrates a lens shade

The lowly lens shade might just be the least glamorous piece of gear in your camera bag. It’s that plastic ring that attaches to your lens and helps guard against flare—those bright circles that appear when your camera is pointed near the sun or another bright light source.

Most new lenses include shades. So why does Ben Long confess to rarely using them—indeed, to having a “completely irrational fear” of the things? That’s the subject of this week’s installment of The Practicing Photographer.

Close up of a common lens shade

One problem with lens shades, Ben says, is that they add bulk to your camera bag. You can reverse a shade and store it on the lens itself, but that makes the lens bulkier.

What’s more, as Ben demonstrates in the photo above, you can often eliminate the need for a lens shade by simply using a free hand to shield your camera’s lens from bright light. In other words, your body includes a perfectly serviceable lens shade, and it works with every lens you own—except maybe for that extra-long telephoto.

Another reason for Ben’s lens-shade phobia is rooted in his past. The lenses and lens shades of yesteryear were sometimes prone to vignetting—a darkening of the edges of the frame. A bit of vignetting can be desirable in some shots because it helps focus the viewer’s eye on the subject of the photo. But it’s better to add it in a post-production tool like Adobe Lightroom, where you have full control over its appearance.

There is one argument in favor of lens shades that Ben doesn’t mention: They can protect your lenses. A lens shade is a bit like a set of rhino bars on the front of a safari vehicle—it protects against unexpected collisions. By blazing the trail in front of your lens, a shade helps protect the lens, and any filters you’ve installed, from a knock against a wall or worse.

In the end, Ben recommends testing your lens shades in the late afternoon light. Point your camera near the sun (but not directly at it!), and shoot a few frames at various apertures to see if your shade causes vignetting. If not, you’ll know you can trust that shade—and can consider making room for it in your camera bag.

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