How to use a Polarizing Filter

A polarizing filter is one of the most essential tools in a landscape photographer’s bag. It is typically the first filter landscape photographers buy to instantly improve their pictures and and add vividness and contrast to them. If you do not already have a polarizing filter, I highly recommend getting one for your landscape photography.

A lot of people ask me how I get the sky in my images to be so blue. While I must admit that there are many variables involved in making the sky look natural, a polarizing filter can actually make the sky look more dramatic, once you learn how to use it properly. Basically, a polarizer can reduce reflections from objects such as water and glass and can be used to darken the sky and bring out the clouds, making the scene look much more vivid. It can also help reduce haze. For all normal lenses that have a filter thread in the front, you can get a circular polarizing filter, also known as a “circular polarizer”. A circular polarizer is very easy to use and once you attach it on the front of your lens, all you need to do is rotate it clockwise or counter-clockwise to get a different amount of polarization. Polarizing filters work by blocking certain light waves from entering the lens. Rotating a polarizer allows certain types of light waves to pass through, while blocking other ranges of light waves. Thus, you could turn a sky from light blue to very dark blue or increase/decrease reflections by simply rotating the filter.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park (shot with a circular polarizer)

Keep in mind that time of the day plays a big role in the amount of polarization you can get from a polarizing filter. You can obtain maximum polarization when the sun is at about 37 degrees from the horizon, so if the sun is directly overhead or very close to the horizon, the effect of the polarizer will vary and in some cases you might not even see any polarization effect no matter how much you rotate the filter. The effect of polarization changes relative to the sun. The maximum effect of polarization is achieved when the lens is pointed 90 degrees from the sun (in any direction). A simple trick is to form a pistol with your index and thumb fingers, then point your index finger at the sun. Keep pointing at the sun and rotate your hand clockwise and counter-clockwise. The maximum effect of polarization will be where your thumb points in any direction. So if the sun is in front of you, or directly behind you close to the horizon, you might not see the effect of polarization on the sky at all. The polarizer can still help reduce haze and reflections, but it might not do anything to the sky. Also, you have to be very careful when using a polarizer with super wide-angle lenses (24mm and below), because the sky might not get darkened equally, resulting in a bad-looking half blue-half gray sky.

Here is an example of a bad-looking sky, as a result of incorrect usage of a polarizing filter. Basically, I pointed just a little to the right of the sun, which is why the area on the left is so light in color. Images like these with “gradient” skies are extremely hard to deal with in post-processing:

Bad effect of a circular polarizer

Bad effect of a circular polarizer

I always check my rear LCD after shooting with a circular polarizer, making sure that the sky looks the same from left to right. In the above case, I quickly understood that I made a mistake and pointed the camera to the far right, away from the sun, to darken the sky more evenly. As you can see, it makes a huge difference!

Now it is a little better

Another important factor is that a polarizing filter can help to deal with reflective surfaces. Take a look at the following two examples below. Before I shot the first image, I made sure that all of the reflections are removed from the water. The result, as you can see from the below image, is that we no longer see any natural reflections.

Maximum effect gets rid of the reflection

Maximum effect gets rid of the reflection

Compare the above to the picture below, where a circular polarizer was rotated to a minimum effect, keeping the natural reflections of the surrounding area on the water surface:

Minimum effect leaves natural reflection

Minimum effect leaves natural reflection

Overall, a circular polarizer is a very helpful tool in a photographer’s bag. I personally use the B+W 77mm Kaeseman circular polarizing filter, because of its high quality optics, but you can use other brands such as “Tiffen” and “Hoya” as well. Just make sure that you are buying the right size for your lens filter holder. For example, if your lens filter thread is 77mm, make sure to buy a 77mm circular polarizer. If you have multiple lenses of different sizes, I recommend buying one 77mm filter in addition to cheaper step-up rings.


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Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) NanOnaN

    Hello Nasim aka,

    What do you think on which lens it is more practical to use polarizing filter; on 50mm prime lens or 18-55kit lens?

    Thank you.

    • NanOnaN: I would go for a polarizing filter on the 18-55kit lens, because the fixed 50mm would be too long and restrictive (equivalent to 75mm) on a DX sensor.

    • Actually, if you own the 50mm f/1.8 prime, it has the same filter size as the 18-55 (52mm), so you would be able to use the polarizer on both lenses :)

      • 56
        ) Bob

        Worth noting that, at least with Nikon, the 18-55 kit lens when auto focusing will rotate your filter. A bit of a bummer.

  2. 4
    ) NanOnaN

    I am glad that both lenses can use one polarizer.:))

    Just now got my first dslr D3000 with kit lenses.
    They gave me used polarizer for free:)
    I wanted to get 50mm f/1.8 prime as well, but they told that it does not have auto focus on D3000 body.

    So what do you think manual focusing is not that hard?
    is it worth to buy manual focusing 50mm prime anyways?

    • If you have never used a DSLR before, I would NOT recommend buying a manual focus lens. Why don’t you get the 35mm f/1.8 DX instead? It works perfectly well on the D3000.

  3. 6
    ) NanOnaN

    OK thank you for recommendation.
    Then I rather wait and buy 35mm f/1.8 DX later.

    Thank you.

  4. 7
    ) sarena

    hi nasim,

    im using the 18-105mm lens. do i need this filter? if i do, what kind of filter do you recommend?

    many thanks.

    • Sarena, if you shoot landscapes, then yes. I would recommend getting the B+W brand circular polarizers – they are the best.

      • 24
        ) Waruna Lakmal

        but some say Hoya is the best.. i dnt know what is correct? how about the prices?

  5. 9
    ) Eduardo Siqueira

    Hi Nasin, I am willing to buy a polarizer. I own a kit lens 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6G DX which came along with my D5000. Is it possible to use a polarizer with this lens? What would be the best pick out in this case? Could you tell me the specifications to buy the correct filter? Thanks in advance, Eduardo S.

    • Eduardo, you can use a polarizing filter with any lens, as long as it has filter threads.

      You just need to match the filter with the filter size on your lens – I believe the 18-55mm takes 52mm lenses.

      • 11
        ) Eduardo Siqueira

        Nasin, thanks for replying my message. I’ve just bought a 52mm Hoya PRO1D Circular-PL and also a Hoya PRO1D UV. The PL has improved a lot my photos. I’m very happy with my outdoor images. I’ve been using the UV Filter as lens protector. Is there any problem if I use the PL over the UV Filter? If not it will avoid changing filters…

        Regards, Eduardo.

        • Eduardo, I would not stack filters on your lenses. First, it degrades image quality and second , introduces vignetting on wider angles.

  6. hi,
    i have 18-105mm lens and 50mm f1.8 lens. i just want to buy one CPL.so,in your opinion which lens should use the polarizer lens? is it 50mm lens since i like to shoot landscapes? can i use CPL to substitute UV filter function?

    is there any devices that can attach the polarizer filter to any size of lens? by getting one,maybe i can save lots of money here. thank you.

    • Izzah, I would get a bigger CPL (like 77mm) with adapters to support your smaller lenses.

  7. oppss…sorry,i think you already answered my second question at the last paragraph.by using step up ring or adaptor ring,rite?please ignore my second question…anyway,can you please explain more about step up ring?

    • Yeah, just get the 77mm polarizer and get step-up rings from your filter size to 77mm.

  8. 17
    ) Adrian

    Hi Nassim,
    Ever since I got ‘hook’ onto photography … your website and comments serve as a very important source of knowledge base on this expensive hobby of mine. Thank you very much for the effort.

    I recently purchase a D7000 and currently own the following lenses, going forward I would like to purchase a B+W circular polarizing filter. Please advise what size filter should I buy?
    (i can only afford one at this moment)

    1) Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 VR
    2) Nikon 10-24mm AF-S Nikkor f/3.5-4.5G DX ED
    3) Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D

    • 18
      ) Samm

      @Adrian, you should buy 77mm filter for 10-24mm
      I think Nasim will advise the same.

  9. 19
    ) Nathan

    Hi Nasim,

    I own a D90 with 18-105 and 35mm Nikkor lens. Reading your blog, I’m thinking of buying CPL for 18-105 mm lens now. I looked through the B+W CPL filters. It costs so expensive ($140) and I’m just a student!!! I found a review on CPL filter and learned that Marumi filter would also be compatible and twice as less expensive ($70) than B+W. Hoya would also another 25$ cheaper than B+W. I wonder that these three brand make much different? Have you heard about that?

    One more question, I already have a NC Nikon filter for both lens. Do I need to switch from CPL filter to NC filter when I take a photo indoor? Would a CPL filter make photo darker indoor?

    Thanks
    Nathan

  10. 20
    ) Roma

    Hello Nasim,

    I own Canon 7D and have a kit lens 18-135 mm. I need to make some modeling shoots for my friend, so i’m getting Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens and it will be used outside. Do you think Hoya lens for the 50mm lens would suit me well? or you have other recommendations? I have a limited budget.

    Best Regards,

    Roma

  11. 21
    ) tatan

    hello nasim,

    i just want to ask if the polarizing filter will be fine if i take photos on people with a landscape background..?

    what will be the effect if i use a polarizing filter to take photo of people?

    how about indoor..? with flush and without flash condition..?

    thanks in advance..

    • Polarizer works fine with people, I have done it quite a bit in the past. You might not want to use it indoors, because it will decrease the amount of light by 1.5-2 stops.

  12. 23
    ) CD

    Hello Nasim,

    I am wondering if you will do a photography tips for ND filters. thanks.

  13. 25
    ) Frank

    Hi Nasim,

    A very nice article, I enjoy it just as your other articles.

    Here I have a question: could yopu tell me what is the proper way to clean a polarizer filter? I have a Kenko CPL filter. Recently I tried to clean it in a way just as cleaning a normal camera lens, but some colorish smear marks of the lens cleaning solution on it. The I used a microfibre cloth and breath to clean the marks but I could not get the marks completely away. I searched the internet and found that this seems to be a common problem and I could not found a “correct answer” on the net. Some people suggested to use a lenspen, but some other people claimed that a lenspen will also leave some smear marks on the CPL filter. And, I have a FilterKlear™ LFK-1 lenspen and in the instruction it is written that “Do not use Lenspen® FilterKlear™ on polarizing filters or on wet surfaces.” Could you tell us how you clean your CPL filters?

    Thanks,
    Frank

  14. 26
    ) Souvik

    Hey Nasim, thanks for the great post. I have two questions, while taking a landscape photograph where do you focus and what metering mode do you use? When it comes to landscape photographs I am always confuse of where I should focus, the farthest from me or some thing close by and what metering mode should I use, center metering?

    Any suggestion would be a great help. Thanks

  15. 27
    ) dina

    Hi -

    Quick question. I am doing my first portrait out of class tomorrow. The man is balding. I thought of using the polarizer outside to cut any glare from his head. However, if I need to use flash, will that cause ill effect? Especially since I know the polarizer will cut down the light in general. Thanks!

  16. 28
    ) Sachin

    Thanks for the info Nasim. Next month when I visit Yosemite I will use B+W filter I have. When is ND filters used. I have ND4 and ND 8

  17. 29
    ) Ryan

    Nasim

    if i have a nikkon 55-300 mm lens what filter would you recommend? also is it good to use on everyday outdoor photography? I am new with photography and pretty soon I will have my own NikkonD5100, and I’m starting to research all the equipment that I would need..

  18. 30
    ) AMITAVA MAITI

    Dear Nasim,

    Iam very new to DSLR world so please let me know if i use 35mm f/1.8 G in nikon d5100 for landscape and outdoor picture what should be the polarize filter size in 35mm as well as 18-55 lens which comes with camera…..

    • 31
      ) Feemy82

      I am in a similar situation.

      Personally, I would use it on the kit lens. I have an 18-105mm and I have ordered a Hoya HD cir-PL filter (it’s the best one that Hoya make).

      It depends what you use your 35mm lens for. I use the 35mm 1.8G mostly for portraits and low light photography where the large aperture of 1.8 comes into a world of its own. Adding a polarising filter for this purpse will have little or no affect. I use the kit lens as my “walk around lens” to shoot landscape, although at 18mm you have to be aware of barrel distortion, so shooting architecture close up is not recommended with this lens.

      From what I understand, the primary purpose of polarising filters is to bring out the contrast in scenic pictures: the blueness of the sky, green grass, and to reduce glare caused my the sun reflecting off shiny surfaces (the sea). Since, I will be using my kit lens for most of these situations I would use the polarising filter with this lens.

      However, there is nothing wrong with using a polarising filter with the 35mm lens. However, on a DX body like the D5100 or D7000, your angle of view is limited with this lens and so is not ideal for landscape photography.

      I would suggest getting a polarising filter for your 18-55mm.

  19. 32
    ) Shounak Abhyankar

    Thanks a lot for this article! I have been learning photography since i bought a Nikon D5000 2 years ago. Have bought multiple lenses although i never understood the big deal about filters. This one really explains in a simple article with pictures to show as proof. Thanks again..!! I have a couple of questions though.. I have 3 lenses – a Nikon 18-55mm, 55-300mm and a Tamron 10-24mm Nikon mount. Is a filter interchangeable between the nikon lenses? Are there specific filters based on different focal lengths?

  20. 33
    ) Pedro

    Thank you for the article, I read it with interest because I am also interested in landscape and polarizers.
    I have a couple of issues though
    1. you say the ‘best case scenario’ is to have the sun right behind you. For all I know, the highest polarization is at 90 degrees from the sun. If the sun is in front of the camera, or behind it, there is no effect at all.
    2. the strong halos around the clouds are not result of the polarizer, but something you did in Photoshop. This might be misleading for someone who does not know what a polarizer does.
    3. you talk about ‘circular polarizers’ and some people will probably think that this just means that they are round. Of course, your article would also apply to a linear polarizer, but this is another discussion…

    • Pedro, please keep in mind that this article is for newbies that do not really understand how polarization works, so I had to keep it simple :)

      1) Yes, the sun behind you still works the best for polarization. I don’t mean to say that the sun should be behind you on the horizon – it just needs to be behind you to get the best effect without half-bright sky. Think 90 degrees from the sun to the sky, which could mean that the sun is almost directly over your head, but still behind you in terms of its position. If the sun is near the horizon, forget about polarization, as you have noted. If the sun is on the left/right sides of the frame, then polarization will be partial, as illustrated in one of the pictures above. If it is in the front, polarization will not be visible either.
      2) Halos behind clouds are only visible in images #2 and #3. You are right, those are from the “Clarity” setting in Lightroom, which was set to around 50 value. I did not state anywhere in the article that a polarizer will create those halos – I only said that it will darken the sky and brighten up/bring up the clouds (which it does).
      3) Yes, again, this is a simple tutorial for beginners. I did not want to put too much info that could confuse people.

      • 35
        ) Pedro

        Nasim,

        You are right about the angle, I was only thinking in terms of horizontal angles (azimuth).
        With the sun right behind you there can still be a 90 degree between the camera axis and the sun direction.
        In that case, there will be no horizontal darkness gradients in the sky, which look quite bad.
        I learned something after all!
        Thanks,
        Pedro

        • Pedro, that’s exactly what I was trying to say :) That’s another reason why it is preferable not to use ultra wide-angle lenses or shoot panoramas with a polarizing filter on. Since they cover so much of the sky, the degree of polarization will vary across the sky. Those images are very hard to fix in post-processing…

  21. 37
    ) Sreejib

    Hi, Nasim
    I am a armature landscape photographer. Is it necessary to use a polarizing filter always in the bright sunlight conditions?

    • It depends on what you are trying to do. During daytime, I often use filters to reduce haze and get rid of reflections.

      • 41
        ) Sreejib

        Thanks Nasim.

  22. 38
    ) Zeeshan

    Dear Nasim, Thanks a bundle for sharing your knowledge with us.
    I went to buy a CPL and all I could find in the market as a brand called Marumi.
    I briefly read some reviews and bought it. I am using it with my prime 35mm f/1.8 as well as with the 18-55mm kit lens but the polarization effect is not much. Maybe I used it at the wrong hour of the day, or maybe Marumi is just not a good enough brand. Can u guide me? Should I consider it a waste and simply buy a B+W or a similar brand online? Please guide me. Thanks in advance.

    • Zeeshan, that’s why you don’t buy crappy filters :) Yes, brand and quality do matter big time, which is why I have been getting B+W filters for many years now.

      • 42
        ) Zeeshan

        Thanks Naseem. You have put my heart to rest :)

  23. 43
    ) Nonnapaula

    My husband has a Nikon D5000 with a DX AF-Nikon 18-105mm lense. I would like to purchase the Polaroid 52mm or 58mm HD multi coated filters (UV, CPL, FLD & warming filters) for him for Christmas are these compatable with this lense? I would be grateful for your advice. Thank you

    • 44
      ) Zeeshan

      As far as I know, for the 18-105mm lens, the filter thread size is 67mm, not 52 or 58mm. If you want to buy a filter for your husband, either buy a 67mm sized filter, or buy slip ring adapters to make the sizes compatible.

  24. 45
    ) EricD

    In your “Bad effect of a circular polarizer” shot, would rotating the polariser even up the sky ?

    It might be worth explaining the difference between linearly polarised and circularly polarised light.
    At first I thought a ‘circular polarizer’ was a round one, or one you could rotate.

    It turns out that linearly polarised light can play havoc with
    - the low-pass filter
    - metering
    - autofocus
    because they involve beamsplitters that may be sensitive to polarisation.

    Also explaining how a CPL works can help people understand why they don’t work back-to-front,
    which sometmes happens in production !
    http://www.lenstip.com/115.9-article-Polarizing_filters_test_B+W_EW_KSM_C-POL_MRC_72_mm.html

    … and then you could get into crossed-polariser ‘variable ND’ (Neutral Density) Faders.

  25. 46
    ) Steve

    Hi, This may seem a really silly question but here goes!
    When you say, “Thus, you could turn a sky from light blue to very dark blue or increase/decrease reflections by simply rotating the filter”, are you talking about a screw-in filter that you physically rotate.

    This means then that you simply tighten/loosen the round circular screw-in polarising filter?

    • 49
      ) Val

      Hey Steve,

      I can answer that one. No, the CPL filter is unlike other standard filters that are one piece. A CPL is a filter that is actually two filters. The bottom part of the filter screws on snugly to your lens, then the top part of the filter can rotate right or left as much as needed. Probably didn’t explain that very well, but if you look at pictures of one compared to a simple haze filter, for example, you’ll see the difference.

      • 50
        ) Steve

        Hi Val,
        Thank you for clearing this up, I understand now.
        I didn’t realise it comprised of 2 x parts !

  26. 47
    ) Bob

    Rotating a filter with my lens shade on is akward and its not long before fingerprints are all over the filter.
    Do you know of any shades that will allow you to rotate the filter by moving the shade and not touching the filter?

    I did not see a reply to the question about cleaning the filter. Can you please post it?

  27. 48
    ) Val

    Hi Nasim,

    I love CPLs and have one for another older Olympus camera, so would love one for my newest – an Olympus Pen E-PL1 Micro Four Thirds. I bought a step-down adaptor ring so I could use my existing 52mm Hoya filter on the 40.5 threads, however, when I try to rotate the filter, it causes resistance on the lens motor and I continuously get a “check the lens status” message. I don’t want to hurt the camera, so I’m thinking I need another type of CPL that does not have as much resistance. Are you aware of any that are extremely smooth to rotate? Or should I not worry about the messages my camera is sending me?

    Thanks,
    Val

  28. 51
    ) Benjamin Chapman Fennemore

    What filter do you use for the beach?

  29. 52
    ) rizza

    i bought a tiffen 58mm polarizng circular lens to my d5000 but it wont attached to the lens of my cam both 18-55mm & 55-200mm lenses:-(

  30. 53
    ) Glemel

    Hello Nasim. I read a lot from your articles and they are very informative .I am using a canon 10-22mm ultrawide angle lens and have read that using a polarizer will get weird effects on any ultra-wide angle lens due to unevenness of the sky. I am new to landscape photography and love it since then . Iam for sure will need a polarizer in my bag to cut out those reflections . By the way, can you please enlighten my understanding if the slim type of circular polarizer like for example the B + W 77mm Circular Polarizer Slim MRC Filter will do a good job about the issue I raised considering its weird/bad effects on UWA lens shots. thanks a lot..

  31. 54
    ) raz

    Hi,
    i have the below lenses

    10-20 mm sigma
    18-135 mm canon
    70-300 mm canon
    50 mm canon

    which lens would be the best if used with CP polorizer ?

    i am using a cropped censor camera
    Kindly advise at the earliest

    i read many places that polorizer can be bad with ultra wide angle lens but i have a corpped body..so will that help ?

  32. 55
    ) Lynn

    Hi Nasim,

    I’ve just bought a Canon 700D with a 18-135mm lens. I’ve also got a UV filter as well as a digital circular polarizer filter. Should I use these together? If so, which one should go on first? Are there any particular conditions which warrant using just one or the other? I understood I should always use the UV? Does the polarizing filter do the same thing and more as the UV filter?

    thanks
    Lynn

  33. 57
    ) Regina

    Hi Nasim

    I have a Nikon D90 with kit lens 18-105mm. I really like shooting macro and would love to hear your recommendations for a macro lens within a reason budget. Or, should I purchase an all purpose lens; If so, what would you recommend?

  34. 58
    ) Wahyu

    Hi, Nasim
    I have D3200 with Kit lens (18-55mm). I am willing to equip it with CPL.
    But, the question that stuck me is “How can I properly function the CPL if the lens autofocus mechanism rotates the barrel?.” On the other hand, adjusting the CPL for the wanted result is rotating the filter.
    I found it hard in mind to use a CPL on lenses with rotating barrel on each one of them.
    Thank you.

    • Wahyu, that’s certainly the limitation of your lens. Most modern lenses do not have the rotating front element, so use of a filter is easier. In your case, you would have to acquire autofocus, then rotate the filter. Or use manual focus.

  35. 59
    ) Clint

    “The best case scenario is to use a circular polarizer with the sun directly behind you . . .”

    Incorrect.

    With the sun directly behind you, you are at an 180 degree angle to the sun, in which case you get zero polarization. You also get zero polarization with the sun directly in front of you, which is at a zero angle to the sun.

    The only angle to obtain polarization is between zero degrees and 90 degrees to the sun. 90 degrees gives the optimal polarization.

    This is all simple physics.

    • Clint, this is a really old article that was missing some information. What I meant by the “sun directly behind you”, is the position of the sun relative to the sky. If the sun is in front of you, there will be no effect on the sky. But you are right, the sentence still wrongly described the use of a polarizer, so I went ahead and updated the paragraph.

      For the more detailed information on filters, please see my article on Lens Filters instead.

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