Gadget Bag: Polarizers

If there ever has been a single piece of gear that all nature photographers agree is indispensable, it’s the polarizer

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Gadget Bag With Polarizer

The label reads somewhat like a too-good-to-be-true advertisement for photography snake oil: “Removes glare, darkens blue skies, enhances colors and lets you see underwater.” But all of this—and more—can be truthfully said about polarizing filters.

When light reflects off the surface of an object, it scatters in an infinite number of directions. Objects that have multifaceted surfaces—a diamond or a ball of aluminum foil, for example—encourage light to scatter randomly. Relatively flat surfaces, like water and walls, tend to reflect a fair portion of the light waves along more or less parallel paths. For the sake of simplicity, we can equate these parallel waves to the glare commonly reflected from the surface of water or a glossy, painted wall. Although the light waves are moving along similar paths, their energy is scattered perpendicular to their axes.

Without Polarize

What a polarizing filter does is simple: it absorbs the nonparallel glare and allows us to see the object more clearly. In the case of water, we can peek through the glare on the top layer and actually see beneath the surface.

The popular metaphor used to explain the process involves a picket fence and a jump rope. If you vigorously whip a jump rope that’s tied to a distant tree, the wave created by the length of the rope will be entirely random. But if the rope is threaded through a picket fence, the motion will conform to the shape defined by the two pickets through which the rope passes. In other words, whip a rope through a vertical fence, and the rope can only move up and down, regardless which direction you’re shaking the rope.

If you accept this slightly flawed lesson in physics, you immediately realize one or two other things. First, if the fence is horizontal instead of vertical, the rope will move from side to side rather than up and down. In the case of polarizing filters, they’re constructed using two stacked rings. One ring is threaded and attaches to the camera lens; the other ring holds the glass containing the microscopic (and perfectly aligned) particles that polarize the light that passes through it. Rotating the outer ring is analogous to turning the picket fence on its side.

Formatt Circular Polarizer
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Heliopan Circular Polarizer
Cokin Varicolor Blue/Yellow
B+W Warm Tone Polarizer

Second, if you twirl a rope between fence pickets, much of the effort (and energy) is lost. The same is true with polarizing filters: they absorb light, and therefore you must increase exposure. This exposure increase is commonly called the “filter factor” and is generally between 1.5x and 2.5x, depending on filter brand and working conditions.

Canon PL-C 52mm Drop-In Circular Polarizing Filter
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Hoya Circular Polarizer
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Tiffen 77mm Circular Polarizer

Besides merely eliminating reflections from water and glass windows, polarizing filters suppress light that otherwise would be scattered from flat surfaces like painted walls and thereby enhance the true colors of objects. One bonus side effect is an apparent increase in color saturation without change in color balance.

Polarizers are famous for darkening blue skies and making white clouds pop. Aside from postprocessing in Photoshop, the only way to enhance and darken a sky without unduly influencing other parts of an image is by using a polarizing filter. Strength and effect are adjusted visually by rotating the filter while observing the image in the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor.

To find the area of the sky that will be most strongly affected by a polarizer, make an “L” shape with your index finger and thumb and point it at the sun as though you were shooting a rubber band into space. (Your thumb doesn’t have to be perpendicular to the ground—you can rotate your hand through an arc, just keep you finger pointed at the sun.) If your index finger is aimed at the sun, your thumb will be pointed toward the portion of the sky where a polarizing filter will deliver maximum results.

There are several types of polarizing filters on the market. The most common and generally least expensive is the linear polarizer. This was the most popular type until 1985, when a generation of autofocus SLR cameras that use beam splitters arrived on the scene. That technology required a circular polarizer—the type that reigns supreme today. If you use a linear polarizer where a circular style is required, the result may be incorrect focus and/or improper exposure.

Mainly because of a property called birefringence, it’s possible to change the colorcast produced by certain specially made polarizers during rotation. These usually offer a range of hues between two complimentary colors, for example blue/yellow or red/green. Examples of this type of polarizer are Cokin Varicolor filters, which are available in the above combinations, plus pink/orange, blue/lime and red/blue. It’s also possible to adjust the intensity of one single color. Cokin offers red, blue and yellow Polacolor filters that shift from normal polarization effect to polarizer-plus-color as you twist.

Polarizers are more expensive than many other filters, and because the stacked-ring construction makes them thicker than most, they can cause vignetting when used on some ultra-wide-angle lenses. You can defeat this problem by using a filter system that consists of a filter holder and a threaded adapter for the lens. With this type of system, if you have several lenses with different-sized filter threads, you simply buy different inexpensive adapters instead of buying a dedicated screw-in filter for each.

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Singh Ray
Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer
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Canon, Nikon and other lens manufacturers offer their own line of polarizers. One advantage of choosing the camera brand is guaranteed compatibility. A good example is the Nikon 52mm Circular Polarizer (C-PL3L), which drops into the filter slot on Nikon’s 200mm ƒ/2.0G AF-S VR lens. Similarly, the Canon 52mm Drop-In Circular Polarizing Filter (PL-C 52) is the best choice for its EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM and certain other Canon lenses.

For more than 60 years, B+W Filters has been known for outstanding quality as well as technological innovation. It was the first filter manufacturer in the world to offer multilayer coating that repels water and dirt. Its proprietary MRC coating is actually harder than glass, so it protects filters from scratches. Today, B+W offers more than 1,500 different filters, plus many related accessories. If forced to pick a single favorite, many photographers would choose a B+W warming polarizer, which combines the powers of a polarizer with the warming effect of an amber filter and is available in several configurations (81A, 81C, etc.).

Not every filter manufacturer can say it has been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with a Technical Achievement Award. But as a matter of fact, Tiffen has two Oscars® (and one Emmy®) in its trophy case. Using a Tiffen polarizer doesn’t guarantee you’ll get any closer to Hollywood, but it does mean you’re using a product with quality high enough to satisfy even the most demanding professionals. Tiffen polarizers are widely available in all popular sizes.

Primarily known in the motion-picture and video industries, Formatt has an excellent reputation as a manufacturer of high-quality filters. It makes linear and circular polarizers in a variety of sizes to fit just about any screw-in lens assembly. Construction incorporates the Formatt ACT methodology, which sandwiches a polarizing polymer between two pieces of high-quality Schott optical glass, which is then polished to extremely high tolerances.

Nikon 52mm
Nikon 52mm Circular Polarizer (C-PL3L)
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Hoya is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of optical glass, including glass used for camera lenses, eyeglasses and photographic filters. Its production process involves the introduction of raw elements and chemicals to molten optical glass to produce a filter of uniform coloration. Hoya never produces sandwich-type laminated or surface-colored filters. Hoya filters are likewise famous for being plano-parallel, which means that at every point, each side of the filter is perfectly flat and parallel to the side opposite it. Besides its full lineup of extra thin, Super Multi-Coated polarizers, Hoya also offers color polarizers in five combinations: yellow/blue, yellow/green, yellow/red, red/blue and red/green.

One of the best features of Singh-Ray’s polarizers and warming polarizers is what they call “Lighter, brighter.” In a nutshell, that means the filter factor is less, and consequently, it requires less exposure compensation. It also means more light is transmitted through the viewfinder, so it’s easier to compose and focus. A perennial favorite, the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer allows you to gradually shift from warm, golden tones to stark, cold blues simply by rotating the filter. This filter is highly recommended for beach scenes.

Heliopan filters are more like jewels than camera accessories. They’re made from glass supplied by Schott (wholly owned by Carl Zeiss) and set in black anodized brass rings that screw in with precision and authority. They’re available in every conceivable size and configuration, including 13 different types of polarizers and special-effect filters. Heliopan thin circular polarizers accommodate ultra-wide-angle lenses as wide as 21mm.

B+W (Schneider Optics)
(631) 761-5000
(800) OK-CANON
(410) 374-3250
Formatt Filters (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500
Heliopan (HP Marketing Corp.)
(800) 735-4373
Hoya (THK Photo Products)
(800) 421-1141
(800) NIKON-US
(800) 486-5501
(800) 645-2522


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