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Polarizing Filters

Katie Armstrong
June 15, 2011 by Katie Armstrong Alum

Let’s say it’s a beautiful, sunny day, and you’re lounging on the beach with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other. First of all, wow, I can’t believe you didn’t invite me! Secondly, if you’re trying to shoot video of all that water and sky without a polarizing filter, you’re selling yourself a bit short. Not familiar with this small but mighty tool? Olivia Speranza is here to give you a quick what’s what. Take a look at the video below!

What exactly is a polarizing filter?

When we record video or take photos, our camera is essentially just documenting light. To get vaguely scientific for a moment, light becomes polarized when it is reflected from almost all surfaces. (Metal is the exception to the rule!) This polarization is not exactly a friend to your camera, it creates a glare that results in blown out footage, and ultimately a loss of detail and color. Not cool!

Think about trying to shoot on a beach. Water is a particularly reflective surface, and to a naked lens it will appear predominantly white because of the glare. Even some of the light coming from the sky is polarized because of the electrons in the air molecules, which cause light to scatter in all directions. This results, more often than not, in a pale, blown out sky. But water and sky contain a multitude of colors and textures that add interest to your shots-- it’s a shame to lose out on these details! That’s where polarizing filters come in.

A lot can be said about the technicalities of how they work, but for all intents and purposes (and to keep this lesson short and sweet), all you really need to know is that polarizing filters change the way that your camera sees and treats light.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

How does it benefit my footage?

When using this kind of filter, you will notice a change in how your camera sees reflections and glare. As a result, it also has the ability to change the vibrancy of colors. In your beach shots, for instance, the blue will be deepened and intensified. The greens of foliage will become more vibrant, and shooting through glass or trying to capture any kind of reflective surface will become much easier.

How do I actually use one of these contraptions?

A circular polarizing filter allows you to adjust the severity of the filter simply by rotating the front element of the filter accordingly. As you rotate, you’ll notice that colors and reflections change. Use your own judgement! Once you’ve got the shot adjusted to your liking, start shooting.

For the biggest impact, try to keep the sun at your side rather than at your back or right in front of you. (Shooting at high noon won’t be as effective, for instance.) Also, be conscious when you’re shooting in low light, during an overcast day, or at night. Using a polarizing filter in situations like these is the equivalent of wearing sunglasses inside. It will cut down the amount of light getting through to your image sensor.

Ready for a challenge?

A polarizing filter looks and works a lot like a lens from a pair of sunglasses. Before rushing to your favorite camera supply store to get your hands (and drop a wad of cash) on a filter, grab a pair of polarized sunglasses for a little test drive! Simply position them in front of your camera’s lens, rotate to find the best result, and shoot. We want to see what you cook up, so share your video with us by accepting the challenge below!

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lanacaprina Plus

Question: is it true that if you pan, tilt or do any other camera movement it will look like crap because you change the angle from which light is coming?

issac dhan

It is great tool. In-fact there is one more advance polarizing filter called cross polarizing filter (CPL) . It is very useful to create skin texture map for 3d rendering . Big time saver. Images of object (mostly human skin) without reflection and shine. You will get pure color map. Before people used to invest a lot of time in Photoshop just to remove (by cloning) shiny and reflective areas from images in Photoshop. Must have for texture makers.

Paolo Maggioni Conte

How can we reduce the added noise when using polarizing filter? I mean in such camera like HVX201 or HPX171 the filter seems to accentuate intolerably the noise. What's the tool to compensate this in shooting session?
Thank you Paolo

John Peter Thiel

I use a polarizing filter on my telescope as well. Especially when viewing or shooting photos of particularly bright objects such as the Moon or Jupiter, a polarizing filter is the difference between seeing beautiful details and color versus a blob of light.

Pattiann Fehr

Oh wow, what a simple solution to my moon shots! I had never thought of that. thank you for posting!


It's also worth noting that CPL filters are more difficult to produce and cheap ones actually make your images a lot worse. Therefore it's better to invest in good quality CPL filters e.g. from B+W or Hoya Pro 1, Hoya HD.

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