Picture Doctor: 3 Ways to Polarize Properly

Harmonize your colors, polarize your photos, and other ways to fine-tune your pictures.


Why This Picture Works

• Fundamentals: Color harmony, angular dynamism.

• Colors: The gate, the shutters, the planter, the water, and the sky are all shades of blue, and their placement invites the eye to wander around the frame. The opened gate leads you in.

• Angles: Rectangles, trapezoids, and other shapes play off each other. The top arc of the gate leads you to the tilt of the roof and is echoed at the bottom of the steps.

• Lighting: Proof that you can make a good photo in strong midday light -- just keep most of the frame in shade, with hot highlights limited to accents.

• Rule of Thirds: This could be a textbook example. The horizon, the bottom of the steps, and the edge of the house each fall close to the one-third grid lines. Notice how the one contrasting color -- the red geraniums in the planter -- falls right at a power point, one third up and one third in. That placement in the frame is no accident.

3 Ways to Polarize Properly

If your outdoor photographs have washed-out skies and wan colors, try spicing them up with a polarizing filter over your lens. It works equally well with film and digital cameras, and its action can't be mimicked exactly in image-editing software. Here are three ways a polarizer can help:

1 Deepen blue skies. A polarizer will darken blue sky to that rich hue you remember, and clouds will stand out more clearly. Note the deeper color of the sky in the bottom picture (below).

2 Cut reflections. A polarizer can reduce specular reflections. Eliminating sky reflections off water darkens lakes and rivers. Polarizers also enhance the color saturation of objects by damping the color dilution caused by bright sky reflections. That's why the foreground rock in the bottom version has more color.

3 Enhance reflections. A polarizing filter also allows you to enhance reflections -- to accentuate the blue of water, for example.

No polorizer With polorizer
Timothy Edberg

Using the filter with an SLR is easy: Screw it onto your lens and rotate the filter element while looking through the viewfinder until you see the effect you want to achieve. With a point-and-shoot camera, first hold the filter up to your eye while rotating it, then hold or tape it in front of the lens in your chosen orientation. (See Problem Solver, below, for a better way.)

Polarizers come in two types, linear and circular. The term "circular" has nothing to do with the filter's round shape but with the way it polarizes light. Both do the same thing visually, but for arcane reasons that have to do with autofocus and TTL metering, circular polarizers work better with modern cameras. -- Timothy Edberg

Problem Solver

Hold it! We've convinced you to get a polarizer for your compact. Is it a pain to use? Not with a Cokin holder.

For rangefinder-look compacts, the Digi Shoe Holder A300 ($10, street, shown here) attaches to the tripod socket. It holds the small Cokin A-series filters in front of the lens: One slot takes round filters such as polarizers, the others take rectangular filters, such as split neutral-densities.

Some compacts can use the B400AC-M Digi Magnetic Holder ($20, street), comprising a ring that you stick on around the lens with adhesive and an A-series filter holder that adheres magnetically to the ring.

If you have an EVF superzoom with a big-barreled lens (like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9), the Universal Ring P499 ($29, street) clamps onto the lens with set screws and attaches to P-series holders ($13, street).

Also, many camera manufacturers make adapter rings or tubes for their advanced compacts and superzooms. These often can accept a filter holder, letting you use conventional screw-in filters.

For more on using filters, see "Filters vs. Photoshop".