Polarizing Filter: Not Just for Blue Skies!

by Kerry Drager

BEFORE -- No Filter
BEFORE -- No Filter
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
With a little imagination and skill, the use of a polarizing filter can be a low-effort, high-impact method for controlling light and color.

The polarizer - which attaches to the front of the lens - has long been known for its ability to deepen a pale blue sky. But a polarizer can do so much more than that. Most important, the circular polarizer can help tone down reflective surfaces (such as glass, water, wet rocks, foliage, and painted objects) in order to reduce the glare and, therefore, enhance a scene's natural colors.

Many outdoor photographers use the polarizer when itís overcast or just after a rain. Soft light is perfect for shooting water - waterfalls, streams, wet streets, etc. - and often a polarizer will give those images a boost by reducing the glare and bringing out the colors.

The polarizer also will cut the surface reflection and let you see into small ponds, shallow streams, or tide pools. But beware, since that ďsurface reflectionĒ may be what attracted you to the scene in the first place!

AFTER --   Polarizer Used!
AFTER -- Polarizer Used!
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
Photo Examples Ö Red Chairs: For this scene, the bright red chairs were sitting on a shady porch on a sunny day. Note the bright reflected glare on the chair in the Before image (no polarizer) ... and how the rich red came out in the After image, thanks to the addition of a polarizer. I could see this effect take place as I looked through the camera's viewfinder while turning the filter's outer ring (and this rotating is mandatory for polarizer use). Click on the images to enlarge, in order to really see the difference.

Important: Don't Forget to Turn It! The polarizing filter turns in its mount, and you must rotate the outer ring to see the possible effects. Then, when you hit the amount of polarization that you want, you shoot the scene at that precise orientation. If you do not see any effect whatsoever as you rotate the polarizer, itís very likely that the scene is not a "polarizer scene" -- i.e., youíre not at an angle to the sun or the surface isnít actually reflective.



BEFORE -- No Filter
BEFORE -- No Filter
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
There are some things a polarizer canít do:

-- It is at its peak effectiveness when used at a 90-degree angle to the light source - say, with the sun at your right or left.

-- Donít bother trying a polarizer when you are facing the sun, or if the sun is at your back. There will be no effect.

-- Due to the 90-degree factor, beware when using a polarizer with a wide-angle lens to enliven a blue sky, since it could cause an unnatural and uneven variation from dark to light.

-- As for reflective surfaces, sunny or cloudy, if the subject you wish to polarize consists of different angles, then not all surfaces can be polarized at the same time. So just turn the ring and see what looks good to you.

Photo Examples Ö Old Detour Sign: Check out the dramatic difference that the polarizer made on this Detour sign. But also check out how much bolder the red and yellow are on the frame underneath the sign. At the same time, the old truck at the top background is at a different angle to the polarizer than the Detour sign and, as a result, there was no effect. Just to confirm: The richer color in parts of the After image resulted entirely from the polarization. In addition, the lighting for both images was nice and soft from overcast.


AFTER --   Polarizer Used!
AFTER -- Polarizer Used!
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
Multiple Lenses, Multiple Sizes: If you have more than one lens with different size filter threads and donít want to buy a filter for each (a costly proposition), then buy a filter for the lens with the biggest filter thread. And purchase step-up rings. This lets you use the larger filter on lenses with smaller filter threads.

Note: Not sure what your lens's filter size is? If you are already using a protective filter on your lens, then thatís the thread size for all filters (including polarizer) for that lens. Otherwise, youíll likely find the size on the reverse (inside) of the lens cap, or along the rim of the front lens element. Or look for it on the lensís barrel (itís the number following a circle with a line through it).

NOTE: This article is adapted from The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light



About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Kerry Drager
Photography Instructor: Kerry Drager
Kerry Drager is a professional photographer, teacher and writer who is also the co-author of two books: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light. He has taught many photography courses (online and in person), seminars and field workshops.

Be sure to check out Kerry's website - www.kerrydrager.com.

Also, he is the author of Scenic Photography 101, the photographer of the photo-essay books The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood and California Desert , a contributor to the books BetterPhoto Basics and Daybreak 2000, and a co-photographer of Portrait of California. In addition, Kerry was profiled in the April 1994 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine and in Vik Orenstein's 2010 book The Photographer's Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business, and his website was showcased in the January 2003 issue of Shutterbug magazine. Plus, his work has appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards and Sierra Club calendars, and in advertising campaigns for American Express and Sinar Bron Imaging.

Also follow Kerry on Facebook, where he posts photos several times a week that include shooting tips and thoughts.

Kerry lives with his wife, Mary, on California's Central Coast, with their three Newfoundland dogs, four cats, and a mixed terrier.