Use a Polarizer to Add “Pop” to Your Fall Colors

Bennington Lake Reflection - Copyright Gary Hamburgh 2009 - All Rights Reserved

Bennington Lake Reflection - Copyright Gary Hamburgh 2009 - All Rights Reserved

At this time of year the fall colors are really starting to pop in the Palouse. The image at the top of this page was taken last week with a polarizer as I visited Bennington Lake near Walla Walla, WA.

An article by Kevin McNeal was published in the latest online edition of Outdoor Photographer and he talks about the use of filters to enhance your images of fall colors. I especially liked the discussion about the use of a polarizer.

Hopefully this article will encourage you to use filters to give your fall images that extra “pop”.

The most important filter for fall is the polarizer. Useable in all facets of nature photography, this filter can make a significant improvement to your images. The polarizer deepens the color of blue skies, provides more saturated colors, and reduces glare and reflections in bright or sunny conditions. Concerning fall foliage, the polarizer eliminates glare on leaves and flowers. It intensifies and saturates color in wet foliage and adds color density to blue or hazy skies. One additional benefit of using a polarizer is that it cuts through the haze in the atmosphere. This added clarity allows subjects to stand out more against the deeper tones of the sky so that fall foliage looks even more pronounced.
When light hits a nonmetallic surface, it’s reflected and polarized—the wavelengths are aligned—and when we see this reflection from the surface of water, for example, we call it glare. The polarizer blocks the wavelengths perpendicular to its axis. This is achieved by using a specialized foil positioned between two sheets of glass. The front part of this polarizer then can be rotated, altering the amount of polarized light that can be blocked out by the filter. A simple rotation of the front glass allows the photographer to dial in the amount of effect desired in the image.
To do this properly, position the polarizer on the lens and rotate slowly while looking through the camera’s viewfinder. Choosing where to stop the rotation is a personal choice, but you want to maximize the effect up to the point where it begins to look unrealistic. For example, when the scene includes blue skies, rotate the polarizer only until you get deep, rich blues. If overrotated, the blues can turn into an unrealistic darker tone, especially in higher elevations. To maximize the potential of a polarizer, keep the sun at a right angle to the camera by holding your hands out to the side while facing the sun. Where your arms point is where the polarizer works best. A 90-degree angle to the sun is optimal because this is the location of the most polarized light in the sky.
One challenge many photographers have is determining the best time to use a polarizer. It’s effective in many situations, but if you’re unsure when to use a polarizer, hold it up and look through it with your eye instead of screwing it onto the lens. This is a quick way to see if the polarizer is having any effect. In the fall, the polarizer is best utilized just before midday when conditions are brighter. The increased brightness adds extra contrast to the scene and cuts through the haze, especially when shooting through a telephoto lens. Photographing fall color on sunny days can add additional depth in the image when including the sky in your compositions, especially when contrasted against the vibrant colors of fall.
In addition to deepening blue skies, the most understated reason for using the polarizer is to reduce glare and reflections. This is important because once glare is present in an image, no amount of postprocessing can undo the damage. That glare reduces the color saturation in images, giving them a flat, washed-out appearance. The polarizer alters this by blocking out the polarized light, enhancing color saturation.
Reflections can be an issue without a polarizer, as well. This is evident in subjects that contain water. Nature photography in fall often includes elements such as creeks and lakes, which cause unwanted surface reflections. I like to take images of colorful foliage against the backdrop of the darker water. This would be impossible without a polarizer. It also reduces the glare off darker rocks, which allows the color of the foliage to stand out even more. Having the ability to dial in a certain amount of polarized light allows each photographer to create a sense of style that’s uniquely his or her ownThe Polarizer
The most important filter for fall is the polarizer. Useable in all facets of nature photography, this filter can make a significant improvement to your images. The polarizer deepens the color of blue skies, provides more saturated colors, and reduces glare and reflections in bright or sunny conditions. Concerning fall foliage, the polarizer eliminates glare on leaves and flowers. It intensifies and saturates color in wet foliage and adds color density to blue or hazy skies. One additional benefit of using a polarizer is that it cuts through the haze in the atmosphere. This added clarity allows subjects to stand out more against the deeper tones of the sky so that fall foliage looks even more pronounced.
When light hits a nonmetallic surface, it’s reflected and polarized—the wavelengths are aligned—and when we see this reflection from the surface of water, for example, we call it glare. The polarizer blocks the wavelengths perpendicular to its axis. This is achieved by using a specialized foil positioned between two sheets of glass. The front part of this polarizer then can be rotated, altering the amount of polarized light that can be blocked out by the filter. A simple rotation of the front glass allows the photographer to dial in the amount of effect desired in the image.
To do this properly, position the polarizer on the lens and rotate slowly while looking through the camera’s viewfinder. Choosing where to stop the rotation is a personal choice, but you want to maximize the effect up to the point where it begins to look unrealistic. For example, when the scene includes blue skies, rotate the polarizer only until you get deep, rich blues. If overrotated, the blues can turn into an unrealistic darker tone, especially in higher elevations. To maximize the potential of a polarizer, keep the sun at a right angle to the camera by holding your hands out to the side while facing the sun. Where your arms point is where the polarizer works best. A 90-degree angle to the sun is optimal because this is the location of the most polarized light in the sky.
One challenge many photographers have is determining the best time to use a polarizer. It’s effective in many situations, but if you’re unsure when to use a polarizer, hold it up and look through it with your eye instead of screwing it onto the lens. This is a quick way to see if the polarizer is having any effect. In the fall, the polarizer is best utilized just before midday when conditions are brighter. The increased brightness adds extra contrast to the scene and cuts through the haze, especially when shooting through a telephoto lens. Photographing fall color on sunny days can add additional depth in the image when including the sky in your compositions, especially when contrasted against the vibrant colors of fall.
In addition to deepening blue skies, the most understated reason for using the polarizer is to reduce glare and reflections. This is important because once glare is present in an image, no amount of postprocessing can undo the damage. That glare reduces the color saturation in images, giving them a flat, washed-out appearance. The polarizer alters this by blocking out the polarized light, enhancing color saturation.
Reflections can be an issue without a polarizer, as well. This is evident in subjects that contain water. Nature photography in fall often includes elements such as creeks and lakes, which cause unwanted surface reflections. I like to take images of colorful foliage against the backdrop of the darker water. This would be impossible without a polarizer. It also reduces the glare off darker rocks, which allows the color of the foliage to stand out even more. Having the ability to dial in a certain amount of polarized light allows each photographer to create a sense of style that’s uniquely his or her own.
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3 responses to “Use a Polarizer to Add “Pop” to Your Fall Colors

  1. Thanks for linking to that article Gary. And I like the near perfectly mirrored image in your post.

    I like polar filters myself, but only have one for my 80-200mm lens, which of course is not my main landscape lens. In light of having no polar filter for my 17-50mm lens, I used the polarizing filter in Nik Color Efex Pro 3 and love the results. In fact, there are very few photographs of any type that I do not pass that filter over.

  2. Jason,

    Thanks for your comments. I also use Nik Color Efex Pro 3. Many of my images are also visited by the polarizing filter. A great tool in my opinion.

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