Camera Lens Hoods: Why When How to use them

With all the latest and greatest camera equipment photographers have at their disposal these days we have to be selective on what to take with us and the item I see sacrificed more often than any other are camera lens hoods.  This often overlooked and seriously underrated piece of camera equipment is frequently discarded in choice of an extra lens, filters or second camera.

A lens hood is an invaluable piece of camera equipment that shields lenses from unwanted stray light in bright sunny conditions, water droplets on rainy days and adds extra lens protection against accidental damage.  They come in a variety of shapes and sizes often supplied with new lenses purposely designed to maximise their effect with the lens focal length and diameter.

Whenever I pack my camera bag I always make sure I have the correct matching lens hoods for the lenses I am taking. Here I explain why and how to use them and why they are one of the first things I make sure are in bag.

Why use a camera lens hood?

It always amazes me how little is spoken about this invaluable piece of equipment that lens manufactures spend so much time in the design process to manufacture the prefect lens hood to compliment their lenses. If they pay so much attention to detail in their design then why should photographers often dismiss their use and leave them at home.

So why use a lens hood? Well quite simply the main reason to use a lens hood is to reduce lens flare. Unless you are trying to achieve lens flare in your images it can quickly ruin a photograph by adding unwanted artefacts which are distracting to the viewer or reduce image contrast.

Lens flare occurs when stray light that is non-image forming enters the lens and hits your camera sensor.  By non-image forming light I mean light that its not reflected from the subject you are capturing.

Another reason to use a lens hood is during bad weather conditions. I find them invaluable to give the lens element extra protection from rain and snow giving me enough time to capture an image. There has been a number of times in the past where I accidently left a lens hood at home while transferring my camera gear to a different bag which made it near impossible to get an image due to heavy rain. 

The best times to photograph woodland scenes is during those early misty mornings and believe me trying to photograph these without the extra protection of a lens hood can be very frustrating. The lens element very quickly becomes covered in fine water droplets and before you know it you will spend more time cleaning your lens that you will taking photographs.

Have you ever been in woodland after a rain shower, composed a shot only for large water droplets to randomly fall from trees above onto your lens?  Very frustrating but using a lens hood protects your glass and reduces the likely hood of this happening.

So as you can see other than the main designed use of a lens hood to reduce lens flare there are a number of reasons why you should think about using a camera lens hood.

What does a camera lens hood do?

To summarise the above let me answer the very often asked question, what does a camera lens do?

It blocks Unwanted Light

It quite simply blocks unwanted light entering the lens by shielding the front glass element from stray light when fitted. Think of it like when you have had to shield your eyes from bright sunlight well a lens hood works in exactly the same way.  

The lens hood acts as visor to the lens which reduces the chances of lens flare or glare produced by scattered light as it hits your front element and enters the lens. This especially happens from bright light sources that are often at angles to the lens and outside of the field of view and not realised until you get home and check your images.

It is worth mentioning that lens manufactures do add different coatings to their lens surfaces to reduce flare but they are not perfect and should not be relied upon on their own without a lens hood.

It can increase Image Contrast

When non-image forming light hits the lens and creates flare and strong glare it can effectively wash out your image. This washout effect will decrease contrast in the area it is present in the image and can also produce discolourations reducing the final image quality.

So although just popping on a lens hood doesn’t magically increase the contrast in all your images it can certainly help retain the contrast by reducing the effects of flare and glare giving you an increase in contrast than you would without one fitted.

It Helps Protect the Lens

As a landscape photographer always out in typical wet British weather, protection form rain droplets is a major factor for me in deciding when to use a lens hood. I often shoot in terrible weather conditions where a hood has given my lens enough protection to allow me to capture the images I have been after. Without it, it just would not have been possible and my landscape photography would suffer.

Another added protection you get is from accidental impact. Recently I had my tripod precariously balanced on a wet rock and as I reached down to grab something out my bag the tripod slipped and camera fell forward lens first straight onto a large rock.  The lens hood took all the impact and luckily saved my very expensive glass.  

Don’t get me wrong there are no guarantees that a lens hood will protect your lens from drops and bangs but it does help and certainly saved me on this day from a hefty repair bill. I know I would prefer to have a cracked or broken lens hood as apposed to a damaged expensive lens!

When you should use a lens hood?

A lens hood can be used in most situations as it certainly won’t do your photography any harm. But there are situations where a lens hood is especially useful and certainly should be considered using them.

  • Bright sunny days or at sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky.  
  • When shooing at night close to lamps, buildings and roads due to vehicle headlights 
  • Shooing silhouettes where the subject is backlit
  • When using off camera light sources
  • Shooting Seascapes for protections against sea spray
  • Shooting close to waterfalls for added protection against spray
  • In harsh weather conditions such as rain and snow to keep your front element dry
  • Photographing in fog or misty conditions
  • Woodland photography during or after rain fall
  • Taking photographs hand held for extra protection against acidental knocks
  • Shooting in precarious positions….just incase!
Use of hood in extreme weather

How to use a camera lens hood

Using a lens hood is as simple as screwing it to the front of your lens. Just make sure it is fitted correctly and properly located.

One issue with lens hoods are their size and they do take up room but a simple tip here is turn them round and fit them in reverse to your lens. This will mean that you always have them with you and when you want to use it just quickly unscrew it and fit it the correct way round.

I do have a few lenses that when the lens hood is reversed it covers my focusing ring which is annoying so Nikon if you ever read this please take this into account when designing new lenses 😛

One thing to note here though is to make sure you have the correct lens hood fitted to the lens. If you have many lenses it is very easy to get them mixed up and especially with wide angle lenses you don’t want to fit a long hood. This can result in being able to see the lens hood at the edges of your images so care needs to be take to use the correct one.

Types of camera lens hoods

Lens hoods typically come in two styles either Cylindrical or Petal shape.

Cylindrical Lens Hoods

Usually Cylindrical lens hoods are fitted to longer focal length lenses. Due to the narrower viewing angle of telephoto lenses their lens hood can me be longer giving extra protection without them appearing at the edge of the frame.

Petal Lens Hoods

Wide angle lenses or wide angle zoom lenses will have a Petal shaped hood which will be much shorter in length and offer less protection. Again this is required due to the viewing angle of the lenses to ensure that they do not appear in the edges of the frame.

When Not to Use a Lens Hood

There are many reasons why you should use a lens hood but there are certain situation when not to use a one. It is just important to understand when not to use one as it is to know when to use one.

When not to use a lens hood:

  • You want a lens flare effect
  • You want to get really close to the subject such as macro
  • When the lens hood blocks your flash
  • Using an adapter ring and filters
  • You want to use a diffuser
  • In Windy Weather
  • Long Exposures when chance of wind gusts
White horses at Pen y Garreg Dam Elan Valley during a storm
White horses at Pen y Garreg Dam at Elan Valley during a storm

What If You Don’t Have a Hood?

If you have left your lens hood at home or just don’t have one all is not lost. You can simply use your hand to shield the lens from the bright light source. I have done this many times where I have put the camera into live view mode and waving my hand around the lens to find the best position before taking the shot. On a couple of occasions I have set a timer and literally just stood next to the lens to shield it from a bright setting sun.

One last tip which can help even if you have a lens fitted especially if you have a bright sun in the frame is to take a series of images and just place a finger over the sun in the frame. This way you can blend images together with and without the sun covered to remove any flaring.

Where to buy a lens hood

In my opinion it is always best to try and buy a lens hood that was designed for the specific lens you are using. The cheapest options are the obvious such as Ebay where you can try and get a second hand one to match your needs.

If not then reputable camera companies I use are as follows:-

There are also a selection of after market Collapsible Silicone lens hoods which are a good alternative but be careful of their size and which lens you use them with so you can’t see them in the frame. Some have magnetic mounts which makes fitting them a breeze.

Lens Hoods Are More Useful Than You Might Think

Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding of when and how to use lens hoods in your photography. They are versatile and have many uses so think before you take them out of your camera bag and leave home without them.

The day you leave them will most likely be the day you wish you had them with you!