Since I got my new camera, a friend of mine who is a professional photographer, Liz Grandmaison (check out her own website here) has been a source of indispensable and patient advice, feedback, and recommendations for me. One day she posted some photos on Facebook from a trip she had taken. I noted the particularly rich, radiant blue sky in one of them and asked how she made that happen, guessing that I already knew the answer (and I was right): polarizing filters.
Part of what I hope to do with this blog is to have it serve as a reference of sorts for ABSOLUTE amateurs stepping up into DSLR photography. I have been doing lots of reading and research since getting my DSLR, and I find that a lot of writing about photography gets very technical very quickly. It can be a bit embarrassing sometimes on some photography forums to ask a question like “what’s a polarizing filter?” and “how does it work?”, and get either a) a lot of snark in return, or b) get a six-page essay on light physics. Yes, it’s good to understand the physics, but sometimes you just need the bare-bones info.
So here’s the deal. Because of something complicated having to do with the directions in which light travels, you can buy something called a polarizing filter to achieve different effects with your camera. Mostly, it makes blue skies look bluer, cloudy skies look more dramatic, and can reduce or remove reflections in glass and water. What an amateur or new photographer wants is something called a “circular polarizer” (there are other kinds of polariziers, but they’re uncommon or problematic to use on auto-focus digital cameras for various complicated and boring technical reasons). With a circular polarizer, you screw the filter base onto the end of your lens, and then you can control the polarizing effect by rotating a separate ring on the very front of the filter itself. As you rotate it, the strength and area of the polarizing effect changes. You have to choose filter sizes that fit the filter size of your lens. Newbies, be careful: this is NOT the same as the length of the lens. For instance, my 50mm (focal length) prime lens takes a 52mm filter whereas my 18-55mm lens takes a 58mm filter.
This past week, I purchased polarizing filters for each of my two current lenses. Now, if you do your research, you will find many photographers recommend that you purchase more expensive and professional-grade filters, the rationale being that if you are using a camera with an expensive and sensitive sensor, and an expensive and sensitive lens, why throw a cheap piece of poorly-made poorly-ground filter glass on front of the whole thing and ruin your pictures? There’s some sound logic there, but I chose to go with two fairly generic (Kenko) filters. I paid about $20 for the 52mm and $25 for the 58mm. The reality is, I don’t have the budget to buy “the best” of everything in my kit. I am saving up currently for a very good, very expensive tripod (more on this in a later post), and I feel like my limited budget is better spent investing now in a great tripod that will last than spending ~$100 each for some polarizing filters. Compromise: it’s a real pain in the ass, but it is what it is.
Now, before you run off and buy some polarizing filters, ask yourself what kind of photography you’re doing. These were important early purchases for me because the vast majority of my photography is done outdoors in settings that tend to have very strong, very direct sunlight. Architecture, travel, walk-around or “street” photography, landscapes. I also tend to travel near, around, or on oceans, where polarized light can reflect off of sand and water and give your shots a really pervasive and aggravating “hazy” look. Polarizers can help cut down on that.
You will be able to see the effect of the polarizer as you rotate it, which helps you get exactly the effect you want. Below are the two example snapshots I took right after getting the filters. These are totally unprocessed, straight out of the camera JPEGs (I usually shoot in RAW but wanted these examples to be as bare bones as possible, so you’re getting a very pure look at the effect a polarizer can have on, in this case, especially skies).
I forgot to take a shot before putting the filter on at all, so I can’t give you that comparison.
If you do much outdoor photography, I’d recommend getting some polarizing filters early on, especially before you’re really comfortable doing post-processing on your images. They can give your image a punch and give you some control that you might otherwise be lacking under a lot of shooting conditions. You can tame glare and reflections, saturate your colors better and more evenly across the whole scene, and tamp down the risk of losing shots because they end up way too washed out or ruined by haze. I can’t wait to get out with mine and experiment some more. Just remember to take them off before you try and do any indoor/nighttime/dim light shots!
EDIT 05/02/12: I found an image to better illustrate the problem of hazy conditions. Friends who are running a fitness group here in Busan asked me to take pictures of one of their training sessions, which was held outdoors, midday, at a beach on a partially cloudy day. Almost ALL of my shots came back with that hazy look, and it took me almost an entire day of tweaking in post to get a chunk of usable images. A polarizer would have helped here a lot, I think.