In today’s age of Photoshop, Lightroom, or Instagram the need for filters is becoming obsolete. You can snap a photo with your phone and instantly post it to Instagram while applying any of its variable filters available. Why even use a blue or a warming filter when you can apply it during post-processing using Photoshop?
Pro Tip: Check out What’s In My Camera Bag, if you’re interested in my current camera gear choices!
There is no need to buy or carry around expensive Graduated Neutral Density filters when you can bracket the shot and then blend these exposures during post-processing
Why You Need A Polarizer
Indeed, the current technology and techniques allow us photographers to carry less gear that weighs down our backpacks. However, there are still some things that Instagram and Photoshop can’t do what a Polarizing Filter can.
That’s because the Polarizer’s purpose is to filter the light coming in through the lens and into your camera’s sensor. You see, the light becomes “polarized” as it travels through the Earth’s atmosphere and as it passes through pollution all the way to your lens glass.
The Circular Polarizer’s primary function is to block this light, and that’s why you will see darkened and bluer skies on your photos using the filter. In theory, you can achieve this same effect in Photoshop but what you can’t do is filter polarized light.
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For example, reflections – water reflection or non-metallic objects deliver polarized light. You can reduce or even eliminate these reflections before you press the shutter with a polarizer. This effect alone cannot be replicated in Adobe Photoshop or any post-processing process known to man.
The Polarizing Filter works it’s magic with a linear polarizing film that filters out the scattered light rays and allowing only the light that moves in a linear direction. Linear Polarizing Filters were one of the first polarizing filters produced for film and manual cameras.
I’ve used Linear Polarizing filters when I was shooting with large format film cameras. They worked great but had one downside, their use interferes with modern camera auto-focus and metering systems as it had problems seeing the light moving in linearly. The solution to this is to add a quarter-wave plate on the polarizing film to twist the light coming into the lens in a circular pattern – That’s what a Circular Polarizer Filter is, the topic of this article!
Without getting into the physics to explain polarization further, the important thing you have to know is – Polarizing Filters have the most profound effect then it’s used at a 90-degree angle from the Sun. That means it works the best when the Sun’s rays are to the left or right of your composition. It is less effective when the Sun is 180 degrees, meaning right behind or in front of you. Still, these minuscule effects can even have a pleasant addition to your image.
Wide Angle With Circular Polarizer Filter
As mentioned, the degree of polarization is most effective when you point your lens 90 degrees from the Sun. You can see this profound effect when you use a Circular Polarizer Filter with a wide-angle lens 28 mm or smaller (full frame, cropped sensors will be lower). Since wide angles include more of the sky, you can see part of the atmosphere that isn’t fully polarized. This leads to part of the sky being darker than the rest. It’s up to you if you like this effect or not, I don’t have a problem with it, and I often use Polarizers with Super Wide angles.
There are some things you would be aware of when using a Circular Polarizing Filter. Using one will subtract 1-2 stops of light coming in so you’ll have to adjust accordingly. Most applications of a Circular Polarizing Filter is when the camera is mounted on a tripod, but some wildlife photographers use it well while hand holding the camera.
Another thing to be aware of is that the physical thickness of the Polarizers. With wide-angle lenses and shooting wide open, it can reveal unnatural vignetting at the corners of the frame. There are thin Circular Polarizer Filters to address this particular issue, but you should always check to make sure you’re not at the point of vignetting before taking the shot. You can also check the frame after you took the shot and examine the corners to retake another photo if necessary or adjust your f-stop for a smaller aperture.
With all that said, some photographers leave the filter on their lenses all the time. I shoot most of my nature and landscape photos with a Circular Polarizer Filter on my optics. Most images and scenery can use a Polarizing filter, and you should be using them or at least have one in your camera bag. There are just some things Photoshop can’t recreate and what a Circular Polarizer Filter can do is one of them.
Good polarizing filters are not cheap. The ones I use are costly. There’s no reason to tack on a $30 piece of glass on top of a $2,000 lens, that would be stupid. Add to the fact that you could easily have 2-3 different size filter mounts on your lenses and the costs can add up. So what is the solution to this problem?
Buy the largest Circular Polarizer Filter matched to the largest lens you have and then buy step-down rings to allow it to fit your smaller lenses. The most common size is 77 mm, but some Super Wide Angle lenses go up to 82 mm – the larger the filter, the more expensive it is!
Here are the Top 5 options I’ve compiled with a detailed summary and review to help you pick your Circular Polarizing Filter.
TOP 5 CIRCULAR POLARIZER FILTERS
Here are the best polarizers I’ve personally used and recommend. Of course, you can find cheaper alternatives. But why put cheap glass in front of and expensive lens?
B+W XS-Pro HTC Kaesemann Circular Polarizer Filter
Pros: Quite likely the best Circular Polarizer Filter in the market
Cons: Not cheap
This is the filter I use most today. I lost one several years ago and replaced it with a Nikon and then the Heliopan. Now I’m back to using it again. Schneider Optics makes the B+W Circular Polarizer and for those in the know, one of the best lens/glassmakers in the world. The optics from Schneider is second to none, and the B+W Polarizing filter is no exception.
The Kaesemann is a high transmission circular polarizer filter. This filter is specifically designed to mount on digital cameras. It has a variable stop loss of 1 to 1.5 depending on the degree of polarization. It’s relatively easy to clean and so far hasn’t been scratched from my rugged use due to its multi-resistant nano-coating. The colors come out neutral and do a reasonable degree of polarizing effect. Overall, I’m happy with this filter and will continue using it in the foreseeable future. If you have the cash, get this filter, call it a day shopping and go out shooting.
Heliopan SH-PMC Slim Mount Circular Polarizer Filter
MSRP: $130 -$310
Pros: High-quality glass that losses just a stop and high-quality brass rings
Cons: Expensive and requires great care and handling
I’ve been using the Heliopan 77 mm Slim Mount polarizer for many years. The optical quality is phenomenal. It’s a bit of a toss-up between this and B & W or Nikon, but quality-wise, you can’t go wrong with either of one of them. The SH-PMC means that it has a filter factor of 2.0 vs. 2.5 of the older versions – 2.0 means just one stop of light loss while maintaining the same polarization.
Even though the filter has solid brass rings and build, over the years of use, I’ve managed to scratch the glass and eventually it would start to flare when shooting with the sun in the frame. Before that, flares were controlled and didn’t happen as often. The colors come out neutral as expected of high-quality filters such as this.
I have since gone back to B&W as my go-to Polarizing Filter for most applications. I still reach out to my Heliopon occasionally but only when there’s no Sun on the frame. Would I recommend this filter for you? Yes! If there are no scratches on my filter, I’d happily use more. It’s a little on the expensive side, but you do get what you pay for.
Nikon Wide Circular Polarizer II Filter
MSRP: $130 -$250
Pros: Strongest polarization out of any filters in this group
Cons: Unless you like the effect, images come out too saturated
I’ve used this Polarizing Filter for a couple of years. It’s made by quality optics (and camera) maker, Nikon, so you know what you’re getting when you tack on this filter on your expensive lenses. If you want a strong polarizer, this is it. The polarizing effect on this filter is a lot stronger than anything listed here. Colors will saturate more, and it will cut down the reflections more as well.
Even with strong filtering the Nikon filter still manages only to lose 1.5 stops of light at its zenith. It’s also a very sturdy and robustly built piece of gear that can withstand basic abuses. It doesn’t scratch as easily with its super thin glass and frame made for wide-angle lenses. If you’re looking for your first Circular Polarizer, you can’t go wrong with the Nikon – you get a high-quality filter that’s not overpriced.
Tiffen Digital HT Multi-Coated Circular Polarizer Filter
MSRP: $34 -$169
Pros: Excellent filter for the price
Cons: Filter mount isn’t the best fit for some lenses
I had the chance to purchase a Tiffen Warming Circular Polarizer at a low price and jumped right on it. Tiffen makes quality camera equipment and gear at very affordable prices. I’ve owned some of their tripods, flash accessories, and other camera accessories over the years. Optically, you won’t be able to find any difference between this filter and any of the filters mentioned above.
The Tiffen Circular Polarizer is a high transmission polarizing filter that was designed with digital cameras in mind. However, I find the screw to be a little cumbersome with attaching to my Nikon lens. The colors come out great, not too saturated, just enough to see that the filter is working. The price isn’t too shabby either. It’s quite affordable for the quality of the filter you’re getting. If you don’t have the extra spare cash and want a quality Circular Polarizer, the Tiffen Digital HT should fit the bill.
Hoya HD 8-layer Multi-Coated Circular Polarizing Filter
MSRP: $30 -$70
Pros: High-quality glass that losses just a stop and high-quality brass rings
Cons: Expensive and requires great care and handling
You can’t mention filters (especially polarizing filters) without mentioning Hoya. These filters are probably what most photographers pick up first when they first start their first foray into polarizing filters. They’re cheap, readily available, and marketed well. I’ve had one included on the first used Nikon Film camera I purchased. They work well, and I’ve never really been one to scrutinize down to the pixel level to substantiate the quality.
For years, I’ve always associated Hoya with “cheap.” But, now the brand does make decent filters that are affordable and highly functional. The filter I had finally broke apart from uses on the field, and I’ve never purchased another Hoya filter since. For around $30-$70, it’s an excellent Polarizing Filter to start with but you might find yourself eventually needing one of the filters above should you find yourself using a Polarizing Filter more and more.
Things To Consider When Buying A Circular Polarizer Filter
Although the price varies significantly from one Circular Polarizer to the other, you should look into other factors outside of this. But, suffice it to say, the more expensive the Circular Polarizing Filter is, the better the quality. It always baffles me when I see a photographer using a $2,000 lens and then mounting a $20 filter on it. Light already has to pass through the lens’ multiple optical elements, and then you place a cheap element in front of all that?
Now, before you fork a hundred bucks on the most expensive Circular Polarizer Filter here are things you should look for:
- Light Transmission: Cheaper filters are dimmer and therefore a few stops slower than High Transmission ones which are more expensive. If you use tripods then this wouldn’t be an issue, you might even like the effect especially on waterfalls and moving water.
- Glare Resistance: Multi-coated filters are more glare-resistant and are also more expensive. If you don’t include the Sun on the frame, then this wouldn’t be much of an issue.
- Color Neutrality: Cheap polarizers can affect the hue of the colors. Polarizers should be color neutral.
- Contrast: Cheap polarizer without the proper coating will make your images look dull and lack contrast.
- Vignetting: A thin polarizer is more expensive and allows more versatility when used with wide-angle lenses.
Here are a few examples of Circular Polarizer Filter in use:
Interesting read about Polarization: WIKIPEDIA
Looking for Sony lenses? Check out my epic guide on the best Sony E Mount Lenses. Check out my other photography guides: Best Travel Camera, Best Mirrorless Camera, Best Full Frame Cameras, Best Canon Lenses for Travel.
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DO YOU HAVE A CIRCULAR POLARIZER FILTER?
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