Given the choice to bring one accessory when shooting landscapes, it absolutely needs to be a circular polarizer and this is why.
I recently got back from a trip where I was tasked with taking very minimal gear with me because of weight restrictions. I know many of us enjoy having all the options in the world to shoot with but it can be really liberating to take as little as possible and shoot with a minimal setup. While I was packing, I realized that I absolutely didn’t want to leave home without my circular polarizer and in my opinion it’s the most important accessory you will own as a landscape photographer; I would even go as far to say that it’s more important than a secondary lens. As long as you have a camera, lens, and tripod, the next thing in your bag should be a circular polarizer (CPL).
If you have ever read anything about using a CPL before you will know that cutting out reflections is its most used application. I think many of those articles leave out a key point though, and it’s the ability to manipulate reflections. Yes you can turn a CPL to completely cut out reflections but realizing that it’s more than just an on/off “switch” is key to getting to the next level when shooting with a CPL.
This shot was taken using a CPL, but still has a lot of reflection left in the photo. The key here was that I wanted to cut through some of the reflections but not all of them. You’ll notice on the right side of the image you can see through the water enough for the rocks to appear but there’s still enough reflection for the clouds in the sky. It’s in these types of photos where you really start to see the creative power you have in the smallest item in your kit.
Just in case you’ve never seen what a CPL can do to fully cut out reflections, above is an example. Both images are untouched and straight from camera. Using a polarizer can completely change your ability to capture photos that you aren't able to do otherwise. This isn't something you can fix in editing or manipulate in Photoshop and should be a prime reason why you always have one with you.
Haze can absolutely ruin a sunrise you forced yourself out of bed for or that sunset you set up and patiently waited hours to capture. This actually happened to me far more often than I’d like on my recent trip but thankfully I was able to salvage some moments using my CPL.
These are two examples I shot specifically to showcase how much haze you can remove with a CPL. Both of these are completely unedited aside from aligning them in Photoshop (was handholding a 70-200mm lens) and adjusting exposure to match. If you want the scientific explanation of how this is possible, check out these slides from MIT. The quick explanation is that haze is essentially moisture and particles in the atmosphere that reflect light. By using a CPL, you cut out some of those reflections just like when your shooting a lake. There are editing techniques to remove haze from your image but you typically cannot push those very far without the images looking over saturated and muddy.
Something not quite as obvious when using a CPL is its ability to create more natural saturation in your images. I say natural saturation because it does more than just add saturation to your image as though you were adjusting a slider in Lightroom.
As boring as this example is, it's perfect for representing the saturation you gain from using a CPL. You'll notice the reflections in the water being removed, but pay close attention to the wood in the image. Notice on the walkway that the wet wood creates a small amount of reflection and the CPL cuts right through those reflections to reveal a deeply saturated wood. Also look at the wooden walls of the boat house to see the difference in color and saturation.
One of the best ways to utilize this natural saturation is within a lush forested shot. Shooting at a river or waterfall tends to have a lot of moisture. That moisture builds up on the surrounding plant life creating small reflections on all the foliage in your shot. By being able to cut through those reflections, it produces a saturation you cannot simply add in during an edit.
There are downsides and precautions to using a CPL but they are few and far between. Polarizers do cause a bit of light loss, roughly about one to two stops depending on the polarization intensity. Thus, if you are trying to shoot handheld, you might have to shoot without one if there isn't enough ambient light.
The biggest drawback is that dark area in the sky that it can create in your shots. You can see the effect in this image right above the boat. Some photographers try to avoid having these in their shots but I’ve seen a plethora of portfolio work where you can notice a bit of the dark sky effect. Personally I don’t mind it unless it’s distracting in my image. It comes down to your personal preference and what you want your final images to look like.
What if you used that dark sky to your advantage? While it might not be the effect you want in some photos, you can potentially use it as a creative tool.
Knowing my CPL can create dark areas of the sky, I used that purposely when taking this image. By rotating the polarizer to darken the sky as much as possible, it creates these rich blue tones that separate the sky with the foreground. When I got into Lightroom and converted to black and white I was able to create extreme contrast between the foreground and background. I talked about this editing technique briefly in a video I made about Lightroom.
There are many other items you can get away without having, but a CPL does so much you can't replicate otherwise. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have one in your kit. Personally, it’s far more important than any other filter and should likely be on your lens the majority of the time anyway. If this is something you don’t have already, do yourself a favor and get one immediately.
I’d love to know what you think. Do you think there’s anything more important than the circular polarizer as an accessory? Is it more important than the second lens in your bag? Feel free to share some of your favorite shots you couldn't have captured without using one.