When to Not Use a Polarizer in Landscape Photography

When to Not Use a Polarizer in Landscape Photography

Using a polarizer in landscape photography is often advised. And with reason: colors will be enhanced, reflections in water and on the leaves can be removed, and skies can turn deep blue. But it is not advisable to use a polarizer as a standard filter, because there are situations when it can turn against you.

A long time ago, when I was photographing landscapes with my analog Minolta X-500 camera and film slides, I used a polarizer a lot. But when I switched to digital photography, I ignored these filters. And I never really missed them. When I found the sky not deep blue enough, I corrected this in Photoshop. But reflections in water, leaves, on amphibians, and mushrooms were never removed. I used the reflections to my advantage as much as possible. But when Lee introduced the 105mm Landscape Polarizer, I emptied my bank account to buy this wonderful filter.

Day light shines on the moist fern leaves in this forest. Without polarization this is visible as almost white reflections

When a polarization filter is used, the white light reflections are completely removed.

It worked of course. Colors became much deeper and saturated, and on the whole, the photos became much warmer, which partly is credit to the warm color of this filter itself. Then I asked myself why I didn’t buy a polarizer much sooner. One side effect I did not expect was a reduced dynamic range when using the filter. Because the sky got a bit darker due to the polarizing effect, it matched the foreground much better, so the need for a ND gradient filter was on occasion unnecessary.

Without polarization there is a large contrast between sky and foreground.

With a polarization filter the sky becomes darker, and thus reducing the contrast in between sky and foreground.

One thing to keep in mind is the uneven polarization of the sky. The effect works best at an angle of 90° away from the sun. Change the angle and the effect is reduced. This is not a problem when using focal lengths of 35mm and longer, but when you use wide angle lenses, the uneven polarization becomes very distracting. I found 24mm still acceptable, but wider is tricky.

Polarization works best at a 90° angle to the light source. When a wide angle lens is used, you can end up with uneven polarization effect. This is with a 16mm wide angle on full frame.

The most obvious use of the filter is the removal of reflections in water streams and the reflections on wet rocks. For that, the polarizer works perfectly. Too perfect, as a matter of fact. In some occasions, the reflection was part of the composition, and by removing it, the image became dull. When photographing tide pools at the beach, the water became completely invisible, removing the tide pools completely. Reflections can be necessary to make the photo more interesting. So, do not remove reflections with the polarizer just because it is possible. Use it when it is necessary for the image. Remember, it is also possible to use just a little bit of polarization. Just by rotating the filter you can influence the amount of reflection.

The examples below show the effect with polarization and without. Of course, the one you prefer is a matter of taste.

Using a polarizer darkens the water, making it heavy an unattracted at the bottom of the image

When polarization is removed the reflection in the water becomes visible and the image becomes more "open"

With polarization the tide pools becomes translucent; the water is no longer visible.

When polarization is removed, the water itself becomes more visible. Now the tide pools are recognizable.

With polarization the colors of the rocks become visible, but the tide pools lack water.

Removing polarization reveals the water, but the colors are not visible. You can also choose to polarize just a bit, instead of maximum polarization. Before or after is not right or wrong, just a matter of taste.

I discovered one unwanted use of a polarizer filter during my stay in the European Alps. I used a polarizer very often when photographing in those mountains. When we witnessed a rainbow down in the valley, I noticed another unwanted effect of the polarization effect I did not realize. You can remove the rainbow from your landscape just by polarization. I cannot image any situation when you want to do this, but it is possible.

Catching a rainbow can be lovely. But be aware when using a polarization filter

With polarization the rainbow will not be visible.

Using a polarization filter in this situation is also questionable. You cannot have a noticeable polarization, because the light is coming from behind, except to get rid of a rainbow, of course. Use of a polarization filter for sunsets is also not necessary. It won’t do any harm, so leaving the filter on you lens is possible. But be aware of bright sunlight. It can produce extra flares because of the extra glass in front of your lens.

Please leave a comment and let me know if you use a polarization filter for your landscapes, and if you experienced a situation in which the filter gave unwanted results.

And if you want to learn more about landscape photography, check out our newest tutorial, "Photographing the World 4: Advanced Landscapes."

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17 Comments

amplighter's picture

The polarization & UV filter are the only two filters on my list of future accessories. Love how you've incorporated the slider bar as to show the before and after effects. But I need others to realize that depending on the filter used, some filter actually rotate on the camera lens. In this, one needs to test shoot a couple of the same images while rotating the filter at different aperture settings. Again I look forward to using these two filters as the only means of "editing" my images without using any software.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Polarizer filters always have the possibility to rotate when mounted. It is good to try out the result when using the filter. Good luck with your future filters

Michael McGee's picture

I entirely disagree, have you used one yourself? I use a polarizer in the majority of my work. While I agree that 'bluer' skies can be done in post, there are many scenarios where the effect of a polarizer cannot be replicated. For example, taking the glare off wet leaves or increasing contrast in moving water.
They do more than just the obvious 'seeing through reflections', I've noticed they often shift the contrast in the image from the luminance (B/W) tones to the colours, introducing colour to areas otherwise void of it. This is especially prominent in forest scenes.

I'm confused. You acknowledge it has an irreplaceable use but you never use one, calling them a relic of the film era. I guess I don't understand why you bothered to write anything.
https://youtu.be/-JLbAePwoHQ

I caught that. I just don't understand the need to say it. If they post a video about neutral density filters, will you say not to use them unless you want to cut down light!? Perhaps you think they're overused or something? BTW, I never use them to make the sky bluer and don't know any experienced photographers who do, either.

Steve White's picture

Jack is correct, if not overly articulate in his first post. Given the alternative of achieving the same effect with post processing, the best reason to use a polarizer is to do what can't be done with post processing.That means using a polarizer when the effect can only be achieved by selectively reducing the light you capture. If simply reducing exposure or increasing saturation will produce the effect then post processing is an alternative that may be better.

What I think you both may be missing is that a polarizer really only does one thing - it selectively filters some of the light. In the case of a blue sky you can simply remove light without being selective, to get a darker blue. In the case of reflections it doesn't really let you "see through them", because the light you want to capture is already there and a part of what you will capture. The polarizer reduces the light that makes up the reflection so that it doesn't overpower the light that's not part of the reflection.

While it may not be as obvious, reducing glare and increasing saturation are accomplished the same way. Both are the result of too much light, and the polarizer lets you selectively reduce the reflected light. That fits within Jack's original point about only using a polarizer to see through reflections.

As for calling polarizers relics that he used in the last millennium, perhaps Jack's ability to use post processing to achieve some of the same effects make him superior to the neanderthals who still do it with a polarizer.

Nando Harmsen's picture

@Jack The effect of a polarizer on reflections cannot be acquired in post. Therefor a polarizer is usefull, even in the digital age.

Michael Holst's picture

So then what's your point in calling them a relic and that you never use them? Sounds like you're arguing two opposing points.

Michael Holst's picture

"I say never use them, unless you wish to see through reflections."

I did read it the first time. It's the same as saying, Never use them unless you want to use them for that they're supposed to be used for....Great point.

I guess I can see what you mean now that I read it again...

How about we also say things like "NEVER use pots and pans... Unless you want to cook something".... Or "NEVER put on a jacket, Unless it's cold outside and you want to try keep warm"

Lee Stirling's picture

I happen to shoot a lot of film and so I think of a polarizer still as a very useful tool.

Why would the cpl be unnecessary during sunset? I have seen some shots where it still had an effect when rotated.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Well, you can use it during sunsets of course. Why not. In some occasions I can image it will have an effect on parts of the image - I have seen that also. But with the bright sunlight in frame there is an increased risk of flares. It is something to consider.

Ansel Spear's picture

Oh joy. Words that one has to actually read. How pleasantly unusual to click on an article and discover that it isn't another one of those badly produced, self indulgent videos.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Thank you. I hate being on film ;)

Peter Grogono's picture

Yes, it is such a relief to come across something to read. I look at Fstoppers regularly but do not have the time (or patience) to spend 10 minutes or more watching a crappy video with enough substance for 2 minutes reading.

Moreno Tagliapietra's picture

Hi, especially in a creative field like photography, cast-in-stone statements such as "always do this" or "never do it" have no value. Breakthroughs come from breaking the rules. In my 50+ years of photography, I ended up using a polarizer ever less, especially after I switched to digital. The only reasonable solution here is learn well how to use the filter, experiment, and then come up with your own conclusions. I still subscribe to Ansel Adam's statement that “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Nando Harmsen's picture

Too many "rules" are cast in stone, and many have been invented now the digital age have made photography more accessible for the larger public. It is true you have to find your own way with a polarizer. A rule can be a good starting point, even when it is cast in stone. :)