Polarizing filters are one of the last camera filters that cannot be replicated by software. But is a polarizing filter better to reduce haze in landscapes than Adobe Lightroom's Dehaze tool?
A hot, sunny day produces haze and reduced visibility in landscape scenes, with faraway subjects appearing washed out and slightly blue. That's because the farther away from the subject, the more atmosphere sits between it and the camera, so the more scattered the light becomes. Up until recently, the best advice I'd heard for removing this haze while shooting was to use a polarizing filter, but Lightroom's Dehaze tool, which was introduced to the software a few years ago, has changed things up quite a bit.
In this test, I'm using a Nikon D750, a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens, and a NiSi Pro Circular Polarizer Filter, as well as Adobe Lightroom Classic version 9.2.1. I'll be comparing the differences between no filter and no Dehaze tool, no filter with the Dehaze tool applied, polarizer with no Dehaze tool, and finally, seeing Dehaze applied to a polarized image.
My aim is not to analyze this from a numbers-based point of view like a science lab, but rather approach it from a practical, visual-based standpoint. That's because I think this is how most photographers would study the images in a real-world scenario.
1. No Filter, No Dehaze Versus Polarizer
These two images compared the scene with no filter with the circular polarizer mounted and turned to give maximum polarization. They are straight out of the camera, and processed into JPEG via Lightroom with the following settings:
- Profile: Adobe Landscape
- White Balance: Temp 5750, Tint +1
- Lens Corrections: Enable Profile Corrections and Remove Chromatic Aberration ticked
No other settings were changed to alter color or contrast, etc. in order to keep this as consistent as possible.
As you can see, no filter captures a much bluer wash across the whole image. With the polarizer on, the grass and sea are greener, sand much more yellow, and the cliffs have much more contrast between bright highlights and dark shadows. I prefer the polarizer image here because it gives truer color accuracy to what I saw with my own eyes, and it looks technically more balanced.
However, it's interesting to note that the haze seems worse with the polarizer on than without. In the no filter image, the distant hills are darker against the sky, which is opposite to the results I was expecting to see.
2. No Filter, Dehaze Applied Versus Polarizer
Taking the same two images, I applied +32 Dehaze to the no filter shot. I wanted to allow the tool to work at removing the haze, but not be so harsh that the entire scene darkens. I've got to say it's improved things a lot, the no filter image was already more clear through the haze, but now, the hills are much darker and more prominent in the frame.
As a result of the Dehaze tool, the colors also seem more vibrant. The polarized image still has more true-to-life color, in my opinion, but I'm starting to prefer the Dehaze shot.
3. No Filter, Dehaze Applied Versus Polarizer With Dehaze Applied
Now I've added +32 Dehaze to the Polarized image too, and it's clear that although it hasn't removed all the haze, it's far better. Taking into account the micro-contrast around the cliff rocks and the color accuracy, too, I'm inclined to lean towards the Dehazed polarized image looking technically more proficient. With my editor's eye, it looks more well-rounded and better balanced.
From a creative perspective, one could argue that the no filter, Dehazed shot is better. Sure, it's got a blue hue, the shadows aren't as detailed, and despite being less hazy than the polarized shot, it's still full of haze. But there's also something about it that reminds me of standing there and seeing the scene in person. Perhaps it's because I don't have polarized eyes, eh?
So, Which Is Better?
Surprisingly, the image with no filter and Dehaze applied has the best haze-reduction results, but I think that's due to what the original image file looks like, rather than what the tool is doing. I tried this on a zoomed version of the same scene and then also turned around and shot the other way, and the results were pretty ubiquitous to me.
Both of these shots above and below were no filter with Dehaze applied versus polarizer with no Dehaze applied. You can see on the reverse view across the ocean that the polarizer works incredibly well at removing glare on the water, producing a greener color. That's likely because the yellow sand underneath is more visible, and yellow mixed with blue creates green.
Perhaps under different circumstances, these results would be different, and a change in the polarizing filter might also make a difference — for example, more/less humid conditions or a hazy shot taken in full shade. But for my test, I've found that a polarizer doesn't really remove haze from a picture at all, but it does improve tonal contrast and color accuracy and remove glare from reflective surfaces such as water.
This test came as quite a shock to me, mainly because I've been reading photography magazines and online tutorials for years that tell me polarizers help reduce haze and glare, while in this test, it seems to increase haze. A polarizer certainly makes a huge difference when it comes to color, though, so when I need a wider color palette from my scene, I'll be using a polarizer. The same goes for waterfalls, oceans, streams, lakes, and anything else that produces glare, such as windows, etc.
Do you have any hard and fast rules when it comes to shooting with or without a polarizer? Do you shoot to edit with Dehaze? If you've tried this yourself, feel free to leave an image below to share the results you've got.