Nick Carver Photography Blog

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Photography Tips: What is a Polarizer?

This is the first in a series of photographic quick tips and how-to's I will be posting periodically. They will be categorized by difficulty level (Beginner, Intermediate & Pro) and can be found by using the "Tips & How-To" drop down menu at the top of this blog. You can also perform a search in the search box above to see if there are any posts on what you're looking for. Enjoy!

Skill Level: Beginner

Circular polarizing filters are pretty amazing, but I often find new photographers have purchased a polarizer not really knowing why they would need it or how to use it. Camera store salesmen seem to tack these things on to a sale without fully letting the customer (you) know why you need it. Well, that's where this post comes in.


Here I used a circular polarizer to darken the blue sky & make the clouds "pop"

The first thing to know about polarizers is that there are 2 types: linear and circular polarizers. I won't go into the details of how they are structurally different or how these filters work (for that, check out this great post over at BobAtkin.com), but understand that all modern-day DSLRs require a circular polarizer, not a linear one. Linear polarizers will cause the metering and autofocus to work incorrectly on today's cameras. Also, keep in mind that there is no easy way to tell a linear polarizer from a circular polarizer short of the manufacturer's label - linear polarizers are round just like circular polarizers.

The second thing to know about polarizing filters is their purpose in photography, and that's to reduce/cut out reflections and to darken blue skies. Polarizers seem almost magical when you view this effect through your viewfinder. That blue sky will darken to a beautiful indigo without touching the clouds or the foreground, and that reflection off the water's surface will vanish into thin air. Check out these side-by-side comparisons to see the effect:

_
Without Polarizer _________ With Polarizer

_
Without Polarizer ____                                _____ With Polarizer

The last thing you need to know about polarizing filters is how to use them. You'll notice the polarizer has a tint to it (it's impossible to make a crystal clear polarizer). This will cut the light coming through your lens a bit, but don't worry, your camera will take it into account and compensate for it automatically (if you're in any auto-exposure mode). The effectiveness of a polarizer is dictated by its rotation, which is why they typically have a double collar that allows you to rotate the filter without unscrewing it, so just look through your viewfinder and rotate the filter until you get the desired effect. There's no hard rule to this, just rotate it until you get the effect you want.

And there you have it! It's that simple! Now head out and give it a try!

New Filters and Pictures

Well, I finally decided to treat myself to an entirely new set of filters. I've been shooting on the Cokin system for years with Singh-Ray (and before that, Hitech) filters, but I kept running into the filters just being a little too small. I upgraded to the Lee system with its 4"x6" filters. They are absolutely sublime...

My complete system includes the following:

  • Lee filter holder and 77mm wide-angle adapter ring
  • Lee 1-stop soft transition grad ND
  • Lee 2-stop soft transition grad ND
  • Lee 3-stop soft transition grad ND
  • Lee 1-stop hard transition grad ND
  • Lee 2-stop hard transition grad ND
  • Lee 3-stop hard transition grad ND
  • Lee 3-stop solid ND
  • Lee circular polarizer
  • Lee 10-filter wallet

...mouth watering.

I decided to test out my sweet new filters with a little photo shoot in the nearby Cleveland National Forest. I found a great, big, old oak tree in a beautiful meadow out in Tenaja Canyon that I figured would be the perfect subject. Here are the results...

Custom Filter Case


As (primarily) a landscape photographer, split neutral density filters are my bread and butter. I have 5 in all plus a solid ND and a polarizer. Split NDs are virtually useless in screw-in ring form, so I opt for the Singh-Ray rectangular filters with Cokin P series holders.

I've gone through several different filter cases from generic to name brand to custom to different custom, etc. There were some specific points I needed in a filter case that none of these fulfilled entirely. I wanted it to be small enough to fit in a camera bag and in a photo vest pocket, I wanted it to be able to attach to my belt or belt loop, I wanted it to be entirely enclosed when shut, I wanted no velcro closure (too loud) and I wanted it to adequately protect my filters without overkill.


Now I'm sure it's no secret among photographers that a CD wallet is a great option for this (if it is news to you - hooray!). The materials used to protect CDs are generally on par with materials used to protect photo equipment so there's no worry there. The sleeves are in a convenient binder-esque arrangement for easy browsing. It's small in width and length and relatively thin. The only problem I kept running into is I couldn't find a blasted CD case that would lay flat when opened. They all had this wrap-around design on the binding that would cause it to shut on itself like a new paperback novel.

Well this post is about a great case I found for this application as well as some of my modifications that make it the ultimate filter case.

First off, the brand of case is Case Logic and it's a 24 CD/DVD CD Wallet. It's great because it lays completely flat when opened - no spring return - and it's covered in this somewhat rubbery outer that has stood up excellently to the elements for me. It features a full zipper that is smooth and has a rubber-tipped zipper pull. It is the smallest CD wallet I have found that will still fit all my filters and its rounded corners and edges make for easy storage. I like it so much, I got two in case they discontinue it. I bought mine at Best Buy - not sure if they still sell them or not.

Now onto the mods to make it even better. I wanted to be able to attach it to my hip belt loop, so I needed to add a carabiner in the upper left corner. I did this by taking some strong string (I used a sunglasses cord I bought at REI), threading it behind the sleeves and wrapping them around the binding pegs (see picture). I then tied it at the top with a slight loop hanging over the edge at the end of the zipper. I recommend melting the ends of the cord with a lighter to avoid fraying. This made it so a small loop of the cord would hang out of the wallet in the upper left corner when the zipper was completely shut. I then attached a small carabiner to this loop and presto, you got yourself a wicked side filter wallet.






To make it even better, I put labels on each sleeve indicating the filter. I did one horizontally on the opposing sleeve for viewing horizontally and a smaller one vertically on the filter's sleeve. The vertical label makes more sense when using the wallet when it's hanging from your side. I then put little squares of thin cardboard on the opposite side of each filter sleeve. This keeps the sleeve rigid when the filter is removed making it much easier to slide it back in later.


I found this setup to work great for me. I just attach it to my right hip belt loop when I get my camera out and start shooting. I have every filter right at my fingertips in a completely sealed wallet (not water PROOF of course, but water resistant nonetheless). I can remove a filter and let the wallet drop to my side with no worries. It has stood up perfectly to many harsh conditions (especially sand and sea spray). I've never had a filter break in this wallet, it's easy to store and transport and it's cheap!