The circular polarizer is a tool commonly found in the camera bags of discerning landscape photographers. As a landscape photographer in my spare time, I’ve had multiple polarizers in my camera bag for as long as I can remember; I almost have one for every thread-size I own, and I have one 82mm polarizer and two in 77mm!

However, I often get blank stares and weird looks whenever I suggest that other types of photographers, from wedding photographers to high-speed action shooters, also try using a polarizer.

Based on what a polarizer’s effect can do for your photography, though, I’d say that almost every type of photographer out there should consider owning this extremely handy tool.

Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, Sigma EX Circular Polarizer

Circular Polarizer Filter | You Can’t Always Fake It In Photoshop

Many self-proclaimed photography experts will give advice on the internet to the effect of, “you don’t need filters anymore in the digital age, that’s what Lightroom and Photoshop are for!”

Well, I’m here to tell you that is just plain wrong. In fact, it’s downright terrible advice in the case of the circular polarizer. Any Lightroom effects or Photoshop tweaks you might be able to perform which could even remotely resemble what a polarizer does, will either be a poor substitute, or just plain ugly.

Nikon D300, Nikon 85mm f/1.4, Sigma EX Circular Polarizer

Besides, using a polarizer in the field just makes for that much less work in post-production, even if all you need to do is give a blue sky a little more oomph. And if you’re a full-time professional, turning out thousands of proof images every week/month, post-production time adds up quickly.

Landscape Photography With A Circular Polarizer Filter

Of course, if you are indeed into landscape photography then you probably already know generally what a circular polarizer can do. Just to reiterate, though, here’s the full extent of it:

First and foremost, (the effect everybody knows about) it makes the sky a darker, more saturated blue, though in fairness, it’s not as simple as that, and we’ll get into this momentarily.

Indeed, you can easily use HSL adjustments to darken and saturate blues in Lightroom or Photoshop. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that!

Additionally, literally any surface that has a reflection or glare on it, including water, foliage, even damp rocks and dirt, or glass, and other shiny man-made surfaces and even pavement, can all be polarized.

By rotating the circular polarizer carefully I was able to keep some of the reflected clouds, while still revealing the tide pool where I wanted.

The effect is more prominent when your camera is at a right angle from your subject and the sun. If the angle is not 90 degrees, little to no polarization effect may be seen, especially with respect to blue skies. This is due to the nature of how a circular polarizing filter does what it does: it blocks wavelengths of light that hit the filter at certain angles, but not another, and the angle of maximum blockage is ~90 degrees.

The one thing you must be mindful of, any time that the sky is involved, is the focal length of your lens. At wide-angle focal lengths equivalent to 24mm or wider, you run the risk of making your sky’s blueness appear very, very uneven. Above, I tried to balance the blue sky on the right with the light sky on the left, since the left is where the sun was setting anyways. However, this image could still use some dodging and burning to make the blue blob in the top-center less obvious.

As a side note, a polarizer will also darken your overall exposures by 1-2 stops, depending on the level of polarization being applied. This would be a problem if polarizers were commonly used in low-light conditions when hand-holding, however, they are almost always useful in bright sunny conditions, where the side-effect of lost light is not a problem, or even a good thing!

Wedding & Portrait Photography With A Circular Polarizer Filter

Wedding and portrait photographers are the ones who seem the most surprised by my recommendation of a circular polarizer filter. In many circles, the best practice is thought to be zero filters on your lenses at all times, because any filter whatsoever will potentially cause image quality issues with color or sharpness, and what’s maybe worse, filters might even harm your camera’s ability to autofocus reliably.

(Without Polarizer)

(With Polarizer: When the angle is optimal, the difference is stunning!)

A circular polarizer can work wonders for anyone who has to shoot either portraits or general event coverage outdoors, and especially in “bad” sunlight. It eliminates the shine from sweaty skin, and even from shiny hair, too!

Many photographers consider the harshness of mid-day sunlight to be utterly ruinous to their final product, and yet, a polarizer can almost make your skin tones (and greens/blues in the background) almost look TOO saturated!

Indeed, that is my main recommendation for wedding & portrait photographers: Do not use a polarizer all the time, and when you do, be sure that the effect matches your personal creative style. The effect may be too strong sometimes.

Having said that, as you’ll see, I absolutely do recommend a circular polarizer filter for detail photos, venue wide-angle images, and more!

Without polarizer

With a polarizer (Identical processing in Lightroom!)

Even when the sun’s angle isn’t a perfect 90 degrees, the effect is still going to make your images pop a bit more. Similarly, even if there is no blue sky in your scene; if there is greenery or water, you’ll see a huge difference.

Destination Wedding Photographers: YES, Bring A Polarizer!

One thing I absolutely must mention is this: If you are a destination wedding photographer, an elopement wedding photographer, or if you just work anywhere tropical or near a lake, a beach , a river, GO BUY A POLARIZER!

Even if you never use that polarizer for one actual portrait, the effect it has on your location & detail photos will be truly breathtaking. You absolutely do not want to leave home without one. If only just for the one click; when it matters, it really adds that wow factor.

…Having said that, it is of course important to know when not to use a polarizer around water; sometimes the reflection is actually an important part of a photo. This question almost always answers itself at first glance, though, so don’t over-think it too much.

Polarizing Filters Subtract ~1.5 EVs of Light

As one final added bonus, cutting down ~1.5 stops of light might sometimes be the difference between blowing out your scene at f/1.4 or f/2.8 in broad daylight, and preserving its highlights nicely.

Nikon D700, Nikon 24mm, Sigma EX Circular Polarizer

Of course if you are working at f/1.4-2.8 in bright sun and you are also using flash, then you’ll inevitably need to stack a ~3 stop ND filter behind your CPL filter, unfortunately, if your camera and flash system don’t have HSS (High Speed Sync) capability. Alternatively, you can consider the PolarPro Quartzline of NDPL filters, which offer not just polarization, but also, 3-6 EVs (or even 10 EVs!) of darkening.

Either way, the benefits of a polarizer when trying to capture portraits in harsh sunlight are impressive. Bluer skies, greener grass, and the shine of skin and hair is almost completely eliminated. It almost looks like you were able to diffuse the light a little bit!

(Left: un-polarized. Right: polarized.)

Of course, some situations would still look better if you had an assistant with a “scrim on a stick” to actually bring shade to your subject’s faces. Unfortunately that just isn’t always possible, which is why a polarizer will still come in handy for more journalistic style wedding / event photographers in those “Hey can you take our picture?” type rapid-fire scenarios, whether at high-noon or early / late in the day.

Using A Circular Polarizer For Aerial Photography

It almost goes without saying that if your subjects are all depicted against an empty blue sky, then a circular polarizer is a great tool to have. Even if the subject is not at a perfect 90-degree angle from the sun in your photos, if there is water or anything else then you’ll often still get some beautiful deep blues, greens, etc.

Therefore, I would highly recommend a polarizer to general event photographers, or commercial & editorial photographers doing any sort of advertising/marketing campaign.  (It should go without saying that if you’re a real estate photographer, you definitely need a polarizer!)

Huntington Beach Air Show, California, 2017
Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, Sigma EX Circular Polarizer

However, photographing airplanes or other flying objects does require great care, due to the nature of how a circular polarizing filter works – Best at 90-degree angles to the sun, almost not at all at other angles.

If you are taking pictures in all directions at an air show or a bird sanctuary, you’ll need to closely monitor your exposure and the level of polarization that gets applied. What I prefer to do is, position myself at an angle that will give me good polarization for the composition I want, depending on the scenery and where the action is going to be taking place.

Above is what near-100% polarization looks like, when the sun is at a 90 degree angle from my camera and subject.

On the right is what the scene looked like a few hours earlier when the sun was at a different angle, yielding less polarization.

Identical, minimal processing was applied to both images in Capture One Pro 10.

As an added bonus, cutting down ~1.5 stops of light can help you with getting your shutter speed a bit lower in order to blur propeller and rotor blades on certain aircraft, which is a very good thing.

 

Above is a demonstration of what it looks like if I capture photos as a plane flies towards that 90-degree angle of optimal polarization. The images were exposed at exactly the same settings, and the processing applies was also exactly the same. What a difference!

Circular Polarizer Filters: Caveats and Cautions!

As mentioned, owning a polarizer is a great idea for many types of photographers and videographers. There are only a few scenarios where you might run into serious trouble, and absolutely need to remove and not use a polarizer…

  • Many cars (and planes) these days have window coatings that are UV protected and/or already polarized, and if you use a polarizer to take a picture through this type of glass, you’ll immediately notice horrible color banding all over your image. Don’t use a polarizer in these situations!
  • On rare occasions, the frequency at which a polarizer filters light may interfere with a camera’s autofocus capabilities, causing either a complete failure of focus, or just consistent front/back focus. This is extremely rare and usually only a problem with much older cameras, but keep it in mind.
  • As digital sensor resolutions increase higher and higher, a polarizing filter may also interfere with the diffraction characteristics of extremely sharp lenses and extremely high-resolution camera sensors. So, if you have a 60+ megapixel camera, (full-frame, equivalent to 30-40 MP on APSC) …then it’s wise to do some A/B testing with and without a polarizer when you first purchase it. This shouldn’t be an issue with the good quality, high-end polarizers, of course.

Conclusion | Wedding, Portrait & Event Photographers Should Own a Circular Polarizer Filter!

Elopement Photographers: A Circular Polarizer Is a MUST!

Now, for the conclusion and the good news! You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a good quality circular polarizer. While I would recommend avoiding the TRULY dirt-cheap ones because they probably will have a noticeable color cast, and could lack coatings that help combat flare and other things, any circular polarizer in the $75-100 range (for 77mm threads) is a great value. In this price range, my top recommendations are:

Happy shooting! I’ll look forward to seeing gorgeously colorful images shared in the SLR Lounge community! Be sure to visit our Critique Section HERE.