Using A Polarizing Filter For Portraits

If you know a little about polarizing filters, then you probably think about them in terms of shooting landscapes. But using a polarizing filter for portraits can be a very effective way of improving your images of people as well.

I use these filters for all of my photography. After trying a lot of the best brands out there, they were by far the most well made with the best image quality.

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Can You Use A Polarizing Filter For Portraits?

The short answer is Yes…you can use a polarizing filter for portraits. In fact there are many situations where a polarizing filter can greatly enhance your portraits. There are some things you have to keep in mind, however. Strong polarization may have a negative effect on skin tones and also a polarizing filter cuts down about 1-2 stops of light…so they don’t work well in low light.

The Basics

In simple terms, a polarizer is two pieces of glass placed together than rotate independently to control reflections and glare. There’s a lot more to it than that, but for purposes of this article, that’s a good overview.

Almost all polarizing filters used for digital photography today are circular polarizers (often called a “CPL”). That has nothing to do with the shape of the actual piece of glass (you can have a square shaped circular polarizer). It refers to the type of glass used. The other kind is a linear polarizer, but that’s not important right now.

Polarizers works most effectively when you are shooting at a 90 degree angle (or perpendicular) from the light source (usually the sun). So when positioning your portrait subject, if you point your index finger at the sun, then you should be shooting in the direction your thumb is pointing.

It Can Reduce Skin Glare

Likely the most common goal when using a polarizing filter for portraits is reducing the glare on a subject’s skin.

When you’re shooting during a sunny day, glare on the skin can cause bright “hot spots” that can be almost impossible to correct in a realistic looking way with post processing.

This can be very useful when shooting in locations, such as a beach, where there is no shade and you want to avoid very harsh highlights and shadows.

It Can Help Control The Background

You would be hard pressed to find a landscape photographer who doesn’t own and frequently use a polarizing filter. If you are shooting portraits, especially enviornmental or wide angle portraits, then you should be taking the same approach with regard to the background of your image.

Foliage tends to be shiny and cause a lot of bright highlights (especially if they are wet). Those reflections will detract from the natural color of the foliage. This is especially important if you are taking portraits in the Fall and want to use the leaves as a colorful background.

A polarizing filter can improve the look of skies in your portrait.

First, the filter will make blue skies a rich saturated blue. You can overdo this and make it look unnattural, so pay attention as you adjust the filter.

A polarizing filter also cuts down on the appearance of haze in a photo. Haze is simply light reflecting off the moisture in the air. So if you can control those refelctions with a polarizer, then you can make the image clearer. It may not have a huge effect on your subject since they are going to be relatively close to your camera, but it will enhance the definition in clouds.

It Can Add More Dynamic Range

A lesser known effect of a circular polarizing filter is that they tend to flatten the contrast of an image. This can be very helpful for outdoor portraits.

Decreasing contrast with a filter is a great way to capture more detail in an image. Since you are decreasing the contrast BEFORE the light hits the sensor, then more of the extremes of the image will be able to be captured by the sensor.

Outdoor portraits are notorious for presenting high dynamic range situations. In addition to carefully considering your composition, adding a polarizing filter can help you diminish “hot spots.”

It Can Lower Ambient Light

Most polarizing filters block out about 1 to 1.5 stops of light. That means that it is the same as using an ND filter of that value, but with the added benefits discussed above.

You can use that to your advantage, even with portraits.

Here I used a CPL with a flash. It helped darken the blue of the sky and soften the glare off the helmet.

It can especially come in handy when using off camera flash. Unless you have a flash with high speed sync (HSS), you may not be able to shoot with a low aperture (such as 1.8 or 2.8) and still keep the shutter speed below the flash sync speed (that’s the highest shutter speed that syncs properly with your flash and can vary from camera to camera).

By knocking out 1 to 1.5 stops of light, you are effectively lowering the overall exposure of the camera without having to speed up the shutter. This can get you closer to the wide open aperture you want while still controling the exposure.

Just keep in mind a few things:

You will need to increase the flash power.

If it is really bright, 1.5 stops darker may not be enough.

You can combine this approach with HSS so that neither one is taken to the extreme.

Common Pitfalls When Using Polarizing Filters For Portraits

So we talked about how awesome a CPL can be when taking a portrait. But there are certain mistakes that I see often. It takes some practice and getting used to, but if you want to get a head start on the learning curve, be sure to avoid these common mistakes photographers make when shooting a portrait with a polarizer…

Removing Too Much Contrast On The Face

Specular highlights on a person in a portrait are not always all bad. Highlights and shadows give the face definition. That is what gives depth and that three dimensional feel to a good image.

Eliminating that contrast alltogether leaves the image flat and dull looking. There is a good middle ground to controling highlights when shooting a portrait. It is not an all or nothing proposition.

Don’t forget that a circular polarizer doesn’t have an on/off switch. As you rotate it, you can control the reflections to varying degrees. I would suggest stopping short of making the image completely flat.

Not Adjusting Exposure Settings To Compensate

As mentioned above, most polarizing filters block out about 1 to 1.5 stops of light. It is also important to know that this varies as you adjust the relative strength of the filter.

That means that every time you change the polarizing filter, you may need to make some adjustments to the exposure settings to ensure a well exposed image.

Shooting Skies With A Wide Angle Lens

Remember that part about a polarizing filter being strongest at a 90 degree angle from the sun?

What happens when your field of view encompasses a huge angle?

The result is that polarization will be stronger in some parts of the image than others. This is most prominent when looking at the saturation effect on blue skies.

If you use a polarizer for a wide angle portrait, then the sky will not be consistent. You’ll see a gradient from dark to light blue. This looks very unnattural.

You can lower the strength of the polarizer, try to avoid having a lot of sky in the shot, or just take it off altogether. The best way to learn about this is to get out there and try it.

Forgetting To Adjust Polarizer When You Change Angles

Along the same line as using a wide angle lens, you need to be aware of how your image looks when you or your subject move. Any time either one of you change positions relative to the light source, you’re altering the effect of the polarizer in some way.

It could have a significant impact on the image. The best way to avoid this is to simply be aware that it happens and adjust accordingly.

Using A Cheap Circular Polarizer Filter

I am always an advocate of being sensible when making photography related purchases. I often use third party lenses that are very close to the quality of name brands for a fraction of the cost.

However, I have yet to find a high quality option for a CPL that is also in the budget price range. Some are way over priced though.

I use and highly recommend the X4 CPL from Breakthrough Photography. Breakthrough is a small but exception company based in San Francisco, California. That produce the sharpest most color neutral filters I have ever used. I highly reccomend checking them out.

When Not To Use A Polarizing Filter For Portraits

Using a polarizing filter can really improve your portraits in some situations, but it is also important to know when NOT to use them. Sometimes, they are either not necessary or can actually hurt the quality of your image.

Here are a few times when you shouldn’t use one…

Low light

If you’re shooting in low light situations, light is at a premium. So adding a polarizer will cut out even more light.

You may be tempted to use one to cut out glare from artificial lights, but be careful. Sometimes the loss in light can cause more harm than good.

Capturing Reflections

I love shooting at the beach when small tide pools form away from the water. That lets me capture reflections of my clients in the water. If I tried that with a polarizer, then the reflection would all but disappear and all I’d get in the image is a clear shot of the sand below.

Using A Polarizer At Sunset

Shooting a portrait at sunset with the sun behind your subject is a lot of fun. But if you try that, be sure to remove the CPL from your lens. If you are shooting with your subject backlit, the filter will have almost no effect whatsoever.

If you want to learn more about shooting amazing sunset portraits check out my other article, How To Take Portraits At Sunset.

Photographing Rainbows

Rainbows are just light filtering through water droplets like a prizm which separates the light into the full color spectrum (or something like that…I’m not a scientist).

I do know, however, that using a polarizing filter will fade out the rainbow or eliminate it completely from the image (even when you can still see it with your eyes). So be sure to remove it if you’re trying to capture a rainbow.

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