I started my photography career in the Pacific Northwest. A region of the US where lakes, rivers, and waterfalls dominate the landscape. So it was natural for me to spend my time searching for unique locations on Google Earth, and monitor sun and moon positions with the PhotoPills app to find the perfect combination of location and light to create images that inspire me and the people who follow my adventures. I also quickly learned the locations and water features I ventured to photograph posed a real challenge in the form of reflections that kill color, hide detail, and turn an amazing opportunity into a boring lifeless snapshot.
Reflections are everywhere. On rocks, leaves, the water’s surface, even in the sky. Some reflections enhance the image by providing highlights that add depth, while others create glare, hide detail, and reduce color saturation that completely ruin a scene’s potential. At first, I thought I could fix it in post using software but soon learned I was wrong. So, after a quick search on the internet for a solution I picked up my first circular polarizing filter. And this simple tool literally changed how I see the world and how I photograph. I can’t imagine ever leaving home without one in my bag.
A polarizing filter has one job, remove reflections. Just like your polarized sunglasses make it easier to see out your windshield by removing glare (ie. reflections) a polarizing filter reveals detail, color, and depth hidden by those nasty reflections. Sometimes the filter’s effect is subtle, almost imperceptible at the time you take the image, while other times it’s as obvious as day and night. See the difference in the clouds, water, and trees in the image below. The left was shot filter-free and the right with a polarizer.
I offer private teaching sessions that appeal to new and experienced photographers and I am often surprised how few people own this filter or even know that it exists. So I love it when I get to introduce them to the magic that happens when you use one. Once the filter is attached you will start to rotate the outer ring of the filter and while watching through the camera’s viewfinder you can select how much reflection you want to remove or, in other words, how much detail and color you want to reveal.
The composite image below was created from 2 RAW files shot a few seconds apart without any post-processing. These are straight from the camera. The one on the left is shot without a filter. The one on the right using a Hoya circular polarizing filter. In the foreground, you can see the polarizer cuts through clouds reflected on the surface of the water. The reflection is distracting and prevents me from seeing the texture in the rocks below. The background color and contrast are also enhanced. Now I have a base image to work with that is much closer to my creative vision. It’s incredibly important to get these things right in the field because it saves me time and as I said before I cannot fix this with software.
Now lets look at a fully processed final image (below) from a trip I took in August 2018.
This is a very “contrasty” scene with very deep shadows and strong highlights from the water and wet rocks. The polarizer let me remove reflections from the wet log, soaked rocks, and the green moss growing on most of the surfaces. By controlling the reflections I was able to expand the dynamic range of the scene allowing the camera to capture a balanced exposure with a lot of detail in the shadows and highlights that I could easily pull out of the RAW file in Photoshop for this final image.
My polarizing filter of choice is the Hoya HD3 Circular Polarizer. I use it on all of my lenses for a lot reasons:
- They are incredibly sharp and distortion free. I have never detected any difference between an image shot with or without the filter.
- Very, very durable. I have dropped them, thrown them loose into my camera bag in a rush and they are still scratch free.
- Their multi-coatings are amazing. The filter doesn’t add any additional flare beyond what the lens itself creates when shooting into the sun.
- They are super easy to clean.
- No color-cast. I never worry about getting weird warming or cooling color shifts like I’ve experienced with other brands.
- Hoya uses thin filter rings to prevent vignetting even on my 18mm but are easy to attach and remove from the lens because the knurled edges are easy to grip. No stuck filters here.
- They use a super thin High Transparency Polarizing film (Hoya’s words) in the construction of the filter that gives me almost a full f-stop more light than standard polarizers. This helps a lot when I’m shooting in really dark conditions.
One quick note about my experience with cheap polarizers. Most of them do not use multi-coatings, to cut cost I’m told. In ideal conditions it’s hard for me to see a big difference between a $50 filter and a $150 filter. But when I shoot with the sun in or near the edge of the scene the difference is obvious. The cheap filter will flare horribly, killing contrast and color ,making them totally unusable. I strongly advise you buy a polarizing filter with multi-coatings. Hoya offers different models at prices to fit most budgets.
Whether you are a professional or just bought your first camera, a polarizer will really take your photography to a new level. As I tell all my students, “you’ve invested a lot of money on cameras and lenses now spend little more on a good polarizer to create really amazing images!”
Full disclosure, I am an ambassador for Hoya filters, not because they pay me (they don’t) but because they make filters I trust to create great images. If you learned something or have a question let me know. You can reach me on Instagram, Facebook, or through my website. And, if you want to learn more about my techniques you can sign up for one of my private shooting sessions.