As my passion for nature photography drove me to learn more, I discovered tools that I now consider indispensable in the pursuit of quality landscape images. I had all the primary tools in place. I was finally standing behind an expensive setup on an expensive tripod. I had purchased the right equipment and eaten noodles and frozen vegetables for months to own quality lenses. The majestic sunset was painting the most perfect dramatic landscape before my very eyes. I had worked so hard to put all the elements together, just to have the images of the glorious moment be less than I had hoped for.
This was the way my education about fine photographic filters started. I’ve noticed during my travels that many new photographers have purchased filters, but don’t know how to use them. Worse, they leave them at home when out shooting. Having the right filters and knowing how to get the most out of them can really make the difference between getting a good image and a great one!
One of the reasons you love your sunglasses is because they are most likely polarized. They reduce glare making everything you look at rich and colorful. You may also have noticed, when you rotate your head from side to side, it changes the reflective qualities of the things you look at. If you have noticed these things, you now know how a polarizer filter can be used to do this same thing in nature photography. Even if you haven’t noticed this about your sunglasses, keep reading. A polarizer is why the best nature images you see in post cards, calendars and fine art are so rich and colorful.
A circular polarizer either reduces or maximizes the reflections in your scene. As you look through a circular polarizer and adjust it, you will notice reflections getting stronger or weaker as you turn or adjust the filter. It can best be noticed in scenes with lakes, streams and white clouds against a blue sky. It is important to understand that a circular polarizer works best 90 degrees from the sun’s path in the sky. This means polarization will be really evident when composing images facing north or south.
In this example, I’m using a circular polarizer to force the reflection on the water. My lens choice is a Tamron SP 17-50 f/2.8 VC for this image on Independence Pass in Colorado. High quality lenses like these have special coatings on the optics that enhance lens performance. When purchasing filters, it’s important to get multi-coated or MC filters instead of the cheapest priced filter. This will insure that the coatings on the filters are the same as or similar to your lens coatings. While the differences between filters can seem minimal to some, I believe that having quality filters is essential to getting the best results. So, I invest in the best quality that at the very least matches the quality of my lens.
These images were taken using the Tamron 18-270 VC PZD lens. In the example, the first image was taken without a filter and the second image was taken using a circular polarizer. Note that the polarized image is not more saturated, it just has reduced reflection. Notice how you can see through the water to the bottom when the reflection is reduced. Also, while subtle and hard to notice, the foliage can also reflect the sky. This too can be reduced using a polarizer. There is a whole other world out there photographically speaking when you have the power to dial the reflection on, or dial it off.
These images were taken using the Tamron 28-300 VC lens. In the example, the first image was taken without a filter and the second image was taken using a circular polarizer. Even though you can’t see it outright, there is a lot of dust and particulate pollution that can reflect light back into your camera. The circular polarizer can reduce the reflected light from these particles allowing you to see through to the blue sky. Again, the polarized image is not more saturated, it just has reduced reflection.
In the example here, I purposely created an image to show you two undesirable issues you will encounter using a polarizer. If using screw-mount filters, just use the polarizer and resist the urge to stack filters. In the example, you can see blacked out corners, called a vignette. Complicating this, some cameras have less than 100% viewfinder meaning you might get blacked out corners even if you can’t see them through the viewfinder. If possible, you want to avoid rather than crop this problem. For these reasons, test your equipment at home in the back yard before going somewhere to seriously shoot. Put your intended filter on and make images of the sky and review them. For wider angle lenses, you may have to buy a thin filter to avoid this.
With extreme wide angle lenses and a polarizer, a second problem will present itself. Remember that a polarizer works best at right angles to the sun. With an extreme wide-angle lens, your view is so wide that it includes this angle and much more. This means that the part of your image 90 degrees to the sun’s path will have the maximum effect of the polarizer, while the part of your image that is not 90 degrees to the sun’s path will have a less polarized effect. This results in a very dark banding near the center of the image as you can see in the example image. It looks like a very dark or black cloud. For me this is undesirable and unnatural. This doesn’t mean you can’t use a polarizer on a wide-angle lens, it just means you have to be careful to dial the effect just a little instead of a lot.
This image was created with the Tamron 18-270 VC PZD lens and a circular polarizer. In my opinion, circular polarizer filters are a must have for general landscape shooting. Also they work great for creating images of rainbows because you can reduce reflected light from the raindrops. When you have the power to remove the reflected light from the scene, you can create some spectacular images. One final tip to getting great images is using your over/under or +/- exposure compensation to fine-tune the exposure. I’ve noticed that my cameras expose reliably using my in-camera metering for most shooting situations. This being said however, I have found that these same cameras, in my opinion, tend to over-expose landscapes. I have found that under-exposing my images 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop tend to render the overall look I’m after. You will have to play with this to get it right on your camera and practice before it counts! Don’t forget to set the +/- exposure compensation back to 0.0 after each shoot.
These days, I wouldn’t leave the house without my sunglasses or my polarizer. Enjoy!