Polarizers and the M System
Last updated February 4, 2012
Anyone who's shot landscapes before has probably heard of, considered or used a polarizing filter. if you're not familiar, they're a darkish gray color and act just like those expensive sunglasses. That is, they cut glare and even reflections (from non-metallic objects) such as water and glass. They serve to deepen colors, making your blue skies bluer and your green grass and trees, well, greener. However, there is a price. You'll lose a stop to a stop and a half of light at its maximum setting. Usually this isn't much of a problem when taking landscape shots though. So what about using one with the M system?
Circular or Linear?
Circular polarizing filters are mostly for auto focus cameras; there's no need with the M system. Stick with linear filters. What about those Kaesemann versions? If you shoot in extreme conditions, you might consider one, but generally they'd be overkill. For one thing, the M system isn't weathersealed either.
The problem with using a polarizer on an M camera is simply due to the fact that you're not looking through the lens/filter - and thus, cannot gauge the filter's effect on your image. it would be one thing if it were a solid color, or a neutral density filter where the effect is the same regardless of where you point the lens. With a polarizing filter, it's not so simple. The effect changes - often dramatically, depending on the angle to the sun. The wider the lens, the more dramatic this becomes. So how do you get around this?
You have a few choices, thankfully! So let's take a look at the options in increasing order of, let's say price (and inversely, complexity).
You can use a normal polarizing filter on an M camera that meters through the lens. The way to do it is to frame your shot and while the meter is active - turn the filter until you get the slowest shutter speed reading - meaning the filter is at its maximum effect. On the plus side, this method requires nothing fancy as far as filters go and is a free solution. Negatively, there's no way to judge just how much your image is being affected by the polarizer - and yes, it can be overdone.
Index Your Filter
Another lo-tech method is to take your polarizer and using either a paint pen, a Sharpie marker or an engraving tool - and making regularly spaced index marks on the frame of your filter. To use this method, simply look through your filter at the scene and rotate the filter as necessary for the desired effect. Note the index mark closest to "up." Attach the filter to your lens and rotate the filter so that the same index mark you noted earlier is in the same position. Meter and shoot. Yes, this is as big of a pain as it sounds. But hey, it's free too. Some polarizing filters even have index marks already on the frame, from tick marks to numbers.
This method takes the price up a notch by buying two identical filters. You'll want to make index marks on each as in the previous solution - but it's not quite that simple. Having two otherwise identical filters from the same manufacturer and specifications is necessary but even then, the actual position of the filter within the frame will likely not be the same for both. So you'll need to rotate each filter in turn, noting its least (or maximum) effect to ensure they're as close as possible - and index from there. Otherwise the two filters won't agree and make this solution pointless. The idea is simple. You keep one polarizer on your lens, while you have a separate one that you can hold up to your scene. Rotate until you get the desired effect on one, dial it in on the other - using index marks to set it. Not a bad solution, really - except now you have to walk around with a camera in one hand and a polarizer in the other while you're actively shooting.
The Kenko Solution
Kenko makes a solution to the problem involving multiple identical polarizers as above; with index marks on the frames of two filters. The cost isn't bad, but it's more expensive than rolling your own - but at least they do the dirty work for you.
Leica Goodies "Steps"
This solution is probably the most flexible, yet also simple. You only need one polarizer, but a large one at that - 77mm. The kit is a collection of step rings of 39-46mm, 46-55mm and 55-60mm which will then hold the last step ring, a 60-77mm that looks like a regular vented hood. The way it works is that you attach your filter to the largest ring and add the appropriate step ring(s) necessary to attach to your lens... The beauty is that you can now (hopefully) look through your viewfinder and peek through the vents to gauge the polarizing filter's effect. Meter and shoot as normal. One nice benefit to this solution is that you can use whatever polarizer you like, including the very nice, very strong B+W Kaesmann (though in a 77mm size it's about as much as the "Steps" kit itself). There's also nothing to index or line up and no carrying a separate filter. Get yourself a 77mm lens cap and you're aces. The downside is that this won't work too well on very wide lenses without vignetting, and adding any sort of hood will only make things worse.
Leica Universal Polarizer
This option isn't cheap - in fact it's the most expensive. In true Leica fashion, it's also the most elegant. But we say that loosely as it's still a contraption that would make Rube Goldberg proud. However, it's the easiest and quickest solution to use. Basically it's a frame that slips over an adapter ring/flange which is fitted to your lens (so the whole polarizer assembly is very fast to put on and take off). It splits and swivels up, placing the polarizer in front of your viewfinder (with a click detent). The way it works is - you frame your shot and swivel the polarizer up to set its effect. Swing the polarizer back down (which travels a full 180º keeping the polarizing effect identical), take your meter reading and shoot. There's no juggling of a separate filter, no index marks to line up, takes into consideration setting the effect and taking a meter reading - all with a flick of the filter. Some like to have it swing up in front of the viewfinder, others like to angle it straight up - but that requires looking through the filter separately much like an external viewfinder. You'll have to figure out what works best for you, but the options are there.
It only works with certain lenses as supplied - it comes with E39 (39mm) and E46 (46mm) rings but you can pick up two different E49 (49mm) filters for specific lenses:
- Leica #14211 - All E49 lenses except the 135mm F3.4 and 75mm F2
- Leica #14418 - For the 135mm F3.4 and 75mm F2
If you omit the adapter, you can actually fit the polarizer around a 52mm lens such as the Voigtländer 1,2/35 Nokton. Just make sure it's tightened very snugly as you lose the benefit of the included adapter flanges - a lip to hold onto the assembly as a safety. You'll have to test with your own lenses to see how you might be able to adapt it, as you can also use step rings, such as a 43-46mm for example. So depending, it's not as limiting as it might sound if you have the appropriate step rings.
The polarizer has a mini hood, but being universal in nature it's not that deep. There are no provisions for screwing in a deeper one. It comes with a nicely padded leather case but unfortunately it makes for a rather large item to stash in your bag! A solution we've found is to use a regular plastic filter case designed for a deep filter (in this case, a Canon CPL52 for the large L telephoto lenses).
So yes, it's expensive (running a couple of hundred dollars used), but it's both designed and built beautifully as you might expect from Leica. It's machined out of aluminum and anodized in a black finish, as are the adapter flanges. Both up and down positions have a firm detent to lock the filter in position.
E. Leitz N.Y. swing out polarizing filter E39, codename: FISUMMI, part number #13396, with clamp-on feature. Can be used with all Leica lenses with an E39 filter size and Canon LTM lenses with a 40mm filter size. Used street price, roughly $70 USD.
So there you have it. Several solutions to an otherwise simple problem. If you like using polarizing filters (and there's a lot to like about them) then seriously consider the Leica solution. If you only occasionally use one, then just judging by exposure alone (as in the first method) is probably best.