Polarization: Uses of Plane Polarised Light and Polaroids

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Light is an electromagnetic wave that travels in the form of energy. One of its fascinating properties is polarization, which refers to the orientation of the electric field vector associated with the light wave.

Nature of Light

Light consists of both electric and magnetic fields oscillating perpendicular to each other and to the direction of wave propagation. The electric field is responsible for the interaction of light with matter and determines the polarization of light.

Definition of Polarization

Polarization of light is the direction in which the electric field vibrates as the light wave propagates. It plays a crucial role in understanding how light interacts with various materials and how it can be manipulated for different applications.

Unpolarized Light

In its natural state, light is often unpolarized, meaning the electric field vector has no specific orientation. The electric field vibrates in all possible directions perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation. This is similar to the random motion of a crowd where people move in various directions without any specific order.

Polarizing Light

Polarization can be achieved by selectively allowing light waves with a specific orientation of the electric field to pass through a polarizing filter. A common example is polarized sunglasses, which reduce glare by allowing only vertically polarized light to pass through, blocking horizontally polarized light.

polarizing filter
polarizing filter (Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Types of Polarization

There are three main types of polarization:

Linear Polarization

  • In linear polarization, the electric field vibrates in a specific direction along a straight line.
  • This is like the organized movement of people in a queue, all moving in the same direction.

Circular Polarization

  • In circular polarization, the electric field rotates in a circular motion as the wave propagates.
  • Imagine people in a circle, each person moving around the center in a coordinated manner.

Elliptical Polarization

  • Elliptical polarization is a combination of linear and circular polarization.
  • It’s like a mix of linear and circular motion, showcasing the versatility of polarized light.

What are Polaroids?

In physics, “polaroids” typically refer to polarizing filters or sheets that are used to control the direction of polarization of light.

Polarization is a property of transverse waves, such as light waves, where the oscillations occur in a specific direction.

Polaroid sheets are made of a material that selectively absorbs light vibrations in one direction while allowing vibrations in another direction to pass through. These sheets are commonly used in optics experiments, photography, and various applications to control the orientation of polarized light.

When unpolarized light passes through a polaroid sheet, the light becomes polarized, meaning that the vibrations of the light waves are restricted to a specific orientation.

If you have two polaroids with their transmission axes oriented at a certain angle to each other, the intensity of light passing through both sheets will be affected by the relative alignment of their polarization axes. This interaction is known as Malus’s Law.

Polaroids find applications in various optical devices, including sunglasses, camera filters, and LCD screens, where controlling the polarization of light is essential for achieving specific visual effects or improving visibility.

What is a Polarizing Filter?

A polarizing filter, also known as a polarizer, is an optical filter that allows light waves of a specific polarization to pass through while blocking light waves of other polarizations.

These filters are commonly used in photography, cinematography, and various optical applications to control reflections, and glare, and enhance contrast.

Here are some key features and uses of polarizing filters:

Selective Light Transmission

Polarizing filters are designed to transmit light waves with a specific polarization orientation. They typically consist of a polarizing film or material that selectively absorbs light waves vibrating in certain directions.

Reduction of Glare

One of the primary applications of polarizing filters is to reduce glare and reflections, especially from non-metallic surfaces such as water, glass, and shiny objects. By selectively blocking horizontally polarized light, polarizers can minimize glare and improve the visibility of objects.

Enhanced Color and Contrast

Polarizing filters can enhance colors and improve contrast in a scene by reducing the intensity of scattered light. This is particularly useful in landscape photography, where the sky appears bluer, and foliage becomes more vibrant.

Sky Darkening

When photographing a clear sky, a polarizing filter can darken the blue color by reducing the scattered light. This effect is more pronounced at a 90-degree angle to the sun.

Reflection Control in Water

Polarizers are effective in reducing reflections on the surface of water, allowing photographers to capture clearer images of underwater objects or enhance the visibility of rocks and other features beneath the water’s surface.

Portrait Photography

In portrait photography, polarizing filters can be used to reduce unwanted reflections on the skin, giving a more natural and even appearance to the subject.

Improving Transparency

Polarizing filters are employed in microscopy and other scientific applications to improve the transparency of certain materials. They can help reveal details that might be obscured by reflections or glare.

LCD Screens and Monitors

Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) use polarizing filters to control the orientation of polarized light, allowing for the creation of images on screens in devices such as computers, televisions, and smartphones.

Polarimetry and Research

Polarizing filters are essential tools in polarimetry, a technique used in physics and materials science to measure and analyze the polarization state of light. They are also used in various research applications where precise control of polarized light is required.

When using a polarizing filter, it’s important to adjust its orientation to achieve the desired effects, as the impact of polarization varies with the angle of the filter relative to the light source and the scene being photographed.

Uses of Plane Polarised Light and Polaroids

Plane-polarized light and polaroids have several important applications in various fields. Some of the notable uses include:


Polaroid filters are commonly used in photography to reduce glare and reflections from non-metallic surfaces such as water or glass. They also enhance colors and contrast in certain situations by selectively blocking light waves with specific orientations.

LCD Screens

Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) in devices like computer monitors, television screens, and smartphones use polarizing filters. The liquid crystals in an LCD rotate the polarization of light, and polarizers are used to control the orientation of this polarized light, allowing or blocking it to create images.


Polarized light microscopy is a technique used in biology and materials science. It helps to study birefringent materials (materials that change the polarization state of light passing through them) and provides additional information about the structure and composition of samples.


Polarized light is extensively used in geology and mineralogy to study and identify minerals. Different minerals exhibit unique optical properties when viewed under polarized light, allowing scientists to characterize and differentiate them.

Material Stress Analysis

Polarized light is used in the stress analysis of transparent materials. When stressed, materials may alter the polarization state of light passing through them, providing information about internal stresses and structural integrity.

3D Movies

Some 3D movies use polarized light to separate left-eye and right-eye images. Viewers wear glasses with different polarizing filters for each eye, allowing each eye to see a slightly different perspective, creating a 3D effect.

Optical Instruments

Polaroids are employed in various optical instruments, such as polarimeters and spectrophotometers, to control and analyze the polarization of light for accurate measurements.


Polarized sunglasses reduce glare from reflective surfaces like water or roads. They are designed to block horizontally polarized light, which is often associated with glare while allowing vertically polarized light to pass through.

Communication Devices

Certain optical communication devices use polarized light to transmit information. Controlling the polarization state can help in modulating and encoding data for communication purposes.

Research and Experiments

Polarized light is used in scientific research and experiments to study the behavior of light in different materials, investigate optical properties, and explore fundamental principles of optics.

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