Bird Photography: The Polarized Filter Benefits

benefits of a polarized filter for bird photography

One of the best things about birdwatching is being able to photograph birds in their natural environment. No matter what they do, birds are always fascinating, and a circular polarized filter, or CPF, can help you get the best results. The filter can significantly reduce reflections and the glare from any water which may be nearby.

Many birders have a camera (check out our favourites here), or sometimes more than one, which they use to photograph birds. There are so many different features, that it’s impossible to say which is the best camera, as everyone has their own personal preference. Taking photographs near water will need a different set up to taking close up shots in woods.

A polarized filter can be very useful if used correctly, so let’s have a look at when you should, and should not, use it.

The Benefits of a Polarized Filter

A polarized filter is used to reduce the glare from any reflective surface, such as water or glass. It alters the way light travels, so instead of a mass of wavy lines which produce a blurred image, the filter reduces it to one clear wave which gives a nice, crisp result.

So when is this useful?

  • If you’re bird watching down by a lake on a lovely bright day, you are likely to find the glare off the water can interfere with any photographs you try to take. The birds won’t show up clearly as the glare will take over the whole picture. Your polarized filter will reduce the glare so the image, and the bird, appear in much clearer detail.
  • If the bird is wet, the filter will also reduce the reflection from any water on a bird’s feathers, so the bird itself is seen in much more detail.
  • A CPF can also reduce haziness. If you are trying to get a shot of a bird and the background is hazy, due to humidity or pollution, any sunlight will reflect off this, giving your photograph a rather dull look. The polarized filter can help to reduce this so the background is clearer too.

Polarized filters are easy to use. You simply turn it to engage it, and it will filter out the glare, leaving you a clear image of your bird subject. By reducing the glare, the colors will also be much clearer and sharper.

It may take a while to get used to the filter, as there are occasions when the photograph would look better with the brightness left in, but once you get used to it, you will know when it will be useful.

When NOT to Use a Polarized Filter

Sometimes not using the filter is personal preference. The glare or reflection may add something to the photograph, so you prefer to keep it. There are, however, times when it is best not to use the CPF.

  • If you are out at dusk or later, there won’t be much light around. You may see the light of the moon reflected on the surface of any water, but you probably won’t want to use your polarized filter. As there is less light around, reducing it even further could leave you with a very dark image.
  • Wide angle lenses don’t react well to polarized filters. The idea of a wide angle lens is to get a wide angle of vision. Polarized filters work best if the source of the light is at a 90 degree angle, so a wider angle will reduce the effect of the filter. If you use a CPF with a wide angle lens, you may find that the colors are darker at one end of the photograph than they are at the other.

See below for a with and without the polarizing filter, just to give you an idea of the difference.

polarizing filter before and after

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can I edit my image without the need for a polarized filter?

With more digital cameras being used, there are many packages available to edit images, but none will give you quite the same effect as using a polarized filter to take the original photograph.

Editing an image can be painstaking and time consuming, and filtering out the glare, reducing any blurred edges and improving the color, will improve the photograph. You won’t get quite the same clarity, though, as you would from using a filter in the first place.

Can I use a CPF with any camera?

Yes, you can. As long as your camera has the option to add a filter, you can use one. Polarized filters are available in all sizes, so you just need the right size for your camera.

Can I use the polarized filter with other filters?

Yes, but be careful when you do.

  • ND filter: you can use these 2 filters together as long as the ND filter isn’t a polarizing one.
  • UV filter: It’s not advised to use a UV filter with a polarizing filter, as the UV filter doesn’t add anything extra to the CPF.

When using more than one filter at a time, always remember that this increased the chances of vignetting.

Seeing a bird in its natural habitat is very rewarding. Being able to capture it in a clear photograph, will give you a lasting memory. Any birder who photographs birds will already know the benefit of using the right filter. If you’ve not tried a polarized filter, it’s certainly worth adding it to your kit. Reducing that glare can make the difference between a good photograph and an amazing one.

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