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How to Use Polarizing Filters

I have mentioned before that the polarizing filter is one of the most versatile and widely used filters in nature photography. So, in this installment of tips, I will elaborate on its use.

First off, there are two main types of polarizing filters: Linear, and circular. Both filters result in the same effect, however, it is necessary to use a circular polarizer with an autofocus camera in order to maintain its autofocus capabilities.

The major function of a polarizer is to reduce glare or unwanted reflections from objects and increase the apparent color saturation of objects in your photographs. A favorite use of the polarizer among many outdoor photographers is to "darken" the sky - apparently increasing the contrast and saturation of it. The effect, under the right conditions, is stunning. A polarizer is to light what a comb is to your hair --- seemingly "straightening" it. Actually, what the polarizer is doing, is allowing light to pass through in a certain plane, but blocking the "stray" light in a perpendicular plane. Most polarizers are designed to rotate on your lens, so that you can adjust the polarizing plane (and the effect of the filter) by merely turning it.

Major Hint: Since the effect of a polarizer is most pronounced when it is used perpendicular to the light source (the sun usually), try this trick. Make an "L" with your thumb and forefinger. Point your forefinger at the sun and your thumb will point in the direction that the polarizer will have its greatest effect. You can rotate your thumb around the axis of your forefinger: pointing the lens in any of these directions will let you take full advantage of the polarizers capabilities. Polarizers have little or no effect when they are used in the same direction as the light source.

One word of caution with polarizers is that most require an exposure compensation of two stops. This means that either your shutter speed will have to be two stops slower (not good if you are photographing animals), or your aperature will have to be two stops bigger (not good if you need great depth of field). Be aware of this compromise when using the polarizer and use it accordingly.

Specialty Polarizers: A few filter manufacturers are making colored polarizers. They work under the same principal as neutral polarizers except that they modify a color and its opposite, such as yellow and blue. The effect is obvious in the finished photo, and can either be stunningly creative or incredibly awful.... but it can be fun to play!

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