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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Do More With Your Polarizer

It’s the ultimate outdoor photography landscape filter, and we’ll show you how to do more than just darken skies

This Article Features Photo Zoom

If you think a polarizer is only for darkening the sky, you're missing opportunities to enhance reflections, saturate color and emphasize texture in shade or overcast. Many nature photographers are simply screwing on a polarizer without understanding how it works, mistakenly believing that merely having it attached is sufficient. When used properly, a polarizer is one of the most valuable tools in your bag for creating rich, evocative landscape photos.

When used improperly, it can mess up your image in a way that no amount of postprocessing can fix. The amount of polarization any composition calls for is a creative decision that can make or break an image. And, unfortunately, a misoriented polarizer is worse than no polarizer. With no Photoshop substitute to help you recover, your only option is to get the polarization right at capture. I'll show you how to make the most of a polarizer and provide pro secrets on how to use it in situations you may not have considered.

Why Use A Polarizer?
A polarizer can transform a lackluster scene into a photograph with depth, richness, saturation and contrast. With reflections minimized by a polarizer, pale blue sky is transformed to a deep blue, the natural color and texture of rocks and foliage pop, and clouds that were barely visible suddenly snap into prominence. Or imagine mountains reflected in a still alpine lake—as you rotate your polarizer, the reflection is replaced by rocks and leaves dotting the lake bed; keep turning, and the reflection returns.

How To Think Beyond The Blue Sky
1 Look down! As nice as the effect on the sky is, it's the polarizer's subtler ability to reduce glare in overcast or shade that I find irreplaceable. Lock your eyes on a reflective surface and rotate the polarizer. The effect is most obvious on water, or wet rocks and leaves, but even when completely dry, most rocks and leaves have a discernible sheen. As you rotate the polarizer, harsh glare is replaced by natural color and texture; continue rotating, and the glare reappears. The glare is minimized when the scene is darkest.

2 Experiment with the middle of the range. Regardless of the effect, there's no rule that requires you to turn the polarizer to one extreme or another (maximum or minimum reflection). Rotate the outer element slowly and look carefully through the viewfinder as the scene changes. Stop when you achieve the desired effect. This is particularly useful when shooting reflections. In the North Lake autumn reflection scene, I was able to find a midpoint in the polarization that kept the best part of the reflection on the mountains and trees, while still revealing the submerged granite rocks at my feet.

3 Chase rainbows. Dialed to just the right point, a polarizer can make a rainbow stand out more by darkening background clouds. On the other hand, dialing a polarizer to cut reflections will make the rainbow disappear.

In this example, the rain was dumping as I waited for the image above, but I had just driven through clearing skies to the west, and I knew it wouldn't be long before the clearing reached Yosemite Valley. When the rainbow appeared, I dialed my Singh-Ray polarizer while peering through my viewfinder; maximum polarization erased the rainbow completely, but I found a partial setting that revealed the rainbow while darkening the sky.


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