Using Circular Polarizing Filters for Digital Infrared Photography

We don’t normally think of using polarizing filters when shooting infrared but I decided to try it out.
Regular readers will know that I shoot a lot of digital infrared work, both with a converted for IR Canon 350D and with unconverted digital cameras that I have in for testing. I was testing circular polarizing filters for another article and I became curious to see if they would have any effect in infrared. So I went out with my converted 350D and a Hoya circular polarizing filter and tried it out.

In normal color photography a circular polarizing filter can reduce the specular highlights of reflections from non-metallic surfaces, such as water, roads, glass and leaves. It can also darken the sky, most noticeably the area at 90 degrees from the sun. You rotate the polarizing filter until you get the degree of effect you want. Generally there will be one point of rotation that has the least visible effect and another, 90 degrees apart, which will show the strongest effect.

In infrared I found it does exactly the same thing, though generally a bit more subtly. I also found that the visible positions of maximum and minimum effect also correspond to the minimum and maximum effect the camera sees, which is important from a use perspective.

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
The above two images were taken with the polarizing filter set 90 degrees apart for minimum and maximum effect

You can see from the accompanying images that it changes the distribution of tones in parts of the image. Since we are talking about an artistic interpretation of the scene there is no right or wrong, just whichever you prefer. In some images, for example, the image benefits from reducing reflections in the water and in others they do not. The same with extra sky darkening. What I also found is that, by making some parts of the image darker, the overall tonal range of the image is increased, from lightest to darkest. You see this as a wider histogram ‘bump’ in the image with the polarizer turned for maximum effect. This is a benefit, generally, as it means you do not need to stretch the highlight and shadow areas as much to get fill the range from black to white.

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
Two images with the polarizing filter set for the minimum and maximum effect

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
The histograms for the two images

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
Superimposed, you can see how the use of the polarizer can extend the actual range recorded

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
You can see the effect of the polarizer on the reflections in the water

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
The two original images with the polarizer set for minimum and maximum effect

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
The same two images with Autolevels applied. You can see, I hope, that the polarizer does allow you to change the look of the image at the time you shoot

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
Another two processed images

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
The effects can be subtle

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Digital Infrared Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
Again the results can be very subtle, but still worth experimenting with

I really recommend that you try this for yourself, with your camera and your polarizing filter. I have tested this only with my Hoya polarizers. It may be that the filter material in other brands reacts differently with the IR. Though I would not expect this to be the case, you never know unless you test. I will get some other brand polarizers in and try this.

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7 Responses to “Using Circular Polarizing Filters for Digital Infrared Photography”

  1. LaurenFebruary 27, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    Hi,
    I just got back from shooting IR in the southwest with a converted Nikon D200. In my digital processing I’m having trouble gettng the wonderful blue skies to give a hint of their blueness. Do you have any tips? I’m new to Infrared and will take any help I can get.
    Thanks,
    Lauren

    • Wayne CosshallMarch 1, 2010 at 6:00 am #

      You’ll only get the blue skies with a normally converted camera by doing a channel swap in Photoshop. There are actions that will do this for you if you Google them but if you look at the Image Processing article under the IR pages on this site you will see how to do it step by step

  2. Ashley PomeroyNovember 20, 2010 at 7:55 pm #

    This is very interesting – I used to assume that a polarising filter would have no effect on at all on IR, and that infrared would just pass straight through. But I could be wrong. Perhaps the polariser is acting on what little visible light passes through the camera’s infrared filter. A quick shufty on Google reveals that there are dedicated infrared polarising filters, no doubt very expensive and aimed at scientists.

  3. LuxorionApril 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    Do you used a polarizing filter designed for IR spectrum or a standard visible light model ? Because a dedicated IR model can increase the image contrast of 10-20% vs the use of visible light polarizing filter..

    • Wayne CosshallApril 19, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

      NO, I’ve been using normal polarisers because they are more commonly available to photographers.

  4. ThierrySeptember 7, 2011 at 8:28 am #

    Note that in IR, under some ligh conditions (against the sun, etc) reflexions on the polarized glasses and on the external IR filter can produce concentric glares on images as the coating used to protect the lens agains reflexions works often only for the visible spectrum, not in IR.
    - Luxorion

  5. P1ncJune 28, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    Very interesting topic. I agree with Thierry, most normal polarizers have minimal effect since they are not designed for IR ight.

    See this link http://www.codixx.de/cms/polarizers/polarizer/polarizing-filters/ir-infrared-vis-visible.html These filters will work MUCH better as they are designed for IR light polarization. However the sizes are a bit small… I need 100*100 MM

    Thanks for the topic !

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