Why You Need a Good Circular Polarizer

A circular polarizer filters out light that has been polarized perpendicularly to the axis of the filter. This has three effects in digital photography; it reduces unwanted reflections from most surfaces, it darkens the blue sky adding contrast and it saturates the bright colors in the image by eliminating unwanted glare. A circular polarizer is the one filter a landscape photographer should never be without.

Take this shot of the Frio River for example. The overall exposure looks fine but the glare from the water makes this look more like a snapshot rather than the great shot I wanted it to be.

Frio River Stones No Polarizer

Frio River Stones (No Polarizer) – Leakey, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 17mm, f/16 for 1/25th of a second at ISO 100. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Adding a circular polarizer as shown in the second shot makes all the difference in the world. The shallow water is almost crystal clear and you can see the river stones clearly beneath the surface. The leaves on the tall Cypress trees look more crisp and better defined and the overall contrast of the shot is much improved. All from a simple turn of the circular polarizer.

Frio River Stones

Frio River Stones – Leakey, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 17mm, f/16 for 1/30th of a second at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray LB Warming polarizer. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

When I added the LB Warming Polarizer to the Canon 17-40mm lens, it immediately cut through the glare on the water and brought out the beautiful yellows and greens in the scene. By adjusting the degree of polarization, I was able to make the water almost perfectly transparent in the foreground but gradually becoming reflective in the middle-ground. This allowed the river stones to dominate the image without losing the beautiful reflections of the trees. It also added some much needed contrast between the white clouds and blue sky in the background.

The trees and bushes here in Texas really reflect a lot of light causing severe problems when shooting digital images. Even in the early morning or late evening, the reflected light can overwhelm the camera’s sensor, resulting in blown-out highlights and washed out color. That’s where the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer really comes in handy, by reducing the glare and adding much needed color saturation. The final shot was much closer to what I remembered seeing that day and all the heavy lifting was done “in camera” using the Singh-Ray polarizer, rather than in “post” using Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

Singh-Ray filters are not cheap but they do offer the best quality and performance I’ve seen in a filter. I honestly can’t remember the last time I didn’t use my Singh-Ray polarizer for landscape work.

Using Singh-Ray’s New Vari-ND-Duo Filter

Back in early October I wrote a short post entitled Control the Light where I talked about using a Singh-Ray variable neutral density filter stacked with a warming polarizer to obtain a unique long exposure “look” in my images. While this technique works great, it can be a pain to setup properly and the stacked filters tend to vignette my wide angle lenses.

Singh-Ray Vari-ND-Duo

Singh-Ray Vari-ND-Duo Filter

Recently, Singh-Ray introduced their new Vari-ND-Duo filter which combines their variable neutral density filter with a circular polarizer filter in a single, very compact unit. The new Vari-ND-Duo is much easier to use and prevents the vignetting issues I had experienced before.

I took this shot at the McKinney Falls State Park while waiting for a group of families to clear my line of sight to the falls. Using the Vari-ND-Duo and my camera set on full manual, I was able to achieve this “motion”effect with a 6 second exposure.

Rock & Cypress

Rock & Cypress – Austin, Texas
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod-mounted. The exposure was taken at 58mm, f/16 for 6 seconds at ISO 100 using a Singh-Ray Vari-ND-Duo neutral density and warming polarizer filter. All post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 Beta. Click on the image above for a larger version.