The polarizer is one of the most relied-upon photo filters. Its capabilities surpass what can be replicated in the digital darkroom. Its most common use for nature photographers is to darken a blue sky. While it performs this task royally, I want to share a quick tip list of this amazing filter’s capabilities. Be forewarned, even with its phenomenal powers, there are drawbacks. Don’t fall prey to polarizer pitfalls. To find out its pluses and minuses, read the following quick tips.
Quick Tip #1: Use It On Overcast Days—The polarizer helps saturate a blue sky depending on the angle to the sun. If it’s overcast, there is no blue, but it can add a touch of snap to darker clouds. Use it to eliminate flat gray sky reflections onto shiny surfaces to eradicate glare that robs color saturation. The polarizer cuts through the glare and provides color.
Quick Tip #2: Choose Your Angle—Work at 90 degrees to the sun to get the best skies. When making landscapes, the subjects will be side lit, which reveals shape and texture. Include the sky inside lit images, rotate the polarizer until you see it richen up and make the shot. (See Pitfalls #1.)
Quick Tip #3: Use For Water Subjects—Water is a reflective surface. In Tip # 1, I mentioned the polarizer cuts through reflections. Spin the polarizer when you photograph water and watch what happens. Oriented one way and the glare is visible. Continue to spin it and you’ll see what’s under the glare’s surface.
Quick Tip #4: Impact The Shutter Speed—A polarizer adds neutral density. It doesn’t impact color, but it does subtract light. If you need to use a slow shutter speed to create a special effect, add a polarizer to lose a stop or two—the amount depends on the polarizer you own.
Quick Tip #5: Add Drama—I love storm light when I photograph landscapes. Ominous skies and rainbows provide impact. Attach a polarizer to enhance the effect. Spin the polarizer slowly so its orientation reveals an enhanced effect of contrast, color or both.
Quick Tip #6: Waterfalls—Waterfalls produce spray. The spray settles on surrounding rocks and foliage. The settled water produces glare. Use the polarizer to remove the distracting reflections. If you go from a vertical to a horizontal composition, be sure to reorient the polarizer.
Quick Tip #7: Tweak It—Most photographers spin a polarizer to achieve maximum polarization. In most instances, this works great, but realize there are incremental effects that can be applied. Don’t overlook spinning it half way. I suggest you bracket the amount of polarization. This way you can choose what you prefer when you view the images on your computer.
Quick Tip #8: Go Counter Clockwise—When you attach the polarizer, don’t make it super tight. Many polarizers are thin, and there’s not much to grab to remove it. With this in mind, when you spin the polarizer, turn it COUNTER CLOCKWISE. I had a photo tour participant who always spun his polarizer clockwise. In doing so, he spun it right off the threads of his lens and watched it shatter upon impact. If you spin it counter clockwise, this can’t happen.
Pitfall #1: Wide Angles #1—Blotchy Sky—The polarizer has its greatest effect when the lens is pointed 90 degrees to the sun. Most wide angles, when held horizontally, take in a lot of sky. As the angle deviates from 90 degrees, the darkening effect of the polarizer falls off in tonality. The end result is an unnatural transition from deep blue on one side of the image to a lighter blue on the other. It’s visible through the viewfinder, so be aware of it as you turn the polarizer. If you see it, back off on the effect or find a different composition. (See Quick Tip #2.)
Pitfall #2: Wide Angles #1—Vignette The Corners—Super wide angles stopped down to small apertures provide lots of depth of field. So much so, the corners of some large ring polarizers can be recorded. With this in mind, remove any other filter. Do not stack them, as it almost guarantees you’ll vignette the corners.
Pitfall #3: Contain the Angle—In pitfall number one, I mentioned wide angle blotchy skies. Blotchy skies can also appear even with medium focal length lenses. If you point the lens 90 degrees to the sun, all is good. But what if the subject is 60 degrees to the sun? The portion closer to the right angle to the sun will be darker than the opposite side. Again, back off on the polarizer’s effect.
Pitfall #4: Black Skies—Different times of the day provide different amplifications of the polarizer’s effect. If you use a polarizer in late morning or early afternoon, it’s possible to make the sky appear unnaturally dark. Dark subjects that are sky lined will merge into a dark abyss.
Pitfall #5: Blurry Pics—Polarizers absorb light. This translates to slower shutter speeds. Be cognizant of the shutter speed before you press the shutter. If it’s too slow, be sure to stabilize the camera on a tripod.
Pitfall #6: Don’t Obliterate It—Polarizers can enhance a rainbow to bring out the prismatic colors. BUT they can also obliterate the rainbow. Be sure to orient the polarizer to amplify the colors.
Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.