So you’ve hiked all the way out to that remote mountain stream. Fresh air seems to fill your lungs effortlessly, the surrounding forest is alive with bird songs, and that trail mix somehow tastes a little more satisfying… everything is perfect. Now to take a few photos that will memorialize this incredible day. Yet every time you try to capture a shot of those pristine cascades, your camera’s live-view turns out a glare-ridden mess. That’s no way to remember this extraordinary place! Luckily, there’s no reason to let glare win the day; you can take control of that pesky stray light. We have the technology… and it’s called the “circular polarizer”. So stick around and let Trails of Freedom teach you a thing or two about using this handy filter to give your trail-side photos that extra punch!
The solution to this photographic problem is the “circular polarizer”, a filter which screws onto the threads at the end of your camera lens. An entire article could potentially be dedicated to explaining how these handy filters work, but it will suffice to say that the dark, polarizing film within the filter works to block stray light waves that are responsible for producing glare. There’s no question that you’ll begin to notice some impressive changes in the way your camera perceives light once you begin making use of a circular polarizer out on the trails.
Many photographs that include water -rivers and brooks, lakes and oceans- are amongst the best candidates for being greatly improved by the use of a polarizing filter. The transformation that can be realized simply by shooting with this filter on your lens is impressive, to say the least. Take, for example, the photograph below. This is the exact same scene from the Mianus River that you saw above, but I took this photograph only a moment later using a polarizing filter to remove annoying glare from the scene.
Glare also has a tendency to reduce color saturation. If you take a look at the two shots of the Mianus River again (I’ve stacked them below for a closer comparison), you’ll see that the colors in the polarized photograph are deeper and more attractive, whereas the colors in un-polarized photograph are very washed out and grayish. Of course, those of you that are familiar with post-processing software know that I could always boost the color saturation of the un-polarized photograph in an attempt to compensate for its muted colors. However, because the un-polarized shot lacks the true-to-life color information contained in the polarized photograph, it simply won’t look right. There’s really no substitute for capturing the shot properly in the field… no matter how advanced our post-processing tools have become.
The When and the How of Polarizing Filters
Now that I’ve demonstrated a couple uses of the circular polarizing filter, it’s important to discuss the most appropriate times to make use of them. While the polarizer may be a great tool, there are certain instances in which you’re probably better off leaving it in your camera bag.
All polarizing filters employ the use of a rather dark film. While this film makes the magic happen in situations where glare needs to be scaled back, it’s also going to slow down your shutter speeds by allowing a smaller volume of light to enter the lens. This rarely poses a problem in bright situations, but can become a factor as the total light in a scene begins to decrease during overcast conditions, for example. Depending upon the speed of your lens, it may be best to avoid using a circular polarizer when attempting to stop motion in action shots.
One very popular use of the polarizer involves the deepening of sky colors. By reducing glare and stray light rays reflected from the atmosphere, it can turn what would’ve been a pale, washed-out, blue sky into a thickly-saturated “blue yonder”. However, care should be taken if you’re using a polarizer with a wide-angle lens, since the sky is most affected by polarization at a 90 degree angle to the Sun. Because the field-of-view afforded by a wide angle lens may be enormous, you could end up with blotchy, unnatural-looking skies in your photographs. Take, for instance, the photograph below, which was shot from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park.
Notice that the sky is especially dark only towards the middle of the frame, and strangely brightens up towards the edges. This phenomenon can occur very easily, as wide-angle lenses will oftentimes capture large areas of the sky that are affected differently by the polarizing filter depending on their angle in relation to the Sun.
Most hikers wouldn’t call this shot of Cadillac Mountain a “throw-away”, but it does suffer from an imperfection that could’ve been avoided in the field. When you’re out on the trails and you encounter that once-in-a-lifetime sunset or incredible vista, Trails of Freedom wants you to be able to bring back the best shot!
While most hikers enjoy taking photographs of the places they visit, we are all invested in photography at different levels. Some of us are quite happy taking a snapshot or two… others make it a point to haul a dozen pounds of camera gear along for the ride.
Likewise, polarizing filters are available in a range of prices that cater to an individual’s interest and budget. Basic units can be had for as little as $20 or $30, while professional models can cost hundreds. Don’t feel as if it’s imperative to break the bank on your first polarizer, though. Affordable models, while not nearly as refined as their more expensive counterparts, nonetheless function in the same way. There will always be time further down the road to invest in equipment of higher quality if you feel that a circular polarizer is something you’ll use often.
First and foremost, enjoy the trails! There have been times when I’ve found myself in the middle of beautiful landscapes with all of my equipment ready… except for a dead battery and an absent spare (that I left sitting on my passenger seat at the trailhead!). These times can be frustrating, for sure. Whenever this happens, I simply remind myself to take precautions against it next time, and try to remember why I’m there in the first place… because I love putting miles beneath my feet amongst nature’s awesome splendor.