Using a Polarizing Filter with Nikon 1 Cameras

One of the biggest knocks against the Nikon 1 series of cameras has been, and continues to be, the small sized CX sensor. While this sensor has some distinct advantages when shooting birds and wildlife with the FT-1 adapter and the resulting 2.7x crop factor, it is challenged with landscape photography where dynamic range and color depth are important factors.

Nikon 1 V2 with Polarizing Filter

The Aptina CX sensor used in the Nikon 1 series does not score that well in DxOMark testing. For example, the CX sensor in the Nikon 1 V2 DxOMark scores are 20.2 for color depth (22 is considered excellent) and 10.8 for dynamic range (12 is considered excellent).

To get the best performance from a Nikon 1 camera when shooting landscape images, owners should consider using a polarizing filter. A polarizing filter changes the balance of light in a photograph and can help increase color saturation, reduce reflections, and improve shadow details.

To prepare for a landscape photography presentation that I’m doing at a local art gallery, I took some sample images to help demonstrate the potential impact of a polarizing filter. I have a Nikon 77mm polarizing filter with some step-up rings which enables me to use it on a variety of lenses. I tried to find a scene with a lot of sky, water, and shadows as this combination of features can present significant challenges for a Nikon 1 camera and its small CX sensor.

My camera settings were as follows:
White balance: Direct Sunlight
Metering: Matrix
ISO: 160
Picture control: Landscape
AF-area mode: Auto-area
Focus mode: AF-S single
Active D-Lighting: On
Exposure Compensation: 0

This first image is a straight out-of-camera JPEG, and was shot without the use of a polarizing filter. You’ll notice how flat the colors look, the lack of definition in the sky, and the lack of detail in the bark of the tree.

Without a polarizing filter

The next image is a straight out-of-camera jpeg of the same scene, but this time it was shot with a polarizing filter. The only difference in exposure is that the shutter speed dropped from 1/250th with the first image to 1/160th with this image (using a polarizing filter blocks some light).

With a Polarizing Filter

You can see that the colors in this second image are much more saturated. It was a very windy day with aggressive wave action and the water was full of silt. This polarized image does a much better job capturing the real color of the silt-filled water along the shoreline. You’ll also notice the increased details in the bark areas of the tree, especially in shadow areas. Even if you only shoot JPEGs you can clearly see the difference that using a polarizing filter can make to your landscape images in terms of overall color balance and better definition.

Post-processed Image

The next image was processed using the RAW file of the second image where the polarizing filter was used. To get the most out of RAW images with a Nikon 1 I’ve found that I typically have to be much more aggressive with CS6 adjustments. With this image I did the following: Contrast +18, Highlights -100, Shadows +44, and Black -10. In addition some small adjustments were also made using Color Efex Pro in terms of a touch more polarization and adding a bit of pro contrast. A few slight adjustments were also made with Viveza 2 in terms of brightness, contrast, structure, and shadows.

When comparing these last two images I think most people would agree that it is possible to get very good landscape images using a Nikon 1. To compensate for the inherent shortcomings of the small CX sensor the key is to use a polarizing filter to capture the best digital information possible, then to process that data using the RAW file.

Check out the below video about using a polarizing filter to shoot landscape images with the Nikon 1 series cameras:

A circular polarizing filter is very easy to use. You simply turn it either clockwise or counterclockwise and look on your rear LCD screen to see the effect that it is having on your image. Time of day, angle of the sun to the horizon and the angle of the sun to the front of your lens can all impact the degree of polarizing effect the filter will create. At times you will find no effect at all…like when the sun is directly behind you. Generally speaking, the most dramatic effects are had when the sun is at a 90-degree angle to the surface of your camera lens. You also need to be careful when using wide angle lenses, since the sky can appear unevenly colored and heavy vignetting can occur in the corners of the frame, which can be very difficult to correct in post.

If you’d like a fuller explanation on the proper technique to use a polarizing filter, Nasim wrote a a detailed guide on using a polarizing filter.

Article and all images Copyright 2014, Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, reproduction or duplication including electronic is allowed without written consent.