What is a Polarizing Filter and How to Use it

This is a very brief & concise guide about what a polarizing filter is and how to use one. Let’s dive in.

What is a polarizing filter?

A polarizing filter, known by most photographers as just a “polarizer”, is a lens filter that, in simple terms, reduces haze, reflections, and increases saturation. There are two types of polarizers: the linear kind and the circular kind.

The linear kind of polarizer is not adjustable, while a circular polarizer can be rotated in order to change the level of polarization in your image. Linear filters are quite uncommon these days, but you’ll find hundreds upon hundreds of options for circular filters.

An average circular polarizer.

How does a polarizer work?

Without getting too deep into the science aspect of things, what a polarizer does is filter out haze from various sources such as water vapor and airborne pollutants.

This allows for the removal (or at the very least, reduction) of reflections. Essentially, these filters cut down certain types of light.

When to use a polarizer?

There are many times where polarizers come in handy. First of all, landscape shots. All sorts of objects can cast reflections, from a wet rock to a small pond. While there are certainly some compositions where the inclusions of a reflection can enhance the image, it’s generally best to remove as many as possible.

Take for example that you’re shooting on a rocky coastline. Many of the rocks will be partially or fully submerged by water, thus casting bright, shining reflections. Using a polarizer can help tame this, and make a much more consistently lit, detailed image.

One car, being photographed without a polarizer, shows many reflections. The other car shows clean, smooth lines as a result of the reflection reduction element of polarizers.

Another example is when shooting through windows or with cars. When shooting through a window, depending on the lighting, you may capture reflections of what’s behind you. Using a polarizer, while it may not completely remedy the issue, can greatly reduce the intensity of the reflections.

The same concept applies to photographing cars. The shiny metal bodies essentially act as gigantic, curved mirrors, catching bright light from every angle. While a polarizer can’t completely compensate for bad lighting (shooting cars in bright sunlight is usually unadvised), it can do wonders of smoothing out reflections and making the lighting look more even.

This image shows the danger of over-polarizing the sky, leading to inconsistent lighting.

Be careful not to over-polarize the skies.

One major thing to look out for when using a polarizer is to not black out the sky. Depending on the time of day and how you’ve rotating your circular polarizer, portions of the sky may end up being substantially darker, which can be quite challenging to fix in post processing.

If the sky is dark, make sure to rotate the filter a little bit more until everything is even.

Conclusion

Overall, a polarizer is an essential part of most photographer’s kits, especially those interested in either landscapes or shooting cars. They are generally affordable, and come in all sorts of different sizes to fit every type of lens. 

Below I’ll include purchase links to a few different filter brands at different price points. Remember to purchase the right thread for your lens! Thanks for reading.

Prefer B&H? Tiffen Brand Filters (make sure to select your size)


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