The Influence of White Balance on Our Perception of the Polarization Effect in Landscape Photography

A polarization filter is a great tool for reducing glare on shiny surfaces. A welcome side effect is the more saturated colors. Especially during autumn, a landscape photo will get a nice warm appearance. Unfortunately, automatic white balance may counteract the effect.

The polarization filter is one of the filters that can give a great benefit to landscape photography. Although a lot of beginning landscape photographers will use the filter mainly for achieving a sky with a deeper contrast, the filter is intended to reduce reflection and glare on shiny and reflective surfaces. I use the Haida M10 polarization drop-in filter for my landscape photography.

I use the Haida M10 filter system with a drop-in polarization filter. The rotating dial allows me to rotate the polarization filter in order to choose the amount of effect. This works similarly with other brands, of course.

The most common use is with waterfalls and water streams. A polarization filter will make the water more or less transparent by reducing the reflection of light on the water surface. On some occasions, you will be able to see the bottom of a stream, removing all traces of the water above. Although this may not always be the desired effect, a smaller amount of polarization may take the edge of the reflections, giving the image a nicer appearance. The glare on wet rocks can be removed as well, which gives the photo a nicer contrast. Most waterfall photos will benefit from that, just as in the example below.

A typical example of the polarization effect. On the left, you see the waterfall without polarization effect. On the right, the polarization effect is at maximum strength.

Streams and waterfalls are not the only subjects that can benefit from the use of a polarization filter. Moist leaves are also highly reflective, something you may have noticed when photographing in a forest. Especially during autumn, the leaves can get a washed-out appearance. Of course, colors can be increased in post-processing, but the white reflections on the leaves will remain. A polarization filter can remove this reflection on most occasions and you end up with a warm, saturated color.

I have gathered a few examples of how a polarization filter deepens the contrast and increases the saturation of the landscape. This effect can not be achieved in post-processing, which makes the polarization filter an essential tool for this kind of photography.

In both examples above, the left image is without a polarization filter. The right image is with the maximum amount of polarization. Both the images with and without polarization have the same post-processing.

I noticed how the polarization effect is sometimes almost invisible when you're in the field. The image on the back LCD screen or in the viewfinder seems to lack the polarization effect, no matter how we rotate the filter. If you’re new to polarization filters, this may be discouraging.

If you experience the lack of polarization effect when checking the result on the LCD screen, this may be due to the white balance setting. A lot of photographers are using the auto white balance setting, leaving it up to the camera to neutralize any possible color cast. As we know, the camera will try to give the image a neutral-looking appearance, which works on a lot of occasions. But when a polarization filter is used, this may counteract the saturating effect of the filter.

The difference is visible in the before-after image below. Both of the images are with maximum polarization, but the one on the left is with the white balance set to daylight, and for the one on the right, auto white balance is used. 

I have made a couple of other test shots to show how the auto-white balance is affecting the appearance of the photo. The polarization itself is not affected, of course. That remains untouched by the white balance setting, but it will affect our perception of the result. By leaving it up to the camera to set the white balance, the effect may appear visually reduced or even removed from the image. Or so it seems to us.

These three examples show a white balance set to daylight on the right side image. On the left side, the white balance is set to auto. Be aware that every camera brand may show a slightly different auto white balance result. These examples are made with a Nikon Z 6 II.

I have been a supporter of a daylight white balance setting for a long time. This originates from a distant past, from the era of analog photography. At that time, we primarily shot on daylight film. I love how a fixed white balance in digital photography imitates the good old daylight film. As a result, it shows the change of light throughout the day without any correction, retaining any natural color cast like from a sunset or a sunrise. It will also retain the increased saturated colors that become visible with polarized light.

The white balance menu on a Canon camera. In this example, it is set to daylight. 

Although the white balance can’t influence the polarization effect itself, it can reduce the appearance of more saturated colors. We can correct this in post-processing by changing the white balance again, of course, but it might be helpful if the full effect is visible on screen or in the viewfinder when we are on location. It will help determine the strength of the effect and give us a good idea of how the result will look.

For those who are shooting primarily in-camera JPEG, the white balance setting is even more important. What you see on screen is often the result, unless you will post-process the JPEG image. That’s why choosing a good white balance is even more important for the JPEG photographer.

Bottom line, although white balance setting doesn’t influence the polarization effect itself, it can make the effect less visible on screen, and thus leave you with the idea it doesn’t work that well.

What white balance setting are you using for your photography? Are you using auto white balance or a fixed setting? Please let me know your thoughts on this subject in the comments below.

Log in or register to post comments
18 Comments
Darryl De Wind's picture

Well apparently I've used Auto more than I should have, Thanks for the lesson!

jim hughes's picture

Interesting!

Juan Isaias Perez's picture

Thank you very much. I have learned something new today. I have been using fixed white balance setting in seascapes. Will now expand this to all my landscape photography.

Michael Waterhouse's picture

Really good article. Thanks for that

Lance Saunders's picture

Thank you for such an insightful article with really great examples. Like others have already mentioned I had no idea auto white balance versus using daylight with a polarizer would have such a profound difference. You have converted me.

Kevin Harding's picture

Oh for goodness sake - now the light bulb has just gone on in my brain. Cheers Nando !

Stuart C's picture

Great info Nando, something I didnt even pay attention to, but now will.

Chris Fowler's picture

I'm so thankful for this article! I have been very disappointed in using my CPL because I couldn't see that it made any difference when viewing on the camera's LCD screen, and now I know why!

Question: I have my camera set to RAW only, if I set the WB to Daylight, does this only change the way the RAW file is previewed in camera?
OR are you saying it does change the RAW file but that it is a simple slider fix if I wanted to change the temperature in post?

W Mitty's picture

Yes, it only changes the preview in the camera (which is a JPEG image). The image data in the raw file is not affected by the WB. But there are a few caveats.

1) The exposure can be affected slightly by the choice of WB. But the effect is small. You can prove this to yourself by putting the camera in aperture priority and noting the shutter speed change as you switch WB. I tried it today and only saw 1/3 to 1/2 stop if the WB was way off; for example, choosing tungsten for a mid-day shot. So, for all intents, it can be ignored. But if you are using the histogram to determine exposure, the WB setting will affect the histogram because it is based on the JPEG file, even when you are shooting in raw only. In scenes with a very high dynamic range, this may lead to some incorrect exposures.

2) The WB settings are included in the metadata of the raw file. Lightroom and ACR use this data as the baseline for the file. (I don't know about other programs, but I would assume they do the same.) So, the initial display in LR or ACR will have the effect of the WB in the display of a raw file. For example, if you take a midday shot with the tungsten WB, the raw file displayed in LR or ACR will have a strong blue cast. The WB will be displayed as, "As Shot" and you will see the Temperature and Tint values produced by the camera for that photo. You can then either choose the Adobe presets for Daylight, Tungsten, Shady, etc. or adjust the Temperature and Tint sliders to get the WB that you want. There is no loss of fidelity, or accuracy by adjusting the WB parameters in post-processing vs. in-camera. I would recommend you prove this to yourself by taking two photos of the same scene with two very different WB settings in the camera. In LR or ACR, adjust the Temperature and Tint of each of the photos to the values from the other photo and you should see that they look exactly the same.

Chris Fowler's picture

Thank you for taking the time to explain it to me, I appreciate it!

Nando Harmsen's picture

Indeed, WB is just a setting of the camera that comes with the raw file metadata. It is not altering the raw itself. The jpeg preview will show the result of that setting.

Daniel L Miller's picture

About the time I threaten to leave Fstoppers because of all the "10 Mistakes You're Making as a Photographer" articles, something of value comes along.

Thanks Nando.

Chris Torres's picture

Thank you for the information and examples. Great article. 📸👍

JACK MCCAFFREY's picture

Thanks for a well-written, interesting article.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Thanks everyone for reading and the comments. Appreciate it.

Stephen Hadeen's picture

Thanks for this very helpful article. Haven’t used my polarizer much yet but this will certainly be on my mind for even better images. I do use the customer white balance settings (mainly daylight) so it’s one less thing to think about. 😄