Posted by: David Vernon | October 28, 2008

The Misunderstood Polarizer

Quintessential PeoriaPerhaps the most misunderstood filter of them all is the Circular Polarizer. It’s a powerful tool in your bag but it seems to behave differently every time you drag it out.

We’ll talk more about filters moving forward. From a landscape perspective, there are three filters I cannot live without (hold the list!): the Circular Polarizer filter, the Neutral Density filter, and the Graduated Neutral Density filter. If I could only have three – those would be the ticket. Let’s just take a look at the polarizer – how can you get the most out of it?

The polarizer filter reduces glare from reflective surfaces, such as glass, metal and water. It’s also beloved for saturating your blue skies to a real dark blue – sometimes. On sunny days, a polarizer is most effective when you are shooting at a 90-degree angle to the sun. For this reason, side lighting (when the sun is hitting your left or right shoulder) is a popular lighting situation for using a polarizing filter. If the sun is at your back or right in front of you, the polarizer will do you no good at all. If you’re working mid-day, the polarizer almost always helps. If you’re working in morning or late-afternoon, you’ll want to use the polarizing filter every time you shoot facing to the north or south. That’s why it seems inconsistent. It’s all about filtering out the right light rays.

Is the use of polarizing filters limited to sunny days? Definitely not. In fact, on cloudy or rainy days, there’s just as much vertical light and glare as on sunny days. All this vertical light casts dull reflective glare on wet streets, wet metal and glass surfaces, wet foliage, and surfaces of bodies of water. The polarizer can be a great tool to get rid of all the dull gray glare. For that – it is beloved.

The magic of the circular polarizer – just look through the viewfinder and start turning – you’ll see the final result clear as day. Bonus tip and foreshadowing: a circular polarizer can act as a 1.5-stop neutral density filter in a pinch… but more on that later.

Update: Long-time listener, first time caller Matt Buedel added a good little nugget in the comments. It’s being promoted here: In the spirit of education, I’d also point out something often overlooked (or just plain forgotten) regarding the use of circular polarizers on DSLRs. Get out of matrix metering (or whatever multi-segmented mode your camera offers) and switch to center-weighted or spot metering. The light loss from the filter (1.25 stops for the expensive ones, 2 stops for most others) confuses the meter into underexposure in the multi-segment mode.

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Responses

  1. Hi David.

    In the spirit of education, I’d also point out something often overlooked (or just plain forgotten) regarding the use of circular polarizers on DSLRs. Get out of matrix metering (or whatever multi-segmented mode your camera offers) and switch to center-weighted or spot metering. The light loss from the filter (1.25 stops for the expensive ones, 2 stops for most others) confuses the meter into underexposure in the multi-segment mode.

    I know this well by now, as I should from all the strange looking images my forgetfulness has spawned.

    Matt

  2. Excellent point Matt – which I completely ignored. Thanks.

  3. I always heard that a polarizer won’t reduce the glare from metallic objects. I’ve never really put that to the test, but, Hoya states that on their website.

    Thanks for the tip, Matt. I hadn’t heard that before.

  4. […] Other Landscape Filters We’ve talked about the beloved Polarizer filter. In my book there is another filter that is invaluable for landscape photography. Allow me to throw […]


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