Polarizing Filters for Surf Photography

I had a question from a Andrew Grose recently about polarizing filters and whether they would be useful in surf photography, in particular for cutting out glare in late evening shots.

Here’s a quick explanation from Wikipedia:

A polarizing filter or polarising filter is often placed in front of the camera lens in photography in order to darken skies, manage reflections, or suppress glare from the surface of lakes or sea. Since reflections (and sky-light) tend to be at least partially linearly-polarized, a linear polarizer can be used to change the balance of the light in the photograph.

Before getting this question I’d only ever thought about using them in a housing and discussed how it’s a pain that you can’t easily use a filter on a fisheye lens in my comparison of the Sigma 10-20mm and Tokina 10-17mm fisheye.

Here’s an example of the type of shot that Andrew took in Indo, I can see from the Exif data that it was taken with a Samsung NX 300, with the following settings: ISO 200, 55mm, f11, 1/500:

I’ve done a bit of research and there doesn’t seem to be many people using a filter for surf photography, mostly because of the loss of light, you need such a high frame rate to freeze water and fast action (1/1000 is a good rule of thumb) that you’re usually struggling to keep the aperture narrow enough to keep everything in focus and the ISO down to avoid noise in the image unless it’s the middle of a bright sunny day. If you are shooting in bright sunshine though I think it could be a really good option, and if you’re not afraid to bump up the ISO then you could well end up with more dramatic shots than you would have otherwise.

So naturally I placed an order on Amazon for an inexpensive filter, I chose to go for the 52mm thread size so I could use it on my current 40mm pancake lens, and the 24mm Pancake lens that I’ve pre-ordered too. I took it down to the local lake at dusk to take a few test shots so I can work out how best to use it with my surf photography.

Right: with polarizer rotated to allow the reflected light through, ISO 400, 40mm, f5.6, 1/100, Left: Polarizer rotated 90 degrees to block most of the reflected light: ISO 400, 40mm, f5.6, 1/15
Left: with filter rotated to allow the reflected light through, ISO 400, 40mm, f5.6, 1/100, Right: filter rotated 90 degrees to block most of the reflected light: ISO 400, 40mm, f5.6, 1/15

In this example you can see two images that were taken a few seconds apart, in this type of extreme example it’s clear how this kind of filter could really make a big difference when shooting clear water over reefs for instance, allowing you to see past the reflections and to the sea below, as well as improving the contrast and colours in the photo too.

It also shows you that the filter cuts out quite a lot of light, in this case over two stops of light, meaning the shutter speed had to be lowered to take account of this (I should have just increased the ISO but I had the camera set up for some flash shots for eBay and forgot to change it back).

The example image I was sent from Andrew though was a line-up shot from the beach with the suns reflection creating glare on the surface of the water. I took these two photo’s to try and re-create the same sort of shot.


The effect is much less dramatic, but you can see that the image has been changed, some of the glare has been taken away and there’s more contrast in the image, the removal of reflections is not something that can be done in Photoshop or Lightroom, which makes it a very useful tool to have at your disposal when shooting any subject with reflective surfaces like water in it.

Would It Help In Indo?

Based on my test shots, a polarizing filter would have cut down the glare form the water and brought out more detail in the clouds and background, in order to get the same exposure the settings would have head to be adjusted.

I wouldn’t have wanted to go slower than the 1/500 shutter speed to make sure the wave wasn’t blurred, the aperture is more of a subjective choice, if you wanted to keep the boats in relatively sharp focus then you wouldn’t want to go too wide on the aperture, so you’d have to bump up the ISO quite a lot, I’d probably just go for ISO 800 on my Canon 70D and then widen the aperture slightly if necessary after that, but I’m not sure what the noise is like on the NX 300.

So it’s not a definite yes or no in this situation for the filter, but I’d say it would have been worth having one and experimenting at the very least, it doesn’t take much time to put the filter on and set it up and as long as you’re aware of the decrease in light coming in you could reveal details which couldn’t be re-created in processing afterwards.


I think the filter will be a good addition to my kit for general photography, and I’m looking forward to trying it out in my housing, especially when my new 24mm lens arrives, so I can see if I can get some nice shots which cut out the surface reflections, I also think it will be a great option for shooting SUP images on the river or on flat days when I don’t need the fast shutter speeds for freezing fast action and waves.

Once I get a chance to put the new lens and filter through it’s paces I’ll put up a full post with some surf examples.

If you use a polarizer for your surf photography, or if you’ve got any other questions or suggestions on testing mine out let me know in the comments or by e-mailing ben@learningsurfphotography.com


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