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Polarizing Filters: Powerful Filmmaking Tools

written by Shane Hurlbut, ASC

My cinematography interns and I set out on a mission to showcase the many uses of a polarizing filter. Questions have come up in the past about Fader NDs and their quickness. How can a polarizer help you tell your stories?

 

Driving Miss Daisy

The most common use for a pola is to cut reflections off of car windows. When you are driving down the road, nasty glare can affect just how much you see the faces inside the vehicle. By using a pola, you can choose exactly how much reflection you want to keep of overhanging trees or buildings on your windshield, or you can choose to eliminate all reflection to see deeper in the vehicle. On the New Mexico Department of Transportation campaign, I chose to keep just a little blue reflection on the glass. If we went under trees, they were reflected.

New Mexico Department of Transportation campaign

 

On Crazy/Beautiful, we were in the car a lot. I needed to mix it up a bit in different scenes. In some, I would inject significant blue sky contamination, while in others, I would dial it all out to see our actors and their emotions.

Crazy/Beautiful

Car Comparison

 

Creamier Skin for Period Pieces

Another use for the pola is using it to dial all skin reflection out. I am not a big fan of this, and it is the main reason that I don’t like Fader NDs. They consist of two polas that rotate against each other. This can give any desired Neutral Density you would like, but in the process, loses skin reflection. Yet sometimes this is desirable. On The Greatest Game Ever Played, I wanted the skin tones to be pasty and without reflection. This caused a very creamy look to the actor’s skin tones, which worked for the look of the film and its time period. I don’t like to take the vitality out of people’s skin in general, and that is what Fader NDs do.

Shia with Pola

Shia with Pola

Shia without Pola

Shia without Pola

Close up

 

To Darken: A Road Less Traveled

I have shot many car commercials, and you cannot always bring out a water truck to wet down the road so that it feels nice and black. A little trick you can do is to use the pola to take out the sky reflection in the road and make it a deeper shade of charcoal.

Street

 

Blue Sky

Another good reason to use a pola is to create bluer skies. This only works if you are shooting 90 degrees off the sun’s direction. If the sun is in the East, then polarization will be good shooting North and South. If your sun is in the South, you will have best polarization East and West. If you are 45% off of these coordinates, then you will get half of the effect. I find this process very useful in creating color contrast, which I feel is incredibly important with HD. This color contrast gives HD a more filmic look by using different colors to create contrast, not with just stretching your digital negative. If you have a sand colored scene, then getting a nice blue sky will help give the scene depth and dimension. If you have beautiful rich green trees, then a vibrant blue sky will offset this.

Sky shot

 

Saturation

In The Greatest Game, I not only used a pola to give creamy, pasty skin tones, but also to increase saturation in the trees, grass, etc. By using the pola to dial the sky reflection off of the leaves and grass, you get a deeper shade of green. This works for many colors that pick up sky refection as well.

Leaves

 

Equipment used for test footage:

Canon 5D Mark III
Neutral Picture Style, ISO 100, F2.8
24mm, 50mm, and 100mm Lenses
Letus LTMB1 Matte Box
Tiffen 138mm Ultra Polarizer
Tiffen Water White 4X5 ND Filters
OConnor 1030 Sticks and Head
Supplied by Revolution Cinema Rentals

The Letus LTMB1 Matte Box was used for shooting this test footage for its 138mm Rota Pola tray and adjustment wheel, which made it easy to adjust the polarizing filter while recording. Here are some of examples of the key features of the Matte Box:

Thanks to actor Adam Solon for being a part of our test.
How have you used polarizing filters?
What tricks have you discovered on shoots?



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70 comments

Page Lynch August 16, 2012 at 12:49 PM

Excellent post, Shane! Thanks for taking the time!

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:40 PM

Page Lynch, thank you so much for your kind words.

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Barrett K August 16, 2012 at 1:10 PM

Very interesting post! I’ve used the Fader ND many times but I have not yet got into the practice of using polarizing filters often. Is the Tiffen Polarizer your favorite or do you have other preferences?

Always a pleasure to read your blog!

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:40 PM

Barrett K, I love Tiffen glass in general, I like having circular and linear at the ready.

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Frank Glencairn August 16, 2012 at 1:15 PM

I found out (by accident), that if you have a pola on top of a variable ND, turning the pola changes color temp.

Frank

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:39 PM

Frank Glencairn, Yes Letus makes this exact item and it is pretty bangin’, go to their website and check it out. DSLR shooter just did a review of the Letus Master Cinema Series Mattebox and the color changing filter.

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Ben Corwin August 16, 2012 at 2:20 PM

Shane,

It must be exhausting keeping up this blog the way you do, but I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you do. Great post as always!

-Ben

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:38 PM

Ben Corwin, Its comments like these that keep me and my team going. Thank you for supporting and noticing, it takes a village. I have an amazing team surrounding me.

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Israel Perez August 16, 2012 at 2:35 PM

Thanks so much for sharing! I didn’t know you could do so much with them!
I do use them to get more chrominance out of skies an things like that but I had never thought of reflections.

Once you use them for a certain shot, do you keep using them through out the film? that is, regardless whether or not you need them.

Again, thank you so much!

Best regards,

Israel

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:37 PM

Israel Perez, Thank you so much for your wonderful kind words and support. I useably use them for wides then take them out when I go into medium and close ups.

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Ansel August 17, 2012 at 6:33 AM

I’ve just started playing around with ND filters, so your post is perfect timing. I appreciate the work you put into your blog.

Just a couple of quick side questions: How much did you use the 5D in Deadfall? Was it mainly just for the car shots?

Thanks again.
Ansel

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:36 PM

Ansel, thank you so much for your kind words and noticing the effort. 15% was 5D shots. The car accident, the snowmobile chase and little pick ups here and there.

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Thadon Calico August 17, 2012 at 7:57 AM

Thanks alot Uncle Shane! These blogs are insightful and I share them with everyone at my college and even the professors starting to recommend that we look at your blog periodically. Trust me, it beats film school. Nothing like a professional taking his time to give back to the next generation

I have one question! Whats the order for stacking ND’s and POLAS, which is supposed to be in front and whats the general rule for stacking FILTERS. Lastly, do you generally stack ND’s & POLAS together or just use POLAS alone and ND’s when trying to stop down

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:34 PM

Thadon Calico, You are so welcome and thank you so much for the kind words. I am glad you are able to use these posts. Maybe the professors can talk with your college to support and keep the blog going as a sponsor. Check out the little video I put at the end of the piece. I just added it today. Pola is always first, then ND. If you are using diffusion, the order would be Pola, then diffusion, then ND, yes, I stack pola’s and ND’s all the time.

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Oli Kember August 17, 2012 at 10:32 AM

Thanks for the videos. Very useful. Out of interest, when would you ever leave all the reflection in a car window so that it was hard to see the actors inside? Thanks.

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:31 PM

Oli Kember, check out the Crazy?Beautiful shot where I kept half in on Jay Hernandez, I did that because I wanted to show the distance between them, kind of gauze him a bit. Tony Scott does it all the time, CHeck out Man On Fire. I think it is a wonderful artistic choice to leave a little or a lot. losing all reflection seems forced

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Paul D August 17, 2012 at 11:47 AM

Hi Shane,

priceless post, thank you so much for the post and whole blog. In The greatest game ever played- you said your intension was to use fader ND to make the skin tones look creamy and without reflection. Let’s say you wouldn’t want to make them look that way, so you wouldn’t use ND’s, but you would want to keep that nice bokeh background you had in shots, for the talents to pop out. What would you do? I can imagine one method maybe to use zoom lens wich is stopped down to desired brightness?

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:28 PM

Paul D, First off thank you so much for your kind words and support of this blog. Comments like these keep me going. I never use Fader ND’s ever. They are not good for much of anything. What I did was use the pola to saturate the colors and remove the reflection from their faces. This is something that I do not do as a practice but for this period piece I thought it looked awesome, it was my artistic choice. But on any other film I would never use a pola when shooting medium or close up shots, it sucks the life our of their skin. I use ND’s and pola’s in combination all the time. I used heavy amounts of ND on Greatest Game, I pretty sure I shot most of the movie, even my day exteriors at a f 2.0.

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Paul D August 18, 2012 at 11:20 AM

Thanks for your reply Shane, may I ask why you don’t use Variable ND filters? And is it correct that they consist of two pola filters?

cheers!

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Shane August 18, 2012 at 12:22 PM

Paul D, the reason I do not like them is because of what it does to people’s skin, like in the video it sucks the life out of them, all that beautiful reflection, all that vitality.

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Paul D August 19, 2012 at 2:39 PM

Shane, you are absolutely right, just did a test with and with out Variable ND filter and with picture looks way flatter, so I guess if the light input has to be “dimmed” ND filter is the way to go

Shane August 19, 2012 at 9:32 PM

Paul D, yes, you got it. My Indie kit that I made at Tiffen is the way to go. HV Indie and Indie Plus, this is 77mm filters or you can go HV Pro and Pro Plus which include 4 x 5 filtration.

Paul D August 20, 2012 at 9:20 AM

Thanks Shane will look into them. What are your thoughts/experience with SOFT / FX filters?

Shane August 21, 2012 at 9:10 AM

Paul D, I like them very much, I still feel I would take Tiffen’s digital diffusion over Soft Efx’s though.

Stevo Vasiljevic August 17, 2012 at 1:09 PM

Best use of pola filters for me is to cut-off unwanted light fixatures reflections from shiny floors and walls while shooting interior scenes. Nothing reveal light setup (and rendering it artifacal and unbelivable) as reflection on floor.

I dont like to use them outside for cinematography, especialy circular one, becouse polarisation of light change with movment of camera. If take is stil, it work but as soon as you move camera light patterns start to change. I`m also not fan of what they do to the skin.

On last shooting i finnaly used linear instead of circular, it behave a bit more tolerant to camera movment but noticably less controlable.

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Shane August 17, 2012 at 7:24 PM

Stevo Vasiljevic, thank you so much for sharing. Linear is the way to go outside. I agree

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Martijn de Vre August 18, 2012 at 12:18 AM

Here in Holland i use The polar filters for The typical Dutch sky with The famous clouds. Like the paintings.

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Shane August 18, 2012 at 10:55 AM

Martijn de Vre, sweet. I love Holland, I thought I would be able to get to IBC but prepping my next film. Thanks for the support

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Chris Albert August 18, 2012 at 7:29 AM

Shane I’m a cameraman with 60 Minutes, just wanted to say how much i value your blog. Also just watched Act of Valour, its the best, most realistic theatrical combat footage i’ve seen. Period.

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Shane August 18, 2012 at 10:50 AM

Chris Albert, It is so wonderful to hear that the blog, which was my beautiful wife’s idea is touching so many people and helping them. Thank you for the kind words and your support with Act of Valor. I think we all knocked it out on that one.

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Kent Jakusz August 18, 2012 at 10:27 AM

Another exceptional job. As always the best info is found here.

Thank you.
Kent

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Shane August 18, 2012 at 10:48 AM

Kent Jakusz, thank you so much for those wonderful kind words and your support.

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Ansel August 19, 2012 at 11:19 PM

Hi again Shane,

You mentioned about adding more sponsors to the blog. My brother is the manager of a film school. His school may be interested in being a sponsor. He’s already a bit fan of yours.

Who do we talk to, to get the ball rolling?

Thanks,
Ansel

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Shane August 21, 2012 at 9:17 AM

Ansel, that is great news. Please have your brother reach out to [email protected]. She deals with all sponsorship and will send your brother our presentation. It has a lot of unique perks, Skype calls to the class, lighting workshops, etc. Look forward to us connecting.

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Ansel August 22, 2012 at 9:10 PM

Sounds great. Thanks Shane.

I’ll send that through to him.

Looking forward to seeing what we can work out.

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Shane August 23, 2012 at 2:22 PM

Ansel, I would love that, thank you for making the connection.

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Barry van Varik August 26, 2012 at 9:44 AM

Thank you for sharing this very useful information. The practical examples are especially helpful!
Really appreciate it.

Cheers,
Barry

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Shane August 26, 2012 at 4:10 PM

Barry van Varik, you are very welcome. Part two coming in hot on Wednesday

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David Eger August 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM

Shane,
Great article on Polarizing filters. I have always loved how they can cut window reflection as well as deepen skies. I shoot a lot with a skeleton crew, and by skeleton I mean I may have 2 other people with me if I am lucky so I don’t always have the means to control the light as much when I am shooting outside. That said I can see in your example why you are not a fan of dialing out the skin reflection in shots like that but what about when you have much harsher reflection from a more contrasty situation? Sometimes a bounce does not cut it enough to even thing out as much as I would want but what about in tandem with the Polarizer?
Thanks
-D

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Jendra Jarnagin September 2, 2012 at 10:08 PM

I often use a pola to cut haze especially for landscapes.

I didn’t know that about skin tones! I never really thought about it before or ever heard anyone else talk about it! Thanks for the post that turned out way more informative than I expected, being a veteran!

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Shane September 3, 2012 at 9:46 AM

Jendra Jarnagin, you are very welcome my friend. I am glad you found it useful.

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Michael Gaskell September 3, 2012 at 9:05 PM

Shane, such a great post. I was curious what lens setup and cam you used for the greatest game ever played. The skin tones seamed very creamy so I would suspect Leica or Optimos. Any direction would be appreciated. You’re such a great voice for the filmmaking community!

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Shane September 6, 2012 at 9:00 PM

Michael Gaskell, first off, thank you so much for your wonderful words. I used vintage Zeiss Panavision Ultra Primes. 1963 lens technology. Love the creamy look.

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Don September 5, 2012 at 1:04 PM

Shane,
Great series on filters.

I have, what i hope is not, a stupid question. Should filters be stacked in any certain order, if you are using multiples.

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Shane September 5, 2012 at 6:37 PM

Don. You if you are using a polarizer and ND you want to put the Pola first then ND. If you are using diffusion you want to use diffusion first then ND. Thanks for the comment and support.

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Don September 6, 2012 at 6:11 AM

Shane thanks for the reply.

Where in the stack would you place a Grad?

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Jose Burgos September 30, 2012 at 4:29 AM

Hello Shane,

I just want to thank you for all the information you give to all of us… this post blows my mind. I friend of mine told me about your blog..since then I try to read it every day and I always learn many things. Thanks so much again and God bless your wife for giving you this wonderful idea. Keep it coming and greetings from Lima-Peru

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Shane September 30, 2012 at 4:41 PM

Jose Burgos, these are the comments that inspire all of us at the HurlBlog. Thank you for the kind words and will pass this onto Lydia

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Filip Laureys November 23, 2012 at 2:45 AM

Thank you Shane,
I really admire that you take the time to make these tutorials. It really makes a difference and helps aspiring film makers incredibly. I have been trying to learn cinematography for a couple of years now. I shot some non profit commercials back in the Czech Republic and got a scholarship for a film school in Australia… but after a while I got slightly disillusioned, because most of the teaching staff don’t really care, their passion has somehow faded.

That is why I wanted to say a big Thank you, because seeing your passion for the craft and how you find the time to give back to the community, this is incredible… It gives a hope to kids like me, that even without being born into a film production family (that is how most people become film makers, where I come from) you can still learn cinematography.

I’m sorry for writing such a long reply, what mean is: simply thanks, if possible keep it up and if you ever need someone to shadow you, or know about anyone in Australia, who could use an assistant, I would be most grateful.

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Shane November 26, 2012 at 10:24 PM

Filip Laureys, These are the comments that keep me crakin’. I cannot thank you enough for your kind words and support. I want to come to Australia soon.

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Filip Laureys November 27, 2012 at 1:27 PM

Shane, when you come down to Australia, definitely let me know. The least I can do is treat you a dinner, or take you to the Great Ocean Road… since your work and tutorials have been helping so many aspiring film makers.

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Mike January 22, 2013 at 6:05 AM

Having shot a DSLR for about 7 years I feel confident in my shooting skills. The new aspect of video is another matter. I am overwhelmed with the amount of information and don’t even know where to start or what equipment to buy.

Maybe you could make a list of “must haves” for the novice to get you up and running in the right direction. This could be any number of things from lighting, external mics or some type of grip that makes smooth handling. Being a total novice maybe you could make a list with a short explanation of each item. If I am going to get started making some movies with this thing I want to be on my way with some decent gear and direction. Price isn’t the biggest consideration, I am more Interested in the nessecities for making some quality video.

Mostly I am looking to make some fun videos of motorcycles and automobiles set to music.
The genre isn’t all that important, more of the quality of the video and audio. Although setting it to music may share much
of the sound.

Thanks for putting this info out there. It’s just difficult getting started where this is maybe more
Advanced info then I am ready for.

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Steve C January 3, 2014 at 7:18 PM

Hi Shane,

Question regarding Linear vs Circular. I shoot primarily on Canon cameras (5d mkiii, C100, etc) and have been moving from screw on filters to a matte box. I am looking into picking up my first 138mm polarizer and am curious if I should go with a Linear or Circular Polarizer as my first. What are the notable differences in terms of image?

Thanks! Great website btw, so many nuggets of useful knowledge here!
-Steve

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Shane January 5, 2014 at 8:58 AM

Steve C, Linear and Circular are kind of hold overs from the days of film, but can be used with digital. The circular pola is a 2-stop pola, and the linear is a 1-stop pola. The circular will cut through windows much better, where the linear is great for low light situations where you cannot afford to loose another stop.

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Clayton January 30, 2014 at 12:15 AM

Hi Shane,
Do you find that Variable ND’s also affect the color of skin? How about regular Polarizer’s? Not a fan of orange skin, and there seems to be some debate as to whether or not there is a hue shift. Going 5.65 x 5.65 on a Cooke 20-100 and am thinking a circular + linear would be a nice way of keeping my T4/5.6 split without having to swap out ND’s all the time…thanks in advance for your pov.

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Shane February 3, 2014 at 10:33 AM

Clayton, yes, they do change the color of the skin, they dial out the reflection in it and make it look pasty. This is the main reason why I have stayed away from these variable ND’s I am old school. If I need more ND, I screw a thicker one on instead of simply rotating two pola’s.

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Rahul March 19, 2014 at 5:46 AM

Great Post @Shane Hurlbut appreciate what you are doing here for budding filmmakers like myself and you personally replies to every single comments made her. That’s really nice… Good work will be a regular visitor from now onward.

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Shane March 20, 2014 at 3:48 AM

Rahul, thank you very much for the kind words and welcome to the HurlBlog. I am glad you like the content, we do it much different. Thanks for the support.

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Michael April 2, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Hey Shane! Great Post. My question is will shooting with a Variable ND filter to get that Depth of Field with a Polarizing Filter to get the nice blue sky ruin the quality of my image? Or will it work in general?

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Shane April 8, 2014 at 12:13 PM

Michael, it will work in general, you just have to see what it does to the skin tones, in a wide shot you can get a way with it no problem

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Shane May 26, 2014 at 8:53 AM

Michael, yes it will give you talent very powdery, lifeless skin tones, it dials all reflection out of their skin. Sometimes I want to do this, like on Greatest Game I wanted that old vintage look.

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Khurram Waheed November 11, 2014 at 4:35 AM

Hello Shane,
A real informative write-up and very helpful indeed. I am a CCTV installer. One of my client requires 100% facial capture at its entry point. a fixed camera (IP 4 Megapixels) is already in place. But facial capture inside the moving vehicle is not being done due to heavy glare.
Is there any way I can achieve the capture the camera model being used is (ACTi KCM-5211E)

(WEB LINK:http://www2.acti.com/controller/product/product_info.asp?CRID=Box_Camera&PRID=KCM-5211E)

Could you please help me to decide which specific lens filter should I try?

I will be grateful.

Regards,

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Matt December 16, 2014 at 12:11 AM

Hi Shane

I just discovered your blog, I have a question about polarising filters. I bought a Marumi digital circular polarising filter and when I use it with my t2i DSLR on a car-mount attached to my car bonnet – I still have a lot of glare and reflection on my windshield and it is hard to see the actors face. I find when I adjust the filter only a small roundish area on the windshield becomes ‘reflection-free’ not the entire windshield. Am i doing something wrong or do I need a better polariser?

Thanks!

Matt

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Ahmed El Lozy September 24, 2015 at 4:05 AM

Hello Shane, thank you for this insightful post and for this blog in general. I’m an (aspiring) cinematography and It’s always a pleasure to see an established cinematographer who’s willing to share his knowledge with others.
I have a question regarding the use of:
1- How do you know how much exposure compensation you need? This is because their effect changes with the angle of rotation so I was wondering whether you always went for the 1.5/2 stops compensation as a guideline or do you have a way of measuring how much light the polarizing filter is cutting off once you have set it at a certain angle?
2- You mentioned using the polarizing filter on a wide shot and taking it out when shooting a close-up? Wouldn’t that create a possible lighting continuity problem (just because the looks is different)
3- Could you please explain why Linear polarizing filters are better for outside use?

Thank you,
Ahmed El Lozy

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Shane October 3, 2015 at 2:55 PM

1. Hi Ahmed. Thank you for your kind words and support of our blog. When I was exposing film I just rated it at 2 stops. You can get one stop and two stop polas. Yes by changing it increases or decreases your stops but on the monitor you should be able to judge this and adjust you exposure for absolute accuracy.

2. You will not see a difference. You can easily balance it in color correction and keep life to your skin. Polarizers destroy the life on skin tones, so I try not to use it when I go in for coverage. On the wides you can use it to do the sky, astute grass, etc. but with skin I am not a big fan unless you are going for that powdery feel.

3. They tend to grab the sky better and work with sky reflections

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