Circular Polarizers Versus Graduated Neutral Density Filters for Landscape Photography

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Whether you’re a professional or hobby photographer, odds are you’ve come across a beautiful, scenic landscape, that you absolutely had to photograph. Unless you’re an experienced landscape photographer, there’s a good chance the color in that photo wasn’t as saturated, or balanced as you were expecting. That’s because there’s generally a wide disparity in the dynamic range between the foreground and background of landscapes, as well as between the upper (sky) and lower (earth) halves of the frame. Thanks to a couple of lens filters, this hurdle can easily be overcome without having to spend hours of post-processing in Photoshop.

Drop-in and screw-in filters

What are lens filters?

Lens filters are lightweight pieces of glass that screw onto the front of most camera lenses (or drop-in using a holder system) in order to offer additional protection of your lens while also improving image quality. There are a variety of filter sizes that must match up to the size of the thread on your camera lens, so it is very important to make sure you get the correct size for the lens you plan to use it on (tip look on the back of your lens cap).

In addition to varying sizes, lens filters can also serve several different purposes. Most basic lens filters are ultra-violet (UV) reducing filters (also known as haze filters) that come with an anti-reflective coating to cut through the effects of atmospheric haze, thereby improving overall image quality. Besides UV/haze filters, there are two others that are particularly useful for landscape and outdoor photography – polarizers and graduated neutral density filters.

From left to right: A clear UV filter, a polarizing filter, and a Graduated Neutral Density filter.

From left to right: A clear UV filter, a polarizing filter, and a Graduated Neutral Density filter.

What is a polarizing filter?

The next filter we’ll discuss is the polarizing (usually circular) filter, which attaches to the front of a lens and can be spun around to produce varying degrees of saturation throughout an image. This quality of the polarizing filter is important to pay attention to, because it’s easy to produce uneven shades of saturation if the polarizer is even slightly off, such as in the example below.

Circular polarizer versus ND grad filter

Landscape photo with uneven polarization. Notice how the sky is very uneven in color.

Sony a6300 camera with bare kit lens - no filter applied. UV and Polarizing filters on the table.

Sony a6300 camera with bare kit lens – no filter applied. UV and Polarizing filters on the table.

Polarizing filters do two things: first, they help reduce glare or reflections cast by non-metallic reflective surfaces such as glass or water. Second, they saturates colors and enhances image clarity by reducing the overall exposure of an image. The benefits of the polarizing filters are best seen when you are shooting at a 90-degree angle to the sun.

Take a look at the landscape photo below that was taken with no filter, the colors are muted and not very exciting. However, once the polarizing filter is added, you can see a huge boost in overall color saturation. It’s a pretty dramatic difference without even post-processing the photo.

Circular polarizer versus ND grad filter

Landscape photo with no filter.

Circular polarizer versus ND grad filter

Landscape photo with a circular polarizing filter. Notice how overall the colors are intensified.

What is a neutral density filter?

Another effective filter for landscape photography is a neutral density (ND) filter, which reduces the overall exposure of an image. ND filters are uniformly dark in color and they come in different strengths depending on density.

The best use of ND filters is in situations where you wish to use a long exposure or wide aperture to capture an image, without risking overexposure. Some example scenarios when a ND filter would be effective include:

  • Producing a smooth, blurred movement of water in a waterfall, lake, or the sea.
  • Blurring moving subjects to convey movement or motion (such as panning).
  • Reducing diffraction by using a large aperture.
  • Shooting with a shallow depth of field in bright lighting.

What is a graduated neutral density filter?

ND filters also come in a graduated form, also known as a split ND filter. The top half of the filter appears dark, while the bottom half is clear. Similar to the circular polarizer, the graduated ND filter can also be spun around to produce varying degrees of saturation, so it’s important to be careful when using it to avoid unevenly saturating your image.

The best scenarios for a graduated ND filter to shine are when you wish to reduce light, or darken just part of your image. Think landscape photos where the earth is balanced, but the sky is blown out. This would be an ideal time to use a graduated ND filter to darken the sky.

Circular polarizer versus ND grad filter

The above landscape photo with a soft edge ND grad filter. Notice how the sky is darker and more saturated, while the water hasn’t changed.

There are two types of ND grad filters: hard edge, and soft edge. You’ll want to use a hard edge filter when the light and dark sections are very clearly separated, while a soft edge filter is best used when the light and dark sections are not distinctly separated.

Circular polarizer versus ND grad filter

Landscape photo with no filter.

Circular polarizer versus ND grad filter

Landscape photo with a circular polarizer.

Circular polarizer versus ND grad filter

Landscape photo with a graduated ND filter.

Over to you

Do you use polarizers or neutral density filters with frequency in your photography? Please share your thoughts and images in the comments below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Suzi Pratt

is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • Eric Ressner

    No expert here, but I think you’ve got it wrong about the quality of circular polarizing filters. The unevenness of the sky in your sample shot is not due to a low-quality filter. The strength of a polarizing filter’s effect is strongest at 90° from the sun. Since the angle between the sun and various portions of the sky can vary dramatically in a photo taken with a wide-angle lens, the strength of the polarizer effect varies across the photo as well. You can get the bestest, most expensivest polarizing filter, and you’d see exactly the same thing. It’s optics, not quality. The only way to avoid it is a longer lens.

  • Richard Everstine

    I use a circular polarizing filter on nearly every landscape shot. Love the color saturation and the reduction of random reflections from leaves, etc.

  • Carlo

    I am using circular polarizing filter, and I recommend everyone would to do landscpae photography to get one. But I would like to ask you if with modern cameras, like mine Nikon D750, still makes sense to use GD filters given the wide dynamic range of last cameras. I mean you could get right in camera, if the bright and dark area is separated by a straight line, but the exposure compensation is today easily fixable in post production at least up to 5 stops.

  • MPR1776

    I use both. You can stack the filters or get a Singh-ray filter combination.

  • Albin

    I always have a CPL with me out of doors, but have never invested in an ND. The reason is that the things a CPL can accomplish – blueing what the unfiltered lens will see as white sky (should be mentioned in the article) or radically transforming a reflective water surface over a range from glare to transparency – cannot be replicated by software in post-processing (of course you can paste in blue sky or whatever you like from some other exposure, I suppose). I consider CPL a must-have for shooting out of doors.

    By comparison, so long as cloud detail, etc. are not completely blown, ND effects are achievable at a reasonably high standard in post, to where fiddling with filters in the field is not worth the effort to me.

  • jessica-terry
  • smat

    Thank you Suzi..I have to ask if you found the screw on filters better or more convenient than the slide on ones? I know with the polarizer, the screw on one is more likely. I am trying to be efficient with the lens – particularly with the ND filter. Not sure i want to purchase a screw on one for each of my lenses…seems like the slide on filters can cover more than one lens.

    Also…I read through your blog and web page. I am very impressed with your credentials and work……Thank you for the tips on freelancing and the photo resources. they were very helpful.

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  • Thanks for the feedback and compliments Steve! I’ve always used screw on filters, mainly out of convenience and ease of use. The slide-on filters always seemed like they required a bit more work and care, so I admit to not having used them before. Perhaps borrowing from a friend or purchasing from a store with a flexible return policy might be a low-cost way to compare.

  • Pete Mueller

    Smat; old trick, not taking credit for it… buy screw-on filters sized to the largest diameter lens you own or plan on owning (in my case that is 77mm), and also buy a set of reducing threaded adapter rings to cover any smaller diameter lenses. Now you can purchase one quality filter vs. numerous “affordable” ones; the adapters are cheap.

  • CrustyOF

    Is it possible to use a program like Lightroom or Photoshop to correct the photo without using a filter?

  • ernldo

    Actually, the “slide on” filters are so much easier to use. Example, on a extended exposure with ND (like a Big Stopper) I focus and lock, then easily put filter holder (with filter) on lens, voila!. No need to “screw” the filter on, messing up composition and possibly defocusing.
    I own both, and with the exception of the circular polarizer, all other round filters get NO use once I bought into the Lee system….

  • Leonard Schrock

    In my big dictionary there are 11 definitions for the word ‘quality’. I think you are taking the word ‘quality’ wrong. The intended meaning has to do with characteristics and not its value.

  • Jyotirmoy Sarkar

    Though in specific situations CP and ND can yield similar results and both reduce lights by few stops but basic usage of those two filters are different. CP is used to make sky blue (it’s physics – CP works well when sun is at 90 degree), eliminate the glare from water surface whereas ND cut the light that coming thru lens and widely used for longer exposure in day light like get silky/milky effect of water stream or falls even in bright day light. ND can’t do everything what CP can do.

  • pete guaron

    A standard ND only changes the number of stops/ISO/shutter speed or whatever. The effect is uniform across the field of view. The description of “What is a neutral density filter?” in Suzi’s article points to 4 uses for them, none of which relate to bluing the sky or transforming reflections.

    That is in stark contrast to a grad ND or a CPL. I am happy to use either on a landscape shot – and normally use a grad ND on sunrise or sunset shots. But with digital I have been finding the skies I photograph are quite sufficiently strong without needing to resort to a CPL. That said – I still use the CPL, just not as much as I did with analogue photography.

  • Mark

    Grad ND? Possibly not, but a 5 stop non-grad ND may be handy if you like blurred water shots. I believe Sony Alpha owners may be able to get suitable results with an app instead.

  • Marguerite2142
  • Mark

    Suzi, these examples that you show are simulated in software. They are not actually taken with the filters claimed in the caption. Look at the first three photos of the lake—they are identical down to the tiniest ripple except for some saturation and contrast adjustment (and in the case of the last one of course a graduated adjustment, but still in software only). Not to mention that the effect of a polarizer doesn’t really look like this.

    What you are saying in the text is correct. Yet I am really disappointed because I would have liked to see a real comparison, not a faked one. I would also expect better curation of the articles by the DPS staff.

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