Who else loves reflections? I don’t know about you, but I love photographing them, and even without a camera, I just love staring at them. Part of a reflection’s power is its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed: Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reverse world of a reflection, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently. And in a photo, a nice reflection simply introduces a soothing calmness.
So if reflections are so great, why do I spend almost my entire photography life with a filter designed to remove reflections? I’m talking about the polarizer, which I have on nearly all my lenses and rarely remove, except at night (and maybe a small handful of other situations). But truth be told, most reflections in nature aren’t the glassy water we picture when we think of reflections, they’re a distracting sheen that create distracting glare and wash out color on rocks, foliage, and water. And that’s where the polarizers comes in.
Put simply, a polarizer removes reflections.
As powerful as today’s image processing software is, one landscape-essential filter that can’t be added after the shot is the polarizer. Valued by inexperienced photographers only for darkening blue skies, more serious photographers value their polarizers more for their ability to remove the sheen that desaturates color, hides submerged objects, and flattens texture.
Even worse than not appreciating their polarizer’s power, some photographers screw on a polarizer without understanding how it works, mistakenly believing that merely having a polarizer on their lens is sufficient. The amount of polarization a composition calls for is a creative decision that can make or break an image. And unfortunately, a mis-oriented polarizer can be worse than no polarizer.
This won’t be on the test
So what does a polarizer do?
If you’re like me, it helps to understand that a wave of light oscillates (vibrates) perpendicular to its direction of motion. A real world example of this kind of motion is the way a wave in the middle of the ocean rises and falls as it advances: while the wave moves forward, the water moves up and down.
A wave of light is much more complex than an ocean wave, oscillating in every possible direction perpendicular to its direction of motion. For example, to represent the direction of motion, imagine a string connecting a light source to the subject it illuminates. To understand the wave’s oscillation, picture the string moving not only up/down, but also left/right and every other angle perpendicular to the direction the wave moves.
And still one more way to view this motion would be to visualize a beam of light (or our string) passing through the center of a spoked wheel, where the axle would be. Each of the spoke pairs (one on each side of the light beam) would represent a direction the wave would oscillate, and there could be an infinite number of spoke pairs.
In very simple terms, polarized light is light that has all but one of its planes of oscillation removed. So returning to our spoked wheel, we’d be left only with the light that oscillates in the direction of one of the spoke pairs.
Without getting too deep (or at least any deeper) into the weeds, a polarizing filter eliminates reflections by removing the light that carries reflections back to our eyes. Polarization (reflection reduction) is most effective when your lens points 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the direction of the sun or other light source; it is least effective when the lens points directly toward or away from the sun.
Polarizers come in two flavors, linear and circular (the designation has to do with the way the polarizer achieves its effect, not the shape of the filter). For today’s digital cameras, you want to use a circular polarizer (which is almost certainly what you’ll be sold if you ask for a polarizer). Most polarizers are comprised of two connected pieces: a circular threaded frame that screws onto your lens’s threads, and an attached piece of polarizing glass (in its own circular frame) that rotates independently of threaded frame. Rotating the polarizer’s glass element relative to the fixed lens varies the orientation, and therefore the amount of polarization. You can see the polarization effect (sometimes large, sometimes small) through your viewfinder or on your live-view LCD.
What a polarizer does for you
With reflections minimized by a polarizer, pale blue sky is transformed to a deeper blue, glare is removed from rocks and foliage to reveal underlying color and texture, reflections are removed from water to expose submerged features, and clouds that were barely visible suddenly snap into prominence. Or imagine mountains reflected in a still alpine lake: As you rotate your polarizer, the reflection is replaced by rocks and leaves dotting the lakebed; keep turning and the reflection returns.
A polarizer costs you one to two stops of exposure, depending on the polarizer and the amount of polarization you dial in. Since aperture manages depth and is often non-negotiable, landscape photographers usually compensate for the lost light with a longer shutter speed—one more reason to use a tripod. If motion is a concern, the next best way to compensate for lost light is to increase the ISO.
Because a polarizer’s effect varies with the direction of the light, and wide lenses cover a broad field of view, light arrives at different parts of a wide scene from different angles. The result is “differential polarization”: parts of the scene that are more polarized than others.
Differential polarization is particularly troublesome in the sky, appearing as an unnatural transition from light to dark blue across a single frame. This effect can often be reduced, but rarely eliminated, with careful dodging and burning in Photoshop. Better yet, avoid images with lots of (boring) blue sky.
A standard polarizer is comprised of a circle of polarized glass mounted in a frame that screws into, and rotates relative to, the fixed lens beneath. Most also include an outer ring with threads for attaching other filters. The field of view of ultra-wide lenses can be so great that, at their wider focal lengths, they include the polarizer’s frame: vignetting. Polarizer vignetting manifests as dark edges on your images, particularly at the corners.
Most of the best polarizer manufacturers offer a low-profile version that mitigates vignetting. Low profile polarizers are more money (oh well), usually require a special lens cap (a minor annoyance), and don’t have external threads (not an issue for me).
Since I’m all about simplicity in the field, and determining whether or not I need a polarizer and then adding or removing it as needed is more trouble than it’s worth, each lens in my bag has its own polarizer that rarely comes off during daylight hours. I remove my polarizer only when I need more light, want to use a neutral density filter (I don’t like stacking filters), or if I’m concerned about differential polarization.
But. Shooting with no polarizer is better than using an incorrectly oriented polarizer. If you’re going to follow my “always on” polarizer approach, you must be diligent about rotating the polarizer and checking its effect on each composition, or risk doing more harm than good to your image. This is especially important if you change a composition’s orientation between horizontal and vertical.
Like many photographers, I always use a filter as protection for my front lens element; unlike many photographers, I don’t use UV or skylight filters. While it’s possible to stack a polarizer atop a UV or skylight filter, I don’t. Instead, because it never comes off, my polarizer doubles as protection for the front lens element.
Given that my polarizers are in the $200 range, this gets a little expensive when a filter “takes one for the team,” but it’s cheaper than replacing an entire lens, and more desirable than stacking superfluous glass between my subject and my sensor, not to mention the vignetting stacking causes. On the other hand, I will use a graduated neutral density filter with a polarizer, because GNDs serve a specific (not superfluous) need that doesn’t disappear when a polarizer is added.
The polarizer and lens hoods
To those photographers who complain that it’s a real pain to rotate a polarizer with a lens hood in the way, I have a simple solution: remove the lens hood. I never use a lens hood. Ever. This is blasphemy to many photographers, but I hate lens hoods, which always seem to be in the way (see my “simplicity in the field” comment above). But (there’s that word again), jettisoning the lens hood must come with the understanding that lens flare is real and usually impossible to entirely correct after the fact.
When there’s a chance direct sunlight will strike my front lens element, I check to see if shielding the lens helps. With my composition ready (on my tripod!), I peer through my viewfinder and shade my lens with my hand or hat (or whatever handheld shade is handy). If shading my lens makes the scene darker and more contrasty, and/or eliminates lens flare (random fragments of light), I know I must shield my lens while exposing. Of course if the sun is in my composition, no shading in the world (or lens hood) will eliminate the lens flare.
Polarizer on a budget
All scenes don’t benefit equally from a polarizer, and photographers on a budget can’t always afford one for every lens. If you’re only going to go with one polarizer, buy one for your largest lens, and step-up rings for each lens thread size. Or you could simply hand-hold the larger polarizer in front of the smaller lens (as long as you’re on a tripod).
Does this scene call for a polarizer?
To determine the polarizer’s effect, rotate the outer element 360 degrees as you peer through your viewfinder (or view the LCD in live-view). Often just holding the polarizer to your eye while you look in the direction of your composition and rotating it slowly is enough to determine its benefit.
Unless I’m trying to maximize a reflection, I rotate the polarizer until the scene appears darkest. If there’s no apparent change, I watch specific objects that might have a slight sheen (water, a leaf, or a rock) as I rotate the polarizer—I can almost always find some change. Shooting with a mirrorless camera, I have the benefit of a histogram in my viewfinder. Sometimes when I can’t detect a difference with my eye, I slowly turn my polarizer as I watch the histogram, looking for the histogram to shift slightly to the left (or my highlight alert “zebras” shrink). If you can’t see any change as you rotate your polarizer, you probably don’t need to worry about orienting the polarizer.
It’s not just for the sky
As nice as the the effect on the sky is, it’s the polarizer’s more subtle ability to reduce glare in overcast or shade that I find irreplaceable. Peering through your viewfinder, lock your eyes on a reflective surface and rotate the polarizer. The effect is most obvious on water, or wet rocks and leaves, but even when completely dry, most rocks and leaves have a discernible sheen. As you rotate the polarizer, harsh glare is replaced by natural color and texture; continue rotating and the glare reappears.
Usually my goal is to dial in maximum polarization, but if I’m photographing a reflection, I turn the polarizer until the reflection peaks. And there’s no rule that requires you to turn the polarizer to one extreme or anther (maximum or minimum reflection). Sometimes I want a little reflection plus a little submerged lake or river detail. In these situations I rotate the outer element slowly and watch the scene change, stopping when I achieve the desired effect. In my North Lake autumn reflection scene, I was able to find a midpoint in the polarization that kept the best part of the reflection (the mountains and trees), while still revealing the submerged granite rocks at my feet.
In the image of autumn leaves floating in the Merced River, I used my polarizer to completely dial down the reflection, creating the illusion of leaves suspended in empty space. Polarizing away the reflection also helped the leaves’ color stand out by eliminating distracting glare.
An emergency neutral density filter
A polarizer can also be used as a two-stop neutral density filter by dialing it to maximum polarization (minimum light). In this image of a redbud above the surging Merced River, even at ISO 100 and f32, I couldn’t reach the 3/4 second shutter speed that would give me the motion blur I wanted. But the two stops of light I lost to my polarizer was just enough to snow my shutter speed enough to blur the water.
Use only quality polarizers; you don’t need to spend a fortune, but neither should you skimp. Not only does the quality of the optics affect the quality of your results, I’ve also seen more than one poorly made polarizer simply fall apart for no apparent reason.
I advise buying polarizers that are commensurate with your lens quality—in other words, if you have top-of-the-line lenses, it makes no sense to use anything but top-of-the-line polarizers. I use Breakthrough filters because for their quality and emphasis on customer service.
This image is from the second of my two Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month. Processing it reminded me of the struggle I had deciding how orient my polarizer, because in addition to the glassy water mirroring the colorful aspen across the pond, this scene also contained a lot of reflective sheen that I try to polarize away. What’s a photographer to do?
After a nice sunrise at North Lake, followed by another fall color stop a little down down the road, I set my workshop group free near this small retaining pond just downstream from Lake Sabrina (pronounced “sa-BRI-na,” BTW). There was so much happening here we could have spent hours, but a scene like this needs to be in full shade and the sun was slowly encroaching.
I spent most of my time with a few others in the group, drawn to this mirror reflection of gold aspen with parallel white trunks. After playing with a few different compositions, I ended up concentrating on a pair of leaves clinging to protruding rock as a foreground anchor. I chose a vertical composition largely to eliminate an unsightly stump jutting into the middle of the pond. Sometimes features like that can be the anchor I look for, but everyone working the scene agreed that it was more of a bulky blob than a viable visual element. The top of the frame was limited by the encroaching sunlight—any higher and I’d have had an unwieldy mix of shade and sunlight. And I put the bottom of the frame just above the muddy shore.
As soon as I identified my composition, it became apparent that my biggest problem was going to be what to do with my polarizer. This scene was all about the spectacular reflection, but the rock, leaves, and (especially) blue sky were all washed out by reflections from the bright sky overhead. If I turned my polarizer to maximize the reflection, I also maximize the sheen; turning the polarizer to minimize the sheen also significantly dulled the tree reflection.
My solution was to turn the polarizer slowly, with my eye on my view finder, watching the reflection increase, and stopping just as it reached the rock. The result was a workable compromise—not quite as flat in the close foreground as it would have been had I gone all-in with the polarization, and not quite as vivid as the reflection would have been if I’d have dialed it all the way up (minimal polarization). But my compromise gave me enough to work with in post, dodging (brightening) the “good” reflection, and burning (darkening) the “bad” reflection.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.