Circular Polarizer – When and How to Use a Polarizing Filter

Looking to buy a circular polarizer? Then we gather you’re a landscape photographer wanting to stock up on the essentials. Because you should know that a circular polarizer is one of the first filters a nature photographer buys. It will greatly improve the quality of the photographs, adding a vividness that will truly make the images pop.

circular polarizer sky saturation

So if you don’t have a polarizer filter, we recommend considering buying one. We’ll go through all the reasons why and how to use it.

What Is a Circular Polarizer?

A circular polarizer is a filter that in most cases is placed in front of the camera lens. They are used to:

  • Generate circularly polarized light.
  • Absorb or transfer the circularly polarized light clockwise and counter-clockwise.
  • Reduce oblique reflections.

In photography, this type of filter blocks the light that is reflected towards the lens. And you need to be able to control this because you can reduce the glare and the appearance of haze. It can make the colors in your picture more vibrant and it will boost the contrast for stunning imagery.

How to Use a Polarizing Filter

To make the best use of your circular polarizer, then your subject must be orientated at a 90-degree angle to where the sun is. One of the ways most photographers go about figuring this out is using their finger. Basically, point at the sun with your index finger and stick the thumb out while rotating the wrist. Keep your index finger always pointing at the sun. The areas where the thumb is pointing will be the part of your frame where the polarizer filter will have the maximal effect.

Now going to the action itself, here’s how it works. You’ll see that the circular polarizer features two rings. Place your fingers on the front ring and twist it. See what it does to the appearance of your frame. It should block certain light waves, keeping them from entering the camera lens. Your photograph will become reflection-free and the contrast will be significantly increased.

Remember that polarizers are not that useful in dull light, but when you take them out in bright light you should see the effect instantly. They only work at a 90-degree angle from the sun. If you take a picture at another angle you most likely won’t get polarization.

Another mistake that some photographers do is stacking two filters or shooting with the lens hood on. Use the circular polarizer on its own, and take off the lens hood. You should also shoot at a smaller aperture when using a polarizer. Otherwise, you will get a vignetting effect or light bands. Generally, the vignetting will most likely disappear when shooting at f/8 or smaller.

And another useful tip: don’t buy a cheaper one. They use aluminum rings which can damage your lens because of the way it sticks to them. They are also not multi-coated and can cause ghosting and flare.

Do You Need a Polarizer?

with and without a polarizing filter image comparison

AF SLR users should definitely take advantage of circular polarization. Many photographers will tell you that if they had to choose just one filter for their bag, then a polarizing filter would be the best pick. Because the way they work make them a universal tool, unlike other filters. And we’ll go through all the pros just below.

When to Use a Polarizer Filter?

When you want to remove reflections

This is what polarizing filters are best known for. We’re talking reflections coming from a non-metallic surface such as water. You are probably familiar with the frustration of wanting to shoot a highly reflective surface and not being able to get all the details inside the picture.

When you want to bring out the sky

A polarizing filter will darken the sky, making it more dramatic. It’s especially good when you have a cloudy sky because it will create a brilliant contrast between the clouds and the background.

When gearing your camera with a wide-angle lens, you can use the polarizer to have a part of the sky lit while the other darkened. Some photographer like the effect, so it’s worth considering giving it a try.

When shooting through glass

Portraits shot through glass have a unique feel about them, but the effect is sometimes too obvious. Or you may want to fully eliminate the reflection and fool the viewer’s eye. When you want to keep it more discreet, you can place a circular polarizer over your lens and give it a run. It will eliminate the reflections on the glass surface and your subject will appear sharper in the picture. If the window is clean enough, the viewers may not even notice that the frame was shot through glass.

When you need high contrast

polarizer increases contrastv

Highly contrasting images will always capture everyone’s eye better than others. Most photographers will open the file in an editing software and increase the contrast and the saturation there. However, you may not have to go through all that trouble if you use this filter. Polarizers are a great tool for increasing color saturation. And this is also due to the primary effect of the circular polarizer – reducing glare and reflection. Because once the reflections are gone, the color intensifies.

When you want to get rid of haze

When shooting distant subjects, especially landscapes and cityscapes, haze is a common issue. Luckily, the polarizer does its job in reducing the haze for clearer, crisper photographs.

The Disadvantages of Polarizing Filters

Although we highly recommend you purchase a circular polarizer for your kit, you should also be aware of some disadvantages. Here are some aspects to consider:

  • Polarizers are the most expensive kind of filters.
  • You always have to be careful to hit just the right angle for maximal effect.
  • Twisting the ring to get the frame just right can be time-consuming.
  • The filter must always be cleaned; otherwise, it can reduce the quality of the image.
  • It’s more difficult to use the viewfinder with this filter on.
  • Most often, stitched panoramic photos shot through a polarizer will disappoint.
  • It is not ideal for sunsets and rainbows.

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About

Professional photographer and freelance writer, Amanda is specialized in wedding and travel photography. Every day she enjoys taking long walks around the city, from where she takes inspiration for her day-to-day work. She always hunts magical locations to astonish her subjects.