How Far Should We Turn a Circular Polarizer to Get the Best Image?

"Don't turn too much. It will ruin your photo!" This is what we have all learned about circular polarizing filters in our young days as photographers when we tried to get rid of glare. But how much polarization do we need?
Too little polarization doesn’t lead to the desired effect, too much ruins the photo. So what? In my latest video about how to use a circular polarizer, I gave you a little overview of what happens with light when it shines through a polarizing filter and how far I turn my polarizer in different situations in landscape photography.

What gets often misunderstood is that glare is not generally bad — it is not our enemy. Glare can even help us to bring more plasticity into our photographs. It can support our story, by showing that rock is wet, for instance.

Wet surfaces are a well-known area where a polarizing filter comes into use. The water on the rock in the image above, reflects light waves at an angle that hides important parts of the rock itself. 100 percent polarization would eliminate most of the glare, and the rock would look flat and boring. This is why for wet surfaces, I always decide a polarization level that contains enough information on the surface itself — the rock, in this case — but eliminates enough of the glare, so that the important parts of it don’t get hidden.

Circular polarizers are also often used to bring more saturation into the sky. This can be a good idea in the mountains at a quite high altitude, as the air is thinner up there and doesn’t offer that vibrancy we are used to at lower sea levels.
But overly polarized skies can build quite a visual weight in your composition. This can be good if the sky is the main part of the story. But you should consider that the landscape can easily lose emphasis in that case.

Finally, when I’m using a polarizing filter, I always ask myself which polarization level would support the story of my image best, and when I see that it affects my composition, as the visual weight gets higher or lower at different positions, I also ask myself if and how I have to change my composition to bring everything back into balance again. This leads not only to working composition but also the story of your image gets supported, making for a better photo.

Many more details, more use cases, and tips about how far to use a circular polarizer, especially for landscape photography, are revealed in the video above.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

Log in or register to post comments

It depends.
But more importantly, how much half n half should I put in my coffee?

Hi Mike, you are absolutely right. It depends and it is a question of taste in the one hand. In the other hand we should consider, that the amount of polarization could also have an impact to our composition, as the amount of glare could change balance and visual weight, for instance. And it could also change our story itself, when our image doesn't show the wetness of the rock anymore, for example. Finally the artist, the photographer, is the one and only who decides after what he ever aims to achieve. There are also photographers out there who prefer their coffee black or drink just the milk :)
Nice greetings,

My coffee is prepared without milk and sugar, and I avoid using a polarising filter for the most part. Nevertheless, I often have one with me. I use it to reduce (not eliminate) reflections when I find them annoying. And I use it when the air is too humid and hazy. In the mountains around 3000 m (~9000 ft) and higher, it is easy to turn it too much so that the sky becomes so dark that it looks unnatural, even in high-contrast scenes with large areas of snow. I often dial it in until it looks good and then turn it a bit back. If I am unsure, I bracket it over 3 positions.

Hi Jan, I have to say, thank you for sharing your experience! I also avoid filters in the first step and just use them when I see, that I really need them and you are so right: It is so easy to overdo it, especially in the mountains when you are overwhelmed with the view :)
Thank you for your comment and nice greetings,

Nice article. I've always just maxed mine out, but mine were always the highest reviewed ones, which never were reallty dark like some I've seen. Great ariicles on Lenstip about polarizer extensive testing. I got a good idea on the best brands to buy from those two articles.

Hi George, thanks a lot for your kind words! I can really recommend to think about the amount of polarization, according to the particular situation and composition. But when we break it down, finally it is just important that the artist is satisfied with the result.
Thanks for your nice comment and have a great day ahead,