About Polarizing Filters

I’ll be taking a few filters with me on my upcoming trip to Kauai.

In truth, I have filters in my bag always.

One filter I always carry with me is called a CPL – a Circular Polarizer.

Circular polarizers are rotated right on your lens to give the optimum effect for a particular photo.

(There are also linear polarizers but most people use DSLRs on autofocus, requiring circular polarizers, these days.)

So what does a CPL do?

They are primarily (but not exclusively) used to:

1) Make skies bluer

2) Increase saturation

3) Reduce Reflections/Glare from glass and water

How do I use my circular polarizer filter?

I rarely use mine just to make the sky bluer.  It’s way too easy to increase a blue sky in post production if I need to.  (There’s no reason to bother with a filter out in the field just for bluer skies.)  Also, if a circular polarizer is used to make the sky appear bluer, the sun needs to be at a 90 degree angle for it to work optimally.  That just isn’t always possible, particularly for travel photography.  (There are, after all, a lot of times while traveling when you can’t be at a particular location at the perfect time of day for shooting.)  In addition, if the filter (or sun) isn’t positioned correctly you risk uneven saturation to your sky.

(I’ve also known photographers who regret using polarizers because their skies come out too blue and then they have a difficult time “undoing” what they did with the polarizer.)

Here’s a look at a quick snapshot, straight out of the camera, without a polarizing filter:

Just a minute or two later I took another photo, but with my CPL on my lens.


It’s pretty easy to see the difference the polarizer made in these two shots.  The blues are bluer, and there’s more contrast to the clouds in the second photo.  The second photo also “pops” more than the first.

Polarizers are often used to increase the greens in vegetation shots too.  (Like maybe the rain forest when I visit Kauai?  Or your garden?)

By the way, using a polarizer creates a “light loss” of 1 to 2 stops.  It’s easy to adjust for slightly less light when taking a photo.

Sometimes I use my CPL to increase the overall saturation of a photo.

For instance, a polarizer is especially helpful at the beach.

The blues!  The aquas!

Colors look more vibrant.

A polarizing filter can also cut the glare of water.

If you take a photo of a pool/a stream/a river/the ocean … your lens can see “through” the water.

The filter cuts right through the glare from the water.  It’s like magic!

(Conversely, you can rotate the filter to increase reflection if you want a “mirrored” look from water.)

A CPL can also cut the “glare” from moisture in the air.

For instance, it isn’t unusual for us to get “beach haze” in Orange County during certain times of the year.

Adding a CPL to my lens cuts right through the haze.

It can make a remarkable difference in a photo on a slightly hazy day.

Several companies make circular polarizers.

I use a Lee Circular Polarizer ($300) primarily.  Lee Filters, however, are often very difficult to find.  Photographers often wait six months or longer to get them.  In addition, a Lee CPL is expensive and requires an additional adaptor ring ($52), foundation kit, etc. I’m a huge fan of Lee Filters, but I realize they can be cost prohibitive for people who aren’t primarily landscape photographers.

I also sometimes use a B+W CPL ($144.95) and I’ve always been very happy with the results.  The cost is substantially less than buying an entire Lee system, and all you need is the filter itself – no adaptor or accessories.

When I first started using a CPL I used a Hoya  ($45.90).  The Hoya CPL doesn’t require any accessories.  In my opinion, the quality of the Hoya is not nearly as high as the CPL made by B+W.  However, if you’re a casual amateur photographer it’s probably fine.

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