Polarizing Landscapes

May 26, 2010

Photo Tips

With Polarizer

No, DPE has not become a political blog. There will be no red vs. blue landscapes here. Polarizing landscapes is about the value of a polarizer filter for digital landscape photography.

A polarizer is often called a polarizing filter, although it reads polarized light and doesn’t do any polarizing itself, and it is definitely a valuable part of the digital photographer’s bag when it comes to landscapes. It does some things that cannot be done in the computer, plus it allows you to capture the scene looking its best from the start so you do not have to spend so much time on it in Lightroom, Photoshop or other programs.

Without Polarizer

A polarizer does four important things:

  1. Darkens sky at an angle to the sun. You can make the sky darker to bring out the clouds, for example, but it works its magic at 90 degrees to the sun. Looking at or away from the sun will give no sky darkening with this filter. While you can darken skies in Lightroom, for example, by doing this step in the field you can ensure the sky looks right and simplify your workflow.
  2. Removes reflections (though not direct reflections of the sun). This can be very important with water in a landscape. With a polarizer, you can get rid of unwanted reflections, making water look better and even revealing rocks and such underwater. You can’t do that in the computer! Be careful not to overdo this for clear mountain streams or the stream can literally disappear in your photo!
  3. Removes glare (again, not of direct spots of sun reflection). This can really clean up a scene by revealing detail and color that otherwise would not be seen. Also, not something that is possible in the computer.
  4. Increases color saturation of many landscapes, especially those with green leaves. Green leaves typically reflect a lot of sky from their shiny surfaces, and that blocks our view of their color. Since a polarizer removes reflections and glare, that means leaves look better and reveal their true colors.

With Polarizer

Without Polarizer

A polarizer is designed to rotate because the polarizer effect changes depending on the rotation of the filter. I will often pick up my polarizer, hold it in front of my eye, and rotate it to see what sort of effect it might have on a scene. I don’t use it all the time because it cuts light to your sensor by two f-stops. The filter’s effects are worth the light loss when conditions are right, but not worth the cost if the effect is minimal or unwanted.

When you buy a polarizing filter, get one that is large enough to fit your largest lens, then use filter adapter rings to make it fit all of your lenses. Linear polarizers have a stronger effect, but they cause problems with autofocus and some other digital camera functions. Circular polarizers are best for most people.

With Polarizer

Without Polarizer

My latest book, The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, is now out. I am really proud of this book — it includes tips like these for everything from shooting better skies to working with mountains or forests and more. I wanted to make a useful book that went beyond the usual advice for photographers, a book of good-looking landscape photographs with real-world ideas about photographing all sorts of landscapes, not just the typical ones that are so common.

Check it out at Amazon.com or your local bookstore. It is The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography by Rob Sheppard, published by Lark Books.


This post was written by:

- who has written 27 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Rob Sheppard is the author/photographer of over 30 books, the editor-at-large for Outdoor Photographer magazine, and a nationally known presenter and workshop leader. His specialities are nature photography and helping photographers with digital technologies from getting the most from small sensors to Lightroom to Photoshop. Check out Rob’s websites at http://www.robsheppardphoto.com and http://www.natureandphotography.com

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3 Responses to “Polarizing Landscapes”

  1. dreamon51 Says:

    Nice explanation. Most casual and beginning photographers who I know let go of their filters, including the polarizer, thinking a digital camera could do everything for them.


  2. Jeff Colburn Says:

    Thanks Rob, excellent post.

    Have Fun,


  3. Guy Says:

    What about the use of ‘Blue & Gold’ polarizers? Any comments on their usage in landscape photography? Should a serious landscapge photographer have both? If so, when is it best to use a ‘blue & gold’ instead of a regular polarizer?

    Sorry for all the questions but I’m leaving for Sedona, AZ in a week and wonder if I should rush out and buy a ‘blue & gold’ polarizer.


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