The best polarizing filters are an essential part of an outdoor photographer's toolkit. They perform all sorts of functions that cannot be replicated in post-processing; a polarizing filter gives an image vibrancy and contrast. It controls skies to inject them with colour, it cuts out haze to improve the clarity of a scene. Once you start using them, you'll never go back.
The way a polarizing filter works is that it filters out certain light waves, blocking out some to reduce the glare at the point of capture. This means that you don't have to spend hours editing out the effect in one of the best photo editing software programs later; indeed, in some cases, this simply won't be possible. That's what makes a polarizer so powerful.
These filters come into their own when you're photographing a body of water like a river or a lake, or even the ocean. They cut out reflections, improving the clarity of the water and making it possible to photograph what's underneath. Suddenly, an aquatic world is yours for for the snapping.
Shoot with the sun at a 90º angle to your camera in order to get the best results. Once you get the technique down, you'll find yourself marvelling at the blueness of your skies, and the evenness of your dynamic range. Polarizers can also have an effect on the colour cast of an image; can warm up an image or cool it down, depending on the type you get.
Here are our recommendations for the best polarizing filters you can get right now.
Best polarizing filters
The best polarizing filters
Marumi offers a slightly confusing four distinct ranges of circular polarizers, each with different glass/coating combinations. The DHG Super range gets a water and oil-repellent coating, which works well, easily beading away droplets and resisting fingerprints, albeit not quite as well as the Lee Polariser.
However, DHG Super polarizers don’t incorporate high light transmission glass, as found in Marumi’s EXUS polarizers, which may explain why our sample filter restricted light by half-a-stop more than the best filters on test. Otherwise, optical performance is excellent, with no drop in image sharpness, and no sign of color casts or vignetting. The latter is mainly thanks to a slim fame design that’s a whisker under 5mm thick. It screws very smoothly into your lens’ filter thread, and the polarizer’s front element rotation is also slick.
With filter thread diameters available in all common sizes from 37mm through to 95mm (and even an elusive 105mm option, if you can find it), there’s a DHG Super polarizer for almost any lens, and most are very well priced, in the UK at least.
In the world of polarizers, you really don’t need to drop big bucks to get a decent filter. Hama’s entry can be had for very little money, yet it offers solid performance and comes in an extensive filter diameter range of 37-82mm.
You can forget about fancy glass and coatings though, as water and fingerprints stick to the front element annoyingly well, making it difficult to clean. There is at least an AR anti-reflective coating to enhance light transmission, and it works, as we were able to shoot at the same exposure settings as with class-leading filters like the Lee Filters polarizer, equating to a 1 ⅓-stop light loss. A 6% drop in image sharpness is technically the worst performance on this list, but it’s still negligible, and the polarizer doesn’t introduce any color casts.
Physically, Hama’s polarizer stands out from the crowd, not least because it’s the thickest polarizer here at 6mm - not great if plan to use it with an ultra-wide optic, where slight vignetting could be noticeable. There’s also a removable pin to help you rotate the front element. It’s not particularly useful in good weather, but is a handy feature when it’s cold and you’re wearing gloves.
Lee’s Polariser works in conjunction with the LEE100 100mm filter system. This is based around the LEE100 holder that attaches to your lens via a suitably sized adapter ring. The polarizer then clips to the front of the holder, leaving space for additional square filters to slide in behind.
This system means the polarizer is large at 105mm in diameter, allowing it to cover numerous different lens diameters. It’s also very easy to rotate, and it clips into the holder much more easily than trying to screw a conventional polarizer onto your lens. However, the clip-in mechanism is surprisingly difficult to detach again, requiring more squeeze than is comfortable. Another consideration is the combined filter, holder and adapter ring cost, which is significant.
But that said, you get what you pay for. Lee’s glass has no negative impact on image sharpness, it only reduces light transmission by just over 1-stop, and you needn’t worry about any sign of color casts. This is also easily the best filter for resisting fingerprints and repelling water, with droplets beading away perfectly. Lee even includes a high quality zippered pouch in which to store the filter.
Tiffen's hugely reliable filters are known among photographers for being a good affordable option, and so it goes for the firm's Circular Polarizer range. These filters are cheaper than most, and come in a good range of sizes from 25mm right up to 92mm. There's a slight cool cast to them, but it's not too pronounced, and light transmission and sharpness are generally very good. The high-quality ColorCore Glass construction is what gives the filters their excellent overall quality.
They're a little thicker than some of the others on this list, but not enough to really be a problem.
The Cokin P-series range of filters is known for being affordable and offering a wide range of creative effects, including polarizers. Most of the range is square or rectangular, fitting into the mount via a P-series filter holder. This filter holder attaches to your lens with an adaptor ring, which is available for lenses with attachment threads of between 48mm and 82mm.
The filter holder has three slots for filters. One fits circular filters, such as the Cokin P164 polarizer. However, there are also two central slots that fit square or rectangular shaped filters as well. The knurled outer edge of the P164 polarizer is designed to ergonomically allow easy rotation.
While the Cokin P-series is affordable, we did feel that the plastic holder felt a little flimsy in comparison to the Lee Filters holder. We also found that there was a slight warm color cast and some muddiness in darker areas.
B+W’s premium XS-Pro circular polarizers come in a huge range of thread diameters to suit lenses from tiny Micro Four Thirds optics through to beefy large aperture super-teles. A cheaper ‘F-Pro’ range is also available, but at the time of writing, the price difference isn’t vast.
Filter thickness is 4.5mm when fitted - not quite as wafer-thin as Cokin's Nuances circular polarizer, but you’re still unlikely to encounter any vignetting. An advantage of the marginally thicker design is that the rear filter element’s frame is slightly easier to grip when screwing the filter onto your lens. The front element is also easy to rotate, being silky smooth, and there’s a secondary thread on the front for stacking multiple filters.
B+W’s HTC (High Transmission Circular) glass is claimed to result in minimal light loss of 1-1.5 stops, and we found this to be spot-on. Optical quality is also first-class, as we couldn't detect any color cast, plus the filter has no effect on lens sharpness.
Less impressive is the MRC Nano coating, however, which is supposed to resist water and fingerprints, but barely beads water away better than a budget filter. It does at least help with filter cleaning, as water can be wiped away quite easily.
We could forgive the lackluster water/fingerprint resistance, if it wasn't for the top-end pricing of these filters, which is hard to justify when compared to equally capable, yet cheaper rival glass.
Designed to supplant the previous PRO1 series, Hoya's Fusion One filters are premium, high-quality polarisers for those demanding the best in terms of optical quality. Constructed from 18 coated layers of glass to provide ultra-high light transmission, these filters also have a low-profile filter ring to make them useful even for super-wide shooting. They have a front screw too, so you can stack the polariser with a Fusion One UV or protection filter if so desired.
The filters are water-repellent and smudge-resistant, making it easy to keep them clean. Really, the only strike against them currently is that they've been going in and out of stock and can be pretty hard to get hold of. Our advice – if you see some up for grabs, don't delay, snap them up!
Polarizing filters explained
What to look for in the best polarizing filters
Generally, when you're working with filters, you'll want to look for a slim mount to ensure you get maximum versatility when shooting. This is because thick mounts can introduce vignetting and can be difficult to work around when you're shooting with a wide angle lens.
If you're using a polarizer that's on the cheaper end, you can sometimes see color casts introduced into your images. This isn't ideal, but you can easily fix this issue in post-processing.
A clearer picture
Some manufacturers will use hydrophobic coatings to help repel water, but we'd still recommend being careful when using your polarizer around water.
Remember that polarizers can restrict around two stops of light, so make sure to keep an eye on your shutter speed. However, it's worth remembering that premium polarizers will often use higher transmission glass in order to help counteract this effect.
One of the most frustrating aspects of owning several lenses is that, unless you've stumbled into a fantastic fluke, they'll likely be different filter thread diameters. However, that doesn't mean that you have to invest in a polarizer several times over to fit your different pieces of glass! Buy one to fit your lens with the largest filter thread diameter, and then use step-up rings to mount it to the others. Sorted!
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