Gear Guide: Polarizing Filter

Circular Polarizer (CPL):

A circular polarizer (CPL) is one of the best tools you can keep in your equipment bag. Your photos will be so much more saturated with color and detail from the scene – all because of this small, easy to use device. It’s something that can’t be photoshopped or enhanced later once the photo has been taken.


In essence, a circular polarizer is like sunglasses for your camera. It reduces harsh glare, makes colors stronger, and provides only good light. It’s one of the only filters that creates an effect that can’t be replicated digitally.

In the photos below, the left hand side is not using a circular polarizer and the right hand side shows images using the polarizer. As you can see,  both sides are colorful, but the non-polarized left image is flat in comparison with the true colors of the right hand side – which is more likely what our eye sees. The mid-blues turn to ceruleans. The sand turns a deeper yellow. You’re able to see so much more of the reef structure and detail on the island. In the second photo, the clouds at the top of the image has more detail, the ridges have more contrast and distinction, and the trees and sand are more detailed in the photo – the last part can’t be replicated by any photo editing program. 

Common Brands:

Hoya’s Pro 1 Digital MC Glass Circular Polarizer is one of the best value CPLs on the market. The other CPLs on the market that are “High Transmission” filters, usually don’t have enough punch, when it comes to the polarizing effect. What I like about the Hoya is that it is made in Japan, the quality of the glass is superb – including the coatings, and the threadings that attach the camera aren’t likely to get locked up on the front of the lens. 

I also recommend the 77mm Marumi EXUS Circular Polarizing Filter. I use this on my Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens).

For your own specific equipment, you’ll want to find the thread size on the front of your lens to choose the correct size of circular polarizer. I’ve listed the most common filter sizes below and a link to the Hoya Pro Filter. 

How to Use:

A CPL is pretty easy to use once you get the hang of it. All you’ll do is attach it to the end of your lens and then twist the front by using your fingers on the outer edges. This will rotate the front ring and turn the glass. A 90 degree turn is usually sufficient to see the difference, then you’ll go back and forth till you see exactly the right spot in which the image is the most contrasted and saturated. A good note to make is that if you see the colors getting darker, then you know you’re on the right track.

The physics part: a circular polarizer works by using a chemically composed structure to allow light that is only going in a single directional plane to pass-through. Any light that is not passing on the single axis plane will be blocked. A second filter, the quarter wave plate, on the back of the CPL turns the light back to circularly polarized light, which allows camera sensors to accurately meter and focus the light. A more specific article about the science of a polarizer can be found here.

Very Important Piece of Gear:

A polarizer stays on the front of my lens 90% of the time and I rarely take it off. That 10% when the filter is off is usually only for the few circumstances when I’m in front of something already coated with a polarizer (a car or airplane window, or an underwater camera housing), thus creating no need for one. I think it’s one of the best pieces of equipment I own. You’ll likely find it as useful due to how much it will improve your photos. A circular polarizer is a game changer for your photography.

Final Pieces of Advice:

The best times to use a polarizing filter are for sunny outdoor photos to darken the sky, or when there is any type of water involved (lake photos, river photos, ocean photos), and even when working with portraits. That being said, you have to be careful not to overdo the polarization, you could end up with one end of the sky polarized and the other end not. At night time, you’ll want to take off the polarizer or make sure to use a faster lens, as the amount of light that hits the sensor is reduced. Otherwise, the polarizer will help bring all your colors and detail out of your photos and you’ll be happy with keeping one in your gear bag all the time.

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