Oh the beauties of a polarizer!

what is a circular polarizer?
Circular polarizing filter

Today and tomorrow, my posts will discuss polarizers: what they are, when they are useful, and some lesser-known tips on how to use a polarizer.  These posts are in response to a misguided photographer who recently told a student in one of my classes that polarizers don't work at sea level.  That's a new one!

There is one phenomenon that works 100% of the time, without fail or faltering.  That is, when I teach photography classes to beginners, at least one of the people in the class will not be able to focus when we try an in-class shooting assignment.  They will complain that they can't focus and their shutter speed is so low that the pictures are blurry.  Seriously, it's like clockwork.  Truly amazing.

Why is it that at least one person has this problem?  It's because the dude at the camera store told him that he needs a polarizing filter, so he put it on the one lens he owns and never takes it off.

Don't get me wrong.  I love polarizers!  But if you don't know how to use it properly, it will be a severe hindrance to your photography.  Let's learn how to use a polarizer the right way, and when to not use it at all.

The problem with polarizing filters is that they block about 1.5 stops of light from reaching the camera.  To compensate for the reduced light, your DSLR will compensate with a slower shutter speed–hence the blurry pictures.  It also prevents many slow lenses from focusing in dim situations.  So the first lesson to learn in using a polarizer is that it should be taken off until it is needed, and never left on the lens for convenience.

What do Polarizing Filters do?

Polarizers accomplish three main objectives for photographers.  First, a polarizing filter cuts out the glare in a scene.  Mid-day glare on plant leaves can be removed by simply using a polarizing filter.  The glare on water can also be removed by using a polarizer.  Heck, it can even be useful for cutting the glare off a bald man's head.

The second main purpose of a polarizer is to saturate colors.  This is especially handy when shooting landscapes which are drowned out with harsh lighting.  While this type of shooting situation will often result in desaturated colors, a polarizer can remedy this.

The last thing a polarizer can do is improve the skies in your photography.  Polarizers can deepen the blue sky and brighten the white clouds to create stunning and dramatic skies even in bright sunny conditions.   This is the main reason photographers use polarizers.

Tomorrow's post will be Six Tips for Using a Polarizer.

18 thoughts on “Oh the beauties of a polarizer!”

    1. No i use both filter and all i have noticed in using the uv filter is that the blue sky becomes a bit more vibrant in the photos i take. I maily use it just to protect my lens

  1. please can you tel me the difference between
    1) hoya cpl filter
    2) hoya pro 1d cpl filter
    3) hoya HD cpl filter

  2. Glad the UV filter isn’t one of the filters to avoid! Since I shoot mostly horses at home and at shows, I am in a very dusty environment and don’t want to wreck my Nikon D700’s lenses.

  3. Jody, I guess I didn’t clearly explain about the UV filter. I’m not saying that it doesn’t impact image quality. I am only saying that it doesn’t accomplish the same thing as a polarizer.

  4. Bear in mind that no amount of Photoshop can properly replace a polarising filter, which actually blocks some light from reaching the camera’s sensor (or film). Polarisers are used by a photographer predominantly because of their ability to create more interesting skies. But actually they’re just as useful for portraiture and removing reflections when photographing through windows. UV filters are for the most part a waste of time unless you’re in a dusty or salty environment; a lens cap or even a lens hood is just as useful.

    Ben Evans

    English Photographer – http://www.englishphotographer.com

  5. Hi Jim,

    I’m a newbie here.

    I thought I saw a review for a polariser that has an adjustment thread where you can turn the polariser on and off while keeping the filter on the lens.

    When the polariser is on off mode, do you think there will be any effects to the image? Would you recommend this kind of filter?


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  8. What I don’t get is the term “circular” polariser. A horizontal polariser does everything you mentioned above – reduces reflection from horizontal surfaces (most surfaces are), windows, water, etc, and if it can be turned to make it, say, a 20 degree polariser, it can be set optimally to deepen blue sky and brighten clouds.
    I understand circular polarisation in terms of radio transmission. Radio transmission has magnetic- and electrical field components at right angles to one another, and if transmitted from a dipole or yagi antenna, the electrical component is in the same plane as the antenna. It’s a bit difficult to explain withoiut a diagram, but if the antenna is of a cruciform configuration, it is possible to activate the vertically polarising dipole as the horizontal dipole is being de-activated, so that the resulting polarisation is horizontal, then as the time passes while it becomes vertically polarised, it passes through all the angles between, and the result is a polarisation that appears to go through an entire circle during the period of one wavelength. (Sorry, as I said, this would be better with a diagram)
    I can’t see how this would work for optical polarisation, however. Can you explain it? Is it, perhaps a pseudo-science, hype word that sounds good in marketing brochures, or are these filters realy different from linear polarisers, such as one finds in polaroid sun specs?

  9. hello,everyone i am a beginner photographer….anyone please tell me the benefits of using a polariser….??


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