Circular polarizers, also referred to as circular polarizing filters, can be used to create circularly polarized light or alternatively to selectively absorb or pass clockwise and counter-clockwise circularly polarized light. They are used as polarizing filters in photography to reduce oblique reflections from non-metallic surfaces, and are the lenses of the 3D glasses worn for viewing some stereoscopic movies (notably, the RealD 3D variety), where the polarization of light is used to differentiate which image should be seen by the left and right eye.
Creating circularly polarized light
Image is well described in article
Circular polarizer creating left-handed circularly polarized light. It is considered left-handed as viewed from the receiver and right-handed as viewed from the source.
There are several ways to create circularly polarized light, the cheapest and most common involves placing a quarter-wave plate after a linear polarizer and directing unpolarized light through the linear polarizer. The linearly polarized light leaving the linear polarizer is transformed into circularly polarized light by the quarter wave plate. The transmission axis of the linear polarizer needs to be half way (45°) between the fast and slow axes of the quarter-wave plate.
In the arrangement above, the transmission axis of the linear polarizer is at a positive 45° angle relative to the right horizontal and is represented with an orange line. The quarter-wave plate has a horizontal slow axis and a vertical fast axis and they are also represented using orange lines. In this instance the unpolarized light entering the linear polarizer is displayed as a single wave whose amplitude and angle of linear polarization are suddenly changing.
When one attempts to pass unpolarized light through the linear polarizer, only light that has its electric field at the positive 45° angle leaves the linear polarizer and enters the quarter-wave plate. In the illustration, the three wavelengths of unpolarized light represented would be transformed into the three wavelengths of linearly polarized light on the other side of the linear polarizer.
Three vertical sin waves
Linearly polarized light, represented using components, entering a quarter-wave plate. The blue and green curves are projections of the red line on the vertical and horizontal planes respectively.
In the illustration toward the right is the electric field of the linearly polarized light just before it enters the quarter-wave plate. The red line and associated field vectors represent how the magnitude and direction of the electric field varies along the direction of travel. For this plane electromagnetic wave, each vector represents the magnitude and direction of the electric field for an entire plane that is perpendicular to the direction of travel. (Refer to these two images in the plane wave article to better appreciate this.)
Light and all other electromagnetic waves have a magnetic field which is in phase with, and perpendicular to, the electric field being displayed in these illustrations.
To understand the effect the quarter-wave plate has on the linearly polarized light it is useful to think of the light as being divided into two components which are at right angles (orthogonal) to each other. Towards this end, the blue and green lines are projections of the red line onto the vertical and horizontal planes respectively and represent how the electric field changes in the direction of those two planes. The two components have the same amplitude and are in phase.
Because the quarter-wave plate is made of a birefringent material, when in the wave plate, the light travels at different speeds depending on the direction of its electric field. This means that the horizontal component which is along the slow axis of the wave plate will travel at a slower speed than the component that is directed along the vertical fast axis. Initially the two components are in phase, but as the two components travel through the wave plate the horizontal component of the light drifts farther behind that of the vertical. By adjusting the thickness of the wave plate one can control how much the horizontal component is delayed relative to vertical component before the light leaves the wave plate and they begin again to travel at the same speed. When the light leaves the quarter-wave plate the rightward horizontal component will be exactly one quarter of a wavelength behind the vertical component making the light left-hand circularly polarized when viewed from the receiver.
The top image is left-handed/counter-clockwise circularly polarized, as viewed from the receiver. The bottom image is that of linearly polarized light. The blue and green curves are projections of the red lines on the vertical and horizontal planes respectively.
At the top of the illustration toward the right is the circularly polarized light after it leaves the wave plate. Directly below it, for comparison purposes, is the linearly polarized light that entered the quarter-wave plate. In the upper image, because this is a plane wave, each vector leading from the axis to the helix represents the magnitude and direction of the electric field for an entire plane that is perpendicular to the direction of travel. All the electric field vectors have the same magnitude indicating that the strength of the electric field does not change. The direction of the electric field however steadily rotates.
The blue and green lines are projections of the helix onto the vertical and horizontal planes respectively and represent how the electric field changes in the direction of those two planes. Notice how the rightward horizontal component is now one quarter of a wavelength behind the vertical component. It is this quarter of a wavelength phase shift that results in the rotational nature of the electric field. It is significant to note that when the magnitude of one component is at a maximum the magnitude of the other component is always zero. This is the reason that there are helix vectors which exactly correspond to the maxima of the two components.
Animation of left-handed/counter-clockwise circularly polarized light. (Left-handed as viewed from the receiver.)
In the instance just cited, using the handedness convention used in many optics textbooks, the light is considered left-handed/counter-clockwise circularly polarized. Referring to the accompanying animation, it is considered left-handed because if one points one's left thumb against the direction of travel, ones fingers curl in the direction the electric field rotates as the wave passes a given point in space. The helix also forms a left-handed helix in space. Similarly this light is considered counter-clockwise circularly polarized because if a stationary observer faces against the direction of travel, the person will observe its electric field rotate in the counter-clockwise direction as the wave passes a given point in space.
To create right-handed, clockwise circularly polarized light one simply rotates the axis of the quarter-wave plate 90° relative to the linear polarizer. This reverses the fast and slow axes of the wave plate relative to the transmission axis of the linear polarizer reversing which component leads and which component lags.
In trying to appreciate how the quarter-wave plate transforms the linearly polarized light, it is important to realize that the two components discussed are not entities in and of themselves but are merely mental constructs one uses to help appreciate what is happening. In the case of linearly and circularly polarized light, at each point in space, there is always a single electric field with a distinct vector direction, the quarter-wave plate merely has the effect of transforming this single electric field.
Absorbing and passing circularly polarized light
Circular polarizers can also be used to selectively absorb or pass right-handed or left-handed circularly polarized light. It is this feature which is utilized by the 3D glasses in stereoscopic cinemas such as RealD Cinema. A given polarizer which creates one of the two polarizations of light will pass that same polarization of light when that light is sent through it in the other direction. In contrast it will block light of the opposite polarization.
Circular polarizer passing left-handed, counter-clockwise circularly polarized light. (Left-handed as viewed from the receiver.)
The illustration above is identical to the previous similar one with the exception that the left-handed circularly polarized light is now approaching the polarizer from the opposite direction and linearly polarized light is exiting the polarizer toward the right.
First note that a quarter-wave plate always transforms circularly polarized light into linearly polarized light. It is only the resulting angle of polarization of the linearly polarized light that is determined by the orientation of the fast and slow axes of the quarter-wave plate and the handedness of the circularly polarized light. In the illustration, the left-handed circularly polarized light entering the polarizer is transformed into linearly polarized light which has its direction of polarization along the transmission axis of the linear polarizer and it therefore passes. In contrast right-handed circularly polarized light would have been transformed into linearly polarized light that had its direction of polarization along the absorbing axis of the linear polarizer, which is at right angles to the transmission axis, and it would have therefore been blocked.
Left-handed/Counter-Clockwise circularly polarized light displayed above linearly polarized light. The blue and green curves are projections of the helix on the vertical and horizontal planes respectively.
To understand this process, refer to the illustration on the right. It is absolutely identical to the earlier illustration even though the circularly polarized light at the top is now considered to be approaching the polarizer from the left. One can observe from the illustration that the leftward horizontal (as observed looking along the direction of travel) component is leading the vertical component and that when the horizontal component is retarded by one quarter of a wavelength it will be transformed into the linearly polarized light illustrated at the bottom and it will pass through the linear polarizer.
There is a relatively straightforward way to appreciate why a polarizer which creates a given handedness of circularly polarized light also passes that same handedness of polarized light. First, given the dual usefulness of this image, begin by imagining the circularly polarized light displayed at the top as still leaving the quarter-wave plate and traveling toward the left. Observe that had the horizontal component of the linearly polarized light been retarded by a quarter of wavelength twice, which would amount to a full half wavelength, the result would have been linearly polarized light that was at a right angle to the light that entered. If such orthogonally polarized light were rotated on the horizontal plane and directed back through the linear polarizer section of the circular polarizer it would clearly pass through given its orientation. Now imagine the circularly polarized light which has already passed through the quarter-wave plate once, turned around and directed back toward the circular polarizer again. Let the circularly polarized light illustrated at the top now represent that light. Such light is going to travel through the quarter-wave plate a second time before reaching the linear polarizer and in the process, its horizontal component is going to be retarded a second time by one quarter of a wavelength. Whether that horizontal component is retarded by one quarter of a wavelength in two distinct steps or retarded a full half wavelength all at once, the orientation of the resulting linearly polarized light will be such that it passes through the linear polarizer.
Had it been right-handed, clockwise circularly polarized light approaching the circular polarizer from the left, its horizontal component would have also been retarded, however the resulting linearly polarized light would have been polarized along the absorbing axis of the linear polarizer and it would not have passed.
To create a circular polarizer that instead passes right-handed polarized light and absorbs left-handed light, one again rotates the wave plate and linear polarizer 90° relative to each another. It is easy to appreciate that by reversing the positions of the transmitting and absorbing axes of the linear polarizer relative to the quarter-wave plate, one changes which handedness of polarized light gets transmitted and which gets absorbed.
Homogeneous circular polarizer
Homogeneous circular polarizer passing left-handed, counter-clockwise circularly polarized light. (Left-handed as viewed from the receiver.)
A homogeneous circular polarizer passes one handedness of circular polarization unaltered and blocks the other handedness. This is similar to the way that a linear polarizer would fully pass one angle of linearly polarized light unaltered, but would fully block any linearly polarized light that was orthogonal to it.
A homogeneous circular polarizer can be created by sandwiching a linear polarizer between two quarter-wave plates. Specifically we take the circular polarizer described previously, which transforms circularly polarized light into linear polarized light, and add to it a second quarter-wave plate rotated 90° relative to the first one.
Generally speaking, and not making direct reference to the above illustration, when either of the two polarizations of circularly polarized light enters the first quarter-wave plate, one of a pair of orthogonal components is retarded by one quarter of a wavelength relative to the other. This creates one of two linear polarizations depending on the handedness the circularly polarized light. The linear polarizer sandwiched between the quarter wave plates is oriented so that it will pass one linear polarization and block the other. The second quarter-wave plate then takes the linearly polarized light that passes and retards the orthogonal component that was not retarded by the previous quarter-wave plate. This brings the two components back into their initial phase relationship, reestablishing the selected circular polarization.
Note that it does not matter in which direction one passes the circularly polarized light.
Circular and linear polarizing filters for photography
Main article: Polarizing filter (photography)
Linear polarizing filters were the first types to be used in photography and can still be used for non-reflex and older single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs). However, cameras with through-the-lens metering (TTL) and autofocusing systems – that is, all modern SLR and DSLR – rely on optical elements that pass linearly polarized light. If light entering the camera is already linearly polarized, it can upset the exposure or autofocus systems. Circular polarizing filters cut out linearly polarized light and so can be used to darken skies or remove reflections, but the circular polarized light it passes does not impair through-the-lens systems.