Demonstration of the Effects of Polarization

by ajamess on 18.Nov.10

in Photo Gear,Photographic Musings,Photography Techniques,Photos

I was editing images from Portland, and found an interesting distinction between those images taken with a circular polarizer and those which weren't.  In the back of our heads, I think we all have an idea of what polarizers are for, but not often do we get a first-hand sense of what they can do for our images.

I've used polarizers typically only when there are large swaths of blue skies, clouds, or reflections to knock out.  In this sense, my applications were pretty limited – I probably only have it on for 10% of my total shooting time.  Many times, I don't bother putting it on at all, and think to myself after the fact that it wouldn't have made a difference anyway.  This is because (IMO) seeing the difference in the field is really, really hard.  Yes, you can see a bit through the viewfinder, and the LCD, but the full nuances of the effect are masked until you get home and take a looksie on the monitor.  Yes, we've all seen the drastic transformations polarizers can bring to clouds and summery blue skies, but what about a scene like the one below?

Let's evaluate the scene a bit:

  • Flat lighting (overcast)
  • Lots of foliage
  • Many reflections close in brightness to the scene itself
  • Lots of open shade

Now, mouse over the image to see what it looks like with a B&W CPL at full effect.


Just as an FYI: both images are straight from the camera with zero editing.  Some notable improvements I notice are:

  • Better contrast ratio between the water and surroundings
  • Distracting reflections in the water toned down dramatically
  • Fewer distracting reflections on the foliage
  • Richer colors in the foreground (look at the ground in the bottom right corner)
  • Richer colors in the foliage
  • Better separation from the greens and reds of the Japanese maple in the foreground

Of course, the more standard uses of polarizers still apply, as seen below.


Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II Aperture-priority AE @ 0 EC 16.0-35.0 mm 35.0 mm 1/25 sec f/11.0 ISO 100 Knappa-Brownsmead, Oregon
A CPL was used at full effect for this image.  It made the difference between a hazy, flat sky and what you see here.


Moonrise over Cannon Beach

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II Manual @ 0 EC 16.0-35.0 mm 16.0 mm 0.3 sec f/16.0 ISO 100 Cannon Beach, Oregon
Moonrise over Cannon BeachMap
Again, a CPL here worked wonders to make the moon and cirrus really pop against the sky.  Note this was during sunset and it was still a large difference than without a CPL.


I suppose if there is one take-away from this post it would be this: polarizers are a specialized tool, and we all have some preconceived notions on how they should be used; however, there are situations where, while they do not create as dramatic an effect, polarizers can be used to add that extra bit of something to an image to make it that much better.

So, would I be happy with the first image?  Probably.  Is the second image better?  Definitely – I would pick it over the non-polarized image every time.  Which image do you prefer?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam J November 18, 2010 at 02:20

I would always choose the polarized image. I’d like to try a non-circular polarizer sometime. I find that on my CPL only half of the image is polarized at a time which is annoying. When taking a picture of a car, the reflections on the car are gone but the sky isn’t polarized and vice versa.


ajamess November 18, 2010 at 09:33

Yeah – I need to pick up a cokin or lee filter set one of these days. Lacking a good GND sucks.

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