Are you tired of having unwanted glare and reflections in your images? Struggling to get wet surfaces to blend into your image or perhaps you’re struggling to get proper colors and contrast during daytime photography? A Circular Polarizer might be exactly what you need.
To keep this article brief and easy to understand for everyone, I won’t get too technical but rather jump straight into the benefits of using a Circular Polarizer filter.
For those who read our article Introduction to Graduated ND Filters, you might remember that we talked about two types of filter systems: screw-in and square filters. A Circular Polarizer (also called CPL) is a screw-in filter that is placed in front of your lens. They also come in a square option but these are less common and in most cases less practical.
Impact on images
Circular Polarizing filters can be beneficial in many areas, especially when working with glare, reflections, color and contrast. Let’s look at cases where a CPL makes an impact:
Reflections & Glare
The most common use of a CPL is to reduce unwanted glare and reflections, which is a typical struggle when photographing wet surfaces or during bright daylight.
Let’s say you’re on vacation somewhere tropical and you want to photograph the beach and blue water. On a sunny day, you’ll notice that the image doesn’t convey what you’re seeing; the water doesn’t look as clear and it has a shiny surface. By using a CPL, and adjusting it accordingly, you will be able to remove the unwanted glare and bring back the blue color of the water.
Enhancing the color
As I just mentioned above, the Circular Polariser will help bring back the color of the water. However, this isn’t the only scenario where this filter will enhance the color.
The CPL will have a slight, but positive, impact on the image when photographing Autumn, the forest or even your backyard. In these cases, you’re able to enhance the atmosphere and bring out a little more color.
Adding contrast to the sky
The CPL’s most visible impact is on a blue sky. By twisting the filter you’ll see the sky go from light blue to deep blue. This is the desired effect when photographing during daytime since it adds contrast to your sky.
It will also help bring contrast to the sky on hazy days. You can almost compare it with Lightroom’s Dehaze Tool in this example.
When to Use a Circular Polarizer
With the examples above you might already have a general idea of when using a Circular Polarizer can be beneficial. While there are many scenarios where a CPL might be beneficial, here are a few that stick out among landscape photographers:
- Photographing waterfalls – The Circular Polarizer is a favorite among landscape photographers when photographing rivers & streams. Not only does it remove the glare and reflections from the wet surfaces, it also enhances the colors of the landscape around.
- Daytime photography – Since the filter adds contrast to the sky this is a filter you often see when people are taking pictures during daytime. It’s also a lightweight and easy-to-use filter that is perfect for travel photography.
- Photographing through glass – Photographing through glass is often challenging as you get a lot of glare. The CPL does a great job reducing the glare and helping you achieve a better shot.
- Photographing forests – When you’re in dense woods or forests the Circular Polarizer will help enhance the colors. It also removes reflections from leaves etc. which are distracting for the viewer.
How to Use a Circular Polarizer
Even though square versions of this filter are available, the most common is the screw-in version. The filter is placed in front of your lens and screwed in to the filter thread. When the filter is tightened, notice that you still have the option to twist the front part of the filter. This is how you adjust the effect and where the impact will be strongest.
By twisting the filter you can notice how the picture is changing accordingly. Aim the camera towards the sky or a shiny reflection and you can see how it gradually makes a change.
Since the Circular Polarizer is a darkened filter, you need to decrease (lengthen) your shutter speed by approximately 1.5-2 stops, depending on the brand. This means that you might need to use a tripod when photographing in dimmed light with the filter on. Alternatively, increasing the ISO or opening the aperture are ways to maintain a fast shutter speed without the image being underexposed.
Choosing a Circular Polarizer
The first thing you need to note when choosing a Circular Polarizer to purchase is the diameter of your lens. Since this is a screw-in filter you need to select a size that fits. If you wish to use the filter on different lenses of different diameters you might consider purchasing step-up rings and selecting a CPL that fits the largest lens. Note that this may have a slight impact on the usability of the filter.
Compared to UV filters a CPL is a bit more expensive but it’s worth every penny. The price normally goes up as the size of the filter increases, meaning that a 77mm filter will be more expensive than a 55mm filter.
Over the last years, I’ve used the B+W CPL and I’m very pleased with its quality. I also have a couple other brands but I tend to always return to the B+W.