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Tips for using a CPL effectively

Some of you who follow our work would know that a circular polariser (CPL) lives on the front of our lenses. Recently, we’ve made a change to using Nisi filters which means that for the most part, we use the kit CPL included with their variety of holders. As with many phases of development in photography, using a CPL is one of those subjects where once you discover it, there’s an initial trend to blindly use it no matter the situation! (Didn’t we all go through that to some degree with ‘HDR’ ??) With time and experience though, one becomes a little more judicious and refined with its use. I would say that a CPL is used for the majority of our images and I thought I’d share some do’s and don’ts about their use.

What does a CPL do?

  • Cuts out reflections : particularly useful for forest scenes.
  • Deepens natural colours : useful for most scenes.
  • Acts as a very light ND filter (1-1.5 stops): useful for seascapes in bright light.
  • They are potential rainbow killers! Be wary of having a CPL on with wide angled lenses if you think a rainbow is even a possibility.
  • It’s also another piece of glass that could interfere with image quality , particularly in moist situations and prolonged shooting. If I had to choose between polarisation for colours and a clean image, I would choose a clean image and remove the CPL.

Predawn light: A situation where I would be trying to avoid using a CPL since it acts as a light ND filter. For this scene, I was at iso 800 and did not want a shutter speed longer than 5-10 seconds or all texture would be lost. Hence I removed the CPL.

 

It’s generally a good idea to remove all filters (CPL included) when shooting for a sunstar.

 

Mornings with rain and breaking light lead me to prepare for a quick CPL removal ! If positioned incorrectly, a CPL may well polarise out the rainbow entirely or at least in part.

What do you do with the dial?

  • Its maximal effect is perpendicular to light source. If you point your index finger to the light source and poke your thumb out perpendicularly, the maximal polarisation occurs in the plane as you rotate your hand around.
  • If  your CPL has a dot on it, point that to the light source for maximal effect but use judgement depending on the presence of plain skies in particular.
  • Don’t forget to turn the CPL if you happen to change from landscape to portrait orientation (or vice versa) otherwise one of your images will have no polarisation effects!

In a forest situation, the light source is generally from up above. A useful starting point to achieve maximum polarisation is to have the ‘dot’ of your CPL pointing straight up in whatever orientation you are shooting. If your CPL does not have a ‘dot’ to indicate maximum polarisation direction, you may need to experiment for the best result.

Forest/waterfall scenes:

  • Use it to deepen the greens and allow a ‘see through’ effect to river beds.
  • Point the ‘dot’ on the CPL up to the sky.
  • Remove it if needing to keep foliage still with faster shutter, or alternatively, take separate frames with the CPL on at higher iso /larger aperture to allow adequate exposure at the desired shutter speed.
  • And remember (again), turn that CPL if you change orientation!

A forest scene with the CPL positioned to have minimal polarisation (dot sideways). Note the glare of the foliage and the presence of a waterfall reflection. The greens are also less vibrant.

The same scene with the CPL ‘dot’ turned upward. Note the vibrance of the greens and the removal of the waterfall reflection and see through effect to the creek bed.

Sometimes, to get the best of both worlds , polarised and unpolarised images can be blended such as in this example where the reflection is maintained along with the vibrant greens.

A perfect scenario for a CPL is a cloudy day with alpine streams of various natural hues. The CPL can really enhance the hues of the water while having no banding in plain skies to worry about!

Open skies:

  • Very good with long focal lengths to isolate your subject with blue skies.
  • Avoid using with wide angled images especially when perpendicular to light source (or expect to have to correct in post process) .
  • Use it to enhance detail in clouds : be wary of patches of open sky in the clouds themselves.
  • When in doubt with open skies, take the CPL off. It can be quite tricky to blend images with polarised and unpolarised images.

Enhanced clouds but note the darkened band in the blue sky perpendicular to the light source to the right of the image.

The sky is unpolarised in this version of the same scene but note that the reflections from the water have been removed by polarisation in a different plane.

RAW file of a wide angled image demonstrating the problematic band that a CPL can cause when shooting perpendicular to the light source.

The same scene as above but shot at a longer focal length. If your subject is perpendicular to a light source, shooting at longer focal length with the CPL turned to the light really can enhance the subject greatly without the same problematic banding that is seen with shorter focal lengths.

Not that this sky needed it, but the CPL certainly helps bring out textures in clouds.

Seascapes:

  • Can enhance natural colours and reduce glare off rocks.
  • Sometimes the glare or reflection shooting into sun is required/desired therefore you may not want to use the CPL.
  • Sometimes in bright light, you may be using the CPL purely as a light ND filter in order to achieve 0.3-0.5 second exposures in bright light.

Generally speaking, polarisation isn’t necessary when shooting seascapes directly into a light source, especially when shooting for sunstars.

 

A CPL in this situation may slightly enhance general colours but may also reduce colourful reflections. In any given situation, it may help you achieve a slightly lower shutter speed rather than stopping down to small apertures such as F22.

Conclusions:

  • I consider a CPL a very important part of a landscape photographer’s kit.
  • If your CPL does not have a ‘dot’ I would experiment and perhaps even mark out where the ‘dot’ for maximum polarisation should be as a time saver.
  • Forest scenes are where they truly allow colours to sing .
  • Beware situations where you would rather not use one : plain skies, sunstars, rainbow opportunities and shutter dependent low light scenes
  • Most importantly, you need to decide according to your shooting style and preferred subjects whether you invest in one. Lastly, if you do invest in one, consider using screw-on filters for shooting handheld. For tripod situations using a filter holder, I would recommend using the NiSi filter holder system which has the CPL as part of the holder itself (take this with a grain of salt as I am an Australian Nisi ambassador !)

Happy shooting all and I hope there was at least one bit of information there that was useful! We’re off the New Zealand 🙂

 

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Sunshine in winter

For the last two years now, we’ve headed up to Queensland to escape the Adelaide winter (not that it’s that severe). Each time, we’ve been blessed with variable conditions. This year’s trip was an extended family trip to the Sunshine Coast where we were based in Tewantin. This made it a great base to explore Noosa Heads National Park in particular. I’ll explain the rationale behind some of the images from each location.

Day 1: Morning at Dolphin Rock.

The reason I wanted to visit this location was due to its influence on my early photographic ‘career’. I had seen numerous images of this rock at Point Cartwright by flickr contacts and wanted to see it for myself. Given how short our trip was, I had no option to plan appropriate tides so I really had to deal with what I was given. Thanks to rough directions from Brisbane photographer Martin Canning, I was able to find the rock very quickly after parking the car at the nearby lighthouse car park. The timelapse below shows an advancing tide with the evolution of light. My aim was to capture dynamic motion flowing over the rocks and eventually, to capture a sunstar image based on the ‘tip’ of the dolphin’s nose. I managed to catch up with long time flickr friend Adam Randell here as well.

Sunstar over Dolphin Rock at Point Cartwright

Day 1: Raining light at Noosa heads

On our first evening, we walked to the first cove along the coastal trail at Noosa Heads national park. While we were exploring the area looking for crabs and other wildlife with the kids, I spotted a group of rocks which I thought might light up well at sunset. As a downpour occurred which sent the rest of the family running for cover, the area was lit in a haze of orange and gold which I tried to capture with my hastily scouted foreground elements.  Due to the rain, I shot most of these images without filters and gave the kim wipes a great workout to keep the shots clean! Unfortunately, this was the last shoot with my Sony A7r2 as I fell in the water with it 😦 . I met Stephen Waller by chance here as well .

Light breaking through rain and clouds

The last series of shots before camera death!

Day 2: Smooth Granite

On the following morning, I was on a bit of a downer as the camera had not managed to revive itself overnight. Nonetheless, I did bring two bodies on this trip (1 for timelapses). My goal for this particular morning was to scout the coastline along the northern shores of the national park. The tide was high which restricted many opportunities but I settled for photographing the smooth granite boulders at the appropriately named Granite Bay. There wasn’t much light on offer due to thick bank of cloud on the horizon but an after dawn, the sun finally made its appearance. I wanted to capture a long exposure with accentuation of the foreground rock patterns leading toward the tall granite boulder. This was best achieved as wide as possible using the Laowa 12mm lens. I also wanted to capture golden light falling upon the rocks but during a long exposure, I would have been very limited by the huge dynamic range involved with attempting this as a single capture. I therefore blended the long exposure shot with a few shorter exposures for the light on the rocks taken without any filters on.

After I had finished shooting at Granite Bay, I did some scouting for potential evening shoot locations. I decided to take some travel oriented shots of the many surfers at Tea Tree Bay enjoying the beautiful winter sunshine.

A blend of several long and short exposures to accentuate the smooth textures and light. Long exposure taken with 10 stop ND filter.

Image with ND filter on the left for smooth skies and water. Image without filters on the right for the light on the rocks

Tea Tree Bay in the early morning

Day 2: Suburban Forests at Buderim

During the day, we took the kids for an easy rainforest walk to the base of the waterfalls at Buderim . We found it remarkable that such lush scenery could be in very close proximity to surburbia. There had not been much rain in the preceding week, hence the waterfall was barely flowing. I noticed light falling upon a fern in front of the waterfall and set out to photograph the scene with the fern framing the waterfall. It was quite difficult to obtain this perspective and I ended up having to take my ballhead off the tripod and wedge it on to a rock to keep it steady while taking these 0.3 to 0.5 second exposures. The morning made for a great family outing with relatively easy access. Thereafter, the kids had fun at the Ginger factory before we returned home for Jaime’s (our 3 year old) nap.

Serenity Falls at Buderim Forest.

A video of the girls fun activities in Noosa.

Day 2: Reflections from Tea Tree Bay

This set of rock pools caught my eye as I was walking back from the morning shoot, so I had an easy destination to head toward in the evening. It was fortunate that I had scouted the position earlier in the day as I nearly missed sunset due to the parking madness at the National Park on a Sunday evening. Fortunately , after stalking some departing surfers, I was able to find a park and dash off to Tea Tree Bay. For the earlier image (middle) I had set up to photograph a focus stack with foreground rock and sky frames. While waiting for the light to evolve however, I found more appealing shapes in the same area and photographed those instead. Unfortunately, in the rush of moving around, I did not focus stack so there are some soft elements to the very immediate foreground.

Portraits of the light at Tea Tree Bay

Day 3: Paradise undiscovered

This was to be my last morning of shooting on the trip. I had read about some caves along the Eastern Beaches but knew it might be a little dicey to reach them since I had not scouted the area and would be approaching in the dark. After a couple of false trails leading to cliff faces, I found my way down to the shoreline north of Alexandra Beach and looked around in the dark for the caves. It turns out that one of my false trails in the dark was actually the right trail ! Next time i’ll know where to go to get into the caves proper but for this particular morning, I kept the shoot relatively dry and watched as a grey dawn turn gold yet again once the sun peeked through. All in all, it was a great short break which I found very refreshing since Noosa is a much more relaxed part of the world than the Gold Coast. In between family outings, most of the coastal locations were relatively to access with lots of different possibilities at dawn and dusk. Hopefully , we will return in the future!

The waves can really crash hard at this location – I chose to play it safe having already lost one body for the trip.

Long exposure panorama of the churning coastline at Paradise Caves (to the left of frame)