CPLs (circular polarizer filters) may not feel like a necessity in the digital camera world, but they are ever so useful in the right circumstances. Polarizing filters are so named not because they polarize opinions on their usefulness, but due to their unique way of balancing light entering the lens.
What Are CPL Filters?
Most polarizing filters we use today are circular, which basically means there is firstly a linear polarizer on the front of each filter, with a quarter-wave plate to convert to circular polarized light, which works more efficiently with modern autofocus systems. It’s possible to use a linearly-polarized filter on its own, but some image sensors which use a low pass filter or anti-aliasing filter may not work as well.
Coupling two types of polarizing filters together means the filter can be turned to create different levels of effect. You can also tell a CPL filter from a linear polarizing filter as the effects can only be viewed when looking through the back of a CPL filter. If you want to dig into the full technicalities of how CPL filters work, this is really its own separate, full topic. But as photographers, we are often more interested in the applications and usefulness, with maybe a dab of technicality here and there to back up the claims.
Which begs the question, how can we use a CPL filter in the wild?
Using CPL Filters
All non-metallic objects can reflect light, which can be polarized, providing unwanted glare and reflections. A CPL filter essentially absorbs all the unwanted light and can be rotated to adjust the effect. This means reflections from shiny surfaces such as water, glass, and glistening skin can be vastly reduced, at the same time enhancing the natural color and definition of an object.
CPL filters are a favorite of landscape photographers as they can filter out polarized light from a bright sky, bringing out the colors, while also bringing out more definition in clouds and the landscape. While it’s completely possible to darken areas of an image in post-editing, the full light polarization isn’t recorded at the time of exposure, which means it’s down to a CPL filter to get the job done right.
One caveat of a CPL filter is that less light is let through to the sensor by up to a few stops, which means exposure settings will need to be changed to either slow the shutter speed, increase ISO, or increase the aperture. A similar effect can be achieved with neutral density filters, which use two linear polarizing layers, but don’t have the variable adjustment, meaning you will need a bunch of them to get the correct effect for a certain scene.
There are other dependencies for producing the best results from CPL filters, such as having your subject at a 90 degree angle to the sun’s direction. But in reality, there is no substitute for practice, shooting with and without the filter, and varying the adjustments for each scene. Which brings us nicely onto recommendations for the best CPL filters. There are plenty of options on the market, but we will focus on the more respected brands which will ensure quality and long life.
Our Top CPL Filter Picks
Our top polarizer filters include:
- Best Overall CPL Filter: LEE Filters 105mm Landscape Polarizer
- High-Quality, Low-Price CPL: HOYA Fusion One
- Best for Price/Features: B+W XS-Pro Kaesemann HTC CPL MRC Nano Filter
- Cheapeast CPL Filter: Tiffen Circular Polarizer
- Budget Winner: Hama Polarizing Filter
HOYA is another respected filter brand, and the FUSION ONE CIR-PL is one of its best. The FUSION line brings high-quality glass and 18 layers of Super HMC multi-coating for better light transmission and reduction of flaring and ghosting. The surface of the filter is also stain-resistant and water-repellent.
The filter itself is low-profile and while it’s not the thinnest example around, it can still fit nicely on a wide-angle lens without any trouble. Optically, the filter produces a fine reduction of reflections, with only an extra half stop of compensation required over other top end CPL filters. The HOYA FUSION ONE CIR-PL is also reasonably priced considering its level of quality, with easy gripping on the outer rim and lots of thread sizes to choose from.
The B+W XS-Pro Kaesemann HTC CPL MRC Nano Filter strikes a nice balance between price and features, coming in a wide range of thread diameters. The thickness on this filter is 4.5mm, which isn’t the slimmest one on the market, but this feature also makes it easier to grip and rotate.
There is roughly one stop of compensation needed when using this filter, but the most important factor is sharpness stays on point, with no color casts. The results are generally very good with the B+W XS-Pro, but the MRC Nano coating isn’t always the best at repelling water or fingerprints, which is really the only letdown with this example.
For a real budget solution, you can’t do better than the Tiffen Circular Polarizer. This example is the cheapest CPL filter on this list and while it produces respectable results, the overall quality is not as good as the Hama below. The Tiffen falls short representing certain wavelengths and you will need to experiment with your white balance settings to get the best results.
The filter also adds a small amount of saturation to images, which can be a good thing, but it can also show some vignetting on wide-angle lenses. Basically, if this is your first foray into CPL filters, then the Tiffen is a good first port of call.
The B+W 77mm XS-Pro HTC Kaesemann by Schneider Optics is one of the best circular polarizing lens filters. Its multi-resistant nano-coating does a great job to prevent glare and reflections on water and shiny surfaces.
The more basic B+W F-Pro MRC has a standard range of multi-coatings and a thick profile – though still thinner than Hoya’s filters. The XS-Pro ‘Nano’ edition, on the other hand, has an ultra-thin profile and features uprated coatings which are water- and dirt-resistant, as well as extremely anti-reflective. It is also easier to clean. A brass frame with a matte black finish encloses a high-quality Schott glass.
With the ultra-thin profile that XS-Pro has, vignetting is unlikely but it can be a bit tricky for you to adjust the outer ring.Why is the XS-Pro our best overall polarizing lens filter? The XS-Pro is our best polarizing lens filter because it gives you a thick profile, resulting in better photos.
The Hoya PRO1 packs Digital Multi-Coated (DMC) technology which helps you avoid ghosting and flaring effects. This polarizing lens filter features Low Profile Frame (LPF) with an ultra-thin filter frame to counter the vignetting effect on wide-angle lenses.
The PRO1 has been specifically designed for digital cameras. It produces outstanding results with strong contrast while maintaining the overall color balance of the image.
From its lightweight build to the striking images it produces, this PRO1 filter is definitely one of the best. A black matte almite frame reduces reflections and the black-rimmed glass minimizes the chance of light reflecting off the edge. A UV-protected case helps increase the life of the filter.
Breakthrough Photography’s X4 CPL is a solidly built polarizing lens filter. SCHOTT Superwhite B270 optical glass has been used in the optical element and each side of the glass is then treated with eight layers of Breakthrough Photography’s own nanotec and MRC (multi-resistant coatings) optical coatings, which essentially makes it dirt- and moisture-repellent.
The X4 CPL is available in different versions to fit thread sizes ranging from 39 to 105mm. It delivers the perfect color-neutral performance you would expect of a high-end polarizing filter and comes equipped with extremely high-quality, resistant glass, which means you’re less likely to see those tiny imperfections that could possibly ruin your images.
It’s one of the most expensive polarizing filters around and not really made for beginners. However, it’s a must-have for professional photographers.
The LEE Filters 75 x 90mm Seven5 Circular Polarizer Filter delivers great imaging performance and is very durable, with high-quality optical glass. Its design makes it compatible with the Seven5 Micro Filter System which is specifically made for smaller interchangeable lens cameras.
This Circular Polarizer lens filter helps in the reduction of ghosting and flare effects. It absorbs this polarized light, cuts through hazy conditions, and makes the skies clear and blue in your images. It also helps minimize reflections on glass and water.
Like every other polarizing filter, it works well when used at a 90-degree angle from the direction of sunlight. However, this lens is expensive and you may see some vignetting.
Tiffen’s 77mm Polarizer is a well-built filter that will give you the high performance you’re looking for in any outdoor shooting condition. It’s great at dramatically reducing or completely eliminating glare and deepening the intensity of blue skies. The available sizes range from 28 to 86mm.
The Tiffen polarizing lens filter is padded with a water-resistant nylon material and provides great color accuracy in most shooting conditions. This makes it one of the best mid-range polarizers for outdoor photography.
10. Hama Polarizing Filter (Budget Winner)
The Hama Polarizing Filter is for those who want a cost-effective solution, without a large price tag. Coming in a wide range of filter sizes, the circular filter has an anti-reflective (AR) coating for increased light transmission, with roughly a 1 1/4 stops of compensation needed.
The filter does a good job of clearing up reflections, with only the tiniest drop in image sharpness. It’s also 6mm thick, which means it may not be the greatest application on very wide-angle lenses, but at least it has features such as a removable side pin to more easily turn the filter. It’s also not the best at stopping fingerprints on its surface, but as an all-round cost-effective solution, the Hama Polarizing Filter provides good optics for the price.
Summary of the Best CPL Filters
As with any glass that you attach to the front of your lens, it’s always wise to invest in the best quality lens filters possible. Saying that, there are plenty of CPL filters available at different price points, but there’s nothing like high-quality glass to produce the best results.
For photographers out there who always have a hard time reining in unruly reflections and glare, why not give a CPL filter a test drive?