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A Polarizer Filter – The Pros Secret Weapon

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

The Polarizer—a Pro’s Secret Weapon

Ever notice how photos taken by the pros seem to have incredible color? The blue sky is extra-blue, the trees seem greener, the flowers seem more vibrant. How do they do it?

One trick is to use a filter called a “Polarizer”. Basically this filter’s sole purpose in life is to remove reflections. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a world of difference.

You see, when you look at any given scene, the objects tend to reflect the existing light to some extent. When this happens, the colors just aren’t as vibrant—the reflection “blocks” the true colors. The more reflection, the less of the color you see.

Oh, and this reflection isn’t limited to what we normally think of a “reflective” surfaces (glass, water, etc). You would be amazed how much reflection you can get off of leaves, wet rocks, flowers, haze, and so on.

However, remove those reflections and all the sudden the colors “Pop” (you can actually hear it if you listen close 😉 When the reflection is gone, the true color shows through.

You’ve probably noticed this effect when you’ve worn polarized sunglasses. As soon as you put them on, your eyes are treated to a world of more vivid, more intense colors.

The good news is that most—not all, but most—cameras can use a polarizing filter. Check with your local camera shop or online. (I like B&H Photo out of NY… ).

Note there are two types of polarizers: linear and circular. For digital cameras, you’ll want the “circular” version. And no, that doesn’t refer to the shape of the filter—it refers to the method it uses to polarize the light :-)

Unlike most filters, these are adjustable. Once attached, you’ll notice it has a rotating ring. Turn that ring to adjust the intensity of the polarized effect to your taste. Your LCD monitor on the back of your camera will show the effects. Cool huh?

Also note that these work better when you shoot at 90-degree angles to the sun. Oh, and finally – these do eat up some light, so you may need a tripod in low light situations.

Here’s a waterfall photo I took a couple weeks ago without a polarizer. Note the reflection on the rocks—especially the circled ones towards the top right.

Now look at the same scene with a polarizer. Note how the reflections have been toned way down—and in some cases eliminated altogether. Also note that although this was shot in the shade, the colors still seem more vibrant in this photo (the effect would have been even more pronounced if it were sunny):

Finally, here is an enlarged area of the scene to demonstrate how a polarizer can knock the reflections off of leaves, trees, and vegetation:

No Polarizer:


That’s it—happy shooting!

~ Steve

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