How to use a polarising filter

THE MISSION

To learn how to get the most from a circular polariser

Time: 10 minutes

Skill level: Beginner 

Kit needed: D-SLR, circular polariser

Circular polarisers are among the most important filters you can buy for your camera. 

They are pretty much essential for landscape photography as they enable you to give skies extra punch, and help to reduce glare and reflections from shiny surfaces. 

Polarisers work by filtering out so-called polarised light (ie light waves travelling in a single plane, rather than in all directions). 

When light reflects off a non-metallic surface (such as water) it becomes partially polarised, and a polarising filter can be rotated so that it blocks this polarised light, but lets light waves travelling in other planes pass through. 

This helps to reduce glare on everything from sweaty faces to waxy leaves, and allows the natural colours and details to show through.  

Similarly, some of the light from the sky is polarised, and filtering out this component of the light darkens the sky. Clouds are less affected, which is why they often look so white and fluffy against the darker blue sky.

Step by step: Do the twist

1. Size things up

Circular polarisers attach to the front of your lens, so your filter’s diameter will need to match the filter thread of your lens. If your lenses vary in diameter, you can get step-up rings that enable you to attach your filter to any lens. These can also help reduce vignetting.

QUICK TIP!

Be aware that a circular polariser will reduce the amount of light entering the lens by a stop or two. Because of this, you’ll need to either set a slower shutter speed or use a wider aperture, so that the camera receives enough light to ensure an accurate exposure. If you're using an automatic or semi-automatic exposure option, such as Aperture Priority or Program, your camera should adjust itself automatically.

2. Check the effect

It can be tricky to predict how a polariser will affect a scene. Holding the filter up to the sky will allow you to preview the effect, but it’s far easier to see any effect by looking through your camera’s viewfinder as you rotate the filter when it is attached to the lens. 

3. Find the best angle

Polariser filters are most effective if you shoot at 90 degrees to the sun. In other words, keep the sun to one side of you to get the bluest skies possible. Stay safe, though, by making sure you don't look directly at the sun through the viewfinder while searching for its position. 

STAYING SLIM

One potential issue with circular polarisers is that they can cause vignetting (a darkening of the image corners), especially on wide-angles lenses at wide apertures. The obvious solution is to use a polariser with a slimmer frame, but generally speaking, the slimmer the frame, the more expensive the filter.

4. Fine-tune the effect

Once your filter is in place and you’re standing at the right angle to the sun, you might think you’re all set to take the shot – but you can still boost the sky some more. Rotate the front ring of the filter to maximise the intensity of the polarising effect. 

5. Avoid wide angles

As mentioned in the introduction, polarisers increase the contrast and saturation of your images, especially in blue skies, but you should take care. With wide-angle lenses, the strength of the polarising effect can vary across the frame, so it can sometimes look a bit uneven. 

6. See through water

By reducing the reflections from, for example, a shallow river, a polariser can help cut through the glare to reveal the rocks in the riverbed below. This effect is more noticeable on still water when the sun is 30-60 degrees above the horizon, but it’s also apparent on moving water.