• July 24, 2020

Using a Polariser (A Beginner’s Guide)

Using a Polariser (A Beginner’s Guide)

Using a Polariser (A Beginner’s Guide) 1024 683 Gavin Parsons

You know those pictures where the clouds jump out and almost slap you in the face? Or the images of water so crystal clear it’s like you could drink it? Did you think that was some Photoshop trick or the type of lens the photographer was using? Well it’s not. You too can achieve dazzling skies with punchy clouds, reflection free water and not even touch a Photoshop action or buy a new lens. All you need is a polarising filter.

Polarisers come in a couple of types; Circular (sometimes referred to as a CPL) and linear. I could go into the reasons for each, but don’t have space, so basically, choose a circular polariser every time (they are the most common).

I mostly use polarising filters to add drama to skys as I did here in Tenerife’s Mount Teide.

In very basic terms a polariser will remove light reflected off a surface. So reflections on water and glass are removed or at least cut down. This makes car windows look clear and you can see into the bottom of a rock pool. If you want a refection, don’t use a polariser.


A polarising filter was used for this shot to increase the color saturation of the foliage by reducing the reflected light. As you can see, it has also reduced the reflection on the stream meaning that the bottom can be viewed. (Photo: Jason Friend)

Polarisers also have the effect of cutting down glare on foliage, and adding punch to a sky as they remove light reflecting off particles in the atmosphere, so they are an essential for landscape photography. So if you were wondering why your landscapes are no where near as good as Sarah on that Facebook group, it could be just as simple as adding a polarising filter.

Out of all the filters on the market, a polariser must come in 2nd place to a UV filter. I use them for landscapes, portraits, and wildlife photography when I don’t want any reflections. They do cut out some light, but a camera will automatically adjust for that.


Polarising filters are simple to use and create so much drama in the sky they are found in every landscape photographer’s kit bag. (Photo: Jason Friend)

How to use

Using a circular polarising filter is easy and you don’t need to understand what it’s doing to see the results. All you do is twist it. At some point in the revolution the polarised light being reflected off the surfaces will be cut out. As if by magic any blue sky in the shot will deepen in colour, a pond or stream will become clear (unless the water is turbid) as will reflections in windows, spectacles and on wet surfaces. Twist the filter some more and they reappear. Where this is depends on the position of the light source (normally the sun) and your angle to it.


Moscow’s Victory Park was about to be pummelled by a storm, I had to make the most of the drama and used a polarising filter to put punch in the blue behind the approaching storm clouds. I got soaked on the way to the metro.

Some filters have a triangle or a dot which you turn towards the sun, but in practise this is not necessary as the effect of the filter is obvious through the viewfinder and on liveview.

Buying guide

Like everything in life, do not go for the cheapest, but you don’t need the most expensive either. A good quality polarising filter should not distort or reduce the quality of your final image. Cheap ones will disperse the light a fraction and reduce overall sharpness.


Circular Polarising filters come in a couple of formats. The one of the left is a Hoya which screws into the lens filter mount The front section rotates, the back remains static. The Cokin on the right fits into a filter system and it all rotates. Both do exactly the same thing.

Personally I use Hoya filters, but any of the well known brands produce good quality filters, which allow the optical quality of your gear to shine through.

You can buy filters for the size of lens you have and they screw into the filter thread on the front. These tend to have a fixed back part and a rotating front. Filter system types are usually just one filter that you rotate in the holder fixed to the lens. There are pros and cons to each system. If you have a lot of lenses, the filter systems are a good idea as you only need one filter to cover your lenses. If you only have one lens, then a single filter is all you need.


I use polarisers for landscapes, wildlife and people like this location reportage portrait.

Why bother?

Of course if all you want to do is make a sky bluer and you post process your images. Image processing software can make a sky deeper in colour. What software cannot do is remove reflections, and I am not talking just from glass or water. Any reflective surface such as leaves, eyes, sweaty skin, damp rocks. Anything that can reflect light a polariser will make it look better. That’s why I have a polariser for every one of my lenses and I use them all the time.


Blue skies like this are achievable with photo editing software, but are just as easy to get with a simple polarising filter. (Photo: Jason Friend)

I even use them for filming as a way to reduce light and getting a better shutter speed and to punch the colours back into my footage.


Here’s a comparison (with me in it), of with and without a polarising filter. Both shots have had no exposure adjustment. 
The shot with the polariser
The shot without the polariser

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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