When we think of polarizing filters, we automatically think about a filter that makes the sky a deeper blue. It is fantastic for blue skies, and that makes it wonderful on a sunny day while shooting landscapes. Outside of that narrow use, a polarizer is something that we would leave in the bag…right? Well, that was what I thought for many years because that was what my Dad had told me a polarizer was good for. I have since learned so many more uses for a polarizing filter, and honestly, you can find one attached to my camera more often than not. I have found that they are useful in not only the blue sky situation, but also in waterfall photography, general landscape photography, woodland photography, and even automotive photography. Pretty much everything that I shoot benefits from the use of a polarizer. Over the years I have used many different brands and have had varying success with them. One thing that I can say with complete confidence is that with this type of filter, you will get what you pay for, and a good quality polarizer will cost more than you think it is worth, but it will be worth it. Currently, I use both a B+W Polarizer as well as a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer. I would like to take a while and actually talk about the Singh-Ray filter and give it a little review since this is the filter that you can pretty much bet is on my lens for the majority of my images.
Lets start with the basics, the Singh-Ray Catalog describes this filter as a polarizer and color intensifier in one filter. It combines the dramatic creative impact of a warming polarizer and color intensifier into one filter. It enables you to control glare and reflection while boosting shadow detail, local contrast, and the saturation of reds, greens, and warm tones. It sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? Well for $420 I was a bit skeptical as well when I bought this filter in 2013…that’s right, I bought this filter with my own money. In full disclosure, I am writing this review about a filter that I have purchased, and without any guarantee of compensation from Singh-Ray, although it was suggested by one of their marketing gurus that I try writing a few reviews to see if the style would work for Singh-Ray. I was happy to oblige since I do enjoy writing reviews, and I really do love my Singh-Ray Filters (I own nine of them currently). So, let’s get down to business and talk about why this filter is worth the money that you will spend on it.
Defining a Polarizer
A good quality polarizer works by removing glare from water and moist surfaces, along with some reflections. It does this without causing a strange color cast. The inexpensive ones will create odd color casts that must be dealt with in post processing to yield a pleasing image. While this might sound like a fair trade off to save a few bucks, my time is money, and I don’t want to spend it “fixing” an image at the computer. Speaking of post processing, this is one of the few filters that really can’t be duplicated with software. The effect that a polarizer gives is unique and deals with how the waves of light are seen through the lens. By reducing glare and some reflections, you will actually be able to see much more contrast and saturation in an image which can completely transform how a scene looks. You are essentially revealing hidden elements in whatever scene you are shooting. Try to reveal that with software after the shot.
Singh-Ray has always made quality filters, and while that is reason enough to consider this line, something else they do which I really like is they listen to photographers about what they need in a filter. This single Color Combo Polarizer actually replaces three different filters that I once upon a time would use. This includes the polarizer, an 81A warming filter, and a color intensifier. Yes, I have owned and used all three of these filters before. The problem with stacking filters is you are degrading the image quality with all the extra glass, and you are undoubtedly going to introduce vignetting into your image (darkening in the corners). I can now get the benefit of all three of these filters with a single piece which is high enough quality I don’t have a problem putting it in front of my Canon “L” glass. The last thing I want to do is put a cheap piece of glass in line with top shelf optics that render that four digit lens on par with a kit lens.
One of the many uses I have for the Color Combo Filter is with my waterfall photography. I don’t do this often, but I have actually shot this image without a filter and then added the filter and adjusted the shutter speed to give you an idea of the difference that the filter makes. Obviously, this is a darker image and that is a product of the increased contrast that the filter provides. When working with waterfalls, you have to expose with the highlights in mind so much of the other areas go a bit dark to protect those highlights. A polarizer will typically subtract two stops of light from a scene and we see that phenomenon happen in the example above. It is actually 2.3 stops difference 0″4 to 2 seconds to get a similar exposure on the white water. These are both straight out of the camera and neither has been processed yet. Once it went through Lightroom, this is what I ended up with.
As you can see, the polarizer allowed me to capture the detail below the surface of the water and it took the glare off of the rocks which were wet. Most of the glare in a scene comes from water droplets. Water in present in so many things in the natural world. Obviously, the water in this scene is affected by the polarizer, but the vegetation is as well. There is a lot of water present in the leaves and the polarizer cuts that glare and really saturates the colors. The Color Combo Polarizer takes it a step further and it warms the scene slightly, and it intensifies many of the colors present in a typical landscape. For me, the look is wonderful because I love saturated colors in my landscapes. It is a subtle difference from my “regular” B+W Polarizer, but one that I notice, and that can’t be duplicated with just an adjustment to the white balance. These differences continue into other aspects of photography as well.
As I mentioned, a polarizer can reduce not only glare, but reflections in your subjects. One of my favorite subjects to work with are old cars. There are a lot of problem areas with cars such as the windshields, and glare off of the metal surfaces. Believe it or not, a polarizer works here very well. I don’t have a before and after comparison of this one, but you can see that the windshield is not a complete reflection of the overcast sky which would equal a white windshield for sure. When I was setting the shot up, the two panes of glass were essentially white from the clouds above. By dialing in the polarizer, I was able to cut that reflection from the windshield and also reduce the glare on the hood and fender. This allowed for greater saturation of the patina which is a trademark of my photography. The surrounding vegetation is also rendered much more saturated. You will notice the chrome bumper and that is an exception to how a polarizer works. It will not eliminate a reflected image, just reflected light. So, anything that is being reflected in the chrome surface, will remain reflected which is why you will always see me darting off stage left after pressing the button with these subjects. I’m not trying to be a cameo in my own photographs. The Color Combo aspect of this filter really comes into play with this image because of the warm tones that are present as well as the vibrant greens in the left half of the photograph. These colors are brought out at the time of capture and really makes this image pop. I could spend time getting this done in post production, but I have always prided myself on getting the picture right in the field rather than at home after the fact. That is what makes this filter so valuable to me.
Of course, you have to talk about skies with any polarizer review, and here is the gratuitous sky shot. Here you can see the impact it has with the puffy clouds which is when it truly shines. The added contrast given from the deepened blue tones really makes the clouds jump out at you. An added benefit with this image is that the tin roof suffered from glare from the sun which the Color Combo Polarizer cut right through and allowed the rusty reds to be seen. Of course, red is one of the colors that the Color Combo Polarizer will enhance as well as the green. It is almost like adjusting the saturation sliders in the field. Color balance is so important with photography, and without having that red roof, the image would have been too cool overall and not nearly as successful. Something worth mentioning is that when photographing a sky, a polarizing filter is most effective when used 90 degrees from the sun. This basically means that you will get the most effect when shooting North and South, when the sun is lower in the East or the West. As the sun reaches high noon, and the closer your angle of the shot gets to that East/West plane, the less effect you will see. Something to also keep in mind with this is when shooting a wide angle lens (wider than about 35mm), you run the risk of having some very uneven blue tones in the sky as you are capturing a wide range of polarizations in the sky. Conversely, on a cloudy day, the sun is less directional so a polarizer will work in pretty much any direction you point it.
What do you get from Singh-Ray?
We’ve talked a lot about the benefits you will get from using a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer over just a regular polarizer, but what makes this filter worth the money? When you get the filter, it will arrive in a nice pouch with soft lining. This pouch is just fine to store your filter in, and it even has a label on the retention strap which will wear off eventually (as you can see on mine). I’ve actually taped a piece of construction paper to the top of the flap so I can see what the case contains when opening up my bag. That has worked better for me over the years than the original label. My filter is an 82mm filter which fits the threads on my largest lens, and I use a step up ring for my smaller 77mm diameter lens. This allows me to only have to carry (and purchase) a single filter. The build quality is what I would expect with such a high price. The framework of the filter is solid, and there is a lot to grab onto. The optics are flawless from what I can see. Even after five years of steady use on this filter it is still in like new condition.
As with any polarizer, there are actually two rings which move independently. The one that is ribbed fits onto the front of your lens or the step up ring. As with any screw on filter, you thread it onto the lens and tighten it down. Try not to make it lug nut tight, you will thank me later. Once the filter is secure, the outer ring that holds the actual filter material can be rotated. This is how the effect is seen through the lens. You are essentially organizing the wavelengths of the light until you arrive at the level of polarization that you want in your image. This is a totally creative choice and there are no right or wrong answers for this. If you look closely, you will see a light ribbing on the edge of the outer ring. This might not be a big deal to some, but I love this feature as I shoot with a lens hood on most of the time to shield the front element from any stray light that might hit it. With a hood on, I can still get my finger in there to rotate the filter without touching the optics. It is a small thing, but that has saved me a lot of time over the years not having to remove the hood just to adjust the filter. Something else that you will notice about this filter is that the front of it has threads. That means that I can stack another 82mm screw on filter onto this one if needed. This comes in handy occasionally, but because of the depth of this filter, I will usually swap in my B+W Polarizer instead. I’ll get into that more in a bit.
Looking at the designation I’ve touched on pretty much everything that is printed with the exception of the “LB” designation. This stands for Lighter Brighter, and it is Singh-Ray’s way of saying that this polarizer doesn’t come with quite the same light penalty that the competition has. Their description has this filter as allowing 2/3 of a stop more light in than the competitors. I’ve found it comparable to my B+W Polarizer in light reduction, and as we saw earlier in this review, it reduced the light coming into the camera by a total of 2 1/3 stops. This would indicate that the competition is reducing light as much as three stops. I can’t verify this, but it seems that this claim might not be so accurate, but for me it doesn’t matter at all. If you are shooting handheld, keep in mind that this will reduce your available light and slow your shutter down significantly, as will any polarizer. For a waterfall photographer, I see this light reduction as a plus, and since I shoot exclusively on a tripod, long shutter speeds don’t scare me at all.
I can say that the actual filter material is pretty resilient as I have used it in not the best of conditions for years now. it has withstood water spray, ocean air, grit, and rain. With proper care and cleaning techniques I have yet to see any blemishes on the optical parts of this filter. I can’t say that for other filters that I have used in the past which were cared for the same way. The dual rings have remained smooth over the years as well. Some of the cheaper polarizers can feel loose, and make you worry that they will come apart with use. The Singh-Ray filter is nothing like that. It will take a bit of getting used to though. It feels as if there is a thin layer of grease between the two units. The turning is dampened ever so slightly which I didn’t like at first, but over time, I have come to appreciate it. There is nothing quite as frustrating as getting your filter set and the accidentally brushing it while going for the focus ring (different lenses are different lengths) and knocking the filter out of whack. By having this slight dampening between the rings, you are much less likely to do that. It has also started to make me think about the quality of this filter since this feel has remained exactly the same since it was new. Nothing has leaked out so I’m not worried about the substance that is in there smearing over the filter. It just feels like an expensive filter, which I appreciate after spending $420.00 on this piece of equipment that fits in my hand.
What would I change?
Well, the first thing that I would change is not Singh-Ray’s fault at all. In order to save $30, I opted for the standard ring filter as opposed to the slim ring filter. This means that any time I have to add another filter or my slot filter holder, I have to worry about vignetting on the wide end of my lenses. My only option is to switch over to my B+W Polarizer which honestly is the only reason that I keep that polarizer in my kit. It is a slim ring filter with threads on the front side for additional filters or filter mounts. If I’m stacking, I’m usually missing out on my Singh-Ray Polarizer which makes me sad. I am lucky that with this filter there is no vignetting on my 16-35mm f/2.8LII lens even at 16mm. However, add the Lee Filter holder in front of it, and there is vignetting until about 24-28mm on that lens. With the B+W polarizer and the Lee Filter holder, I’m good all the way out to 18mm with the same lens. That is a significant difference for me.
I feel better about my choice when I see that Singh-Ray’s slim line filter doesn’t have threads on the front, so I really wouldn’t have gained anything by spending that extra money for the slim line filter. I would love to see Singh-Ray develop this filter as a slim filter with threads on the front though. But looking at my current filter system, I would probably opt to go to a 105mm filter and use my Lee Filter Holder as a mount for it so that it would be out front and I could do my ND Grads behind the polarizer.
Something else that I wish Singh-Ray would have done was to put a label on the filter case at the top. With most of the storage options I have used over the years, the top edge of the case is all that you see, and that is where you need to see what filter you are dealing with. It is a simple fix by just taping your own label to the edge at least. This is really picking nits and by no means is this a knock on the filter. I imagine that most customers will ditch the supplied pouch to put in their own filter wallet anyway.
I have mentioned the price of this filter several times and I hope that I have given you a bit to think about when it comes to how to spend your money. My B+W Polarizer was the first filter that I purchased with this current camera kit, and it cost me $245 at the time. It is a great polarizer, and it is a slim one to boot. Why on Earth did I change and go with a more expensive filter? Well, I saw several advertisements showing how this Color Combo Filter was great for boosting other colors, not just the blue in the sky. Since I love my saturated landscapes I was interested. I had been using several Singh-ray ND Grads for a while now and knew I liked the quality of the company and found that their claims were generally spot on. I decided to give it a chance because of the three filters that it would combine. It took me a while to really warm up to it though. I used it for only specific shots for a while, but the more I used it, the more I liked how it worked in all situations where I was using a polarizer. I eventually realized that unless I needed to stack filters, I was using the Color Combo filter exclusively. I have also noted that the colors in my images have become much better over the recent years when I have been using this filter.
Is it worth your money? I can’t answer that. If you photograph similar subjects to me, and like generally warm tones, and deep saturated colors, then I would say it is definitely a worth a look. If you are a black and white photographer, don’t shy away from this filter as it can do pretty amazing things for your contrasts which are very important in monochrome photography. Polarizers in general can give you an awesome sky in black and white with clouds present. The Color Combo will help additionally with the rest of the tones as well which is where black and white photography either succeeds or fails.
It is worth mentioning again. If you have high quality glass that you have spent thousands of dollars on in order to get sharp images why would you put a cheap piece of glass or plastic in front of the lens which will only degrade the overall quality? I hear you saying that you only have a kit lens and you aren’t worried about cheap glass in front of your lens. My argument doesn’t hold as much weight then, but if you have read this far, you care about your images and want the best for them. A filter will help you achieve that end result that you are after. You will get what you pay for, and my money will always go on something that is well built and optically sound. Singh-Ray does that for me, and the Color Combo Polarizer delivers with everything that I ask of it. It is a crucial part of my creative experience behind the camera.
If you do decide to order from www.singh-ray.com, I can help save you 10% off of your order by using the code “KISER10” at checkout. All of a sudden, that $420 I spent would actually be $378!! I wish I had that kind of deal when I was purchasing my filters. You really need to give it a try, you won’t be sorry.