Are you looking to get the best polarizing filter for your photography, but you just don’t know what to choose?
Because while picking a polarizer might seem like a daunting task, we break it down for you in this article–so you know exactly which polarizer is best for your needs.
You’ll come away with the perfect polarizer for your photography kit, one that will help you capture absolutely stunning images.
Before we get started, lets have a quick preview of our 5 filter picks:
Nice mix of quality and value, Go from non-polarized to polarized light, Best for landscape photographer on a budget;
High-quality glass for a decent price, Scratch-resistant coating, For serious landscape photographer;
Will “get the job done”, Decent optical quality, Fantastic Price;
Absolutely top-notch, Easily rotate to change polarization amount, By Nikon but can be used with all cameras;
Aluminium frame, Very thin filter, Decent low priced option;
What is a Polarizing Filter, and Why Do You Need One?
First things first:
What is a polarizer?
Without getting too technical, a polarizer filters light into a single plane. This reduces reflections in your photos.
And this is the primary purpose of a polarizing filter: reducing reflections.
But in reducing reflections, polarizers have a few side effects.
First, polarizers cut down on light transmission. So every time you place a polarizer in front of your lens, you lose some light. It’s like putting sunglasses on your camera.
Second, polarizers make colors appear more saturated. This is because reflections on surfaces reduce saturation. As soon as you cut down on these reflections, the saturated colors shine through.
This is particularly noticeable when shooting skies. Without the polarizer, a sky looks a gray-blue:
But with the polarizer, the blue suddenly becomes deeply saturated:
And look at the difference between an unpolarized shot of leaves:
And the shot with a polarizer added:
The reflections on the leaves disappeared almost completely, giving a deeper green look.
Therefore, polarizers are most useful for photographers shooting:
To tie this all together, polarizers are used most often by landscape photographers. This should make sense because landscape photographers are often shooting breathtaking scenics that feature water and lush foliage.
In fact, a polarizing filter is one of the most important pieces of kit a landscape photographer can have.
Macro photographers who shoot water scenes or foliage will appreciate a polarizer, too. And travel photographers who focus mostly on landscapes will want a polarizer, as well.
On the other hand, if you’re a portrait photographer, wildlife photographer, or street photographer, a polarizer will only detract from your shots–you’ll be forced to compensate for a darker image, without getting much of a benefit.
How to Choose the Best Polarizing Filters: Factors to Consider
When it comes to selecting the best polarizing filter, you have a few things to think about:
- Glass quality
- Metal quality
- Light transmission
- Circular versus linear
Filters are generally made of glass. And while high-quality glass will ensure sharp photos, low-quality glass can easily ruin your images.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to evaluate the quality of a filter’s glass, short of testing it in the field.
Just keep in mind that that you (generally) get what you pay for.
Note that some filters come with coatings. These have a variety of purposes: reducing glare, maintaining contrast, and preventing scratches, to name a few. Coated filters are generally better than filters without coatings.
Filter threads are made out of metal.
And the weaker the metal, the more prone the filter is to breakage.
This is pretty easy to evaluate; lower quality filters are made out of aluminum, which is bendable. This gives rise to dents and other damage.
Higher quality filters are made out of brass, which is much stronger and can handle some abuse.
When light moves through a polarizing filter, some of the light is blocked.
The more light is blocked, the more you have to increase your exposure to compensate for the lost light. This is especially problematic if you’re shooting in low-light situations.
So your goal is to minimize the amount of light that’s blocked by your polarizer.
On bad polarizing filters, lots of light is blocked. That is, the light transmission is low.
On a good polarizing filter, most of the light passes through the filter.
Circular Versus Linear
There are two types of polarizing filters:
Circular polarizers and linear polarizers.
Here’s the problem with linear polarizers:
They don’t work with autofocus lenses. The light they produce interferes with the autofocus system, making it useless.
Years ago, linear polarizers were common. But that was before autofocus lenses became popular.
So go with a circular polarizer. Not a linear polarizer.
Unfortunately, one circular polarizing filter does not fit all.
Which means that you need a different polarizer for each of your lens diameters.
So before rushing out and buying a polarizer, check your lens diameters, and note which lenses you use most often for landscape shots. Those are the ones that need the circular polarizer.
Note that the larger the filter, the pricier it’ll be (in general).
Related Post: Best Canon Landscape Lenses
The 5 Best Polarizing Filters in 2020
Now that you understand the factors that affect a polarizing filter’s quality…
…it’s time to look at the options.
Are you ready to discover the best polarizing filters out there?
The Hoya HD Digital circular polarizer is a nice mix of quality and value, which makes it our overall number one pick for the best circular polarizer.
The quality of the glass is good. On my 100mm lens, sharpness remained strong, even at the corners of the frame. The glass is coated to make it scratch-resistant, oil repellant, and water repellant. This should help keep it in good shape over the course of its life.
And the polarizing effect itself is impressive:
With a quick twist of this circular polarizer, you can go from non-polarized to polarized light. And you can watch it happen, allowing for you to make snap decisions in the field regarding how much polarization you actually want to see.
With the Hoya HD, you can make forests look green and lush. You can make water look deep and clear. You can make skies look an intense blue.
Look at the difference between a non-polarized image:
And a polarized image with the Hoya HD:
Light transmission is decent. You shouldn’t see too much light loss when using the Hoya HD, which is important for low-light shooting.
Unfortunately, the metal is aluminum, not brass, which makes the Hoya HD less durable overall.
But for the landscape photographer shooting on a budget, it can’t be beaten.
- Designed to adjust Brightly Reflected Light Especially Sunlight (Reflected off of Water or Snow) and Reduce Unwanted Glare
- Creates Dramatic Sky and Cloud Contrast with Saturated Colours, without affecting Colour Balance
- HD POLARIZING FILM - High Transparency and High Durability UV Absorbing Film Provides 25% Greater Light Transmission than...
- HD COATING - 8-layer Anti-Reflective Multi-Coating Repels Water & Oil and is Scratch & Stain Resistant
- HD FRAME - Glass is Mounted in an Ultra-Thin Frame using High Pressure Press Technology
If you have a bit more money to spend, you’ll appreciate the B+W HTC circular polarizer, which offers high-quality glass for a decent price.
B+W is a premium brand, and this filter doesn’t disappoint. Light transmission is good, reducing the brightness by about 1 to 1.5 EV.
The glass itself is high quality and includes a scratch-resistant coating. It also repels dirt and water. And the polarizer does its job well, cutting down on reflections and helping you capture beautiful scenes of water, foliage, and more.
Unlike the Hoya reviewed above, the metal is brass–so you won’t have to worry as much about it coming in contact with the occasional hard surface.
Unfortunately, the B+W circular polarizer doesn’t come cheap. But for the more serious landscape photographer–especially landscape photographers who are tough on their gear–the price is worth it.
- A MUST-HAVE – Whether you’re indoors or outdoors, the right polarizing filter is a must for every photography equipment....
- EASY TO USE CAMERA FILTER - The Käsemann polarization filter can easily be screwed onto the filter thread of most lenses....
- BEST WORKMANSHIP - The High Transmission (HTC) polarization film is set between two precise ground and polished cover...
- TOUGH & SOLID MOUNTS - B+W sockets are absolutely accurate, easy to apply, and easy to adjust as polarizing filters thanks to...
- MADE IN GERMANY - Schneider Kreuznach (B + W) – We’re proudly your precision mechanics specialists for filters,...
As I wrote above, when it comes to filters, you get what you pay for.
But there are still a few decent budget options out there–including the Hoya Alpha circular polarizer, which is less than half the price of the competing B+W filter.
Yes, the frame is aluminum, which means that it’s less likely to survive an accident in the field.
Yes, the glass is uncoated, which means you’ve got no scratch-resistance, no protection from glare, and no water repulsion.
Yes, the glass does result in photos that are slightly softer than you might want.
But it’ll get the job done.
Here’s the bottom line:
The Hoya Alpha will give you reduced reflections for a fantastic price. If you’re looking to test out circular polarizers and don’t have much to spend, the Hoya Alpha might be the way to go.
- Great optical quality at an affordable price.
- Precision milled aluminum frame.
- Cir-PL is non-coated glass
- These new HOYA series plus the EVO filters are manufactured by HOYA exclusively for distribution in the United States of...
Related Post: Best Nikon Landscape Lenses
First, the glass is absolutely top-notch. Colors are stellar, and image quality is high–which is exactly what you want in a professional-grade polarizing filter.
You can easily rotate the front filter element to change the amount of polarization. Want to eliminate reflections? Give this polarizer a quick twist. Want to bring the reflections back? Another twist and you’re there.
The Nikon circular polarizer feels high-quality; it’s thin, but strong, with multi-coated glass.
Note that while this polarizer is made by Nikon, you can use it with non-Nikon lenses and get the exact same high-quality effect.
For enthusiast photographers, the quality may not justify the price.
But for professional landscape photographers, this Nikon circular polarizer might be your best option.
If you’re on a budget, here’s one last circular polarizing filter you might want to consider.
First, the Tiffen circular polarizing filter does a decent job of reducing reflections and saturating skies. You’ll notice a slight vignette; if this bothers you, you should be able to crop it out fairly easily.
Unfortunately, your image quality will take a hit–sharpness and contrast drop with this Tiffen on your lens.
Like competitors in its price range, the Tiffen frame is made out of aluminum, not brass. This means you want to be careful not to give it too much of a beating.
And the filter itself is quite thin. For some users, this might not be a problem. But others may struggle to twist the glass, or even to get the filter off the lens.
All in all, the Tiffen is a decent option for landscape photographers on a budget. It’s not top of the line, but it does a fine job for the price.
The Best Polarizing Filters: Which One Should You Purchase?
By now, you should have a sense of the best circular polarizing filters. And you should know which filter fits your own needs.
But if you’re still struggling to choose, let me give you a brief rundown:
If you want good quality at a decent price, go with the Hoya HD circular polarizer.
If you’re a more serious photographer with money to spend, look at the B+W polarizer.
If you’re just looking to try out a circular polarizer, you might go in for the Hoya Alpha or the Tiffen circular polarizer. Both have flaws, but they’ll get the job done.
And if you’re a professional landscape photographer, Nikon’s own circular polarizer is the way to go.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.
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