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How to use a polarizing filter

This article on how to use a polarizing filter is written by Steve Perry (website | YouTube | Facebook). You can check also his previous article "How to use Nikon’s AF-ON and back button autofocus".

Quick – What do you think a polarizing filter is used for?

If you said, “blue skies” then you’re certainly among the majority of photographers. However, that answer merely skims the surface of what a polarizer is really capable of.

The primary purpose of a polarizing filter is to remove reflections. I know, that doesn’t seem like something you should be losing any sleep over, but stick with me here. Once you discover how to really take full advantage of your polarizer, it can truly catapult your images to the next level.

Here’s the thing. Polarizers are one of the very few filters that simply cannot be duplicated in post processing software. The effect they achieve can only be accomplished on location, in the field, attached to the front of your lens.

In short, you really need to know how to use this tool!

In the embedded video above, we’ll look at why you need one, when to use it, and how to use it under a variety of scenarios.

Wagner Falls (38mm, FX)

Wagner Falls (38mm, FX)

For this image, a polarizer was essential for showing detail under the water. Without the polarizer, the reflection completely obscured all the rocks beneath the surface of the creek and created a reflection that distracted attention away from the falling water.

As a bonus, the polarizer also removed the reflections from the wet leaves and really made the colors pop. (In fact, I seem to recall needing to back down the color a bit on this one)

Carter Shield’s Cabin (63mm – FX)

Carter Shield’s Cabin (63mm – FX)

For this image, I had to deal with, literally, tree loads of reflective foliage. Between the leaves and the grass, there were lots of little color-robbing highlights that needed attention. By attaching a polarizer, I was able to easily knock off the reflections and get much richer overall color.

As an aside, the glow from the “fire” inside the cabin was a remote flash with an orange filter on it. It was triggered via walkie talkie since the distance was too far for a CLS remote trigger. (In other words, I basically shot at a slow shutter speed and my wife tripped the flash as I radioed a “3-2-1” countdown.)

Upper Bond Falls (21mm – FX)

Upper Bond Falls (21mm – FX)

This was shot with a lens that’s a bit wider than most people are comfortable with for polarizers. While a wide lens can be a bad idea for blue skies, it works well for subjects without a sky – or without much sky – in the photo. The polarizer removed quite a bit of sheen from the surface of the water and really helped the autumn colors to pop.

Soco Falls (14mm – FX)

Soco Falls (14mm – FX)

Just to show that you can really go wide with a polarizer and no sky, here is an image shot at 14mm. The polarizer was absolutely critical for removing some especially nasty reflections from the wet rock cliffs in the image. Anytime you have a large area of reflection in an image, the eye is drawn towards it; so managing those reflections can really mean the difference between a wall hanger and a throw away.

The polarizer also helped quite a bit with getting the reflection off the leaves and giving us a little glimpse of what’s underwater.

Eye To Eye With A Frog (200mm – DX)

Eye To Eye With A Frog (200mm – DX)

When people think about polarizers, they usually think about landscapes. However, turns out the polarizer really doesn’t care what the subject is! In this case, even a wildlife shot (if you can consider a frog wildlife) can be helped with a polarizer. You would have been amazed at just how much reflection was coming off of this little guy. As I dialed in the polarizer, the difference was night and day.

Beyond that, it also allowed me to get control of a couple bright highlights that were blowing out on his skin.

Bumble Bee (200mm FX)

Bumble Bee (200mm FX)

Here’s another close-up where I used a polarizer. For this image, the bee was relatively free of reflections, but I was getting a little too much off the flower. A polarizer quickly dropped that reflection and allowed me to capture an image where the yellows really popped. (Note – in case you were wondering, this image was focus stacked to get good sharpness from front to back)

Rock Bridge (18mm FX)

Rock Bridge (18mm FX)

This was a highly reflective scene and the polarizer really saved the day. It was actively raining and everything was wet and reflective. The detail in the rocks you see just before the falls hits the base was virtually obscured by reflection. The polarizer fixed it, as well as coaxing out some really great colors.

See more of Steve’s work at www.backcountrygallery.com. Also, make sure to check out his youtube channel for more videos at youtube.com/backcountrygallery.

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  • AR22

    how can you mount a cpl on a 14mm lens?

    • Charles

      Depends on the lens. My Sigma 10-20 takes 77 mm screw on filters with no issues. Now that I have a Sigma 17-50 2.8 that uses the same 77 mm filters I’ll be looking to pick up a 77 mm polarizer (and some NDs).

    • Anonymous Coward

      Wonderpana on a 14-24?

      • Jeff Hunter

        Yes. It’s an ingenious and easy to use attachment. It’s not cheap though.

    • Steve Perry

      I use the Wonderpana from Fotodiox. See my review here:

      http://youtu.be/r_x_gwR3Hnw

      ~Steve

      • lightaddicted

        yes the wonderpana from fotodiox is awesome though very expensive but worth every penny specially since they announced and introduced a slim version of every nd, cpl filter only for the uv filter a slim version is still missing sadly hope it will come in the near future….

        the wonderpana filter system with the 14-24 is the best combo for landscape nature photography imo….for me it si more flexible than the zeiss zf2 15 2.8 (ordinary filter thread 95 mm though..)….sometimes i like the rendering of the zeiss 15 2.8 prime more….better microcontrast….

        but you could get the 14-24 2.8 + wonderpana system for the 15 2.8 lens (without any filter!)…

        sigma 12-24 is offering an even more extreme, dynamic perspective but it is in every term (resolution, sharpness, builld quality etc.) a much much weaker lens than the nikkor or the zeiss but much cheaper…..if you re on a budget….

  • henry

    Nice

  • http://inthemistphoto.com/ InTheMist

    Nice tips.

    I use them quite a lot actually – almost anything outdoors when shooting at the golden hour isn’t possible.

  • Carleton Foxx

    Beautiful. Do you have a favorite brand? I use the last generation Nikon polarizer (the one with the big knurled ring) and I’m a little bit on the fence about it. It’s a half stop faster supposedly than regular polarizers.

    • Steve Perry

      I really do favor the Nikon filters and I too am using the latest generation (I just replaced my old one). I tired other brands over the years and just didn’t think they were worth the extra expense.

      • Vin

        Thanks, I am going to dig out my Nikon polarizer, this was a great reminder, and some motivation. P.S. thanks for explaining the Bee picture, I was looking at that and thinking about focus, and length of lens, sharpness, vs depth of field. …. well done!

  • Jim in CNY

    I don’t shoot landscapes much but found early on that a polarizing filter can bring more to a picture than is possible during processing, as the author said. But often it can produce images that look sort of synthetic so I also learned to really examine the view while backing it off a little. Our mind’s eye expects to see some specular highlights in foliage.

  • Spy Black

    “The primary purpose of a polarizing filter is to remove reflections.”
    Well, kinda. Technically, a polarizer filters out spurious off-axis light rays, and allows on-axis light rays to pass through.

    When investing in a polarizer, you’ll have to make sure to get a quality unit. I bought an inexpensive Bower-brand circular polarizer a while back, and it does virtually jack to filter out off-axis radiation. In short, it’s useless. Quality polarizers will cost you.

    • Mr_Miyagi

      Umm, technically no. To simplify, the polarizing filter blocks light rays whose Electic vector is in a particular plane and allows light rays whose E-vector is orthogonal to that to pass through. For a ray with an E-vector oriented in between, some of it gets through and some of it does not.

      • Spy Black

        To simplify? Or are you just making a humorous statement? I’m the one who made the simplified version of essentially what you’re trying to impress someone with: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polarizer

        • Mr_Miyagi

          “I’m the one who made the *incorrect* version…”

          It’s not an issue of on-axis versus off-axis rays. You’re out of your depth on this. Let it go.

          • Spy Black

            I couldn’t care less either way, perhaps I am misinterpreting what I’m reading, but that’s what I’m seeing there. Literally.

            • Spy White

              Spy Black having a bad day much?

            • Spy Black

              At least pick an appropriate profile picture if you’re going to come in with an alias other than your normal one.

    • Patrick O’Connor

      If you spent the time to analyze the physics of every step of the photo making process, you’d never make any photos. But if I have a question about theoretical physics that have no practical application, I’ll be sure to call you. :-)

      • Spy Black

        Knowledge is power.

        • groucher

          A little learning is a dangerous thing;
          drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
          there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
          and drinking largely sobers us again.

          – Pope

          • lost

            I lost my lens cap reading that…

        • Patrick O’Connor

          He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
          – Solomon in Ecclesiastes

        • VinceC

          Technically, the use of knowledge is power. Knowledge by itself is useless.

          • peterw

            Lord Vincent, areth thou from those shining dark medieval times, whence knowing to much maketh man a devil or a witch, and the two handed sword was the best help in case of a difficult translation? ;)

            Mostly knowledge is around long before the use of it becomes clear. As in mathematics. Clever physicist – like Einstein was – just needed to do a bit of shopping in that enormous wealth of utterly useless math.

            Void knowledge is more valuable than 99% of our pictures.

            Void knowledge doesn’t exist, since it is a basis for next steps. Furthermore, it is good exercise.
            Use freely, develop freely.

    • Steve Perry

      Thanks for your feedback. A couple thoughts…

      1. I’m not an optical engineer and I’ll admit that the physics of exactly how a polarizer does what it does is something I’m not as familiar with as I’d like to be. That said though, from a practical photography application standpoint, knowing that you can use it to remove reflections is really the main purpose I was demonstrating in the video. I’m not entirely sure that even if I was more comfortable with the physics of the whole thing that an in-depth explanation of how it works would have done anything towards helping make that point.

      2. The bee was photographed first thing in the morning after a cool night. It was some time before he was warm enough to start moving around, so plenty of time to get the shots required for the stack. Mid day, yup, forget it.

      • Spy Black

        Well, according to Mr_Miyag, I may have interpreted that incorrectly, but you are correct in the final real-world application of it.

        “It was some time before he was warm enough to start moving around, so plenty of time to get the shots required for the stack.”

        You mean warm enough for it to get on with pollen collecting in the first place, but not warm enough for it to start dancing the boogaloo?

        • Steve Perry

          LOL – Actually, I think he had spent the night on the flower, so he was (quite literally) chillin’ :)

          • Spy Black

            That’s interesting, I always thought they would return to their hive by sundown.

            • Steve Griffin

              I’ve seen them asleep inside narrow bell-like flowers on the odd occasion.

            • boing

              you are a bee expert now?

      • Jeff Hunter

        I’ve heard of photographers who put insects into closed containers and into refrigerators for several hours to chill them enough to stop their movement.

        • reductron

          I tried that with a jumping spider. It works.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I wanted to try it with my children but my wife wouldn’t let me…..

        • Art

          You can catch a housefly and put it in a jar and then into the freezer. You can’t leave it in there too long but if you time it right, you can take the fly out and then tie a piece of thread around the fly’s neck. Once the fly warms up, you can take your fly out on a walk on its leash. Way more exotic than walking your dog….

      • Greg

        The way to think of it is that it selects the *angle* of the incoming light. Miyagi had it right, but not simple, and I think Spy Black just misunderstood what angle is being talked about.

        In practice this allows you to remove reflections– but if you understand what’s really happening it also allows you to /select/ reflections or to align the camera to the surface in a way that maximizes the utility of the polarizer.

        Light travels in a direction, but it also has a polarization angle relative to the direction of travel. In the video, Steve suggests making a gun with your fingers and rotating the thumb around the index finger– you can use that same method to imagine the angle of the light. Point your finger in the direction of travel and your thumb is the polarization angle of the light.

        Most light in a diffuse scene is unpolarized– its a mix of all angles together. The sun is unpolarized. Most of the light reflecting off of flat paint or cement is unpolarized. Where it get interesting is when you have specular reflections– off of glass, water, leaves, anything shiny.

        Most of the light in a reflection is polarized parallel to the surface its reflecting off of. Light reflecting off of water tends to be horizontally polarized. Light reflecting off of windows tends to be vertically polarized.

        The filter only allows light of one angle to enter the camera. If the light is 90 degrees off that angle you get none of it, if its 45 degrees off you get some of it. Turning the filter doesn’t change how much polarization you have, it changes which angle of polarization you’re selecting.

        If you stand at an oblique angle to a window, aligning the filter horizontally will eliminate the reflection off of the glass by blocking all of the polarized light from the reflection but allow half of the unpolarized light passing through the glass. Turning it vertically will emphasize it by blocking half of the unpolarized light passing through the glass but accepting all of the polarized light from the reflection.

        If you have a window over water, then you can choose whether you want to see through the glass or through the water– but probably can’t do both.

        A polarizer is less effective when you’re looking straight at the reflective surface because then the polarization angle is more ambiguous– it’s parallel to the surface, which is parallel to the filter rather than vertical or horizontal and the filter can only select vertical or horizontal. To maximize the effectiveness of your polarizer, photograph at a shallow angle to the reflections.

        A side note: there is another form of polarization called circular polarization, where the angle of the light corkscrews through space along the direction of travel. A circular polarizing filter, though, is actually a linear polarizer and does not select circularly polarized light. That second glass plate is designed to then twist the linearly polarized into circular polarization. This is important because the camera uses a linear polarizer as a way of shunting half of the incoming light to the meters and AF sensors.

        • Steve Perry

          Awesome explanation – thanks Greg!

    • FredBear

      “I’ve never shot a bee that stood still for more than a second.”.
      I wouldn’t stand still either if someone was going to shoot at me :-)

  • Jeff Hunter

    Was the bee alive?

    • Steve Griffin

      I thought the same thing. I’ve never seen a bee stay in one place long enough to take more than one shot. This one also appears to have no wings.

      • Jeff Hunter

        Every bee I ever photographed was constantly crawling on the flower and buzzing off to a different flower every few seconds.

      • neversink

        You have to have patience. Bees will stay on a flower for more than a few seconds, but that can be the exception…

        • Spy Black

          Just blast them with some liquid nitrogen, they stay put…

          • Jeff Hunter

            Does that kill them?

            • reductron

              Yes, and makes them into a crunchy snack.

            • FredBear

              Removes their warts.

          • reductron

            My thought exactly

          • FredBear

            Super glue spray – easier to carry.

    • Steve Perry

      Hi Jeff –

      Yup, he was alive. He’s move a bit now and then (just a leg or antenna). The stack took less than a minute to shoot, and he stayed still long enough for me to run two rounds of shots.

      Also, to put everyone’s mind at ease, nope, I didn’t freeze him with liquid nitrogen or put him in the fridge. And yes, he did indeed have wings. :)

      I have seen this behavior before with bumblees, but based on the comments sounds like camping out over night is kind of rare. I know I see them regularly in this state when I’m out at first light when it was chilly overnight.

      • Spy Black

        “…I didn’t freeze him with liquid nitrogen…”

        That’s no fun…

        • peterw

          freezing of small animals is practice amongst a lot of nature photographers…

          glad to read Steve does it differently
          early hours is a good means to achieve this, offering also nice quality of light, and little movement from wind…

          Glad to read this nice and compact article.

          • Spy Black

            I’ve been joking about that.

  • Andy Aungthwin

    Don’t forget that you can use a CPL to get longer shutter speeds so that you can:
    1. stay within the camera’s shutter speed limits
    2. get flash sync
    3. “slow down” water by about 2 stops for that creamy effect
    And by reducing the ISO by one stop a CPL can also be used as a 3 stop ND filter. Four if you push the aperture by another stop.

    • FDF

      Or even stick to of them together to get a variable ND filter.

      • Andy Aungthwin

        Yes and no.

        You can’t just stick two CPLs to get a variable ND filter effect.

        I can’t remember exactly but I think you need one to be a linear CPL and it needs to be put on back to front.

        Let’s wait for someone who can give more precise info.

        • FredBear

          No difference which way around the polariser is, it’ll have the same effect (well the polarising action anyway). Not sure what effect the MRC ‘the wrong way round’ would be though.
          You can use two linear polarisers together. When they’re ‘crossed’ (i.e. the polarising is 90° different from one to the other) then you’ll get total extinction (no light passing) at 45° you’ll get 1/2 the light through that you would get with one.

          • Robert

            The key to getting a variable ND from two polarizer filters is that you have to put two linearly polarizing surfaces facing each other. This can be done either by using linear polarizer filters which consist of a linear polarizer so you can use any surface, or using circular polarizer filters which consist of a linear polarizer and a quarter wave plate, meaning that you have to put the linear polarizer sides of the CPLs together. You can also use one of each as long as the linear polarizer side of the CPL faces the LPL. The linear polarizer side of a CPL is the front side, i.e. the side normally facing what you photograph, as opposed to the quarter wave plate which is used to send circularly polarized light through your lens (and faces the lens). For a graphical explanation see

            http://www.3dtvtechnology.org.uk/polarization

            http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/phyopt/quarwv.html

            • FredBear

              Would it be true then that circularly polarised light going through a 1/4 wave plate would come out linearly polarised (i.e. the reverse of linear polarisation going to circular)? If so then the 1/4 wave combined with a linear polariser would show significant extinction unless the polarisation was identical.

            • Robert

              TBH I do not know. It does not make sense to me to use a quarter wave plate without the linearly polarized light. If you follow the second link and scroll down a bit you will find an explanation of how it works.

            • FredBear

              “Unpolarized light is not affected by this
              retardation plate (or by any thickness of birefringent material) because the retardation plate only changes the phase of each component of polarization.”
              http://isites.harvard.edu /icb/icb.do?keyword=k16940&pageid=icb.page93275&pageContentId=icb.pagecontent221670&view=view.do&viewParam_name=indepth.html
              So using a CPL ‘in reverse’ is the same as using a linear polariser.

            • Carleton Foxx

              So if I’m digging through the used filter bins at my local camera store, what do I need to buy to complement my circular polarizer? Another circ? Or a linear?

            • FredBear

              Either.
              Linear would be cheaper.
              Circular you’d have to ‘reverse mount’ it other wise it won’t work.
              In any case you’ll have to manual focus (I think)
              Enjoy :-)

  • 24×36

    Somebody cut-and-pasted the wrong lead-in to this article…what was that about the AF-ON button?! ;)

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ Nikon Rumors

      it’s just an older guest post from the same author

      • ShakyLens

        So you’re not going to fix it then?

        • http://nikonrumors.com/ Nikon Rumors

          To fix what?

          • Wim van Dam

            It currently says:
            “This article on how to use Nikon’s AF-ON button for AF is written by Steve Perry […]”

            • http://nikonrumors.com/ Nikon Rumors

              yes, fixing it now

  • RT

    I disagree that polarizers are the only way to cut through reflections and that it’s an effect that can’t be achieved in post processing. If you try judicious use of pseudo high dynamic range software you will be able to recover at least some detail and often all of it, depending on your camera (Nikon D200 manages ok). That isn’t to say that polarizers aren’t necessary but it is to say that it’s worth revisiting shots taken without a polarizer or when a polarizer was set incorrectly or wasn’t enough. Cheap polarizers can also add ghosting and the less glass stacked onto high quality lenses the better in my opinion. That and over use of pHDR software destroys shots of course! Give it (i.e. Photomatix, free trial available) a go, you may be surprised, but you will keep your polarizer and maybe even upgrade it.
    Whilst we’re on the subject of filters try Marumi Redhancer (available on Amazon) filters to remove sodium streetlight skyglow at night. It’s the same sort of filter used by glassworkers to cut out the bright glow when heating glass and works pretty well. Maybe even add a polarizer.
    Someone mentioned polarizers that only cut light by one stop; I use a Hoya HRT Cir-PL UV and it works a dream. Also cuts UV. I don’t think they do either for the Wonderpana adapter though.

  • Dweeb

    Any Nikon news? How about that new 16mm or 300 f4?

  • Vicne

    The post starts with the words “This article on how to use Nikon’s AF-ON button…” I guess it’s a copy paste and should read “This article on how to use a polarizing filter…

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ Nikon Rumors

      Oh, I am sorry – I did not even see that. I thought you are referring to the other hyperlinked article. I will fix that ASAP. Sorry again.

  • Roger Irwin

    A great article. I often use polarizers for blue skys, but I’d never thought about using them with ND’s to cut through the misty water.

  • Kadidal

    That’s gotta be the best frog photo ever taken.

    • Steve Perry

      Not sure about that, but thank you :)

    • Captain Megaton

      Can’t say I’m a fan of the long exposure waterfall photos (well executed but crushingly unoriginal) but the frog one was very good!

  • TeaBreak

    My (expensive!) Nikon 77mm Polarizer is completely useless. OK, there are some subtle differences to shots without but nothing that would be worth the money. Do I expect to much?

    • Steve Perry

      Not sure what to say – most of the shots above and in the video were with the Nikon. Only shots that get real wide wave a different polarizer.

    • Carleton Foxx

      You know I used to think the same thing, but what I realized is that I was comparing my Nikon polarizer to the ones I used with my Spotmatic F back in the 1970s… The polarizers back then seemed more effective because the lens coatings weren’t as good.

      The much better lens coatings and optics designs of today get you about 33 percent of the way there in terms of reducing glare and seeing through glass and water…So a polarizer now doesn’t seem to have as much effect but it’s only because you’re starting from a better place overall.

    • Captain Megaton

      A PL only works with … duh … polarized light. Most light is not polarized, only after being reflected off a surface (or the sky) at a glancing angle does it become so. Thus, there are times where it makes a huge difference, and many instances where its nothing more than a fancy ND filter.

  • Neopulse

    That name is kinda cool Steve Perry.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4zUHIa2RSc

    • Steve Perry

      You really don’t wanna hear me sing :)

      • Neopulse

        Lol, no worries man :) Thanks for making the video by the way.

  • Carleton Foxx

    I don’t know if anyone said this, but please for God’s sake, do not take pictures of people with a polarizer. It makes their face look flat and horrible because it eliminates the micro-reflections from their skin which are what our brain uses to give the face shape.

  • Captain Megaton

    Like any tool, it can be overused. Reflections are not necessarily a bad thing, in fact most of the time I find they add rather than detract from a photo. The trick to PL is not so much knowing when to put it on as understanding when to leave it off.

  • Donald

    Help Please. Hello I am kinda new to the filter thing and just got a polarizer have not had much sun since I got it but I was kinda messin around in the house with it and when I turn the ring it does not change but if I point camera at my tv and turn the ring it works fine. Even outside it does not make a difference. What am I doing wrong?

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