In praise of the polariser

circular polariser

There is an important, much maligned and under-used filter that should be in every gadget bag. And that, says Nick Smith is the worthy circular polariser

I know that were supposed to regurgitate the litany of how the advent of digital led to the moment when photography lost its soul; how film was so warm and analogue-y, and how weno longer experience the ethereal nuances of its vibratory transit from one hand to the other, as our cameras wound on between exposures.

But for me, it meant I no longer had to bother with filters. Digital post processing was here and the jig was up. No longer did I need to feel inadequate because I could never get the hang of using filters properly. They were simply gone. As they wittered on about their mind-boggling arsenals of coloured, blurred and otherwise treated supplementary glass I would, if youpardon the pun, glaze over and dream of a digital future where software ruled the world and an encyclopaedic knowledge of filter thread diameters would be a thing of the past.

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I should be a little careful here, because a quick review of the technical data on some of the landscape shots in Outdoor Photography reveals emphatically that there are still plenty of excellent photographers out there using filters of all descriptions. The neutral density variant in particular seems never to have been such a vital component in the photographic process. And to these worthy photographers I doff my cap. But for every aficionado that swears by their ND filters, therea flummoxed outsider (including me) swearing at them.

Ineither Luddite nor Puritan, and Ireadily compromise personal ethics if thereeven the slightest chance of improving a shot. But, Isorry, filters were always the thin end of the wedge, the equivalent of sticking toffee wrappers on a black and white TV screen, if you like. When I made the switch to digital, I was pleased that the whole silly debate had become moot. There wasna filter of note, said the experts, whose effect couldnbe added in post-processing. Except, of course, for the fact that there was. The circular polariser. A noble, traduced and almost magical arrangement of glass that, despite the advent of image manipulation software of unimaginable sophistication, seems to be at last enjoying its place in the sun. And I love them.

Now, Inot going to bore you with the physics of how these things work (you’—ed), apart from to state one obvious, although frequently overlooked, fact. You canpolarise the light in your image after you have pulled the trigger, no matter how much you twiddle with the curve or blue channel; you just canadd authentic polarisation in post-production.

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Itjust one of those moments of sweet revenge where the world of Newtonian physics trumps fancy software, when BrewsterAngle refuses to yield its secrets to the microprocessor. The message is clear: if you want to polarise light going into your camera, you will ipso facto need to acquaint yourself with the hardware world of the screw-in (or slot in) polariser filter.

You may decide that youlived happily enough without the circular polariser, and to be honest, you wonbe on your own. I once worked for a magazine editor who hated them with a passion, to the point where he would refuse point-blank to publish a photograph if there was even the suggestion that one had been used. His view was that while polarised glass was undoubtedly a serious piece of optics with real benefits for the designers of sunglasses, this was where its utility in the modern world both began and ended.

In the hands of most photographers it simply wasnused correctly. Not only that, when there appeared to be an image where the polariser had been used to good effect this was more by luck than judgement. His view was that to screw in a circular polariser was to create a special effects lens and, as he was pathologically against the use of special effects in photography, the offending filter was to be discouraged. They are very good at cutting out glare, he would say with a certain amount of hauteur, and they had their moments in making clouds look pretty. But in inexperienced hands they were simply in the wrong hands, while for more accomplished shooters, its use was a taboo as serious as running while holding a pair of scissors.

Today, most photographic columnists take a more pragmatic line, sensibly recommending that this is a filter to be used sparingly and with respect. If you take this advice youfind a whole new world of blues and greens opening up to you. And even if, like me, younever really been attracted to putting extra bits of glass on your lenses, the circular polariser is an exception worth getting to know.

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