Circular Polarizer Where?!!
March 22nd, 2014
Many of you are familiar with the traditional uses of a circular polarizer. They help in keeping blue skies blue, improving color saturation, and reduce glare in bright conditions. They are like a good pair of sunglasses for your lens.
In the perfect world for photographers, it would always be “golden hour”. The light would be soft and directional, making even mundane things appear rich and interesting. But in the real world golden hour only comes (at best) twice a day, and often not at all. Experienced photographers learn to use things like circular polarizers and ND (neutral density) filters to help control the light in less than ideal conditions. These filters are particularly helpful when the light is more harsh and glaring. I personally like to have a circular polarizer available for all my lenses.
But this little article isn’t about using a circular polarizer in a conventional way.
It’s about why I screw on a circular polarizer in a very dark place like interior spaces at zoos and, most recently, at an aquarium. What?!!
Over the March break (2104) my family and I visited the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area of Tennessee for the first time. One of the places we visited while there was the “Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies” in Gatlinburg. Let me add as an aside that this aquarium was really quite excellent and was enjoyed by every member of our family.
An aquarium is a dark place. The ambient light is very, very low to allow greater contrast on the lighting in the tanks, which typically isn’t that bright, either.
So dark environment and low light = polarizer?
If you are confused at this point, it is definitely understandable. The standard circular polarizer typically reduces the light that hits the sensor by about two stops, which can mean a drastic change in ISO settings to compensate. I should add that the technique that I am about to discuss works much better with a full frame camera that handles low light more efficiently. My Canon EOS 6D is one of the absolute champs in this regard, so it is a great companion to this technique, even when using a relatively “slow” variable aperture lens like my EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens. The good news is that high ISO performance is improving on most camera systems right now, so this technique will serve more people as time passes.
In these type of environments there is a secondary reason (beyond the low light) that explains why most people’s pictures don’t turn out very good – reflections. Glass and acrylic surfaces are notorious for reflecting ambient light and causing photos to look either completely unnatural or very washed out. Worse, many people will use a flash because A) their camera automatically flashes and they don’t know how to turn it off or B) because they feel like they need more light. Our eyes are amazing tools, able to naturally filter out these distracting reflections, balance the lighting, and focus on what really matters, but cameras are far less sophisticated. Countless people have come home from such places with amazing memories but lousy pictures.
A good circular polarizer is a huge ally in this type of scenario, because, when used properly, it will eliminate the vast majority of distracting reflections and allow you to take pictures that will seem as if you “inside” the tank or the enclosure. The key to making this work is visual…and simple – you just rotate the polarizer until you see the reflections disappear.
As photographers, we are often fixated in low light situations on maximizing the amount of light that reaches the sensor. But consider this little tip the next time you are in this kind of environment. It may seem counter-intuitive, but screw on that circular polarizer and watch the quality of your captures improve. P.S. I use Hoya filters almost exclusively. I find they provide the best balance between price and performance. Be sure to get one that is multicoated (MC) to reduce glare and reflections.
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