Adobe Photoshop Lightroom vs. Polarizing Filter

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom vs. Polarizing Filter

It seems computers can do most anything with an image now a days. So why bother with all those cumbersome filters? The answer is that most of them are still superior to the techniques used with a computer. Plus, if the image is more accurate coming out of the camera, less time and effort will be needed in post processing. Lastly, understanding the play of light and filtration is an important cornerstone to understanding photography, which is simply put, capturing light.

filter This post will concentrate on the polarizing filter and more specifically, the circular polarizing filter. So what is a polarizing filter? DPS already has a great post on How to Use and Buy a Polarizing Filters which should be your first stop in understanding these filters. In a nut shell, a polarizing filter will reduce the reflected glare off of water, sky (particulate), metalic surfaces and anything else with a good reflective surface, even including leaves. It helps increase contrast and provide better, truer color when used properly.  A circular polarizing filter is mounted on a ring allowing it to spin for variable effect.  You may choose the amount of polarizing by simply turning the ring until the desired results are viewed.

With all that in mind, it may seem obvious that a computer can make the same changes. Bumping up contrast and adjusting color is as easy as a couple of mouse clicks nowadays. My goal in this post is to compare the two techniques and let you draw your own conclusion. Knowing that good polarizing filters cost more than $100, I hope you can be a little more informed if you wish to go that route.

Let’s get started with a couple of untouched yet cropped photos straight out of the camera.




First off, can you guess which one used a polarizing filter? It is the second image. More true greens, less glare and more detail on the distance bluffs are the giveaways. You may also notice the slight cloud gets a different treatment, changing from a gray line to more of a white. The top image was shot at ISO50 1/100 and f/5.6 while the the bottom image was slightly slower at 1/50 and f/5.6 due to the tinting of the polarizing filter. Canon 5D 28-300mm L lens @ 300mm. And a special thanks to Natalie for her post regarding camera shake to help keep them clear.

If the look of the bottom photograph is what’s desired, it’s time to play around with the first image. Here are the steps I took (read from bottom up):


I don’t claim to have mad Photoshop skilz and this is the as close as I got.


Attempting to remove the haze from the distant cliffs proved problematic. While a better effort could be made with some tools in Photoshop CS3, the time and expense was beyond the scope of this test. Increasing saturation or hue over what has attempted created undesirable results.

Now the questions are to you: Which rendition do you prefer? Do you use a polarizing filter often and if so, please offer up any tips you may have in the comments section below.

Read more from our category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Dan October 22, 2011 10:00 am

    Great tutorial thanks. I'm about to go and take photos of a classic car show so these tips are going to help as I don't have a polarizing filter for my wide angle lens yet.

  • Ron June 4, 2011 10:10 am

    I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and decided to drive to Yosemite National Park for rather long day-trip one Saturday a couple of weeks ago. I took my Nikon D300 and my Nikkor 18-200 zoom lens. It was a rather odd day weatherwise.....sun. part sun, mostly clouds, fog and even snow (on the way home!). The waterfalls were the big attraction this year. I took quite a few shots of the falls, the Merced River, etc. When I got home and loaded the pics on my computer, I found that there were very serious exposure issues with the very bright white water scenes ......especially when coupled with the dark greens and yellow greens of the trees in the scenes. Bottom line......I did NOT have my digital polarizing filter with me....but I actually didn't even think of is while I was take the photos. The result is that I don't remember having such a challenging time editing many of these photos because the whites are literally "blown out" in many of the photos. I've played with Lightroom 3 and Aperture 3 and got the best result with Aperture 3 (perhaps I just haven't how to use all of the tools in either of the applications). So, next time I'll be trying the polarizing filter to see how such scenes come out. :-(

  • rmvandy March 19, 2010 10:24 am

    Pardon my late arrival,Abhishek. Yes, you can hold a larger filter against the camera's lens. It's a problem with self-focusing lenses in that the front may move in and out to focus, and pressing against such a lens might harm the mechanics. Do not hold the filter too far from the lens, or light can reflect in from the edges and spoil the quality. (I had a few filters I'd bought for my large, old SLR telephoto, and often would hold them in front of the kit lens. It was awfully awkward, because I had to press this lever to engage the light meter, and rotate that ring for f-stop or twist the knob for shutter speed, plus focus -- all while holding the polarizer at the proper angle. Much easier with automatics!)

    Judy: You must be a dentist! Well, I'm not. But: The front of the tooth will reflect the flash, and perhaps overpower any internal reflections that illuminate the structure. (I guess it equally reflects your surgical lamp, huh?) What if you used a fiberoptic lamp (such as used for hardening resins) to backlight the teeth? It would require experimentation. Or post a query with your regional dental association.

    And Scott: I agree with you, and Wikipedia has the facts here for disbelievers (be sure to see the bottom).
    I see this error almost everywhere. So many people who have non-SLR cameras buy circular polarizers when they could pay much less for a standard PL and get the same effect. Oh, and saving a half to a whole f-stop.

  • Abhishek Mishra November 23, 2009 03:24 am

    I have a question about using the polarizing filter. I have a Hoya 52mm circular filter that my father used with his Nikon SLR. I have a point&shoot - Fujifilm FinePix S2000HD. The filter is just a bit larger than the camera lens and fits like a lens cover. However I have to hold it in place. What I wanted to know is whether the filter would still work if used in this fashion? And any idea as to how best use it? Should I first focus and then place the filter or should I hold the filter on the lens while focusing??

  • indra satriani July 29, 2009 02:54 am

    i use both :)

  • judy mallen April 19, 2009 04:36 pm

    im interested in getting more clearity in my photos of teeth ,top of the line canon with ring lens. but the internal characteristics of the tooth are not very notiable. thought polarization would be the key.

  • linty April 3, 2009 04:01 am

    Polarizing filters are the among the few exceptions to the rule (along with neutral density filters and some special effect filters). Most filters are better applied digitally when using digital cameras. It's a bit complicated, but look up a bayer filter on wikipedia and you will see the pattern that most cameras use in capturing light. Individual pixels on the sensor are filtered to be sensitive to either red, green, or blue light. These pixels are arranged by color sensitivity into a grid. Using algorithms the camera (or raw processing software) gives each pixel a final color which based partly on the colors of neighboring pixels.

    in effect, applying a colored filter to a digital camera changes the incoming light (by removing information) in a way that the algorithms aren't designed to process. It will usually still produce a decent picture but if you are able to photograph in raw (which is likely if your camera accepts filters) then you'd be better off applying most filters digitally.

  • Scott in Japan January 21, 2009 04:51 pm

    I think you should clarify what exactly a circular polarizer is. IE: L-PL filters vs C-PL filters. A circular polarizer is not called a circular polarizer because of its shape or that it spins. Please do some research on the matter.

  • JHG December 29, 2008 09:18 pm

    Very interesting thread and article. Since I've just purchased myself a 77mm Hoya Linear Polariser with a circular scale, I'm even more keen on saving more time on computer and spend it more outside shooting! Just that finding a 77mm is not that easy, but I got it for less than 70USD brand new! Now it will stay on my Sigma 10-20mm for long!

  • Vimal November 20, 2008 09:37 pm

    Though Photoshop can create wonders, it can not do everything the polarizer can do eg. the polarized under water, behind the glass etc. So I suggest the use of polarizer.

  • Ted August 25, 2008 09:56 am


    Why? How is it different from darkroom processing? Couldn't the original digital file be considered comparable to a negative?

  • andz August 24, 2008 11:52 pm

    @Ted: no, they are not the same

  • Ted August 8, 2008 06:53 am

    Using a polarizer instead of PROPER color correction is ridiculous. Using a polarizer in order to make sure you don't have to do something difficult or sensibly time consuming is lazy. That said, a good cpl (I have one at 72mm) is a fantastic tool in some situations, and belongs in your camera bag along with step-down rings for each lens in your kit, along with cheap protective UV filters for each lens.

    My feelings might be a bit skewed by my preference for capturing as much data as possible of a perfectly-composed image and worrying about the colors later, knowing that I'll be performing extensive work later anyway. I do agree with Andy that this is largely "painting," although I would argue (as a fellow analog user and the owner of a darkroom) that it is certainly photography as well. A print isn't a direct copy of a negative any more than a final JPEG is a copy of your RAW file, and the manipulations along the way are often essential to producing a good result. I feel the same way about selecting a filter or plugin as I do about mounting a lens--it's just a matter making an artistic choice.

    Here's a rather extreme example of what I mean. Here's an image shot from the inside of a car (without a CPL--I accidentally left the step down lens at home!):

    Here it is after enhancements. Significantly different? Certainly. A little data has been lost in the tree--which has received a contrast boost to suggest the effects of flame--and rocks, but the overall image has been very tweaked. Isn't it still the same image?

  • Loose_Canon July 10, 2008 05:13 am

    Thanks for the post. You mentioned "Attempting to remove the haze from the distant cliffs proved problematic." Actually haze in the background separates the front from the back and is desirable in scenes like this. If the back were important, such as a photo of the Matterhorn or Mount Rushmore, the polarizer would be more useful.

    For me, I don't like giving up 2 stops because of a polarizer unless reflections are a distinct problem. I simply rev up the saturation in camera a bit and am very happy with the results.

  • Ryan Yamasaki July 8, 2008 12:09 pm

    As an avid photographer and 8 year-user of photoshop for many purposes including photo-retouch, I've come to my conclusion that while software programs may be great to adjust any photo and you can achieve almost any effect to about 90% of a true photo technique or filter, unless you're really good with photoshop and have a lot of time, it's not worth the time. For polarizers, forget it, there's just too many details and nuances - it's like faking short DOF or bokeh.

    I was fortunate to be in Yosemite at the time Rob and Ann Simpson were doing the Canon Parks workshops, and when asked about filters, he said when using digital, ditch them all except the polarizer. For color digital I couldn't agree more. Unless there is a specific quality you are looking at in the high-end B+W or specialty filters, you can pretty much leave them in the film bag. I'd advise to always keep a high-quality glass CPL on you at all times, though (B+W or Hoya, and the like). As shown in the example photos, you cant just throw a filter function on it and expect it to work - you'd have to mask and work with details. Then there's the depth factor - different surfaces, materials, and distances will polarize differently (Try polarizing a glossy textbook page under a undiffused lamp - the ink won't polarize very predictably). This is probably the reason for the difference how much the foreground and background changed with the polarizer.

    Photography is about manipulation and capture of light and I think the polarizer is the most difficult to replicate due to its more complicated mathematical function (color filters just cut a range of wavelengths). Since the polarizer won't polarize everything equally, it gives somewhat unexpected results in the details - and I think that is what makes photography special and why you don't see as many truly WOW photos these days as before (besides the fact that the photographing population has exploded and most of them can't compose for beans). The difference in effect across your image will give you a better dynamic range along with saturation and contrast. If everything is controlled the way you expect it to be, it won't be an amazing photo - it'll just be very good. Photography is about luck as well since nature isn't the best at communicating its intentions.

  • Andy July 8, 2008 03:38 am

    OK. This is my last post to this thread. Promise. Maybe I just don't get digital photography. I've been "making photographs" for almost 50 years and my film experience obviously outweighs my digital experience. I joke with my son that I have to have an open bottle of vinegar on my desk "to get in the mood" to use Photoshop.

    I've read about how much PP can be done in Photoshop. I won't deny it. You can get down to the pixel level. You can modify every pixel in the image. But wouldn't you call that "painting"? I still make photographs; not paintings.

    Please - don't compare extensive Photoshop manipulation with dodging and burning. Dodging and burning are techniques for enhancing the density curves present in the negative. They don't replace the information inherent in the negative with something unrelated. Even the process of colorizing old black and white prints didn't replace the image on the print. The retoucher's brush was used to fix a problem with a photograph - not to create something different.

    And the argument that Photoshop is an evolutionary step in photograhy - check out the works of Jerry Euelsmann. He did it all. And he did it in analog.

  • D. T. North July 7, 2008 11:45 pm

    I consider myself a pretty proficient user of Photoshop (CS3 currently). There are a lot of tools to save an image that didn't benefit from being properly filtered in the first place. However, you are never going to completely replace a good Circular Polarizer. You will never get color rendering nearly as good as using a CP Filter. If you don't believe me, take a shot with the CP Filter aiming at the sky away from the sun with just a few clouds in the sky, then take one without the filter. You will never be able to perfectly recreate that in Photoshop.

    Besides...keep in mind the man hours that you spend trying to duplciate the process. As Paul Harrison says above, you can do a lot to get close...but you'll need to edit specific areas separately. This will take a long time. Time that you should be setting up for other photographs.

  • Post Processor July 7, 2008 10:52 pm

    I'm at work and will not have the opportunity to play with this image, but from my experience, Photoshop CS3 should be more than capable of producing a very similar effect.

    It would have been more useful to compare Photoshop's photo filters (namely, the polarizing filter) to the actual filter, no?

    Granted, it is often much better to "get it right," straight out of the camera, and even advanced PS users would have difficulty eliminating the reflections that a CP would easily take care of; however, when used properly, PS is a powerful enhancement tool.

  • Steve N July 7, 2008 07:45 pm

    Vladimer, Great example of the best use of a polarising filter.

  • Vladimer Shioshvili July 7, 2008 04:58 pm

    I have to join the crowd, and decry this article. I think this is disservice to readers who might assume that a polarizer is just a glorified contrast producing piece of glass. Polarizer is much more than "It helps increase contrast and provide better, truer color when used properly." Here's an example:

  • Andy July 6, 2008 03:53 am

    Another Andy on the forum!!!!!

    Well that's Andy innit!! (Sorry mate, hee-hee)

    In reply to Josh and suitable filters, well you pays your money and you take your choice. Circular Polarizers are available in a vast price range. I use a filter holder and adapter ring from the Cokin "P" range on a Nikon D80.
    This filter holder has a vast variety of adapter rings to suit most lenses and thread sizes which means you buy 1 filter of the type you want, 1 filter holder and whatever threaded rings to suit your armoury of lenses. This system will also accept the slightly cheaper Kood range of filters and a trawl around the internet pages and e-bay will no doubt come up with the goods.

  • Paulo Jordao July 6, 2008 03:43 am

    I used to use a polarizing filter few years ago, when I still had my film camera. For some reason, when I change it for Digital, I just stopped using it.
    I might give it a try again.
    Thanks for the great post.

  • Doc Holliday July 6, 2008 01:22 am

    I use polarizing filters a lot. In the winter, after the first snowfall in November, I pretty much leave a circular polarizing filter on each of my lenses.

    However, reading about how expensive circular polarizers are in the replies leads me to ask a question-

    I have a $70 Hoya CP and a $20 Sunpak CP. The only difference I can see between the two is that the Hoya blocks more light than the Sunpak. About 2 or 3 f stops in some situations, (in some limited situations, the Hoya will do the same thing as a neutral density filter). Either filter has the same CP 'effect.' In any situation where there is restricted amounts of light, I use the Sunpak. In real bright light, I use the Hoya.

    So, are there different "levels" of polarizing filters? Or is it just whatever the manufacturer decides to put on their filter? Does anyone have anything thoughts about whether "expensive is better" or if you get a better result with a more expensive filter?

    I keep UV filters, for protection, on my lenses at all times, having learned that it is better to lose a $10 Sunpak UV filter than a lens worth a couple of grand...

  • Andy July 6, 2008 12:49 am


    A polarizing filter for a digital camera should be one of the circular polarizer (CP) variety, not a linear polarizer. It's my understanding that circular polarizers are compatible with autofocus while linear is not.
    That said, a minimum requirement is an uncoated filter the same diameter as your lens. Sorry if I'm being obvious, but lens (front element) diameter is not focal length. Many Nikon lenses have a diameter of 52mm. The 16-200mm zoom has diameter of 72mm And there are larger.
    If you have multiple lenses, or are seriously considering purchasing a specific lens, standardize your filters on the largest diameter of all your lenses. Step-down rings allow you to use a larger filter on a smaller lens. A step-down ring is inexpensive.
    I've been using Hoya filters. I don't know if they are the best for the money, but they work well, are in my budget and they have a range of levels. Their least expensive is uncoated (degraded transmission, contrast and increased reflection). Their mid-grade is multicoated (fixes the prevous list of problems) and their top-of-the-line is their Pro level (blackened edges, knurled rings, whatever). Now that you know more about selection you can compare other brands.

    When I was shooting black and white film I always had a stack of filters with me (with threaded top and bottom covers). My red, orange, green and fluorescent filters have been retired because I have that functionality in camera or PP. Other than the UV or neutral filter that should always be on your lense when nothing else is, I still need a polarizer and a couple of neutral density filters.

  • Cindi July 6, 2008 12:24 am

    I believe a polorizing filter should always be available to use because it sooo cuts down on editing time! Best to get the best picture from the camera so less to work on!!!! My time is valuable to me lol....

  • Jane July 5, 2008 11:32 pm

    I have to agree with what Andy has said. The picture Paul has processed looks FAKE, the colours are all wrong and is it really worth the effort? The time spent in the office working the picture could be spent much better working with the camera and filter, using the settings and getting it right! As far as my purse goes, I'd rather spend the £'s on a filter and not on photoshop.

    Why do people process so much, when in fact the camera will do all that work in the first place. Learn the camera, use the best equipment you can afford and process little!

  • Josh Lloyd July 5, 2008 03:48 pm

    I have a Nikon D60. Can someone suggest a good polarizing filter? I'm pretty lost with brand & models of these.

  • Klaidas July 5, 2008 08:47 am

    Very good article, and don't thin I've ever said that here on DPS!
    I don't have any filters... I'm considering a polarizing... but now I'd rather invest in lenses.

  • Monte July 5, 2008 03:49 am

    If you had used the LR 2 Beta you could have done local adjustments easily to just the sky, cliffs or foliage and done a much better job.

    As another psoter said, this version of LR adjusts the entire photo, the new version does a much better job.

  • Andy July 5, 2008 03:33 am

    Thanks, Paul. You made the point eloquently. You demonstrated how excessive PS manipulation clobbers the subtlety of the original image. How it develops artifacts and how the increased sharpening makes me look at the near bluffs and ask, "What is that?"

    Oh, wait you say that PS can improve the shot? No, not this time.

    I have a CP filter. Your version did convince me to order a ND3 and ND4 to go with it. Sometimes having the right filter is as important as having the right lens.

  • Raymond Chan July 5, 2008 03:19 am

    It is indeed not fair to compare polarising filter and Lightroom as they are a completely different thing altogether (I use Lightroom to edit my photos). However, one point about getting the shot right from the camera itself proves to save heaps of image editing time.

    I've got myself a cheap CPL filter off eBay, nothing to boast about, but I'm still excited to learn more about filters and the time I can save on editing.

  • KimC July 5, 2008 03:10 am

    I bought a circular polarizing filter on Ebay for far less than $100. It's a Hoya, and as an amateur I'm impressed with what it does for shots of the sky, clouds and landscape. Will I be happier be if I spend more, or does it take a highly trained eye to see the difference?

  • Peach July 5, 2008 03:01 am

    Call me old school but I for one prefer to get the shot right straight from the camera with as little post processing as possible. So yes, I believe that a polarizing filter is a good investment and the better choice.

  • Aaron July 5, 2008 02:14 am

    I use a polarizing filter for three years or so and although I have tried to get the same effect with photoshop, it never was the same (generally played with curves and contrast/saturation). Shooting partly cloudy sky with polarizing filter get you some very dramatic shots. And hey my filter cost me only around $30 :)

  • Paul Harrison July 5, 2008 01:41 am

    This is not a fair comparison between computer treatment and polarizing filter. Your effort just didn't go far enough and should have used Photoshop not Lightroom.
    Here's what you could have gotten if you had tried harder:

    Lightroom can treat only the whole photo but in this case the background (which is bluer because the haze is thicker) needs different treatement from the foreground.
    So the tool you really need for this job is Photoshop which can work on selected areas of the photo.
    On the whole photo, reduce blue saturation - but also increase red and yellow.
    Then use the quick selection tool to separate out the sky (brighten) and then the distant cliffs (reduce blue, increase yellow, increase contrast and sharpen). Feather the edges of your selection by 5 or 10 pixels each time.

  • Tobias Tullius July 5, 2008 01:25 am

    What about the biggest advantage?

    Shooting a lake from inside a car?

    Clear water surface and no window reflections. The colors are of course changeable in every way. But reducing reflections saves you a lot of (sometimes impossible) cloning in PS.

  • Neil Creek July 5, 2008 01:11 am

    Rather than an alternative for a polarising filter, this tutorial is really about how to increase contrast and saturation in the blues of an image. A useful tip to be sure, but it's misleading to suggest that this is an alternative to a polarising filter.

    The greatest advantage of a polarising filter which cannot be matched with processing, is the ability to reduce or eliminate specular highlights/reflection. This is especially valuable when shooting glossy foliage or any scene with water, even on an overcast day. By selectively cutting out light of a particular quality (porarisation direction) a photographer can increase contrast and saturation by eliminating unwanted reflections. No amount of raw processing can achieve the same effect.

    One other minor technical correction. A polarising filter does not "tint" an image. A tint is an applied colour cast. A polarising filter (at least a decent one) is neutral to white balance. It does however shade the image, that is: darkening it by 1-2 stops.

  • Spica July 5, 2008 01:03 am

    Even if some part of the effect of the polarizing filter can be done on computer, it's for the part that can't be done digitally that it's a good investment. Removing glare and reflexions not always possible in post-processing. Even the results for nice white clouds on a saturated blue sky don't stand the comparison.

  • Rosh July 5, 2008 12:59 am

    Wow, I was just thinking about this issue two days ago. You make some great points, thanks for the post.

    My conclusion was that polarizing filters will always be important, because it clears the way for more information to be captured by the camera. The camera nor photoshop can not create the unseen information behind the haze, under the water or behind the glass if glare is blocking the way.

    A polarizing filter is still my answer.


  • Fernando July 5, 2008 12:43 am

    I use my polarizing filter often and love the results. Its always better to get the shot done right the first time, to not only save time in the postprocessing, but also avoid that fake, photoshopped, look!

  • Pete Langlois July 5, 2008 12:36 am

    I suggest buying the largest size CPL you need and then buy a step down ring to fit your other lenses. This way one filter will cover the majority of your lenses as step down's are relatively cheap.

  • Steve N July 5, 2008 12:24 am

    Hi, I use the polarizing filter fairly regularly. The way I look at it is that software can only work with what is there. The polarizing filter will remove excess light effectively removing localised, white out or over exposure. However hard you try, you cannot take a white photo of something and use software to remove the light and reveal the image it was supposed to be. What a polarizing filter does is remove that over exposure on a tiny scale.

    A good example is taking a picture of a stream or lake with fish in. Without the fitler you see with your eyes and the camera the reflections from the sky and other light sources. With the filter the reflected light is removed and you see the direct ligth from under the water and so does the camera revealing the fish.

    With clouds your eyes and an unfitlered camera will pick up the scattered light that passes through and around the cloud, when polarized you only see the direct light and so the cloud becomes whiter and the detail is crisper.

    Because the filter removed scatered ligth it is only really effective in bright conditions. In less bright ( I say less bright because, lower light sounds like darkness) there is less incidental or scattered light to remove.

    I will often try for several minutes twiddling with the filter to see what is the best dial position and if it does actually give me the right look. Sometime it can make clouds look unreall with very sharp or halo'd edges. The contrast in trees are my favourite effect though. I love the look of a tree with varying degrees of bright and dark greens and most of the time the only way to pick this out in a photo is with a polarizing filter.

    Whilst I like the polarising filter. Colour filters.... I'm not a fan, I believe those can be done better in software and with better accuracy and control. But that seems like a following post.