Lens Hoods—Why, When, and How to Use Them

Hi, I’m Phil Steele. I get a surprising number of questions about lens hoods–these funny plastic things. “What good are they?” “Why do they come in these different shapes and sizes?” “How do I choose the right one?” “When should you use it?” “How should you use it?” So today we’re going to cover everything you ever wanted to know about lens hoods and we’re going to set straight some misconceptions and at the end I’ll give you a bonus tip for how to transport your lens hoods without them taking up all that space in your camera bag.

Now first, just what the heck is the purpose of a lens hood? Well, really it serves two functions. The main function is to shade the front of your lens to keep unwanted light from falling across the front element of your lens and causing unwanted flares or an unwanted, washed out, low contrast look. It might be light from the sun. It might be coming in at odd angles from other lights in your surroundings. You put the hood on to shield the front of your lens and protect it from that stray light unless, of course, you intentionally are trying to create lens flares or a washed out look for some kind of artistic effect. For example, here is a shot of a little shack that I took in Arizona without the lens hood. And you’ll see we have a flare right here where the direct sun is hitting the lens. Now here is the same shot with the hood on. The lens is shaded and the flare is gone and not only is the obvious flare gone but all the blacks in the image are a little blacker and the colors are a little more saturated because we don’t have that smear of glare across the lens. So that’s the basic purpose of a lens hood. It shades your lens just like you shade your eyes when you’re out in bright sunlight, to try to keep the sun from falling directly on your eyes. And when you provide that shade, everything is crisper and sharper and easier to see.

Now there is also a second purpose to a lens hood. The hood provides a kind of physical protector to the front of your lens. It’s a kind of bumper to keep you from banging your lens into things and I can’t tell you how many times the hood has saved me from crashing my lens into things as I’m moving around. Now of course if you have an expensive lens you probably already have a clear filter or a UV filter on the front to protect the front element of your lens but those filters themselves cost money and they can get scratched, they can get fingerprints, they can get dirt on them if they go around bumping into things. So it’s a good reason to just keep the hood on all the time–not only to shade your lens but to protect it.

Now there are a few exceptions, of course–cases where you don’t want to have the hood on–and we’ll talk about those in a moment. But in general, I keep it on all the time. And you may be thinking, “Even indoors? Even at night?” Yep. Even indoors and at night there is stray light that can cause flares and even indoors or at night you can physically bang your lens into things.

So why not just put the hood on there and keep it on there and protect it all the time?

Now there are, of course, some situations where you don’t want to have the hood on your lens. First of all, if you’re intentionally trying to create lens flares for some artistic effect, well, then take the hood off and let the light fall on your lens to get the flare effect that you want. Now second, if you’re trying to be inconspicuous you might want to take the hood off. Say you’re trying to get candid photos of people without them noticing that you’re pointing a camera at them. Well, people are highly attuned to noticing when someone is looking at them so if you have a big, long lens with a great big hood on it, you might as well be pointing a bazooka in their direction. People are going to notice you. So you might want to take the hood off if you’re trying not to be noticed.

Now third, if you’re using the built in popup flash, that flash is so close to your lens that the hood can cast a shadow on your subject. So you might want to take the hood off if you’re using that built in flash. And finally, if you’re out and you’ve forgotten your hood and you need some shade on it, you can always just shoot one-handed and provide shade with your free hand. Now if it’s too hard for you to shoot one-handed that way, maybe you could have a friend hold their hand up and provide shade on the front of your lens or a friend can hold an object up and make shade or if there’s nobody around you can just position yourself behind some object that’s making shade to block the light that’s falling on the front of your lens.

So we’ve talked about why to use a lens hood.

Now let’s talk about how to do it. Now first of all, a lot of lens hoods are reversible. In other words, they can come off and you can turn them around backwards on your lens and put it on like this. But that’s just for storage. You don’t want to carry it around that way. This is for packing it away in a camera bag so it takes up less space. But if you’re shooting with it in this position it gets in the way of you trying to operate the lens. So there is no reason to ever have it on your lens like that when you’re shooting. So if you’ve got the hood with you, turn it around, put it on the right way where it will do some good.

Next, if you need to be able to shoot fast, you might as well leave your lens cap off and leave the hood on for protection. That way you don’t have to pull the camera out when you need to get a shot really quick and fuss around trying to get a lens cap off.

Now for example, when I’m shooting events I typically carry two cameras this way. For example, if I’m out at the Burning Man festival in the desert and I’m shooting I’ve got a big bag with two cameras in it, both with the lens cap off–even though I’m out in the desert with a bunch of dust flying around–no cap but I leave the hood on. It’s protecting it in the bag and it’s protecting it when I pull it out. And best of all, I can reach in at a moment’s notice and yank out a camera and get a shot immediately without any preliminaries, without having to fuss around and take a lens cap off. Now of course if you’re putting your camera away for transport or storage you might as well put the cap on for extra protection. But when I’m actively shooting, I pretty much always leave the lens cap off and the hood on.

Many beginning photographers are confused about the different shapes and styles of lens hoods. I know I was. When I first got a DSLR I saw all these other lens hoods that photographers were using with all these different shapes and I thought, “Well, how do I know what kind to buy? Are there different hoods for different purposes?” But if you’re confused about that, don’t worry because it’s really very simple. There’s really just one hood for each lens. So you don’t have to make any choices.

So you may be wondering, “Well, why do they come in all these different shapes and styles?” Well, that’s just because each hood has been optimized–designed to be optimal–for the focal length, range of the lens that it goes onto.

You basically see two different styles of lens hoods. This curvy kind is called a petal style or flower style hood and it’s usually designed to go on a wide angle lens, typically a wide angle zoom. And it has this shape because this shape is the best compromise between trying to provide shade for the front of your lens and not getting a piece of the hood in your shot when you’re zoomed to a wide angle. Now if it happens that you are seeing pieces of the hood in your shot, that means your hood is probably 90 degrees out of its proper position and you probably need to rotate it like that to get it out of the way.

On the other hand, many fixed lenses or long range zooms have a hood that’s more like this. It’s more like a tube and it’s more protective. And this one doesn’t need the cutout shape you see on a petal hood because this is a long range zoom. It’s a 70-200 zoom and it’s entire field of view is a small field of view way out there. It never gets wide enough to need those cutouts like you see on a hood like this. So the bottom line is the shape of the hood is determined by the nature of your lens. It’s not a fashion statement so you don’t need to worry about which kind to buy. Just buy the one designed for your lens and you’re all set.

Now speaking of buying hoods, some lenses come with them and some don’t. For example, this Canon 17-55 F 2.8 lens cost $1,000 and they sell it without the hood. I had to spend another $30 to get the hood from Canon. So this is kind of a pet peeve of mine, you know? Canon, if you’re out there listening, if I give you $1,000 for a lens you should throw in the $5 piece of plastic. So you may be wondering, when it comes to buying hoods–whether it’s buying a new one or buying a replacement hood for one that you’ve lost– “Is it necessary to buy the expensive one from your camera gear maker or can you buy one of these cheap, third-party ones that you can find online from some Chinese manufacturer?” I’m personally in favor of buying a cheap one. For example, this hood… The original version of this Canon hood is at the bottom of the turtle pond at the Waikiki Zoo. At least it wasn’t my whole camera. But in replacing it, I had the choice of spending $30 on one from Canon or I could spend $8 on one from some Chinese maker that I bought on Amazon. And maybe it doesn’t fit quite as perfectly as the original Canon one but it does the job well enough for me.

Now finally, when we started out I promised you a tip for transporting your lens hoods without them taking up all that space in your camera bag. And I hate wasting bag space on a lens hood. Even if you reverse them on the lens they still take up a much larger compartment in your bag than they would without that hood on there. So here’s what I do. I take all the lens hoods for all the lenses I’m carrying and I stack them together and I unclip the strap from my bag and I thread them on there and that way, I’m carrying them, I’ve got them where I can get access to them but they’re not taking up any space in my bag at all. And that’s the way I like it. So that’s it for lens hoods. I hope you found this helpful. Look forward to talking to you again soon.

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