We will cover the what, when, and how of a polarizing filter. More camera gear you ask? Yes! And, I’ll also talk a little about shopping for your filter and other gear to bring along when using it.
What is a Polarizing Filter (Polarizer)?
This is a filter you can use on your single lens reflex (SLR) or mirrorless camera or iPhone. The only real requirement is that the lens have threads on the end, so you can screw this filter on.
The filter is available in 2 forms, but since we’re traveling, and keeping our gear bag small and light, we’ll talk about the round filter that screws onto the end of your lens, where the lens cap goes. The filter is smaller and is lighter than a deck of cards. It’s easily and quickly removable in open places. You don’t take your lens off of the camera body and risk sensor dust (applicable to non-camera phones).
What does the polarizing filter do? Well, it’s a fantastic little tool and reduces your post-processing (editing) time, and can completely change your image in certain circumstances.
When Should I Use a Polarizing Filter?
On a sunny day, polarizing filters work by reducing bright light, so you might still get a decent photo at noontime. With limited time at a particular place while traveling, it’s advantageous if you can shoot all day long. The filter increases color saturation, so clouds and rainbows look better. Last, it reduces reflections on non-metallic surfaces. This is really great for highly reflective stone ruins, like at Machu Picchu in Perú or shooting through water.
Since this filter reduces reflections, you can capture fish or rocks beneath the surface of a lake. Do you ever try photographing fish in a pond they don’t show clearly through the water? This filter will help. So in summary, use the polarizer in these cases
- Reduce light on a bright day so a blue sky appears bluer
- Reduce saturation for better clouds and rainbows
- Shoot non-metallic reflective surfaces, like glass, rocks
- Shoot water if you don’t want the reflection, so you can see beneath the surface
How do I Use a Polarizing Filter?
First, remove your lens cap.
Put the Filter on the Camera
Next, screw the polarizing filter onto the end of your lens. You’ll notice that it’s actually 2 rings– an inner ring and an outer ring. The outer ring will never tighten, since it’s meant to move. If the filter is the same size as your lens, you can leave the filter on and put the lens cap on over the filter whenever needed.
Practice Taking Photographs
Once the filter is in place, take a photo. The filter works best at a right angle (90 degrees) to the sun.
If you’re using manual settings, adjust your settings to allow more light to hit the sensor. This is because the filter darkens your image somewhat. You can adjust 1 or more of these settings:
- ISO – Increase the number, so the sensor is more sensitive to light.
- Shutter speed – Increase the time, so that the sensor has more time to capture light.
- F-stop / Aperture – decrease the number to make the aperture bigger, so there is more space for light to enter through the lens.
Once you have a good photograph, twist the outer ring of the filter slightly and take another photo. The polarization changes as you turn the lens. Play with it until you notice the change in the amount of light the filter allows through the lens. Notice whether the blue sky and clouds look bluer and more interesting, respectively. Also, photography some reflective surfaces, like water or buildings and notice the differences with and without the filter.
You can find filters in various price ranges, and you’ll pay for quality. Luckily, a polarizing filter is not too expensive at around $35 for an SLR or mirrorless camera and $30 for the Olloclip version for your phone. You can pay more for better quality or a famous name, or you can pay less and hope you still get great quality.
Plan Ahead with Other Gear
If you plan on shooting with the filter, definitely bring your tripod, since the filter darkens the image. This means that for an image exposed correctly, you will need a longer shutter speed. Unless it is very bright, the shutter speed may be so slow that you cannot hold the camera perfectly steady for that period of time. Here’s the tripod I use when traveling, since it’s lightweight and holds my heaviest camera with the heaviest lens. Make sure you get a ballhead for your tripod! Here’s an introduction to tripods and ballheads, if you need it.
If your lenses are various sizes in diameter, and you want to carry only 1 UV filter, it is possible. Buy the filter in the size of the lens that you use the most and a step-up ring in the size of your other lens. The two millimeter (mm) measurements are for the filter and for the lens that does not fit the filter. One side of the step-up ring screws onto the lens and the other side screws onto the filter, connecting the two pieces. Example: a 65mm-67mm ring, fits a 65 mm filter and your 2nd lens of 67 mm or vice-versa.
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