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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Right Filters For Fall Color

When shooting in autumn, the polarizer, neutral-density and grad ND filters are indispensable for achieving stunning imagery

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Left: Using a polarizer deepens blue skies, which look especially pronounced when contrasted against beautiful fall colors, like in this image of a golden aspen forest in Colorado. RIGHT: Kevin McNeal used a neutral-density filter to slow exposure and achieve a “cotton-candy” effect in these merging waterfalls in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon.
Filters from top to bottom: B+W Circular Polarizer MRC, Heliopan Circular Polarizer, Hoya Circular Polarizer

When it comes to color and impact, fall is full of opportunity. The season is an amazing time to create mood with color while capturing landscapes as they transform before one’s eyes. Trying to create an image about which I’m particularly passionate, however—especially in autumn—can be challenging. When shooting fall colors, there are three filters that I never leave home without: a polarizer, a neutral-density filter and a graduated neutral-density filter. Although each has its own purpose, they all overcome obstacles that otherwise would be impossible to correct without using a filter, even digitally. Polarizers, neutral-density filters and graduated neutral-density filters are indispensable in many of these photographic situations.

A circular polarizer reduces the glare from an image for crystal-clear saturation of colors, as you can see in these fall reflections in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. McNeal used a Singh-Ray warming polarizer, which also acts as an enhancing or intensifying filter for saturating the red, orange and brown hues of autumn.
The Polarizer
The most important filter for fall is the polarizer. Useable in all facets of nature photography, this filter can make a significant improvement to your images. The polarizer deepens the color of blue skies, provides more saturated colors, and reduces glare and reflections in bright or sunny conditions. Concerning fall foliage, the polarizer eliminates glare on leaves and flowers. It intensifies and saturates color in wet foliage and adds color density to blue or hazy skies. One additional benefit of using a polarizer is that it cuts through the haze in the atmosphere. This added clarity allows subjects to stand out more against the deeper tones of the sky so that fall foliage looks even more pronounced.

When light hits a nonmetallic surface, it’s reflected and polarized—the wavelengths are aligned—and when we see this reflection from the surface of water, for example, we call it glare. The polarizer blocks the wavelengths perpendicular to its axis. This is achieved by using a specialized foil positioned between two sheets of glass. The front part of this polarizer then can be rotated, altering the amount of polarized light that can be blocked out by the filter. A simple rotation of the front glass allows the photographer to dial in the amount of effect desired in the image.

To do this properly, position the polarizer on the lens and rotate slowly while looking through the camera’s viewfinder. Choosing where to stop the rotation is a personal choice, but you want to maximize the effect up to the point where it begins to look unrealistic. For example, when the scene includes blue skies, rotate the polarizer only until you get deep, rich blues. If overrotated, the blues can turn into an unrealistic darker tone, especially in higher elevations. To maximize the potential of a polarizer, keep the sun at a right angle to the camera by holding your hands out to the side while facing the sun. Where your arms point is where the polarizer works best. A 90-degree angle to the sun is optimal because this is the location of the most polarized light in the sky.


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