A TAIL OF TWO DUCKS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHING WATER IS A CONSTANTLY NEW CHALLENGE, since it is either an active surface, a static mirror or a revealing microscope, depending on how light on it is read by your camera. As active surface, its waves, surges and ripples break light up into endless shards. As mirror, it reflects clouds or other features that may or may not even be seen in frame, producing a reverse-angle version of reality. And as revealing microscope, it invites you to peer into its depths, providing a glimpse into a hidden world.
One of the cheapest and most effective toys available to deliver all of these renditions of water is the humble circulating polarizing filter, a quick screw-on available for virtually every kind of lens. Just match up the width of the lens threads with a filter that meets those dimensions and you’re all set. Polarizers serve two main purposes for photographers. The first is the ability to render overly bright skies a deep rich blue, helping all color pop with a little deeper impact. The second is to control the amount of glare you want in photographing water. Both functions are dialed up simply by rotating the filter’s movable outer ring, which is how you control the range of the effects you desire.
Polarizers work best when the sun is nearly directly overhead, or at a 90-degree angle with the front of your lens. In fact, though, even if this algebra is a little off, it will still produce a measurable effect, and having the time to shoot and adjust at the same pool or stream will give you an idea of how much you’ll want to apply to control the transparency of the water’s surface.
In the image at the very top of this page the mallard’s wake creates glorious grooves in a forest pond. The polarizer has been rotated for maximum reflective effect of the sky and the tree growth overhead. Earlier in the same shoot, the squatting duck in the lower photo was shot to give a little mirror effect, but with a slight hint of transparency to allow both clouds and shore rocks to be seen in the same shot. That’s the beauty of polarized light; it can be calibrated in real time, so that you know, ahead of the shutter click, just how much you’ve opted for. As is the case with a lot of traditional photo techniques, the use of filters, decidedly old-school in nature, allows more control than trying to manipulate the same shot in post-production.
One caution: although there are dozens of manufacturers for circular polarizing filters, many of them very reasonable in price, there is some variance in the effectiveness of certain brands. Read a lot of user reviews and get the one that delivers the goods in full. Other than that, the true nature of water in your photos can have as much poetry, or mystery, as your fingers can dial up. Neat.