Polarize It!

In the dawn of the new age when photography evolved from film to digital capture, some tools we were familiar with were left behind. One of the most important was film choice, as it provided a direct reflection of what we wanted to communicate in color, contrast and sharpness. Photographers now accomplish this either in camera with JPEG files and picture controls, or by processing RAW files any way the photographer chooses during post production time on the computer. Color correction filters were also important choices in the film days when the color of light needed tweaking. Most photographers carried a stack of these for every occasion and today, in-camera white balance settings do the trick. Those filters can now make great coasters for your favorite beverage. I’ve even thought about making an artsy-fartsy wind chime out of mine.

The one piece of equipment that wasn’t left behind through this evolution however is the polarizing filter. Its power to enhance scenes by removing the glare of white light is still relevant and no amount of digital processing in or out of the camera can match the magic it creates.

“What is so magical?” you ask.

Well, the polarizer can transform skies into a musical score of deep blue and cloud white. It saturates common foliage into a cacophony of color. It mysteriously invites the viewer under water or inside windows. It turns the ordinary into extraordinary. I know I elaborated a bit, but it’s no exaggeration.

Here’s A Good Workflow To Get You Started:

The filter is comprised of two glass elements that move independent of each other. One is attached to the thread ring and the other is attached to an outer ring.

  1. Before screwing it onto your lens, hold the filter up to your eye while looking at the scene your considering.
  2. Turn the whole filter counter clockwise (good habit and you’ll see why).
    *maximizing and minimizing affects will occur from 0º to 90º in rotation.
  3. If you see that the filter is enhancing your scene, screw it on the lens (if you don’t see any enhancement… snuggle it safely away for the next time).
  4. Now turn only the outer ring (counter clockwise, so you don’t unscrew it from the lens) to maximize or minimize the affect to your liking.
  5. Meter and shoot!

One the greatest enhancements the polarizer provides is the darkening of blue skies and removing haze. The affect is maximized at a camera angle 90º from the sun and minimized at 0º or 180º.

The filter is fantastic for saturating the color of foliage.

The polarizer also helps remove reflections from surfaces like windows, metal and water.

The other cool thing about the filter is by rotating it just a little you can minimize and maximize the affect or create something in-between the two.

For all the exceptional things the polarizer provides there are things to keep in mind when using one to minimize the filters limitations. Wide angle lenses can cause transition issues because the view might include areas of sky which aren’t polarized as much (away from the max at 90º). Wide angle lenses also require using a polarizing filter with thin profile (thickness). If a normal one is used a vignetting (darkening around the corners) will occur.

To describe how a polarizer actually works might require charts, diagrams, tables, math and possibly lots of words. Not very appropriate for a blog article and it’s not required when using one. The great thing about the filter is what you see is what you get and what you get is usually amazing.

Here are a few things to consider when buying a polarizer:

  1. All polarizing filters have density in the glass which requires longer exposures or wider apertures by 1 to 2 stops (most are 2 stops).
  2. They range in price from $20 to $200. You pay for what you get. I usually go down the middle of the road and buy at around $100, because “Murphy” is with me occasionally. I have a cheaper one that I use when shooting in sand dunes and the wind is blowing or on the coast near the water (sea spray).
  3. Purchase for the largest lens thread diameter that you have and use step down rings for your smaller thread diameter lenses.
  4. Don’t forget to buy “thin” if you have a wide angle lens ~ 24mm or wider.

Have fun, be safe and remember … polarize it!