The Ultimate Lens Guide for Paintball Players

Introduction

Let’s face it, most if not all paintball players have next to no idea how the color of a lens truly changes the quality of what you see on the field. About all we know is that a darker lens blocks more sunlight and mirror finishes look badass. Product descriptions all promise “increased contrast”, “reduced glare”, “advanced optics” yada yada yada, making it seem like there’s no performance difference at all because they all promise the same things.

Every single coating, filter, and tint option a lens has impacts what you see and how you see it. You deserve to know how each of those individually manipulates the light that passes through to your eyes so you know which lenses work for you, and which work against you. This article aims to educate you on exactly what each lens option does, how that differs from other options, and why that matters on the paintball field.

I’m going to take you through every lens option you might encounter in a paintball lens (which honestly will carry over into every type of eyewear) so that you have an idea of what lens color, what visible light transmission level (VLT%), what mirror finish, and what treatments you need for your particular conditions before you even try them on at a store.

What Do Eye Know?

I don’t want to misrepresent myself as some kind of optician, optical engineer or anything like that. I’m just what you might call a ‘sunglasses snob‘. I got into fly-fishing back in college which introduced me to the (overwhelming) world of fancy (i.e. expensive) polarized sunglasses. Fast forward a few years and I end up working in a fly-fishing shop where we sold Maui Jim, Smith, and a few other high-end sunglass brands. Meeting the account reps for these brands was eye-opening (no pun intended) because they were able to not just explain the benefits of different tints, materials, coatings, etc., but they would let you try on the lenses as they talked about them so you could actually see for yourself what they were talking about.

My hands-on experience with these reps and their array of lens options led me to appreciate the various lens colors and coating options that exist, and I left with about 4 different pairs of sunglasses knowing that each served a specific purpose and those 4 purposes covered nearly everything I would ever do outside.

Now, 10 years later, I’m playing paintball again and it’s time to apply what I know about sunglasses to goggle lenses. My fly-shop education didn’t give me everything I needed to know to pick the the best lenses for this particular sport, so I did need to learn some extra details about how lens technology best applies to paintball. Thanks to some highly informative YouTube channels like SportRX, The Glasses Guy, and The Spectacle Factory, as well as this in-depth article, I’ve learned enough that I think I can help advise the paintball community on how to best approach selecting their assortment of lenses.

So let’s get to it!

Where to Start

Lenses have a pretty amazing amount of technology available to choose from. You’ve got color (tint), shade (darkness), filters (Blue light, UVA, UVB, Polarization, etc.), coatings (Scratch resistance, Anti-reflection, etc.), mirrors, gradients, and all of these things can be layered together in a million different ways. It’s virtually an infinite amount of options, each of which can be outstanding for some applications yet completely counterproductive for others. That’s what we’re here to figure out: what makes sense for paintball, and what makes sense for me?

#1: Brightness (aka “VLT”)

The most important thing in a lens is making sure it gives you all the light your eyes need. Light = information, and you want to make sure your eyes have all the information required to make the smartest decisions on the paintball field. Optimal brightness is achieved when all essential light is transmitted and all excessive light is blocked.

VLT stands for “visible light transmission” and represents the percentage of light that a lens (or any transparent barrier) allows to pass through. The higher the VLT%, the more transparent that lens is and the more light it allows through. Naturally, the lower the VLT%, the more light is blocked, making the lens (and received image) darker.

There doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted scale to help categorize VLT values into functional categories, but in general it seems that the following VLT ranges qualify as generally accepted ranges:

Brightness LevelVLT %
Transparent/Bright80%-100%
Light50%-80%
Medium25%-50%
Dark15%-25%
Dark as shit<15%

It’s really hard to give you an idea of what a single VLT value means compared to another because the environmental conditions make a big difference, but to help you visualize just how different these ranges can be in different settings here are a few examples I found online of how the VLT spectrum can influence the appearance of a landscape.

VLT (visible light transmission) visual example 1 of 3

Example 1/3 of VLT (photo credit)

VLT (visible light transmission) visual example 1 of 3

Example 2/3 of VLT (photo credit)

VLT (visible light transmission) visual example 1 of 3

Example 3/3 of VLT (photo credit)

Knowing where you plan to use your lens should give you the starting point for what VLT value is best for you. If you play in shady areas or cloudy climates, you’re most likely going to want a VLT of ~50% or higher. Those in really bright environments will probably want a VLT between 20%-40%. Better to have more than enough light than not enough at all, so always err on the side of brighter rather than darker.

#2: Contrast (Color/Tint)

After you figure out the right amount of light you need (VLT value), it’s time to figure out which colors you want to see, and which (if any) you want to filter out. This is what creates “contrast”, and it is primarily determined by your lens’ base color (aka “tint”). This is different than the color of any mirror finish your lens might have on it, although the mirrors do influence contrast and we will talk about that later.

You probably remember learning that the reason we see color at all is because the object we’re looking at is reflecting a specific wavelength of light back at our eyes while absorbing all other wavelengths. If something looks red for example, it’s because we are seeing the ‘red’ wavelength of the visible light spectrum bounce off the object while the other wavelengths are being absorbed.

Lenses work the same way but because they are transluscent, the color of the lens is actually telling us what wavelengths of light are being allowed through more so than what wavelengths are being reflected away.

It’s important to know that all lenses filter some light (yes even Clear), so every lens color can be said to ‘reduce glare’, ‘increase contrast’, and ‘block UV rays’. Keep that in mind when reading the marketing promises of different eyewear. I’m here to help you understand the physics behind the performance claims so that you know what kind of contrast you’re looking for, and what tint options make that possible.

Here are the most common color options and how they influence contrast:

Blue

Blue tints filter longer light wavelengths (yellow-orange-red) and allow shorter wavelengths (purple-blue-green) to pass through. Since blue light wavelengths are more stressful on the retina than longer ones (hence the trend of “blue light blockers”), this is rarely going to provide performance benefits and is most commonly chosen for cosmetic reasons.

Brown/Amber

Brown is probably the 2nd most common lens color used in eyewear. Because it favors light in the middle of the spectrum, it favors greens, yellows and ambers (i.e. “Earthy” tones) while filtering blues and reds, making it an excellent choice for golf, fishing, or almost anything outdoors involving terrestrial landscapes because it makes those nature-colors “pop”.

Gray

Gray is without a doubt the most commonly used tint in eyewear. Because it’s a mid-point between White (all light) and Black (no light), it allows all light wavelengths to pass through evenly, meaning there is no color distortion. This preserves a very natural color experience, but it also means nothing “pops” since no wavelengths are enhanced over others. Gray is often the darkest tint option available, making it the most protective in bright conditions.

Green

Since Green falls directly in the middle of the visible light spectrum, this tint can create a relatively natural visual experience, especially outdoors around a lot of grass or vegetation. Green tints mute blue and red wavelengths, allowing greens and similar shades to “pop”. Being a brighter lens tint, these are less protective in bright conditions but also more practical when brought indoors.

Red/Rose

Red tints block more blue light than any lens color while still allowing a relatively natural visual experience. Within 30-seconds of looking through a Rose lens, your eyes will adjust, leaving you with impressive color enhancement of Reds, Greens, and even Cyans. Though a brighter lens color, because they block so much of the harsher Blue wavelengths, these can be just as protective as other, even darker tint options.

Yellow

Yellow tints are often intentionally saturated to create the illusion of a brighter environment in low-light conditions. This creates a great deal of color-distortion, but can also improve visual acuity by skewing light towards brighter wavelengths, creating greater contrast in darker conditions.

Clear

Clear lenses are your safest bet when trying to choose a lens color. They transmit 95-99% of light, making them an excellent choice for indoor, overcast, and partly cloudy conditions. Bright days can result in a lot of squinting, but a visor can easily cut the brightness down to help your eyes relax. Don’t underestimate just how well you can see with a clear lens, there’s a reason pros like Ronnie Dizon, Ollie Lang, and many others can often be seen wearing clear lenses even on sunny days.

#3: Filters / Coatings

Contrary to what you might think, the filters that create polarized lenses or block UV rays are actually clear. This means you can actually find clear glasses that are polarized, as well as tinted lenses that don’t block UV rays. I had always thought that any darkened or tinted lens blocked UV light, but apparently that’s not the case, so keep that in mind!

In fact, most coatings and filters on lenses are clear, but they can still have a tremendous impact on how well you see through them, as well as how long they last. Let’s look at all of the most common options you’ll come across:

POLARIZATION — An easy way to understand what polarized lenses do is to imagine a wave of light traveling towards you with the peaks & valleys (crests/troughs) oriented vertically. Now copy that wavelength but rotate it 90˚ so the waves are parallel with the horizon. Polaroid filters block that horizontal wavelength (“glare”), drastically reducing stress on the retina by reducing the light’s intensity and organizing the waves into a single direction.

Visual of how polarized lenses work

Polarized lens demonstration (photo credit)

It’s important to note that polarized lenses do offer an additional layer of protection and even performance benefits in high-glare scenarios (e.g. water sports), but because polarized filters reduce visible light, they consequently reduce information. Being unable to see non-vertical waves of light can affect depth-perception or your ability to see potential hazards like patches of ice or puddles, so depending on the application, polarized lenses may not always be appropriate.

UVA/UVB — Similar to how sunscreen works, UV filters contain chemicals that absorb, block and reflect UV light. For safety’s sake, it’s worth making sure any eyewear purchased provides 100% UV ray protection, especially for outdoor applications.

Anti-Reflective — This is a coating that can go on either side of the lens to prevent light from reflecting off the lens. This is particularly beneficial on sunglasses when placed on the back-side of the lens as it prevents light from behind you from reflecting off the glass and back into your eye. For those who wear traditional corrective (clear) glasses all day, an anti-reflective coating on the font of the lens makes it easier for others to make eye contact by preventing harsh glares from bouncing off your glasses and into the eyes of those around you.

Photochromic — These are typically put on clear lenses so that when they’re exposed to bright light they darken to protect the eyes and block UV rays. These don’t currently exist in paintball, but it’s possible they might someday which would be great for varying light conditions throughout the day.

Scratch Resistance — There’s no such thing as a “scratch-proof” lens, but a scratch resistant coating can be applied to almost any lens to help prevent permanent scratches from damaging your lenses. Glass is actually more scratch resistant than polycarbonate, so a scratch resistant coating in paintball is should honestly be an industry standard.

Hydrophilic — This is a high quality, permanent type of Anti-Fog coating that works by actually attracting moisture to the point that it pulls it into the lens and by diffusion pushes it towards the edge of the lenses.

Hydrophobic — This is a lower quality soap-based (temporary) type of Anti-Fog coating that repels water (think Rain-X for your windshield). This can be great for wet conditions when you want water to bead off your eyewear, but just like Rain-X, it rarely lasts from one use to the next and therefore needs to be reapplied regularly.

It should be obvious that some of these coatings can be really valuable to a lens, so depending on what is available on the market, having or more more of these options available might be enough to steer your towards one lens (or even an entire mask) over another.

#4: Mirror Finishes

Mirror finishes are actually another coating, but because they’re so ubiquitous in paintball now, I wanted to highlight them a little more than the others.

Mirrors are actually the opposite of the Anti-Reflective coating. Instead of absorbing more light to prevent glare from bouncing off the lens, they intentionally reflect that glare back.

This obviously has a really desirable aesthetic effect, but they also serve a functional purpose and if chosen strategically, can further enhance your vision on the field.

Because the mirror coating reflects additional light light away from the lens, it’s sparing the eyes a fraction of bright glare they might have had otherwise. A “flash mirror” will eliminate an additional 5-8% of harsh glare while a “solid mirror” will typically eliminate 10-15%. This is a relatively small change, hence coming in at 4th in order of importance, but it’s nonetheless something to consider.

Just like the base color’s influence on contrast, the highly fashionable color options mirrors come with also target specific wavelengths of light, and therefore can enhance (or diminish) contrast. A blue mirror is going to reflect more of those eye-stressing blue light wavelengths. Green mirrors reflect greens, reds reflect reds etc.

Knowing this can help you figure out the best combination of lens color and mirror color. Here are some examples of possible field-enhancing color combinations:

Rose Lens + Red Mirror — Since a Red/Rose lens blocks blue light already, a red flash mirror can be placed on a Rose lens to help tone down some of the red color-distortion the rose tint might create, which will allow more greens and yellows to stand out in your vision.

Gray Lens + Blue Mirror — For the absolute brightest of days on the most sensitive of eyes, a dark gray lens and a solid blue mirror is going to provide the most amount of protection from UV rays and harsh glare.

Brown/Amber Lens + Silver Mirror — Since brown/amber lenses tend to preserve most of the ‘Earth tones’ we see but block less light than a gray lens, paintball players who spend a lot of time in the woods might really enjoy this natural lens tint with a Silver flash mirror, which reflects all wavelengths of light, helping to cut down on some glare that might come through the treetops. Let’s face it, a silver flash mirror also looks pretty cool compared to a brown lens and reflects less light than a solid mirror, helping you maintain your camouflage in the forest.

Clear Lens + Blue or Silver Mirror — I’m personally a big fan of clear lenses, and so are many pros, and for good reasons. The less light you filter out, the more information your eyes have access to. However, sometimes there’s simply too much information (bright days, and/or highly reflective surroundings). It is in these cases that a Blue or Silver mirror can really help maintain a high level of visual acuity by only filtering out the unnecessary, harmful information caused by glare or excessively bright conditions. The silver will tone down brightness evenly across the visible light spectrum, while Blue will focus exclusively on the harshest of that visible light.

#5: Gradients

Gradient options are another lens finish that block more light either from above, below, or both in your field of vision so that you can more clearly see what you are looking directly at.

Single Gradient — A single gradient will be darker at the top of the lens and lighter at the bottom to protect the eyes from brighter light coming from the sky while allowing light in front and below you to come through more clearly.

Double Gradient — A double gradient is dark at the bottom and top of the lens and lighter in the middle to protect the eyes from bright light coming from both the sky and reflecting off the ground (water, ice and sand).

I personally think a single gradient should be standard on anyone’s bright day lens. For indoor fields and low-light conditions, a clear or lightly tinted lens with a high VLT% and no gradient makes the most sense. Outdoors in sunny or even partly sunny conditions, however, a single gradient makes it incredibly easy to block bright light from overhead, even if it requires a subtle tilting of the head down to aim your eyes more through the darker area of the lens.

CONCLUSION

Lens preferences are so subjective that as much as I want to tell you: “…therefore, this is the best lens for x, y, and z”, it’s ultimately on you to decide what is best. However, knowing how all of these lens options physically change the light your eyes will see should be able to help you narrow down your ideal lens to just a few options.

You should be able to estimate what VLT value you need, what tint colors will enhance contrast the most at your field, what coatings you would like your lens to come with, and if you’d like a mirror or gradient finish. This will help you narrow down which manufacturers offer those options, and hopefully find a store that can let you look through each of those options so you can decide which is the best for you.

2 Comments
  1. Josh-Zinger March 2023 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Love the article. As someone who wears corrective lenses and fishes on Lake Michigan, this helps those experiences fall into place with what I’ve seen in my mask lenses.

    Personally, I’d love to see a comparison between various brand’s “HD” and “Prizm” tints. Who’s telling the truth? How does one company’s yellow compare to another’s? I’d love to collab on it from a photography side.

    • Play Better Paintball March 2023 at 9:11 am - Reply

      Thanks Josh! I’m currently waiting to hear from one manufacturer about if they’d be interested in sponsoring a video version of this article so I can visually demonstrate these basic differences between colors, vlt ranges, etc. I LOVE the idea of comparing brands to take it a step further because no two ‘yellows’ are going to be the same, no two mirrors (hdr, chromatic, prizm, etc.), so if we can get together and make that video a reality I’d absolutely love that.

      Also, sounds like we need to go fishing together ;)

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