A polarizer is an essential part of a photographer’s kit because it’s one of the only filters that cannot be recreated with editing software. Instead of digging too much into the science of how they work, I want to let the animations do most of the talking in this post. I have been through some of my archives to find examples of just how much a polarizer can alter your image, and once you see them, I feel sure that you’ll understand just how worthwhile it is to have one of these in your bag!
Here’s what a circular polarizing filter can do for you…
1. They Make Foliage Greener
We’re so used to seeing bright sky reflected by the foliage that surrounds us that we don’t even notice it until it’s gone. Whether the sky is blue or grey, its brightness is constantly reflected in the foliage around us. A circular polarizer will almost entirely remove that glare, and the result is a massive transformation in the saturation of greens and yellows in natural landscapes.
2. They Make the Sky Darker and Bluer
This animation is so dramatically different that I’d forgive you if you thought it was fake – but it isn’t. I took this photo in British Columbia just a few minutes before sunset, looking up at The Copilot peak in Squamish. When sunlight is coming in at a sharp angle, it lights up all sorts of natural haze in our atmosphere that dulls the blue colour in the sky. A circular polarizer cuts right through that and only shows us the deep blues that we want.
3. They Help to Cut Through Haze
In certain temperatures and weather conditions, haze is a problem for landscape photographers once the sun is a few degrees above the horizon. A polarizer can help you cut through the haze and reveal additional contrast in more distant subjects. This is often more noticeable when shooting at slightly longer focal lengths as all that haze stacks up in your frame with the compression effect of a longer lens.
4. They Let You See Through Water
Using a circular polarizer while photographing a body of water will allow you to remove much of the sky’s reflection from the surface, thus allowing you to see down into the water.
Which Polarizer Is the Best?
The answer to this question depends on whether you are using a tripod or not. At first, this might seem like a strange caveat, but let me explain…
Currently, I think Breakthrough Photography makes the best circular polarizers on the market. Not only are they optically excellent and colour neutral, but somewhat uniquely, they have also taken the time to think about the user experience with their filters. The knurled brass ring around it helps you get a grip on a stuck or tight filter with your fingers, so hopefully, you never need a filter wrench.
If you want to use a circular polarizer hand-held, their regular X4 CPL is the best choice. The light loss from the filter is only around one stop, so you’re still able to maintain reasonably hand-holdable shutter speeds in low light without resorting to higher ISOs that lower your image quality.
The other option is to use what Breakthrough Photography call their Dark CPL. A Dark CPL is a combination of a circular polarizer and a solid neutral density filter, and certainly at the time of writing this post, it’s a unique offering on the market.
Often, it’s helpful to use a CPL in combination with a neutral density filter because you want to slow down your shutter speed to blur out the movement of water or clouds. Instead of stacking two filters together, which can cause vignetting, a Dark CPL takes care of everything with one filter.
If I could only own a single filter, a 6-stop Dark CPL would be my choice! The 6-stop version gives you long enough shutter speeds to blur open bodies of water such as lakes, and it can help add colour and a sense of motion to the sky during sunrise and sunset as that glow is painted across clouds through the length of your exposure.
The downside to the Dark CPL is that you really will need a tripod to use it. Even if you have the lower density 3-stop version, your shutter speeds will still be very long.
Good polarizers don’t come cheap, but the animations in this post show you the dramatic effect they can have on an image. It’s a far more significant effect than you would ever get by upgrading your lens and camera, which would cost considerably more money than these filters!
A Note On Polarizer Sizing
Unlike ND filters that are available in both screw-on or square filter types, circular polarizers are only available in the screw-on variety due to the need to rotate them. When you buy your polarizer, it’s a good idea to get one that fits the largest diameter of lens that you have, and then use step-up rings to adapt that larger filter to your smaller lenses.
Breakthrough Photography also makes the best step-up rings because they use the same knurled brass design that is also part of their filters. I’ve wasted time (and money) in the past buying the super cheap aluminium rings that dent, bend and then get stuck on your lens, but I’m now glad to be using these nice brass ones.
I think they’re excellent value at about $15, depending on the size you need. If you want to swap quickly between different lenses, you may get a couple of polarizers in various sizes, but if you’re just getting started, these rings are a great way to save some money.