The Circular Polarizer – A Photographer’s Friend or Foe?

On the photo tours that my wife Magrit and I conduct in Europe, our participants are often uncertain about the use of polarizers.

In this article, you will learn when to use a polarizer to enhance the quality of your images, when to avoid using it and what kind of polarizer to purchase to add to your basic photographic arsenal.

 

zion national park utah

This is a situation where I would always use a polarizer to remove glare on wet rocks, the water and to also slow the shutter speed to add motion and silkiness to the water.
The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

By far, the most useful filter in a photographer’s kit these days is the circular polarizer. With the advent of digital cameras and digital post processing of photographs, the need for special filters is no longer required except for circular polarizers, solid neutral density and neutral density graduated filters.

A circular polarizer typically screws on to the front of your lens and is constructed so that it can be rotated 360 degrees. When rotating and looking through the camera’s viewfinder you will often see a change happen.

The positive effects of a circular polarizer

• Darkening of blue sky. This is especially noticeable if the sky also includes some clouds. You will notice an increase in contrast between the sky and the clouds. This effect is strongest when the sun is at a 90 degree angle to the subject. Be careful here, especially when using an ultra-wide lens as the darkening effect can be too strong, render the blue sky very uneven and ruin your photograph.

cut lavender fields, provence, france

This is a situation where the polarizer darkens the blue sky, perhaps a bit too much. I would rotate the effect out a bit next time.
Valensole Plateau, Provence, France

• Helps to reduce reflections and glare by filtering out light that has become polarized due to reflection from a non-metallic surface such as water, wood, rocks, plants etc. Some landscape photographers use this filter almost all the time, especially if they are photographing in a shady forest – the polarizer will take the sheen off of foliage and provide a more pleasing saturated effect.

Without polarizer. Notice the glare on the railing.

With polarizer. Notice the reduced glare on the railing.

• Clears up haze in distant landscapes and provides more saturated, vivid colors.

The polarizer helped reduced haze in the distance.
St. Primoz Chapel, Slovenia

• Reduces the transmission of light by 1.5 to 2 stops. This can be useful if you wish to use a slower shutter speed to achieve a silky effect when you’re photographing moving elements such as water or clouds. It is especially useful when photographing streams and waterfalls. Often you only need about a 0.5 second exposure to achieve that pleasing silky moving water effect.

The polarizer did a few things here. Reduced glare on the wet boardwalk, rocks and foliage. It also slowed the shutter speed down to add silkiness to the water.
Plitvice National Park, Croatia

So is the circular polarizer a friend or foe?

A polarizer can achieve very useful and pleasing effects as described but it can also do just the opposite, especially with the darkening of blue sky on an ultra-wide lens. When used for reducing reflections it can do just that but it may also remove a reflection that you don’t want reduced such as a boat’s reflection in still water. You have to experiment and take several exposures at various degrees including without the effect dialed in. You don’t need to remove the filter to achieve this. Just turn it until you see no effect. Sometimes you will also put the filter on and see no change at all if the sun is not at the correct angle to produce an effect.

The bottom line is that just because the polarizer creates an effect in your photo doesn’t mean that it should be used. That is where personal and artistic judgment come into play.

The polarizer reduced the glare on the bright wood deck on the boat. I had to be careful not to dial in too much polarization as it would reduce the pleasant reflections in the water.
Venice, Italy

No polarizer.
Joshua Tree National Park

With polarizer. Too much polarization dialed in.

Way too much polarization dialed in.

Almost no polarization. Just right.

What brand of circular polarizer should you purchase?

My suggestion is to use a high quality polarizer, especially if you have invested in high quality lenses. You don’t want to put a piece on inferior glass in front of your good optics. I like B&W or Hoya.

If you are using an ultra-wide lens such as 16mm on a full frame camera you may experience some vignetting with the polarizer on. You can avoid this by zooming in a bit to 17 or 18mm. The B&W listed above is a thinner filter and should not cause vignetting.

With polarizer. Reduced most of the glare on the stairs.
Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Do not stack the polarizer on top of another filter such as a UV protective filter. This can reduce image quality and the two filters can easily get stuck together, requiring a special filter wrench to get them apart.

As a high quality circular polarizer is somewhat expensive, many photographers will purchase one polarizer for their largest lens, for example an 82 mm and then use a step-down ring to allow it to also fit on a 77 mm filter thread. This works but you again run the risk of the filter getting stuck on the ring. It is a real pain out in the field to take time to fix this. Sometimes it just does not work. So I suggest that you bite the bullet and get a polarizer for each filter thread size in your kit. Luckily for me, at the moment, my lenses are all 77 mm but I may soon be purchasing a lens with a 82 mm filter thread ( and I will purchase another polarizer ).

Also, when rotating the polarizer it is a good idea to rotate the filter clockwise (as if you were screwing it on). I was rotating my polarizer one time counter-clockwise and I accidentally unscrewed it from the lens and lost it in the Soca River in Slovenia.

Another situation where I would always use a polarizer to reduce glare on wet rocks, green foliage and water. Also slows the shutter speed to achieve silky water.
Columbia River Gorge, Washington

I encourage you to experiment with a polarizer next time you’re out photographing and notice the positive and negative effects it can have on the quality of your images, effects that really cannot be produced or replicated in post-processing.

If you are thinking about participating in one of our 2018 Photography Travel Tours, it is not too early to do so. Some of the tours have already filled.

 

J_M_150x150(1)Jim and Magrit have been photographing professionally and traveling in Europe for the past 20 years.

They started Photography Travel Tours in 2011 with the goal of educating and guiding photographers to some of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in Europe.

The tours are not just about getting great photographs but also have the side benefits of doing so in wonderful environments. Great food, wine, people, and ambiance.

Read more about Jim & Magrit and their wonderful photo tours here: (http://photographytraveltours.com/about/).

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

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