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The best polarizing filters: top circular polarizers for photographers

best polarizing filters
(Image credit: Future)

Are you searching for the best polarizing filter? Well, you're in luck! We've rounded up the best circular polarizers to help you find the perfect one for your kitbag. Even in this modern time when Photoshop is capable of almost anything, there are still some situations when you need to get the effect right in-camera – and polarizing filters are the perfect example. No amount of clever software will be able to replicate their ability to filter the light waves that hit your camera's sensor. 

One of best reasons for investing in a good polarizer is that your colors will become richer and more saturated – especially sunny blue skies. However, polarizers are best known for their ability to reduce glare. This effect is particularly noticeable when shooting the surface of a body of water. 

By eradicating the glare, your camera is able to see deeper under the water, revealing fish, rocks and other interesting underwater features that would have otherwise been marred by reflections. One of the other great benefits of reducing glare in your photos is that you'll be able to minimize blown-out highlights. This will enhance the shadow detail in your shot, and ensure a more balanced exposure overall. 

If you're curious about how to best use a polarizer, the best piece of advice to keep in mind is that polarizing filters work best with the sun at a 90-degree angle to your composition. 

Sure, you can boost color and contrast in post-production, however a polarizer is unbeatable at reducing glare, especially on the surface of water. This enables your camera to see deeper under water, revealing fish and rocks that would otherwise be obscured by reflections. Another benefit of reducing strong glare is that blown highlights are minimized, and therefore you can shoot a more balanced exposure and enhance shadow detail.

10 things you need to know about camera filters!

Before/after: Polarizers cut through reflections on water and glass, and improve contrast and colours of skies

Before/after: Polarizers cut through reflections on water and glass, and improve contrast and colours of skies (Image credit: Future)

Five things to look for in a polarizing filter...

  1. Thin frames:
    Similarly to other kinds of filters, you'll want to look for a slim mount to ensure maximum versatility. A thick mount can be problematic if you want to shoot with a wide angle lens – plus, the thinner the filter frame, the less chance you'll have of any vignetting in your photos.
  2. Color control:
    Cheaper polarizing filters can sometimes introduce a color cast to your photos, which obviously isn't ideal. However, it's not a total deal breaker, as slight tints can be easily corrected in post-processing.
  3. A clearer picture:
    While you'll likely use your polarizer around water, you'll want to be careful that none of it finds its way onto your filter. However, some manufacturers use hydrophobic and antistatic coatings to help keep your filter in good nick.
  4. Lighten up:
    If you're shooting without a tripod, you'll want to keep an eye on your shutter speed when using a polarizer. This is because polarizers will restrict around two stops of light. However, premium polarizers will often use higher transmission glass to minimize this effect.
  5. Maximising value:
    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! 

(Image credit: Future)

1. Lee Filters LEE100 Polariser

It's the best polarizing filter for optical quality and versatility

Thread diameter range: 105mm | Thickness: N/A

Unparalleled optical quality
Versatile - can be used with lots of lenses
Unrivaled water resistance
Expensive if you only use it with one lens
Clip-on design could be more refined

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.

(Image credit: Future)

2. Marumi DHG Super Circular PL

If you can live with slightly lower light transmission, these filters are unbeatable value

Thread diameter range: 37mm-105mm | Thickness: 5mm

Top image quality
Good water and oil resistance
Plenty of size options
US pricing is on the high side
Light transmission could be better

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.

(Image credit: Future)

3. Hoya Fusion One CIR-PL

Hoya's latest polarizers perform excellently and don't cost the earth

Thread diameter range: 37mm-82mm | Thickness: 5.5mm

Lots of thread sizes
Unusually easy to grip when attaching
Good coating performance
Light transmission isn't quite the best
Could be a little thick for the widest lenses

Hoya's Fusion One filters are new to the filter scene and are based on new optical technology for Hoya. The Fusion name signifies that they incorporate a multi-layer optical coating, along with high quality optical glass that promises high light transmission, housed within a low-profile filter-frame. The latter isn't as super-thin as Cokin's Nuances polarizer, but neither is it worryingly bulky for use on a wide-angle lens. A nice touch is the slightly larger diameter of the rear element, making it easier to grip when screwing the filter to your lens.

As far as optical quality goes, our testing found the Fusion had no negative impact on lens sharpness, and no evidence of any color casts. Light transmission was marginally less than the best polarizers in this list, however, requiring an extra 1/2 stop to achieve the same exposure.

As far as optical quality goes, our testing found the Fusion had no negative impact on lens sharpness, and no evidence of any color casts. Light transmission was marginally less than the best polarisers in this list, however, requiring an extra 1/2 stop to achieve the same exposure.

But this is the only issue with what are otherwise high-performing and well-priced filters, available in a wide range of thread sizes.

(Image credit: Future)

4. Cokin P-series P164

This polarizer is compatible with Cokin's P-series range

P-series system means this filter can be used across multiple lenses
Affordable
Warm color shift
Muddy edges

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. 

(Image credit: Future)

5. Hama Polarizing Filter, circular, AR coated

A budget polarizer that performs well above what you might expect

Thread diameter range: 37mm-82mm | Thickness: 6mm

Rock-bottom price
Reasonable optical performance
Loads of size options
Image sharpness could be slightly better
No water/fingerprint resistance

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.

(Image credit: Future)

6. B+W XS-Pro Digital HTC Kasemann MRC Nano

A good filter, but up against equally capable rivals that are significantly cheaper

Thread diameter range: 49mm-77mm | Thickness: 4.5mm

Excellent optical quality
Lots of size options
Minimal light loss
Very pricey, especially for larger sizes
Disappointing coating performance

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.

(Image credit: Future)

7. Hoya PRO1 Digital Circular PL

Looking for great quality? Look no further

Good build quality
Fantastic results
Can be difficult to screw in

The Hoya PRO1 Digital Circular PL polarizer is a great option for photographers looking for something slightly cheaper that's still great quality. This filter is Digital Multi-Coated (DMC) to reduce lens flare and ghosting caused by reflections, making it an effective option for shooting bodies of water. It also features a Low Profile Frame (LPF), which consists of an ultra-thin filter frame that will help to avoid vignetting on wide-angle lenses. Usefully, this filter can also hold a lens cap too.

The PRO1 filter is noticeably good quality, with a lightweight build and a black matte almite frame. The black rimmed glass also decreases the chance of light reflecting off the edge. 

We were also a fan of the fact that the filter comes with a UV protected case, which is designed to lengthen the life of the filter.

Read more:

10 things you need to know about camera filters – and which ones to buy
Use a polarizing filter to cut through reflections
How to use polarizing filters for colorful cross-polarization effects
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