A circular polarizer is a photography tool that I’ve put off buying FOR YEARS. Polarizers aren’t as exciting as, say, a new lens. But when I signed up for a photo tour with Oregon Coast Photo Tours and read that a circular polarizer would help capture the fascinating creatures in tidal pools, you can bet I purchased right away.

And y’all, it was only $30. I don’t for the life of me understand why I put off this purchase for so long.

Polarizers cut down on reflections in your photos. Reflections like the ones you find in water, on glass, on plants with shiny reflective leaves, etc. But those obvious places aren’t the only areas where reflections appear in your photos. Who knew that light reflects off moisture in the air? When that happens, the light scatters. scattered light makes colors less intense everywhere in your photos – especially the sky. You’ll also see scattered light as haze in front of mountains or other landscape shots.

Do you have polarized sunglasses? If so, you’ll have an idea about how a polarizing filter works.

This filter blocks the scattered light reflecting off whatever you are photographing from entering your lens. It only allows light traveling in one direction to enter.

Circular polarizers are adjustable – you can spin them around to select the right amount of polarization for your photo. And here’s where the rub comes in – it’s not always easy to choose the right amount, especially if you are in the bright sun.

One other thing to know about polarizers is that they darken exposure. You’ll need a larger aperture, a longer shutter speed, or a higher ISO than you normally would when shooting without this filter. So, keep on reading for more details about how to use a circular polarizer.

PS. I really enjoyed the photo tour and will write more about it later. Click here to check out Jaymi’s site and download a free guide to tidal pools photography. You will learn tons!

The article below contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of the links, I’ll receive a small payment at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting this blog so that I can continue to provide free tutorials for you!

How to Use a Circular Polarizer

Look at this series of images. The first is without a filter. For the middle photo, I put the filter on without twisting it to adjust. And for the third photo, I twisted the filter on my lens for maximum removal of reflections.

how to use a circular polarizer - with and without filters

The most important thing to know about a circular polarizer is that it gets stronger or weaker depending on how it’s sitting on your lens. You twist it around to adjust it. And you can’t look at it to tell which part is stronger – not easily, anyway. It looks consistently dark all around to my eyes. But when you put it on your lens and twist while looking at something with reflections, you’ll notice a difference.

Before you even put the polarizer on your lens, get a feel for how it rotates. The bottom part is where you screw it on to the lens. The top part is a separate ring that holds the filter – this ring is the one you spin to dial in the amount of polarization you’d like.

Next, stick the filter on your lens, point your camera at something that has a reflection or glare (windows, shiny dishware, glossy painted walls, etc.), and slowly spin the filter around while watching the strength of the reflection. You will notice a difference if you look carefully.

What You Need to Know About Using Circular Polarizers

  1. A polarizer might not eliminate all reflections.
  2. Polarizers don’t block reflections from metal surfaces.
  3. You’ll need to brighten exposure. My filter requires me to shoot at 1 to 1 1/3 stops brighter than I would without the filter. This amount can be as high as 2 or 3 stops, depending on the filter.
  4. Purchase the polarizer that fits the diameter of your lens. You’ll find this number on the edge of the lens, or written up in the technical specs for your lens. For the lens in the photo below, I would need a 72mm filter. how to use a circular polarizer - filter size
  5. Your lens cap will fit on the filter so that you don’t have to take it off and put it back on repeatedly.

Benefits of Using a Circular Polarizer

  • Polarizers reduce reflections on surfaces like water, painted walls, windows, dishware, etc.
  • Polarizers reduce atmospheric haze in landscape photos.
  • Polarizers increase contrast & saturation by eliminating scattered rays of light.
  • Polarizers help pop clouds in the sky by adding contrast.
  • Polarizers work well when shooting in front of painted surfaces like murals or painted buildings.
  • Polarizers saturate foliage and trees by reducing reflections that can shine off of leaves.
  • Polarizers can help you manipulate reflections so that they appear where you want them to in your image.

how to use a circular polarizer - control reflections

Price Differences in Circular Polarizers

You can buy circular polarizers for anywhere from $10 to $160, based on what I found on Amazon. I bought one on the lower end of the price range, given that I don’t use my camera for tidal pools or landscapes frequently.

Factors that influence the price of your polarizing filter are:

  • The lens diameter.
  • The type, thickness, and coating on the glass.
  • Vignetting – some polarizing filters darken the edges of your photo more than others.
  • Some of the more expensive polarizers darken your photo less. In other words, your exposure settings won’t change as much when shooting with and without filters. That goes back to the type of glass and the coating on it that I mentioned above.

The filter that I bought, which I am perfectly happy with, is this Tiffen model:

Circular Polarizers – The Gotchyas

Here are a few things you need to be aware of when you shoot with a circular polarizer:

  • The darker part of the polarizer can darken your sky unevenly, or other parts of the photo too. Look at the upper right corner of the photo below – you can see that the sky is darker. I fixed it in Lightroom, using this graduated filter technique. (I simply brightened the sky with the exposure slider rather than darkening it and adding blue.)
  • If there is a rainbow in your scene, be careful. Polarizers can enhance it – or remove it.
  • Polarizers aren’t great in low-light situations since they darken your photo.
  • A linear polarizer isn’t the same as a circular one. Circular polarizers are better for digital photography. Digital cameras have mirrors in them (many of them do, anyway) that can interfere with the effects of a linear polarizer.

Even if you buy a circular polarizer for vacations only, you won’t regret it. Your scenery photos will look cleaner and more like you remember them. Just make sure to take a few photos before you leave to make sure you know how to use them. And post any questions that you have below!

Circular polarizers are great - and inexpensive - photography tools. They help you control reflections in your photos - make them work as compositional tools rather than distractions. Plus the can remove haze from your landscapes. {Who knew that haze was caused by reflecting light?!}