How a Polarizer Filter Works

A polarizing filter is probably the most useful filter you can use with your camera. It removes polarized light from the image, thus reducing reflections and glare, while at the same time increasing color saturation—especially that of a blue sky. A circular polarizing filter works by rotating an outer ring to vary the amount of polarization that is being filtered. This effect is difficult to mimic on the computer.

learn about polarizing filters in photography

Photo by Clifton Beard; ISO 100, f/8.0, 10-second exposure.

Visible light from the sun travels in a straight line as a wave that is oscillating in all directions, such as up and down and from side to side. When that light is reflected off an object, it is the reflected wavelength of the light that determines the color of the object. The rest of the colors are absorbed by the object.

For example, a pure blue-colored object reflects only blue light and absorbs the red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, and violet parts of the light. Likewise, green leaves on trees only reflect green and some yellow, while absorbing the other colors.

If the light being reflected or scattered travels in only one direction—the polarized one—it will cause glaring and reduce the color intensity of the reflected surface. So, by using a special filter to remove this polarized light, the color intensity will be restored.

A polarizing filter has a layer of Polaroid (synthetic plastic) sandwiched between two glass plates. In a circular polarizing filter, as the front plate is rotated, the angle of polarization and thus the amount of polarized light that passes through the filter changes. This allows precise control of the degree of polarized light that is to be removed.

when to use a polarizing filter

Photo by Matt Hintsa; ISO 200, f/4.0, 1/250-second exposure.

Now, when sunlight encounters atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, which are mostly of nitrogen and oxygen, the light scatters. Blue light is scattered more than red light, which is why a clear sky during the day appears blue in color.

The electric field of scattered light tends to oscillate in one direction. So, if the photographer is looking perpendicularly to the direction from which the light is traveling, it will be polarized because the energy goes one way.

By applying a polarizing filter, the energy of the light along one axis can only pass through, hence why the filtering effect works best when the sun is at right angles to the direction the photo is being taken, and the sky will appear to be darker blue in color.

If the sun is in front or behind the photographer, the polarizing filter will make no difference because the axis of oscillation will not be filtered by the Polaroid, and thus no effect will be seen.

There are two kinds of polarizing filter available to photographers—linear and circular—but only the circular type will work properly with digital cameras. This is because the linear type affects metering accuracy, as autofocus cameras already polarize some light inside the camera and a false meter reading will be obtained.

photography polarizing filter tips

Photo by Mat Distef.

Circular polarizing filters are made with a wave-retardation plate exactly a quarter of a wavelength in thickness, which lets the light to passing into the metering system appear unpolarized. However, if you do have a linear polarizer, simply take a meter reading before attaching the filter, and then increase exposure time by a couple of stops. That should do the trick. With film cameras it makes no difference which type of filter you use.

About the Author:
Chris Smith (photography-expert dot com) gives photography tips in his ezine.

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