Friday Foto Talk: Using a Circular Polarizer, Part II   11 comments

Recently-flooded wash in Death Valley, California.

Recently-flooded wash in Death Valley, California.

Last week I got all technical about how circular polarizers (CPLs) work.  Of course you don’t necessarily need to know all that to shoot with them.  But it certainly doesn’t hurt.  The more you know about how CPLs work the better able you are to extend the situations in which you use them.  You can more competently go beyond landscape photography, which is where they’re primarily used (and where I’ll focus this tutorial).

Now let’s get into the meat of things and learn how to employ these great filters in your photography.  As usual it’s a good news/bad news story.  We’ll start with the bad.

Staying in Death Valley, this dramatic side-light didn't really need a CPL.  I used one but dialed down the strength a bit.

Staying in Death Valley, this dramatic side-light didn’t really need a CPL. I used one but dialed down the strength a bit.

DOWNSIDES & HOW TO MINIMIZE THEM

  • First off, it’s a filter, the kind you screw on to the end of the lens.  This adds another layer of glass between your subject and your sensor or film.  That introduces a chance for flaws in the way light is transmitted, at least in theory.

 

  • But as long as the filter isn’t cheap and you keep it fairly clean, it should yield perfectly sharp images just as when you’re not using a filter.  I’m not the type of photographer who puts a lot of stock in the idea of an imperfect image.  If I can’t detect any fall-off in quality then it’s simple: the benefits of using the filter outweigh any theoretical considerations.

Arches National Park, Utah. I used a CPL, maximizing “punch”, mostly in the sky.

  • Again because it’s a filter, a CPL will increase the possibility of flaring: those often annoying but sometimes interesting bright colorful spots that show up in your pictures when you shoot toward a strong light source like the sun.  But you can control flares by keeping your filter and lens clean, by using a hood, and of course by not pointing directly toward the light source.

 

  • Sometimes you have no choice, your photo demands pointing it toward the sun.  Then you simply roll the dice and keep shooting until you get flares that are easy enough to remove on the computer.
Washington's Olympic Peninsula at Lake Quinalt. These are the kinds of flares that aren't too hard to clone out on the computer.

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula at Lake Quinalt. These are the kinds of flares that aren’t too hard to clone out on the computer.

UPSIDES & HOW TO MAXIMIZE THEM

  • So you know a CPL filter reduces reflections.  But this may or may not be what you want.  In the case of mountains reflected in a lake, you’ll want to be careful to rotate it just the right amount to maximize the color and light in your reflection.  If you rotate it fully you’ll begin to see what is underneath the water, if it’s shallow enough.  In the case of wet rocks or plants, you may want to use it fully to help bring out the color of the rocks or greenery.
For this hot spring, I wanted to see the subtle colors of the algae growing along the little falls, plus I wanted smooth water. Cutting reflections and lengthening exposures is a great two for one when using a CPL.

For this hot spring, I wanted to see the subtle colors of the algae growing along the little falls, plus I wanted smooth water. Cutting reflections and lengthening exposures is a great two for one when using a CPL.

 

  • A CPL also reduces the total amount of light reaching your lens.  Some models reduce the light only slightly (called “high-transmission” CPLs), but most block between one and two stops of light.  In a way this is a downside because it can hurt you when you’re hand-holding the camera and need a fast shutter speed.  You may need to raise ISO.  But it can help too.  For example when you’re on a tripod and want to lengthen shutter speed, say to blur a waterfall (see above photo), a CPL can provide just the right light-blocking strength.

 

 

Without a circular polarizer.

Without a circular polarizer.

  • A circular polarizer will darken and tend to saturate colors a little, especially the blues in a sky.  When there are white clouds it increases the contrast between blue sky and cloud, quite a lot if you’re shooting at a right angle to the sun.  A typical landscape shot with a CPL has more “punch”, or mid-tone contrast.  The photos above and below, which are deliberately sort of “average”, show the difference.
Same scene as above with a CPL.

Same scene as above with a CPL.

  • As the pair of shots above show, a CPL can do nice things for colors, especially when you consider that when shooting RAW your images often come out looking flatter and more washed out than the real scene was.  But as you can also see, contrast is increased over the RAW image as well.  That’s why a CPL can often be used to great effect when you’re shooting for black and white.  Try it.

 

A polarizer can lend black and white images a little more drama: Panamint Valley dune field, Death Valley N.P., California.

Okay that’s it for now.  Next time we’ll conclude with more guidance on using CPLs, along with tips on maintaining them.  Happy weekend everyone!

_MG_6879-Edit

Advertisements

11 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Using a Circular Polarizer, Part II

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Striking images… all of your work is beautiful & engaging.

  2. There’s something about moving water that is appealing – especially when you photograph it like that! Beautiful.

  3. Interesting article Michael – any recommendations on best make and to what extent can you achieve the same effect post processing?

    • Well, B&W you can’t go very wrong with those, very well built. I wouldn’t go with Tiffen, a little too cheaply made. Hoya is hit and miss, some are nice some aren’t so much. I got one from Zeiss that was even a little less than the B&W. You can do very similar things color and contrast-wise with software filters in programs like Nik’s Color Effex. But when it comes to blocking reflections especially, a CPL is one of the only physical filters that yields better results across the board than software.

  4. Absolutely glorious examples there!

  5. Great Info, beautiful photos

Please don't be shy; your words are what makes my day!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: