HOW TO: Polarizing Filters

I know, I know, I’ve said it before…polarizing filter, polarizing filter, polarizing filter. But I find these filters to be one of the most useful filters you can use. I have one with my camera gear at all times.

One of the most common uses of these filters is to darken skies from a washed out or light blue sky to much deeper or darker blue. This will also make clouds stand out with more definition. These filters can also be used to eliminate haze in a scene caused by water vapor in the air, which can make colors more vibrant…depending on how far you rotate the outer ring. If you are photographing a mountain stream or a lake with blue sky in the background, you can darken the sky and eliminate reflections on the water at the same time for a more dramatic effect.

There are two basic types of polarizing filters. One is a linear filter which is used for manual focus cameras. The other is the circular type, which are used on autofocus cameras.

Polarizing filters are constructed of two pieces of glass with a special coating that filters out scattered light waves. The glass is set into a pair of rings. One is threaded to mount onto the front of your lens and the other rotates to adjust the amount of polarization you desire.

These filters have the greatest effect when you are 90 degrees to the sun. You can determine this quite easily. Stand with your shoulder perpendicular to the sun. Anything you photograph either in front or behind you will be affected by the use of a polarizer. Shooting towards the sun will have no effect.

Polarizing filters do cut down an the amount of light that enters your camera (1.5 stops or more) so you will have to adjust accordingly. If you shoot in auto mode, the camera will pretty much take care of things for you. If you shoot in manual mode, you will need to adjust either the aperture or the shutter speed to compensate for the loss of light.

Depending on how bright the day is and how dark your polarizing filter is, I highly recommend using a tripod or monopod to avoid camera shake and to aid in composition.

The photo in this post was taken in December of last year using a polarizer. The sky was light blue, but I wanted to exaggerate the contrast of the snow covered branches against the sky and punch up the color.

What’s really cool about polarizing filters is that you can adjust the filter to get the effect that YOU want. Rotate the front ring and dial in a little, or dial in a lot.

If you like what you see…take the photo.

  1. September 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Thanks for the information. Heading over to ebay now to see if I can find something for my camera 🙂

    • September 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      That may be a good place to start to find one less expensive than a camera store.

  2. September 8, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    David great articles, advice and images!

    • September 9, 2011 at 8:57 am

      Hi Vickie, glad you are enjoying my blog. I hope to help folks in achieving their vision.

  3. September 9, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Thank you for these informations, I needed to learn, (by the way I have Canon EOS 500D) with my love, nia

    • September 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Hi Nia, glad to be of help.

  4. September 9, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    love the combination of the colors..

    • September 11, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Thanks !! I took this shot early one morning after it had snowed at night. The sky was almost this blue naturally but I added the polarizer to really punch up the blue. ( I did take several shot with no filter) I love the contrast between the white snow and the blue sky.

  5. September 10, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I carry a polarizer in my camera bag but I’ve been loath to use it in recent years because I’ve come to feel that it tends to make the upper part of the sky unnaturally dark. I’ve also found that I can darken and saturate the sky in Photoshop enough to satisfy me. Of course a polarizer can cut glare in a way that no software equals (as far as I know). Any opinion on the question of software versus polarizer?

    Steve Schwartzman

    • September 11, 2011 at 11:51 am

      Hi Steve, yes sometimes polarizers can render the sky unnaturally dark. I guess it just depends on what look you are going after. There really is no right or wrong in my opinion. If you like the look…then it’s right. Look at what folks are doing with HDR. Some folks, and the trend lately, is to render colors and images that don’t look natural. Other folks use HDR to compensate for difficult exposures. What’s right?? It’s a matter of opinion. As far as software versus polarizer filters…software is pretty amazing these days but I would stick to the filter. Hope this helps. David

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