When to Use (and Not to Use) a Polarizer

Read just about any photography tutorial having to do with filters, and you’ll be told that they are an essential piece of gear, particularly for landscape photographers.

There are a number of reasons for that, which I’ll outline in just a moment.

But there are also situations in which you shouldn’t use a polarizer, and understanding when not to use one is just about as important as knowing when to use one.

Let’s take a look at a few scenarios to help you get a better understanding of how to get the most out of your polarizer.

When to Use a Polarizer

The beauty of polarizers is that they solve all sorts of problems with outdoor photography…

To Cut Down Glare

If there’s water in the scene, a polarizer will minimize the glare from the sun off the surface of the water.

Not only does this improve the look and feel of the image by not having a bright glare to distract the eye, but if the water is shallow, a polarizer allows you to actually see into the water.

That’s an obvious benefit regardless, but especially if you’re using water as foreground interest because the viewer will be able to see what lurks beneath the water’s surface.

Additionally, polarizers eliminate reflections off of wet surfaces you might encounter in a landscape, like rocks or leaves along a body of water.

That means you get deeper, more saturated colors, again without the distraction of the sun’s glare.

To Use Slower Shutter Speeds

What some photographers don’t know is that a polarizer will actually let you use a slower shutter speed than usual.

Now, a polarizer certainly isn’t going to give you the same light-stopping power as a neutral density filter will…

But you can get a couple more clicks of shutter speed to get those gorgeous, milky water effects like you see in the image above.

To Make Clouds Pop

I know I’ve encountered my fair share of gorgeous landscapes that were unfortunately under a bright sky with little definition and color.

But a polarizer helps rectify that problem…

Not only does a polarizer add definition to bright clouds, but it also helps deepen the blue color of the sky.

That’s because a polarizer also helps minimize haze which is all too common – be it from smog, smoke from forest fires, fog, or a temperature inversion.

As a result, a polarizer is helpful for making the sky an asset in your landscape photos, rather than being the low spot of the shot due to lack of color and definition.

When NOT to Use a Polarizer

So now that you understand the benefits of using a polarizer for landscape photography, it’s time to consider when using a polarizer is actually not such a good idea.

When You Want a Highlight Wet Surfaces

Sometimes, eliminating the glare of wetness on landscape elements is actually detrimental to the shot.

After all, that wetness can add just a touch of soft reflection that gives the image a bit more depth and interest to the photo. Likewise, sometimes you might not want to see through water and instead use it to reflect the scene, as is the case in the image above.

The key here is to pick and choose when to remove the polarizer…

If you find that the reflections are too intense or distracting, use the polarizer. If they are subtle and soft, think about continuing to shoot without a polarizer.