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Why you Should be Using Polarizing Filters

Polarizing filters are great for shooting in direct sunlight as they remove glare from non metallic objects which, in turn, creates more naturally saturated colours. The effect created by a polarizing filter is one of the only ones that can’t be replicated in post production.

This post teaches you how to use polarizing filters properly.


What do Polarizing Filters do?

There are 2 types of polarizing filters; linear and circular.

Linear filters are traditionally used in film photography, whereas circular is used in digital as they’re designed to not confuse the camera’s autofocus. When the circular filter is attached to the end of your lens, you can still rotate the filter. This changes the direction in which the light is polarized.

When shooting in direct sunlight, you’ll often find that your images come out harsh with an overexposed feel. Think about when you’re in the sun with no sunglasses on – it’s hard to see.

Polarizers work by only allowing in light from a certain direction, removing glare from photos.

Have a look at the photos below: the first was taken without a filter and you can see the sun reflecting very strongly off the road. This has overexposed the whites which makes finer details harder to see, decreasing the overall quality of the photo.

Now have a look at a similar photo below which was taken with a polarizing filter.

The glare from the road has been removed and you can make out the whites a lot better. The left shoulder of the subject has much more detail as there is now a distinct difference in colour between it and the road. Overall, the polarized photo is much easier to look at.

Polarizing filters also remove haze from photos which has the biggest affect when taking a photo of a distant subject or scene. This makes the sky look much more blue and all the colours more vibrant and saturated.

Have a look at the 2 photos below – only the second is polarized.

How to use Polarizing Filters

Polarizing filters produce their best results when they’re 90° from the sun. This is a great way to get the best from your filter, however you need to be careful when taking a photo of a wide angle scene as the sky’s polarization isn’t even – you’ll start to see a change in the blue colour as it gets further from the sun (see photo above).

The filter has the least effect when the sun in behind the lens as demonstrated below: only the photo on the right is polarized.

Polarizing filters are usually quite thick and tend to darken your image. To account for this, make sure that your shutter speed is still high enough to take the photo handheld. Polarizing filters work best when in direct sunlight so this shouldn’t really be a problem but, if it is, I recommend increasing you’re ISO from 100 to 200.

It’s important to make sure that your auto white balance isn’t confused by the addition of  a dark filter, so make sure you manually set it to daylight so that it knows the result that you’re looking for. Polarizing filters only really work in sunlight; put the filter away at night and on overcast days.

Be careful that the sky doesn’t come out too dark – an easy mistake to make with a polarizer. Have a look at the photo below, the result of the polarizer is quite extreme and makes the photo look unnatural. This can create a pretty cool effect but it’s sometimes best not to use a filter. 

Of the photos below, the image on the left is not polarized and the reflections from the ground actually add detail to the photo, whereas the photo on the right which is polarized is darker and harder to see. 

Polarizing filters are used to remove reflections from glass and water. They are incredibly effective at this and are often used when taking photos of lakes as it allows you to see much further in. Finally, it’s important when using a circular filter to have it correctly orientated. Have a look at the 2 images below: the one on the left hasn’t been rotated correctly and you can see an obvious fade in the sky whereas the photo on the right, which has been orientated correctly, looks much more natural.

What to look for when Buying Polarizing Filters

  1. Make sure you have the right size – have a look on the end of your lens or on the inside of your lens cap.
  2. If you’ve got a digital camera, make sure it’s circular polarizing.
  3. Go for the best quality that you can afford – there’s no point in buying a $1500 lens and putting a cheap piece of glass in front of it. I personally use high-end Hoya filters.
  4. A case – buy a case to put it in when you’re not using it to save your filter from dust and scratches.

Once you have a polarizing filter, you’ll be amazed how versatile it is. Have you ever heard of photoelasticity? All you need is a laptop or tablet, some plastic, and your polarizing filter, and you can create stunning rainbow effects.

Your Free Quick-Start Photography Cheatsheet

In order to simplify the process of learning photography, I’ve created a free download called The Quick Start Photography Cheatsheet and you can download it below.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A downloadable cheatsheet to carry with you as you shoot
  • Detailed summaries of each section of this post
  • External links to relevant articles and blog posts
  • At-A-Glace Images that will explain how each exposure works
  • And much, much more…

Your Free Quick-Start

Photography Cheatsheet

This downloadable cheatsheet gives you detailed summaries of every section of this post, as well as links to relevant articles, and at-a-glace images that will explain how exposure works.

How to use Polarizing Filters to Improve Your Exposure

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Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)

  • Dicky

    Hi Guys.
    How do you know which is the best way to turn your polariser? Sometimes I take shots on the beach and only see the gradient in the sky once the shot is viewed on my pc.

    • Hi Dicky, Thanks for the comment.
      This is a problem i had when i first started using polarising filters, it takes a little bit of experience, but you’ll soon become used to it. The way i trained my eye to notice it better was to turn 90 degrees to the sun, rotate the filter there as that’s where the effect is exaggerated the most, and then turn back to recompose the shot when i was sure it was right.

      Hope that helps,

  • Brenda

    Thanks for a really useful article. Great to see the comparative shots. I have a 55mm filter which I bought for the lens I had with my old Sony dSLR. I have since traded the Sony in for a Nikon, and there isn’t a single Nikkor lens with a 55mm lens diameter. I need a filter for my 52mm 18-55mm lens – should I get a new one, or would a step-up ring with the 55mm filter work? Thanks in advance.

    • I’ve not had too much experience with step up rings, but that should work fine. Remember to use the best quality that you can to suit your lens, if your old one isn’t much good, it might be worth replacing.

  • David

    Hi Josh,
    I´ve recently begun enjoying my photography hobby and would like to know which filters to use for direct photo´s of the sun and moon. my recent attempts of full moon photography have been a diaster.

  • Hi Josh,
    Interesting writing… I use a polariser (77mm Hoya), quite often and find it tedious removing it when not wanted, to replace the protective UV filter… especially having to remove the hood as well!
    What are your views on leaving it in place but rotating it to the least polarised state when the effect is not required. Apart from the obvious loss of light to the sensor I dont see many more issues when viewing the images?
    Giess I’m getting lazy, eh!

    • I would take the filter off if you want don’t want to polarize the image, but if you’re in the shade, or it’s overcast, then there may be nothing to polarize so it wouldn’t matter if you left it on or not, although it would make it a bit darker.

  • Mallikarjuna K

    Hi Josh. Thanks a lot for the post. I have a question. Recently, I was trying to shoot fish in an aquarium (where flash photography was banned). Apart from struggling with low-light conditions, the reflections and refraction through the glass were also a challenge. I ended up with unsatisfying images. Would a polarizing filter have helped here even though these were not day light conditions?

    FYI, I have a Nikon D90 with a Tamron 18-200 lens.

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