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The term "filter" has become ubiquitous, as the ability to transform the color palette, texture and grain of an image now can be done with one touch using a Photoshop plug-in or an iPhone app. While we can take advantage of this technology by personalizing and perfecting postprocess filters, devoted nature photographers know that not all filter effects can be re-created in the computer accurately. In particular, the special look created by a polarizer only can be achieved by shooting with the physical glass filter attached to your lens.
When light is reflected from nonmetallic surfaces in nature, it becomes polarized. This is seen in the glare of water reflections, wet surfaces from dewy mornings and details lost on overcast days. Additionally, the sky experiences polarization from scattered sunlight, creating lighter, washed-out blues. Cameras don't record polarized light information, so it's impossible to change specific polarization in post, making it important to do desired adjustments in the field.
A basic circular polarizer is a neutral gray-colored filter, with a mount threading to the end of your lens while the filter remains free to turn fluidly. As you turn the polarizer, it changes the degree of effect. For instance, when dealing with reflection bouncing from a body of water, as you turn the polarizer, the reflection may reduce to the point where you can see directly through the water's surface to the rocky, muddy or lively undercurrent. You're then able to make a compositional decision about where on the spectrum you'd like the amount of reflection to fall.
Similarly, a polarizer adds saturation to a sky. The placement of the saturation is dependent on the location of the sun, as well as where you situate yourself. The sky is most affected by the polarizer at a 90° angle from the direction of sunlight, so if the sun is overhead, the sky near the horizon has more depth. Playing around with timing provides experience for previsualization. Another fun moment to pull out the polarizer is for rainbows, as the filter can enhance (or remove) colors.
One important note: When using a polarizer, you often lose 1 to 2 stops, so you need to compensate when you add it to your lens. Because of this, you also may prefer to use the polarizer when you're capturing still scenes or using slow shutter speeds as opposed to quick wildlife shots.
In the world of polarizers, there are many options with different types of mounts, coatings and even additional color blends.
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Heliopan High-Transmission Circular Polarizing Multi-Coated Filter, Slim Mount
The Heliopan High-Transmission Circular Polarizing Multi-Coated Filter uses a combination of high-quality Schott glass and a black brass ring mount to provide a well-sealed and well-constructed filter. The brass ring includes index marks, providing a way to achieve precise and replicable settings. The polarizer includes the Heliopan SH-PMC 8-layer color neutral multicoating on each side (16 layers in total), ensuring durability and flare reduction, as well as dust and moisture resistance. Despite the multicoating, high-transmission technology allows 99.8% of light to pass through the filter, making it only a 1-stop loss of light, compared to other filters that have 2- or 3-stop losses. This filter also comes in a Slim mount version, reducing the depth of the mount and possible vignettes. The Slim mount has no front threads for filter layering. www.hpmarketingcorp.com
B+W's long history of filter innovation includes the development of several different coatings and mounts. All of their filters provide a neutral color and use high-quality optical glass. The Standard F-Pro mount is made of brass, providing front threads for additional filters, lens caps and hoods. The F-Pro Circular Polarizer is available with the Multi-Resistant Coating (MRC), which creates a surface harder than glass, protecting the filter from scratches, as well as making the filter water- and dirt-resistant. Another option is the Standard F-Pro MRC with Kasemann polarizing foil. This high-efficiency foil is cemented between the optical glass, then sealed around the edges to protect against humidity. This is of particular note if you enjoy shooting in swamplands, rain forests or wet thunderstorm weather.
The XS-PRO Digital mount is B+W's latest mount design, providing a thin brass mount to avoid vignettes with wide-angle lenses, while maintaining front threads for lens caps and hoods. All XS-PRO Digital filters feature both MRC and nano coating technology with an improved water-beading effect for simple cleaning, as well as the Kasemann polarizing foil.
B+W's Extra-Wide (EW) Circular Polarizer features an oversized mount with larger filter glass to avoid vignetting with extreme wide-angle lenses. EW mounts are available in 67mm-112mm sizes. www.schneideroptics.com
Singh-Ray offers neutral polarizers, plus some color blends and combinations. The LB Polarizer is made from highly polished proprietary glass, and the "lighter, brighter" density of the filter adds only 11⁄3 stops to exposures. The basic LB polarizer is available in Neutral, as well as Warming, which provides the ability to adjust the red/yellowish tones. Both are available in slim mounts, which remove the front threads.
Similar in design, Singh-Ray's LB ColorCombo filter combines the LB Warming Polarizer with the LB Color Intensifier, enhancing reds, browns and greens in one ring. Because you're not stacking filters, you only lose about 2 stops. This polarizer is also available in a thin mount for 72mm, 77mm and 82mm.
The Gold-N-Blue Polarizer provides a tool particularly useful for landscape photographers. Just as the name implies, it allows you to adjust the amount of blue and golden hues in your image by rotating the filter. www.singh-ray.com
Cokin's circular polarizer is part of the PURE Harmonie line, featuring a slim 4.5mm design. Its thin profile is ideal for avoiding vignettes with wide-angle lenses, even when stacked with 3.3mm thick PURE Harmonie UV filters. The mount has kept external filter threads to allow use of additional filters or accessories. The filter itself is made from tempered Corning glass with high transmittance using EVERCLEAR 5 Coating Technology, providing a multilayer coating to resist oil, water, dust, soil and scratches. Cokin also makes Cokin Creative Filters for the A Series, P Series and X-Pro Series systems. www.omegabrandess.com
The Hoya HD Circular Polarizing filter uses highly durable, UV-absorbing film to provide 25% greater light transparency than standard polarizing film. An 8-layer HD coating has an antireflective surface that repels water and oil, and is scratch- and stain-resistant. The polarizer mounts the glass to the thin frame using high-pressure technology, and the low-profile frame is designed for wide-angle lenses.
Hoya's PRO 1D Circular Polarizer uses black-rimmed glass within a black matte almite frame to reduce the chance of reflections and glare. A knurling edge along the thin frame provides a sturdy grip for attachment and removal. The polarizer has a digital multicoating to reduce lens flare and ghosting; it's UV-protected for longevity.
The EX in Kenko's Zeta EX Circular Polarizer stands for extra—extra-thin, extra-light and extra-bright. Using four layers of nano glass technology provides a smooth stain- and scratch-resistant surface while keeping a 0.8mm thin glass profile. High-transparency film allows 25% more light through the filter compared to a traditional polarizer, equal to about 1 stop. The Zero Reflection Super Multi-Coating eliminates reflections without changing colors. kenkotokinausa.com
Tiffen provides reliable and inexpensive options for basic circular polarizers, but the price increases as you add additional features such as the Wide Angle Low Profile Design or Digital High Transmission Multi-Coating. The Wide Angle polarizers are 4mm thick without front threads and designed for wide-angle lenses. The High Transmission Circular Polarizing Multi-Coated Filter combines optical glass with a titanium coating and ColorCore technology, making it durable and scratch-resistant. The polarizer also features an antireflective black titanium ring. www.tiffen.com
Pro-Optic offers a basic, low-cost Pro Circular Polarizer. With a multicoating, the filter provides resistance against water, making it easy to clean. It's available in 52mm-77mm sizes, with thin mounts for the larger sizes to reduce vignettes. www.adorama.com