“The light giveth and the light taketh away”. No, I have not all of a sudden decided to preach you anything about religion. This is just the way I think light works in conjunction with photography. Light is capable of building an image but it may also be the very reason for its destruction. If you think about it closely, all the basic elements of photography – Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO – are actually means of measuring and filtering light so that only the correct amount reaches the actual image sensor. That is all it is. Yes, they all employ different methods to do their job but what a photographer essentially does is ‘shape’ light in a particular manner so the desired effect is achieved on the final frame. In this case of the humble Lens Hood, this principle still holds and is the same.
What Is A Lens Hood?
Before I answer this question I would like to ask you a counter question. What is a hood? As in clothing. You know the one that people wear, which is often attached to the back of their sweatshirts?
It is a small piece of cloth attached around the neck of the jacket which when deployed is capable of covering the head of the person wearing it and provides additional protection from wind, sun, cold, rain. That it also doubles as a comfy pillow is just a happy accident.
The Lens Hood does EXACTLY the same, only for lenses.
A Lens Hood is generally a small circular black piece of (conical or petal shaped) plastic which can be attached to the front of a lens for added protection from stray rays of light which may potentially damage the image.
Let Me Elaborate
Try and remember your last trip to the beach. It’s windy, it’s sunny, warm golden sand beneath you and lots of people all around. You try and look towards the water but it is too darn bright. What do you do? You bring up one hand to your eyes and try to shade them from the sunlight to create a shade for your eyes so that you can see better. The Lens Hood performs this exact trick for you so that your camera can see better.
If you are thinking that if all that a Lens Hood does is provide shade for my lens to shoot better, can I not also use my hand or a towel or a book to create a shade for my lens? As it turns out, yes! You can use anything to create a shade for your lens and that would perform exactly the same if not better. But there are a few problems.
- Firstly, if you are shooting alone without any such gears like a tripod, light stands, and poles, it might be a big problem to hold your camera with just one hand and shield your camera from the sun with the other. One-handed camera operation may lead to camera shake, blurry photographs and in general just uneasy usability.
- Secondly, just one of your hand or a book might not be good enough to protect the front of the lens element from all the stray rays of light that it needs protection from. You can probably shield one side of the lens but when shooting something bright and uneven like the water near the beach, the reflected rays of light coming towards you from all the sides. Blocking all of them is a tough task for a one-handed photographer.
- Thirdly, every time you change positions with respect to the source of light, you also have to change strategies to shade the lens. Sometimes it may come from the left, sometimes from the right, probably from the top or the bottom.
Why make your life as a photographer any more difficult than it already is? Use the easiest and the most effective method there is for all of this. Use the darn Lens Hood. It’s easy, it’s cheap (if not free). Set it and forget it and it will do its job every single time, while you use all your mental horsepower on much more important things like composition and timing.
The Lens Hood has all but two practical uses but they are very important both for your images and for your lenses. Here they are:
Practical Use #1
As I discussed before, the first and foremost job of a Lens Hood is to isolate the front of the lens element from stray rays of light from the light source and hence, in the process, help make a better image. Now the question naturally arises, how does a Lens Hood contribute to a better image?
Very simple. As you already know the basic of the basic lens that you use on your DSLR or Mirrorless cameras have many lens elements inside them. Some are convex, some are concave, some have completely different shapes. When the light which has reflected from the subject enters the camera directly from the front, it passes through all these lens elements and falls on to the image sensor creating a beautiful image. However, when a light ray enters the camera from some crazy angle from the sides, it may not reach the image sensor directly but just bounce around in the lens barrel itself between these lens elements thereby creating ghosting or flaring in the final images.
The simple job that the Lens Hood does is filter out all these unwanted light from entering the camera, but at the same time, it allows the straight direct light to pass through helping in making a great image.
Practical Use #2
The second important function that the Lens Hood performs is that of a physical bumper. No nothing fancy here. It just acts as a physical barrier between foreign elements and the front element of the lens; just like the bumper of your car.
Whenever you are out to shoot something you are always fighting a thousand elements at the same time to get the perfect shot. Airlines are always trying to screw your gear, people keep bumping on your camera, your camera keeps bumping on other objects, sun, wind, rain, snow…arrrrgh! It is good to have the first line of defense for some of them if not all, especially for people crashing onto you just when you are about to take the shot. I am from India, take it from me. My Lens Hood has a million battle scars on it to prove it all. Had they been not on the Lens Hood all that catastrophe would have landed on the lens itself. You get the point right?
All Lens Hoods are an intelligent compromise. They have to be large and protective enough so that they perform the one most important job they are supposed to do, i.e, shade the front of the lens from light coming at weird angles but at the same time they have to stay out of the frame so as to not cause any vignetting or degradation of the image in any form. Keeping this in mind lens manufacturers have come up with primarily two main types of Lens Hood.
This is the simplest of the two. It is just a circular piece of black plastic that envelopes the front of the entire lens. The edges are symmetric and there are no particular patterns. Tube-like Lens Hoods are nearly always used with lenses which have longer focal lengths. As you already know, longer the focal length of a lens, narrower is the field of view.
Now a narrow field of view means you can only see a small part of the entire scene you point your camera at (this is exactly the opposite of wide-angle lenses). The tube-like hood gets to be so large (sometimes in excess of 10 cm long) and all-encompassing since it has a very slim chance of actually ending up in the frame, the field of view being so narrow.
Petal-shaped hoods are primarily used with lenses with smaller focal lengths or wide-angle lenses. Remember I said earlier that Lens Hoods are an intelligent compromise between blocking unwanted light and at the same time staying away from the frame itself? Well, it is particularly for this reason that the hoods are shaped this way.
The petal or wavy shape at the front offers the most amount of protection that can be extended without actually hampering the image in any way. If we use a tube-like hood for the same wide-angle lens, we would have definitely ended up with vignetting or possible appearance of the hood in the frame itself.
Bonus tip: If for some reason you find vignetting in your images even while using a Petal-shaped Lens Hood it might be because you have attached it wrong. In that case, remove the Lens Hood and reattach it so that it is rotated 90 degrees. Make sure the dots on the lens and the hood are aligned.
When To Actually Use A Lens Hood?
The blanket reason for using a hood is anytime there is some strong source of light involved. Stronger sources of light tend to create more such problems for your lens that you want to block off.
But does that mean I should use it at night?…indoors?
Yes! The sun is not the only source of bright light that we have these days. Parties, concerts, weddings all have extremely bright flashy lights all around. You want to protect your images from all of that. Look the way that I see; this is pretty straightforward. A hood is never going to hurt your images in any way. It is light in weight, it is unobtrusive and it does not need constant attention to use. Just set it and forget it. So why not just use it and stay on the safer side.
Besides the images, it also helps protect the front element of the lens which would otherwise be exposed to all kinds of mishaps and accidents. Lenses being expensive you want to preserve them as much as you can.
When NOT To Use It?
As much as I like it, there are still some instances when you should NOT use a Lens Hood and for obvious reasons. Let me explain them now.
Shooting Somewhere Windy
Petal-shaped Lens Hoods maybe fine since they are so small and have such a small footprint. But larger tube-shaped hoods are a big problem when you try to shoot someplace with a substantial amount of wind. Since you are already using a long heavy lens on your camera, any decent amount of wind may just create the vibration and the shake in the images that you do not want. Stay aware of this and adjust to it when necessary.
Trying To Be As Inconspicuous As Possible
Lens Hoods sometimes make your camera look larger and easy to spot from a mile away. When shooting at places where you want to be as invisible as possible maybe you want to take it off and help that cause. On the top of my head, there are many practical situations when you might want to do just that – candid shots, while shooting wildlife, street photography and even some form of photojournalism. Just don’t go stalking someone using this method and all will be fine.
When Using The Pop-Up Flash
You seriously do NOT want to use the hood while using the pop-up flash on your camera. No matter how small your lens is, the pop-up flash is even smaller. Moreover, the flash is attached right on top of the camera itself. This means whenever you take a picture with the Lens Hood on you will be presented with a long hard shadow of the lens and hood in your images as well. So unless you are aiming for just that effect, DON’T do this.
Every hood is designed to keep strays rays of light away from the camera and help your images keep away from lens flares and ghosting. But if that is the exact creative effect you want, by all means, take it off. Just be sure of yourself that you actually want it.
Space …space …space! Packing your lenses in your camera bag with the lens hood attached maybe a real problem. You can, therefore, use any of the two methods to pack them for travel and storage.
Reverse Attach To The Lens: Most of the Lens Hoods in the market today are reversible. So all you have to do is take the hood off and reattach it to the lens by just reversing them. This will reduce the footprint of the hood itself and all you will need is the space to store the lens itself.
Stack and Clip: This is a trick one of my friends who is also a photographer taught me. Basically, all he does is collect all the hoods that he has and wants to travel with and then stacks them up together. Keeping the largest one at the bottom then the seconds largest one, then the next….at the end he threads all the lens through his camera bag strap. Voila! zero bag space used.
- If you do not have a Lens Hood already don’t sweat it. You do not have to ponder over or do extensive research on ‘which one is the best for my lens?’, just get the CHEAPEST one off of Amazon or eBay that fits your lens. Generally, there is just one Lens Hood designed for your particular lens so it would not be a big problem to find one. Forget the OEM hoods, they are pricey and are exactly the same.
- If you want to dramatically decrease the time it needs to yank your camera from the bag and take the shot, leave the lens hood on your camera at all times and keep the lens cap off. The lens hood will protect the front element of the lens from dust, fingerprints, scratches when in the bag.
- Don’t be a moron and keep the Lens Hood attached to the lens reversed while still using it. It does nothing other than proclaim to the world that you are a certified idiot. I mean seriously what are you trying to do? You cannot touch the focusing ring, the zoom ring is hard to reach and you are not even using the Lens Hood. Why? Why on earth would you put it on your lens, go through all this pain if you don’t want to use it?
- The hood does NOT offer any protection from flares caused by strong sources of light that you include in your frame. For example, when shooting into the sun or photographing a concert which has floodlights attached in the opposite corner of where you are standing. This might seem to be a natural, normal thing to understand but it is often forgotten. Remember this, whenever in doubt get the bright light away out of the shot.
- Many modern lenses come with a multi-coated layer to reduce glare. This acts as an added layer of security and helps in preventing ghosting and flaring. So if you ever face any situations I mentioned above where I asked you NOT to use a Lens Hood, you may take small liberties there.
- Sometimes even when you do not see visible flaring in your images your photographs may be suffering due to stray rays of light. Often it makes the image soft and makes it look a little washed out. Secure your images from such damages and use the darn hood whenever you can.
I hope I have given you a pretty good idea of what a Lens Hood is and what it does. My simple advice would be to use it if it is not hampering what you are trying to do. If you do not have it already just get the cheapest one you can from Amazon designed for your particular lens. I hope this article helped you understand that weird bit of black plastic that came with your lens. If you have any more questions shoot them below. I will be happy to assist you.
Keep shooting beautiful.