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, in this post I simply want to let the animations do most of the talking. 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 certain 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 the the foliage that surrounds us, that we don’t even notice it until it’s gone. Whether the sky is blue or grey, the brightness of it is constantly reflected in the foliage around us. A circular polarizer can almost entirely remove that glare, and the result is a huge 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 constant battle for landscape photographers once the sun is a few degrees above the horizon. A polarizer can really 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 the best circular polarizers on the market are made by Breakthrough Photography. 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 really helps you get a grip on a stuck or tight filter. If you want to use a circular polarizer hand-held, then their regular X4 CPL is the best choice. The light loss from the filter is only around 1 stop, so you’re still able to maintain reasonably hand-holdable shutter speeds.
The other option is to use what they 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 from Breakthrough Photography. A lot of times it’s useful 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 having to stack two filters together, which can cause vignetting, a Dark CPL takes care of everything. 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 really help add colour and a sense of motion to the sky during sunrise and sunset as that glow is painted across clouds throughout your exposures. The downside to the Dark CPL is that you really will need a tripod to use it, because 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 these animations in this post show you the dramatic effect that they can have on an image. It’s a far greater 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 be able to rotate them. When you buy your polarizer, make sure that you get one 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 happen to make 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 he super cheap aluminum rings that dent, bend and then get stuck on your lens, but I’m now glad to be using these nice brass ones. At about $15, depending on the size you need, I think they’re actually excellent value.