Polarized lenses are transparent pieces of material, usually glass or plastic, that block certain types of light waves. Sunglasses and camera lenses are often polarized to reduce glare from surfaces, such as light reflecting off a lake or the hood of a car. Somewhat like the way Venetian blinds control the amount of sunlight passing through a window, polarization blocks as much as 50% of the light passing through a lens. The person looking through the lens can still see clearly in most cases, but it reduces the brightness and glare of light.
How They Work
When light bounces off of a surface, its waves tend to be strongest in a particular direction — usually horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. This is called polarization. Sunlight bouncing off a surface like water, a road, or metal will usually reflect horizontally, striking the viewer's eyes intensely and creating glare. Most polarized lenses in glasses are laminated with tiny vertical stripes that only allow vertically angled light to enter the wearer's eyes. Glare is eliminated because the horizontal light waves cannot bypass the vertical filter.
Lenses can be polarized to different degrees and in different ways. Most inexpensive polarized sunglasses have a thin film applied on one side of the lens. Many higher quality lenses have film laminated between two layers of lens material, preventing it from being scratched or rubbed off. In addition, the more dense the film is, the more polarization it provides.
In most cases, polarized sunglasses don't look any different from regular sunglasses. While denser films tend to be darker, the color of a lens does not determine how much polarization it provides. A very dark pair of sunglasses with a light film will not block more glare than a lighter shade of glasses with a denser film. The color of the lens is also variable; although they cannot be made clear, polarized lenses can be made in gray, brown, green, or other colors.
Drivers, fisherman, and photographers were some of the first to use polarized lenses. Reducing glare can ease the eye strain drivers feel from long hours on the road. Fishermen can often see under the surface of water using the lenses, which helps them to see fish or other objects. Photographers use polarizing filters on camera lenses to enrich the images they capture by giving them more contrast, and to increase the range of effects they can produce.
Using horizontally and vertically polarized lenses together makes one type of three-dimensional (3-D) movies possible. Two images are projected onto a 3-D movie screen: one is polarized vertically and one horizontally. The lenses of the glasses that moviegoers wear are also polarized, one vertically and the other horizontally, so the user sees one image in one eye, and the second, slightly different image in the other. The brain is able to combine both of these images in a way that produces a realistic sense of depth.
Polarized glasses do not provide universal protection from glare. If the wearer tilts his or her head past 45° or so, more of the horizontal light can enter and cause bright spots. In addition, these lenses do not usually work with snow glare because snow tends to reflect light equally in all directions, rather than the mostly horizontal reflection off of liquid water. It is strongly recommended that downhill skiers in particular not wear polarized sunglasses; ice does reflect horizontally, and these glasses can make dangerous icy spots less visible.
Because the polarizing stripes reduce the amount of light entering the eye, these lenses should not be used at night or in other situations where clear lenses are required. It is not possible to make such lenses truly clear; even those with low levels of polarization have a slightly gray hue. Some people find that looking through the lenses for too long a period of time can cause headaches and eye strain.
Polarized lenses can cause distortions in the way wearers see liquid crystal displays (LCDs), rendering some cell phone screens, clocks, and other displays unreadable. The texture of laminated or heat-treated glass, like a windshield, can be made more prominent by looking at it through a polarized lens, making the glass difficult to see through. Pilots should not use polarized glasses because they can make flight instruments difficult to read and other objects in the sky — including other airplanes — less visible.