(Note: This article is adapted from the new book - The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light - by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager.)
With a little imagination and skill, the use of a polarizing filter can be a low-effort, high-impact method for controlling light and color.
The polarizer - which attaches to the front of the lens - has long been known for its ability to deepen a pale blue sky. But a polarizer can do so much more than that. Most important, the circular polarizer can help tone down reflective surfaces (such as glass, water, wet rocks, foliage, and painted objects) in order to enhance a scene's natural colors.
The following photos were captured on a sunny day, but with the chairs in the shade of a covered porch. See how the polarizer reduced the bright glare.
Many outdoor photographers use the polarizer when it’s overcast or just after a rain. Soft light is perfect for shooting water - waterfalls, streams, wet streets, etc. - and often a polarizer will give those images a boost by bringing out the colors. The polarizer also will cut the surface glare and let you see into small ponds, shallow streams, or tide pools.
There are some things a polarizer can’t do. It is at its peak effectiveness
when used at a 90-degree angle to the light source - say, with the sun at your
right or left. Don’t bother trying a polarizer when you are facing the sun, or
if the sun is at your back. Due to the 90-degree factor, beware when using a
polarizer with a wide-angle lens to enliven a blue sky, since it could cause
an unnatural variation from dark to light.
Important ... Don’t Forget to Turn It:
The polarizing filter turns in its mount, and you must rotate the outer ring to see the possible effects. Then, when you hit the amount of polarization that you want, you shoot the scene at that precise orientation. If you do not see any effect whatsoever as you rotate the polarizer, it’s very likely that the scene is not a “polarizer scene”—i.e., you’re not at an angle to the sun or the surface isn’t actually reflective.
More on Light, Color and Exposure
- Don't miss the new book The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light: Learn to Capture Stunning Light in any Situation by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager
- BetterPhoto's online digital photography school offers an exciting variety of courses taught by top professionals - including classes on light and exposure.