Polarizing filters for nature photos

Are there any folks out there who use polarizing filters on their cameras? When it comes to nature photos, what are some interesting things that you can achieve with polarizers, and what are some unexpected pitfalls when using polarizers?

A while back, I got a circular polarizing filter for my camera, thinking that I could use it to cut glare on the surface of water when taking photos of organisms in streams and ponds, as I do occasionally. I finally got around to taking the polarizer out of its packaging yesterday and went around this afternoon with it on my camera to take some test shots.

While it definitely could cut glare from the surface of water, on wet surfaces, and on some other reflective surfaces, I couldn’t see many other obvious applications for nature shots. Mostly it just seemed to act as an ND filter (cutting down on available light in general).

Below are shots of the same turtle. The first photo is with the filter rotated to minimum polarization. (It closely matches what I was seeing in person.) The second photo is with the filter rotated to maximum polarization.

What I notice is that with max polarization, I can see a lot more detail in the shell, and I can also see more of the vegetation under the water. On the other hand, it makes the overall image seem very flat, and the colors overall even seem to be just a bit more yellow. (Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but they just look different than what I actually perceived.)

I also took one photo of a fly (Helophilus fasciatus), and the filter seems to have cut down quite a bit on the glare that I was seeing on its wings – in person they looked very white due to the glare – though I didn’t take any max/min shots to compare.

I heard that polarizers are also supposed to be able cut down on the glare on the surface of leaves. So I tried taking some photos of plants with glossy leaves, but it seemed like the effect was very subtle (maybe because different leaves reflect light at different angles?) – not really worth the extra effort.

The only other thing that I can think of that maybe polarizers might be useful for is photographing critters captured in glass bottles or that sort of thing, though that’s not a typical use case for me.

If you all know of any other useful applications for polarizing filters, or if you know of any potential unexpected bad effects of using them, please share.

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Since I use my phone so far the only method I have to deal with glare especially from water is to use my hand to block out the sun.

I don’t think there are any bad effects to the user for using polarizing filters, since all they do essentially is control the ‘type’ and intensity of light passing through them, and this results in effects such as glare and reflection reduction, which can be very useful in many inatting cases, eg. photographing fish from above the water.

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I don’t know it yet, but I’m going to be receiving a set of filters for my camera for Christmas. If I knew, I would be wondering about this exact question. Thank you for posting your early findings.

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A polarizing filter may have more overall applicability for landscape photography. But before you give up on it, note that the greatest effect of the polarizer will be when the camera is pointed 90 degrees from the sun’s angle, so the amount of glare that is reduced from leaf surfaces may be influenced by the angle at which you’re taking the photo relative to the sun.

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Thats makes sense, as the incident light can be divided into two components with one parallel to the surface and the other perpendicular. One of them is responsible for “reflecting the glare” so I suppose a rotation of 90 degrees will help to block that component of light from entering the camera.

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I noticed similar things using a circular polarizing filter. Glare reduction. Less light. The turtle pic does look a bit flatter. Maybe glare adds contrast to shadows?

I use a polarizing filter for my insect images so that I get detail while minimizing glare. For the most part my filter stays on my 150mm macro lens. Right now I’m in winter, mostly taking night time marine life pictures with a flashlight and I want as much light as I can get so the filter is off.

Notice in your turtle picture that the polarizing filter with maximum filtration allows for the colour pattern of the subject to be seen without the glare detracting from it. With increased saturation,the vivid, rich and bright colours come through.Without glare, one can get intricate patterns and detail.

If you are taking an artistic “nature shot” to give a better 3D type image then maybe the filter is not for you. Removing reflections can be too revealing. The surrounds of the subject are important and depth, and hence curve, can add to the impact of that image.

If you are going for a “record shot” with identification detail then maybe the filter is better. Often the surround are not so important, I usually crop in so that the subject in the image has only a small border around it and I’m not overly concerned about flat - in fact if I am in macro, depth of field makes that moot. Polarizing filters can make blue skies look bluer and removing glare from plants can allow the true colours and textures to show - this can depend on the dampness or glossiness of the plant. Best perhaps would be raking or angled light to give shadows for shape and curve rather than reflected light and with the polarizer to still allow for increased saturation and detail.

Most of the time I don’t use a polarizing filter on my telephoto lens for birds and such because I want as much light as I can get and glare does not seem to be an issue. Again at f8 my depth of field is narrow so I’m not getting too much in that department beyond bokeh.

In other words, it depends.

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2 follow-up questions here:

  1. a lot of insects are iridescent or otherwise refract/reflect light in different ways. do you ever notice that with a polarizer, you get undesirable effects, like missing colors or too much flatness on, say, a metallic looking beetle?
  2. do you know of a good way to determine the best rotation of the filter for max glare reduction without just looking through the viewfinder and rotating? that’s a slow process, and by the time i’ve figured out the best rotation that way, a fast moving insect may have left the scene or moved to a different location that requires a different rotation of the polarizer for max filtration. i have a little arrow at one point the rim of my polarizer, and it seems like if i make an L shape with my index finger and thumb, and i point in the direction of the sun with my index finger, if i set that arrow to the same angle as my thumb, that will be (close to) the best rotation for cutting glare from a horizontal plane like the surface of water or a wet boardwalk. but i can’t figure out a rule of thumb for (pre-)determining the best rotation for cutting glare from surfaces like insect wings that aren’t perfectly horizontal.

Another advantage is that if you accidentally damage the filter it is cheaper to replace than the lens

I have not noticed this to be an issue but most of what I am after are bees and wasps so for the most part this does not seem to be an issue. Maybe when I get good enough I’ll play around and see if it does make a difference say on a Western Tiger Beetle or a Golden Buprestid Beetle . I just have not had much opportunity with these and my sightings have been when I have had the wrong lens let alone filter. Mostly what I see is the Texas Striped Sweat Bee and I do not think I am missing anything but I am willing to be told I am. I do think that I can guess which pictures by others use a p filter from the lack of haziness of the subject - but that could be an uninformed bias.

Good question but I am guilty of not putting much thought into it once the filter is in place. I can’t put my finger on academic support right now but I think when one is talking about glare off an object, that is the “direction of the sun” - the light becomes polarized when reflected off of non-metalic surfaces. Because I am taking “record shots” I am not concerned of deepening the sky colour. I just want to reduce the reflected haze on my subject. I usually set my filter to maximum and then don’t really think of it again…for weeks - I probably should check it. Again, I am open to someone pointing out this is not so.