The Polarizer – A Photographer’s Best Friend

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The polarizer shines because of its versatility. With a single filter, you can darken a blue sky, remove reflections, eliminate glare, saturate color and create neutral density. It can be a great FRIEND when used properly, but if used incorrectly, your ENEMY.

Darken A Blue Sky:  While rotating the polarizer, scan the horizon on a blue-sky day and you’ll see varying degrees of deepening blue. This is a result of how a polarizer works relative to the angle from the sun.

FRIEND - If you face 90 degrees to the sun, you’ll achieve the greatest effect. ENEMY - If you point the camera 180 degrees from the sun, you’ll see very little. When I run my nature photo tours, I constantly tell my participants to be cognizant of their shadow. Maximum polarization occurs at a right angle to the direction their shadow points.

FRIEND - When facing 90 degrees from your shadow, orient the polarizer to darken the sky but avoid turning it to its maximum point. ENEMY - Maximum polarization at ninety degrees from the sun often results in navy blue skies that look unrealistic.

FRIEND - narrow angles of view provide a more even looking sky as only a small section is polarized. ENEMY - Wide- to super-wide-angle lenses create unevenly darkened skies when the view includes areas that fade from deep blue to a weak blue, yielding skies that are not natural.

Reflections and Glare: Many subjects reflect glare that detracts from the quality of the image. This is especially true with glass, water and metal objects, but it also applies to things not often thought of, such as leaves, rocks and other natural objects. Look through the viewfinder and rotate the polarizer to magically watch the glare and/or reflections disappear, revealing a cleaner and more distinct rendering of the subject. The degree to which the glare or reflection disappears is dependent upon the angle of light striking the object. If the glare or reflection doesn’t disappear, you need to change your shooting angle.

FRIEND - a) The polarizer will cut the surface reflection from water to darken its appearance.  b) The polarizer has the potential to allow you to see what's behind glass impacted by the reflection. ENEMY - a) Depending on its orientation, it will reveal murky-looking water by eliminating the sky reflection.  b) Depending on the angle at which the reflected light strikes the surface, no effect is visible.

Saturate Color: If a subject is shiny or wet, the polarizer helps remove the reflective surface, deepening its tone. This results in colors with greater saturation. The polarizer also helps remove shiny highlights that prevent the subject’s colors from being revealed.

Create Neutral Density:  Polarizers cut down on the amount of light that strikes the sensor. ENEMY - As a result, you lose valuable shutter speeds or apertures. FRIEND - On the other hand, if you want to add blur or pan with your subject, it’s a great tool. FRIEND - In that a polarizer doesn’t impact color, it doesn’t add a color cast to the images.



    Of the two photographs at the top of this article – is one more desirable than the other? Is it personal choice? Though I like being able to see the river rocks & floor through the running stream, I find the shot using the polarize filter almost too surreal looking.

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