Why You Need a Polarization Filter for the Best Landscape Photos

Why You Need a Polarization Filter for the Best Landscape Photos

The polarization filter is more than making the sky blue and looking through water. It can really improve your landscape photos. Let me show you why you should use one.

A little more than a year ago I wrote my first article for Fstoppers, about a polarization filter and when not to use it for landscape photography. Yes, there are moments when it is better not to use such a filter. But for a lot of other situations it is advisable to have a polarization when shooting landscapes, something I did notice again last month, when shooting the autumn colors in the Belgium Ardennes. When I saw a couple of photos of that region by fellow photographers, I could easily pick out the photos without a polarization filter.

The large 105mm Lee Landscape Polarizer is a wonderful filter, although its large size make it quite vulnerable at times.

The large 105mm Lee Landscape Polarizer is a wonderful filter, although its large size makes it quite vulnerable at times.

For a long time I refused to use a polarization filter myself. The filters are expensive and you lose about one stop of light, sometimes a little more. I believed the effect could often be simulated in Photoshop, by saturating the colors and add more contrast in the sky. And yes, the latter can be for a great deal be achieved in post-production. But not everything. Especially reflections on wet surfaces can be removed by using a polarization filter, something you cannot accomplish in post-production.

The two images above show exactly the effect of a polarization filter that is impossible to achieve in post production. The light is reflecting in the tide pool, making it nearly impossible to see through the water. But when a polarization filters is placed in front of the lens, you can see right through the water surface.

It could be discussed if this is needed in the photo I showed as an example, and that is what I was writing about in my first article. Of course you don’t need to remove the polarization effect completely. Perhaps there is a sweet spot, somewhere between reflection and no reflection. Always remember, there is a world between those two extremes.

Besides not polarized and polarized, you can also meet in the middle; just a little bit of polarization. It can prevent from removing the water completely. After all, you want to show the water most of the times.

Besides not polarized and polarized, you can also meet in the middle; just a little bit of polarization. It can prevent from removing the water completely. After all, you want to show the water most of the times.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention all images have had post production in Lightroom, but the before and after photos received exactly the same settings. Otherwise you cannot compare the photos in an honest way.

This photo of the beautiful waterfall Cascade de la Beaume in the French Auvergne shows the need for a polarization filter when shooting waterfalls and wet rocks. Without polarization the rocks of this waterfall reflect all the light, making it difficult to see the water clearly. Well, you can see it, but you know what I mean by that when looking at the photo with filter. All reflections are gone, showing the falling water in all its beauty, not distracted by any bright reflections in between.

The effect on water is the most obvious reason for choosing a polarization filter, of course. I have seen people remove the filter when they are not photographing water. Like between mountains, when shooting into the distance. The effect of the polarization can be quite stunning of you are able to place a before and after photo next to each other.

The example of this landscape from the French Auvergne clearly shows what difference a polarization filter can bring. The colors not only became much warmer with polarization, but the sky has a completely different look. You can much better into the distance, and see the clouds in above the horizon. The filter can eliminate much of the haze. Again, post processing for both images are exactly the same.

When photographing the creek called Ninglinspo in the Belgium Ardennes during autumn, the strength of the polarization filter is obvious. Of course, the water is has gained a completely different look, showing less reflections and less white. I think it is more eye pleasing. But the most obvious are the colors of the autumn trees and leaves next to the running water. The colors are much warmer, saturated, only because of the polarization filter.

The panoramic photo of the Ninglinspo shows the exact same result; much warmer colors and much more pleasing to the eye. Also the water has some changes, but I think in this case the water without the filter is a bit more attractive better. It is one of those occasions I was telling about in my first Fstopper article. Perhaps in this case it would be better to change the filter position to something like 60% of 70% polarisation, to keep some water detail. Or you can combine both photos in Photoshop to find the sweet spot, which I have done in the photo below. Which one you prefer is a matter of taste, there is no good or wrong in my opinion.

For this version I used a part of the water from the non-polarized photo, to have more detail in the water at the foreground. I used Photoshop for this, by using layers and masks.

For this version I used a part of the water from the non-polarized photo, to have more detail in the water at the foreground. I used Photoshop for this, by using layers and masks.

All these photos have water as a connecting factor. And indeed, the effect of a polarization is best seen when water is in the picture. Nevertheless it could be wise to keep the filter on the lens when photographing in a location with growing plants, trees, and leaves. Especially when shooting autumn colors.

The effect of the polarization becomes very visible when comparing a photo without and with polarization. The one without does not have those warm autumn colors. Too often I see these kind of photos of enthusiastic photographers that went out shooting the autumn forest. But when they would have used a polarization filter, the difference is amazing.

Another example of what difference the polarization filter can make. At first I shot the bridge without thinking of rotating the polarization filter in the appropriate angle, although I had one connected to the lens. But when I saw the result, I noticed the white reflections of the light and decided to take another photo with polarization. The difference is huge, and at that moment I realized (again) how important a polarization filter for landscapes can be.

I exchanged the Lee Landscape Polarizer for the smaller magnetic Kase system. It works very easy and is less vulnarable because its size. Because its magnetic, changing the filter from one lens to another is very easy.

I exchanged the Lee Landscape Polarizer for the smaller magnetic Kase system. It works very easy and is less vulnarable because its size. Because its magnetic, changing the filter from one lens to another is very easy.

For a long time I used the Lee Landscape Polarizer, which is a huge and expensive piece of glass, but which was worth every penny. Nowadays I use the Kase filter system, with a smaller polarization filter that works much easier, and is less prone to damages.

But whatever brand of filter you use, or want to use, the polarization filter will improve a lot of your landscape photos. Just keep in mind, there are occasions when you want to remove the filter also. Just read my article about that.

If you have a polarization filter, when did you decide to buy one? What was the reason to start using it? Please share it in the comment below. And let me know also why you wouldn’t want to use a filter like this for your landscapes. I would love to read about it.

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51 Comments

EL PIC's picture

Compare polarizing filters to stacked images .. you might be surprised!!

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

Better use the filters than fiddle with bs software and waste time

Nando Harmsen's picture

Can you explain, because I don't understand. What has stacking to do with polarization?

Stacking images can replace in some situations ND filters. I think he refered to that

Nando Harmsen's picture

I wrote an article about that... https://fstoppers.com/education/using-long-exposures-without-help-neutra...
But that has nothing to do with polarizers.
I wonder...

Broken Canon Art & Photography's picture

Thanks for writing this as I enjoy the sliders before and after effects. I'll be testing a new type of filter gifted to my from the shop. This space age materiel wasn't designed or used as a filters, So I'm having to cut and shape this material to fit a Cokin P/M mount. According to the shop this material has either a fixed 30% or fixed 40% polar effect and I wont know for sure until I'm able to start using it.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I am curious. What kind of material is that?
Let me know about your findings.

Thanks for the article and the images showing difference a polarizer makes. I often peak over the top of my polarized sunglasses to get a quick before and after preview of what polarizer might do to a shot.

Stuart Carver's picture

Haha i do similar with the sun visor strip on my windscreen whilst driving. Then realise i wish i was out shooting rather than driving to work :(

Excellent instructional. Learning through comparison -- seems like a good way for artistic appreciation. Thank you. I am persuaded that I need a polarizing filter.

I find the colours too saturated to be honest I prefer the more subdued look. But removing the glare can be a an advantage in some cases.

Nando Harmsen's picture

That is a matter of taste of course. In post you can always desaturate the amount of color

but ..but...tony northrup said polarizers are useless. He said it is easy to photoshop polarizing effect in pp!
:P

Nando Harmsen's picture

:)
Any thoughts on that, Tony?

He did say that. But he also replicated it with a handful of examples. Not sure if you watched the video of the examples viewers sent him.
In my experience polarizers are way overblown. I don't love what they do to parts of the sky and I too can do what a polarizer does in post except removing the glare off of water. If I want to show the bottom of a body of water, then yes I'll throw one on, but that's not often. Horses for courses. I think it's great if one wants to use them and finds them beneficial. I also think it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that you "need" one as this article does.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I agree with you, showing the bottom of a pool of water is not exactly what you want to do. A polarizer will remove all evident of the presents of water. But with wet surfaces it is something amazing, bringing back colors and detail, just like my examples.
I think you have to be critical about using the filter, and sometimes you can just remove a bit of reflection.
I say you probably need one, but you don't need to use it always

Tony never said that. He was referring to ND filters and stacking. He explicitly said that the polarizer is the only filter you actually need because it can't be replicated in post-processing.

Nando Harmsen's picture

That is a big difference

No, he also talked about how polarizers are mostly not needed. And from my experience he's right. There were two videos, one about how filters are mostly lame, although he relented that ND filters can be useful and even issued a challenge on polarizers...

https://youtu.be/-rBdqlBbNDE

Nando Harmsen's picture

I will have a look. Thanks

Brian Jones's picture

Great article and thanks for sharing along with some great examples, such as leaves and foliage. I never would have thought about using it on scenes such as these.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Every wet or moisture surface can have reflection. Even laminated surfaces.
But also amphibians, and mushrooms, and even insects

Brian Jones's picture

Great info, thanks Nando.

Actually, humid air is water droplets and every one of them can diffract light from any orientation. This is because they are mostly suspended spheres. A polarizer can uniquely block this incoming diffracted iight, which a UV filter cannot. This means rotating the filter until the desired effect is achieved, for fog, clouds, any atmosphere where water is suspended in air.

Richard Kralicek's picture

Good advice. I wish I had more time for using my filter, but it slows me down way more than is good for me when I'm out with my family. Have done that at many occasions, and I was always running after them.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Just put it on you lens, and don't remove it. Just a turn of the filter can make a difference.
But not inside or during darkness, because you will loose 1-2 stops of light because of that filter

Ed Sanford's picture

I use the polarizer instead of a UV filter. For me, it is not when to use the polarizer, but instead, when to remove it.

You guys have already got me shopping for a polarizing filter. I plan to use it judiciously. And I am a big fan of letting the optics and sensor do the work. Less work to do in post processing.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Losing a stop of light, or two, can be a downside of the polarizer. Unless shutter speed isn't the issue :)

Ed Sanford's picture

I shoot landscapes.... so 90% of what I do is on a tripod. In most cases, f-stops and depth of field are more important than shutter speed unless it is windy. Like I said in my first post, I remove the polarizer under certain circumstances where getting the shot is more important than all of the esthetics. When I shoot nature, it's off, when I know that I am going to create a black and white image, I generally take it off unless there is a lot of haze, if I am doing something after dark, it's off.... For nearly everything else it's pretty much on. However, discretion and compromises must be made. Your point is certainly valid...

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