Probably the first advice you received as a new landscape photographer was to purchase a polarizing filter. But once you’ve mastered the polarizing filter on a few landscape photography trips, my recommendation is: take the polarizing filter off.
The polarizing filter is an exceptional tool: it can dramatically cut down distracting reflections and saturate otherwise dull greenery. But as with any advice, it’s important not to treat it as gospel. The purpose of the polarizing filter is to cut down reflections that detract from the composition. But more often than not, reflections that detract from the composition signal a deeper compositional flaw.
As you shoot with more intentionality and in better lighting, reflections and haze become vital to the composition:
- Haze, fog, and mist communicate depth and mystery.
- Reflections — especially in water — become an essential source of negative space, strong shapes, and neutral tones.
When you incorporate reflections into your composition, you can’t always rotate the filter 90 degrees to cancel the effect — you will darken the sky unevenly on an ultra wide lens. The solution? Take the filter off.
The polarizing filter is essential to landscape photography, but rather than leaving it on de facto or whipping it out every time sky or water is involved, use it only when it plays an important role in your composition. If you want to darken the sky or see the rocks beneath a stream, take a step back to evaluate if the filter improves your composition, or if the composition is flawed regardless.
Most of my top landscape images are shot without a polarizing filter. That certainly doesn’t mean the polarizing filter made my photos worse, but rather that I became more intentional about incorporating reflective surfaces when they had an important role in the composition.
Do you tend to leave your polarizing filter on all the time? I certainly did! Try leaving it in the bag for your next couple trips, and when you are tempted to pull it out, see if you can find a better composition that leverages or replaces the reflective surfaces. You just might be surprised how much better your compositions become!