Jun 292012

How to Shoot All Day

Between the hours of 11am

and 4pm, the daylight is too

harsh for good images.  The

sun washes out color, produces

patchy shadows and will wreck

havoc on your histogram.  But

a little landscape secret will keep

you shooting all day long.


Polarizing Filters are not just for landscape photographers anymore.

Sunlight: A blessing and a curse

A photographer who works outside of a studio is dependent on the sky.  The sun provides light, the clouds are floating scrims, and the moon lets us explore the silence of night time photography.  The sun is a powerful tool for any street or travel photographer.  The problem is that the universe forgot to give us a lighting dimmer.  We can use the sun, but we cannot control it.

Last evening I was watching a film called “The Talented Mr. Ripley” which features a host of famous characters (Matt Damon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow)  Aside from the well stocked cast, the film is shot all over Italy.  Starting in the fictional town of Mangiabella south of Naples, the story heads north through Rome and ends in Venice.  I have a tendency to pay too much attention to lighting in movies.  My girlfriend endures the typical observations, but on this one even she noticed something was off.

Our hidden beach bar in Sardegna.

While we were travelling to Sardegna last week, we stopped through Rome.  Typical flights from New York City, leave in the evening and arrive the following morning.  Our flight was delayed for a mechanical reason, so we did not arrive until lunchtime.  The light was absolutely blazing.  The Roman daylight is harsh.  The sun is strong, it reflects off of the stone surfaces and makes for ugly daytime pictures.  All of the scenes in the films were beautifully lit, by the sun, with soft colors.  There were no glaring highlights and even my girlfriend agreed, Rome only looks like this in the early morning.  As a result, my camera never left the bag.

Sant'Agnese in Rome. The light was nicer inside the church then outside in the piazza.

Two ways to side step bad lighting conditions

①  Alarm Clock

The first technique for surviving the midday sun is to take photographs the same way they shoot movies, EARLY MORNING.  Movie producers know that on film, morning light looks like day light.  Almost all of the scenes for the “Talented Mr. Ripley,” shot in Rome, were supposed to take place in the late morning to midday.  The bohemian characters were always half in the bag from the night before and would not be caught dead at 7:00am breakfast.  The movie never tells the audience that the scene you are actually watching was filmed at 6:00am.  The director presents the scene as if it were day time.  But its obvious to any photographer that the “daylight” in the film is actually beautifully subdued morning or early evening light.

There is a reason that professional photographers all agree on one piece of advice:

SHOOT EARLY, there are many advantages:

  • The light is more forgiving.
  • There will be detail in the shadows and no blown out highlights.
  • The tonal or dynamic range of an image will be at its best.
  • The streets will be less crowded so you stand a better chance of isolating a subject.
  • If you want an iconic shot of a landmark without crowds or flat light, go early.
  • Tourists are a lazy breed.  They hoards of fanny-packed tour groups all need to eat at the hotel, so they don’t come out until 10:00am.

This is what typical ads for polarizing filter look like and is probably why no one uses a polarizer on the street. They are poorly marketed.

②  Polarizing Filter

Do you need to wake up at 5:00am everyday of your trip?  No.  It is not recommended if you are traveling with a partner who is not a photographer.  Life abroad needs to be manageable.  There is a simple way to greatly improve your day time images.  Use a polarizing filter.

Most people think of a polarizing filter as a landscape photographers tool for making blue skies or eliminating the glare on water.  If you have not tried to see into water with a polarizer give it a shot.  It removes the reflection on the surface and will let you see right into the blue depths.

This image was taken with the polarizing filter, which makes a HUGE difference in the useable range of values.

A polarizing filter is second nature to a landscape photographer, but I do not see many street photographers using one.  It is an indispensable tool for people photography.  I find one of primary reasons why people are not beating down the doors of B+H Photo is because the stock examples for polarizers are terrible.  Photographers who started in the digital era don’t know that a polarizing filter is a must.  The promo photos show is how a polarizer will darken a sky.  It leaves out an entire demographic of photographers.

And while we are talking about filters, take those ridiculous UV filters off of your cameras.  Lenses cannot contract sexually transmitted diseases, so take the “lens condoms” off.  The only time I is use a UV filter is at the ocean or in very dusty conditions.  Sea spray and fine dust is a pain in the neck to clean off of a lens.  But even in unpaved Indian cities I do not use a UV filter.  I know some people use them instead of a lens cap, but I have never had any trouble with a lens cap.  When I leave the house I take off the cap and put it in my pocket.  When I stop for lunch, I put the cap back on.  Its pretty basic.  If you have to use a filter, use one that will help the photo.

This is the image without a polarizing filter.

Why use a Polarizer

A polarizing filter eliminates reflections on the surface of any object, whether its water, a car or skin.  I took these two pictures (there is no post production on them) with a polarizer and one without.  The exposures are identical in terms of lighting.  The effect of the polarizing filter is dramatic.  It removes all of the harsh light reflecting off of my friends skin and allows for the shadow side of his body to gain some exposure.  We were out for a midday hike in Sedona (Arizona).  I knew the light was going to be very harsh.  Without the polarizer, there would not have been a shot.  But with the filter, I now have a usable image.

Post Production Won’t Work

When people ask me, “Cant I just use software to fix the image?”  I shake my head and tell them that you might be able to, but chances are it will never look right and it will take hours of masking, dodging, burning and a slew of other boring post production techniques.  I am not a purist, but I prefer shooting to editing.  Time at the computer is a tedious waste, especially if the image could have been better out of the camera.  I am not saying that software is bad, I use it all the time.  But get the picture as “right” as you can out of the camera.

Shoot More, Edit Less

By adding a polarizing filter to your daily practice you will greatly improve the tonal range of you image.  Unfortunately it will not make your images any better, but it will give you a better exposure in many cases.  It will allow you to shoot most of the day without a pile of throw away images.  And if you decide to take a picture in shadow, just turn the filter a quarter turn to disengage 90% of its effect.  This simple addition will make life and post production infinitely easier.  While I don’t require it for participants at my workshops, it is highly recommended.

Hope you guys enjoy your new filters!

—Adam Marelli 


  40 Responses to “Polarizing Filters: A Must”

  1. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading this article. It was extremely informative. I am a new student photographer who had the misfortune (I think) of starting with digital and is now going back to the basics with film and can’t wait to add a polarizing filter to my arsenal. EXCELLENT ARTICLE!!

    • Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for commenting, I imagine a lot of people feel the same way. Learning photography on a film camera is still helpful. Even if it is only a temporary learning tool, it allows someone to understand the limitations of photography while providing a set of useful tools as solutions.
      Happy you enjoyed the article.

  2. What a well written piece. I am too guilty of forgetting to use my CPLs so a good reminder

  3. My lenses are almost always polarized. When the sun starts to go down I pop on the lens cap shielding one side, screw the filter off and wrap it in a lens cloth that I carry anyways, to protect it. That’s traveling about as light as it can get though if I am roughing it I will bring the filter case along for added protection. Good article–


    • Hey Kristen,

      Glad to know you are using one. The B+W filters come with a nice little plastic case. They are light weight and have a foam lining. I find they travel well.

      In the past I have wrapped things in cloth, went to pick it up and the filter dropped out. Oops. The cases are more “dummy proof.” I must need it. : )


  4. Hi Adam, do you have a technique for using the polarizing filters with rangefinders? I use them on my SLRs but not on my rangefinders as I can’t tell which way to rotate the polarizer to cut out the reflections.

    • Hey Terence,

      maybe I should do a post on the technique. But the short version is that the polarizer usually works best in two directions. For discussion sake lets say on a given day, it works while looking north or south, not east or west.

      Most filters come with lettering on the outer rim, so I look through the filter before its on the camera and register where the writing falls. On this particular filter it says “F-Stop” and the F was at 12 o’clock. So when I put the filter on I line up the F at 12 o’clock and I am good to go. You just need to remember to spin it to 12 o’clock if you use the camera in portrait.

      In the post, the reason I took the first shot was because I had forgotten to spin it back to horizontal from a vertical picture. Then I spun it back and got the second shot.

      Try that and see how you do.


  5. linear or circular? leica’s version is a linear polarizer

    • Hey Jay,
      I use a circular polarizer because of the internal meter.
      Leica’s filter is absurdly expensive. B+W will do just fine.

  6. what a usefull article… you take all my credit because this article has opened my mind.
    thanks a lot Mr. Adam

  7. Hi Adam
    Thanks for a great article. I have been using a circular polarizer but notice that it seems quite severely attenuate the light. It seems almost like two stops. Is that common or did I just get a cheap one? Any recommendations? Thanks again.
    Best regards.

  8. Hi Adam,
    Many thanks. I have a Tristar (58mm) and a Hoya (67mm) – both circular. The Tristar is the worse one. On the B+W polarizers I see the Multi Resistant Coatings – would those be the ones to get?
    Best regards

  9. Yup Rao,

    The MRCs are the ones to get. They serve me well.

    It’s worth the extra dollars for a good filter. : )

    Best Adam

  10. Hi Adam,

    I bought a polarizing filter for myself the other day and the results so far are AMAZING. I can’t believe the vivid colours I get with this little guy.

    Thanks for posting this!


    • Hey Ramiro,

      The polarizing filter can have some dramatic effects on your images, right?

      Very happy it is working well for you.


  11. Perfect.. I use a Singh-Ray Vari N Duo between the hours of 10am – 5pm when the sunlight is harsh. I made a mistake of buying thick mount instead i should have bought a thin mount polarizer. Also Vari N Duo is comes with a warming polarizer which is not needed here in India. Very soon i plan to buy thin mount Neutral Polarizer http://singh-ray.com/polarizers.html

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  13. Wow I am so happy that I discovered your blog! This is a great information. Thank you!

  14. Hi,
    Thanks for the great article. I am big fan of your blog post. I just want to ask more about using polarizing filter since i never used them before. First, do i have to exposure compensate if i want to use the polarizing filter? like -1 or -2? Also, i just got the B+W polarizing filter and i could notice that if the filter knob(in front) is turned, it goes black which i am guessing it gives the full effect, but what about when it is clear? Do i get the same effect but minimum intansity? or does it act like UV filter?


    • Hi Sean,

      Glad that you are finding the article and the site useful.

      If you camera has TTL metering (through-the-lens) you do not need to exposure compensate. The meter will change as you turn the filter. When it is fully engaged the exposure will drop between 1 stop and 1.5 stops.

      When you turn the filter, it should darken through the viewfinder on an SLR. If it goes black, I would ask, are you wearing sunglasses? Polarized Sunglasses and a filter will give you black. Otherwise it should just darken a bit, but not too much.

      When the view is clear the filter is doing very little and will be like a UV filter.


      • Hi Adam,
        thanks for the reply. I am learning so much through your post about composition and about different photographers.
        Since you were saying about SLR viewfinders, now i am kind of confused.
        Do i still don’t have to exposure compensate with rangefinder cameras? such as leica M7?
        It is good to hear that it will be like UV filter when its clear. I will leave it on all the time.

        thank you so much

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    this place at this webpage, I have read all that, so at this time me also commenting at this place.

  16. Being based in California, I never leave home without a polarizing filter. I shoot mostly with a Leica M9 and I hold the filter up to my, adjust to where I like the look, then put the filter on the lens so that the writing on the ring is oriented the same way.
    I should point out, that rangefinders are fine with linear polarizers as there is not autofocus for them to throw off, and linear filters are much less expensive than circular. Either way, I finder the M9 tends to under expose a little with a polarizer on, so it’s something to be conscious of.
    Other notes would be that sometimes a polarizer can reduce contrast a little too much and make things look flat (especially portraits), so it’s good to experiment a little. It’s also good at making sweaty people look, well, not sweaty, which is pretty handy on a hot day.

  17. Thank you very much for this article, it’s really inspiring!
    I’ve been gifted an FZ28 time ago but only now I’m adding a polarizing filter which I’m currently waiting to be delivered. I really can’t wait to put it at work and go around my city which is very close to Napoli in Italy, set between the sea and the Mt.Vesuvio so lots of scenarios plus some cool archaeological site.
    Maybe by this way I’ll stop to often try to enhance my photos with the Vivid leveller in Lightroom!

    Light is harsh here too!

  18. In a comment above you said when using a polarizer filter “When it is fully engaged the exposure will drop between 1 stop and 1.5 stops.” So, when the CP is fully engaged will it also have the same affect as an ND2/ND4 filter?

    • Hi Steve,

      Yes, a polarizing filter will have a similar effect to a ND2 filter. Its not as strong as an ND4, but it is a more versatile alternative than a straight ND.
      You just need to remember to spin it as you go from landscape to portrait.


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