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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."