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The best polarizing filters: top circular polarizers for photographers

best polarizing filters
(Image credit: Future)

Looking for the best polarizing filter? Then let us help you! There’s almost no limit to what you can achieve with Photoshop, especially when it comes to reproducing traditional filter effects, but some tricks still require the real deal. Polarizing filters are a prime example, as software can’t replicate their ability to filter the light waves that make it to your camera’s sensor. The result is better color saturation with richer, bluer skies that really make a landscape image pop, especially on a sunny day.

Sure, you can boost color and contrast in post-production, however a polariser 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 minimised, and therefore you can shoot a more balanced exposure and enhance shadow detail.

Polarizers work best with the sun at 90-degrees to your composition and feature a rotating front element so you can control perfect polarization.

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. Fat frames:
    As with any filter, a thick mount is no good if you plan to shoot with a wide-angle lens. The thinner the filter frame, the less chance of vignetting affecting the final image.
  2. Color control:
    A polarizing filter shouldn’t introduce any noticeable color cast to your final image. However it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, as slight tints can be easily corrected.
  3. A clearer picture:
    Polarizers are at their best around water, but you don’t want any on your filter. Luckily some manufacturers use hydrophobic and antistatic coatings to keep dust and spray at bay.
  4. Lighten up:
    The only significant downside of a polariser is it’ll restrict around two stops of light. Premium polarisers often use higher transmission glass to minimise this.
  5. Maximising value:
    Own several lenses with different filter thread diameters? Don’t fork out for multiple polarisers: buy one to fit your largest lens, and use step-up rings to mount it to the others.

(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 Nuances C-PL circular polarizing filter

A winning choice for ultra-wide lenses, and a sound buy for everything else

Thread diameter range: 52mm-82mm | Thickness: 3mm

Great glass quality
Very slim - ideal for ultra-wide lenses
Good water resistance
Slim design can make fitting a fiddle
No 55mm thread diameter

The first thing that strikes you about Cokin’s entry to this list is just how slim it is. At only 3mm thick when fitted, it’s easily the slimmest filter here. But while this should mean vignetting is a non-issue on virtually any optic, it does make the filter somewhat of a fiddle to screw to your lens, as the frame around the rear element is only 1mm thick and consequently very difficult to grip. But despite the ultra-thin design, Cokin has still managed to incorporate a secondary front thread, retaining the option to stack filters.

As you’d expect from a major player in the filter game, optical quality of the tempered Schott B270i mineral glass is top notch. Image sharpness is flawless and there are no discernible color casts. Light loss is minimal, though we measured it to be marginally more than Cokin’s 1-stop claim.

The filter features an Everclear 5 coating that’s resistant to water, dust, scratches, stains and fingerprints. It does indeed work, as water beads away well and fingerprints barely leave a mark. Any moisture and oils also wipe away effortlessly.

Size wise, you can pick from 52mm up to 82mm diameters, and though there’s no 55mm option, pricing for the larger thread diameters is very competitive.

(Image credit: Future)

5. Calumet Multi-Coated Circular Polarizing Filter

A decent budget polarizer

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

Terrific value
Respectable build and glass quality
Effective hydrophobic coating
No sizes for very large/small lenses
Slight drop in image sharpness

Costing a fraction of the price of a big-name filter, you might imagine Calumet’s contender wouldn’t even be worth considering, but this is actually a respectable polarizer. Mounted thickness is slim at just shy of 5mm, with our 77mm sample filter being easy to mount and unscrew, while the front element also rotates nice and smoothly.

Optical quality isn’t quite a match for the best, as in our lab testing we measured a 5% reduction in image sharpness with the filter fitted, but you’d be very unlikely to spot this in real-world shooting. We couldn’t detect any sign of unwanted color casts, and the slim frame makes vignetting a non-issue on all but the widest lenses. Even light transmission is up there with there with the best. The front element features a secondary thread for stacking filters, and it even manages to bead away water quite well, despite Calumet not explicitly touting this as a feature.

One potential issue is the slightly limited choice of thread diameters, but the 49-77mm range does cater for most typical lens sizes. Calumet also offers a line of premium SMC (Super Multi-Coated) filters that go up to 82mm, but they’re almost twice the price of these budget polarizers.

(Image credit: Future)

6. 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)

7. 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.

Read more:

Use a polarizing filter to cut through reflections
How to use polarizing filters for colorful cross-polarization effects
The best neutral density filters
The best ND grad filter kits
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