My Review: Sigma vs Heliopan Polarizers

A few years ago I bought a Sigma circular polarizer based on an online review that tested many polarizers at the time. It was around fifty bucks as I recall. Last year I decided to buy a pricey Heliopan since I assumed it would perform better with my L series lenses. It was around two hundred bucks as I recall (though Adorama shows it currently at one hundred seventy five). I own three Canon L lenses and thankfully all three take a 77mm filter. Both of the filters I have are slim mount to prevent vignetting on wide angle lenses. The Sigma case says DG Ultra-Low Reflection Multi-Coating. The Heliopan case says Circular High Transmission SH-PMC. Interestingly, the cheaper Sigma actually has the better case. Though both are square hard plastic cases with hinge mounts, the Sigma has a raised plastic circle inside the bottom that holds the filter in place. The Heliopan lacks this and the filter slides around within the square.

Though I have been using the Heliopan exclusively since I got it, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison this afternoon. These are quick test shots and not artistic shots (nothing I would keep), so please don't use them to judge my photographic ability!
 
I shot in manual exposure mode. Since circular polarizers absorb light, I adjusted the exposure from the "no filter" shots to the "Heliopan" shot to keep it about the same. However I did not adjust the exposure between the "Heliopan" shot and the "Sigma" shot. All test shots are camera JPEGS with no adjustments (other than downsizing). One thing is consistent: the Sigma is darker than the Heliopan and produces a cooler tone. Whether the tone is a result of a tint in the filter or whether it is a factor of the camera reading the polarized light differently, I am not sure, but the result is the same. (And yes I know color balance can be set manually or adjusted in the RAW file). However, as far as the effect of polarization, they are about the same as far as I can tell. Below are three tests.
 
First up is a wide angle (24mm) shot, which proves what most of us know: polarizing filters do not work well on wide angle sky scenes. Since their effect is strongest at a right angle (90 degrees) to the sun and weak to non-existent shooting directly towards or away (180 degrees) from the sun, the polarizer makes the change from light to dark too harsh. As this example shows, the shot with no filter is preferable. However it also shows that the effect of polarization is similar with both lenses, other than the aforementioned darkening and cooling in the Sigma.
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Next I shot directly away from the sun, at a 180 degree angle. As expected, this had virtually no effect, though the Heliopan image may show a slight improvement (and also perhaps a slight warming). The Sigma once again is too dark and too cool (though exposure could be adjusted in camera to make it brighter).
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I also did a test shooting at a 90 degree angle, but did not bother making a photo sample. Due to the strong blue skies here in the desert, the shot without filter was actually preferable because it already had a deep blue sky. The shots with the filters were too dark - the sky was navy blue instead of a natural blue.

I did one more test shooting directly into the sun with some wildflowers rim-lit directly in front of the camera (at 24mm). All three looked more or less the same (other than the Sigma being darker) and they confirmed that polarizing filters are essentially useless when shooting into the sun.
 
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At home I did a final test to see how they compare in reducing reflections of a glass table. Once again the Sigma is noticeably darker and cooler. However in terms of their effectiveness in reducing glare, they are equal. Neither one was able to completely eliminate the glare at this particular angle, though by hand-holding the Heliopan up to my eye at other windows and other angles I was able to see it did eliminate glare in certain circumstances. This is normal in my experience (some glare can be eliminated and some is too harsh and can only be reduced).
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CONCLUSION
What did I learn from this, other than that I probably wasted an afternoon? Let me preface this by saying I only tested two filters, so this may or may not be a truism for cheap vs expensive filters overall. I will also note that both filters are multi-coated and it can be assumed that a really cheap single-coated or non-coated filter would perform worse than even the Sigma (or at least produce more flare/haze).
  1. The effect of polarization (darkening skies and reducing glare), seems to be more or less equal on both filters.
  2. The more expensive Heliopan has a better/warmer color balance (that matches the balance with no filter).
  3. The more expensive Heliopan transmits more light, allowing for faster shutter speeds.
  4. The more expensive Heliopan feels better (more sturdy) in the hands and has a series of number markers on the ring for fine-tuning placement.
  5. The Heliopan has a brass ring while the Sigma has an aluminum ring (as do all cheap or moderately priced filters). Brass rings are reported to be easier to get off and less likely to get stuck.
 
BOTTOM LINE
In my opinion (key word opinion), if you only care about the effect of polarization, then perhaps any multi-coated filter will suit you. The advantages to an expensive filter like Heliopan (or BW or similar) lie more in overall feel and color accuracy than actual effect of polarization. For those of us who are invested in pro lenses, this may be reason enough to buy the better filter (and I do not regret buying mine). But if you can't afford a high-end polarizer (or just don't need one) then I think a moderate alternative is fine and you should not be concerned about the difference.
 

Del Paso

M3 Singlestroke
Aug 9, 2018
357
301
Thanks for reassuring me, since I recently bought a very expensive Breakthrough polarizing filter !
Heliopan also deserve their reputation as one of the very best filter companies, many Leica filters are indeed Heliopans...
Why should one spend thousands of hard-earned $$$$ on lenses and cameras, to save a few $ on filters?
 
Reactions: MrFotoFool

AlanF

5DSR
Aug 16, 2012
4,855
1,492
Lensrentals have done their usual professional job, even using a spectrophotometer to measure the dependence of transmission on wavelength - https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2017/09/my-not-nearly-complete-but-rather-entertaining-circular-polarizer-filter-article/
Roger wrote:
"Well, several things, one of which is really useful. So I’ll get that one out of the way first, and then let this post just steadily deteriorate. If you are buying a circular polarizing filter because you want some circular polarizing, it doesn’t seem to matter much which one you choose; they all polarize like gangbusters. So I saved you some money today.
The second point, one which I’ve been told before I did all this testing, is set the white balance after you put the CP filter on, not before. Because CP filters will have a color cast. Or just shoot in raw and fix it later, which is what we mostly do anyway."

Their measurements also had the Heliopan having relatively low transmission, and lower than the Sigma.
 
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Reactions: MrFotoFool
Thanks for reassuring me, since I recently bought a very expensive Breakthrough polarizing filter !
Heliopan also deserve their reputation as one of the very best filter companies, many Leica filters are indeed Heliopans...
Why should one spend thousands of hard-earned $$$$ on lenses and cameras, to save a few $ on filters?
I bought some Breakthrough UV filters and they seem like a good company. In fact I like the case they come in better than my other filters.