Polarizing and Neutral Density Filters: Essentials for Landscape Photography


In landscape photography, just as in portraits, fashion, products, or any other subject matter, accurate color capture is crucial. What makes it so much more difficult with landscapes, however, is the wider disparity in dynamic range, not only between foreground and background elements, but primarily between the upper and lower halves of the frame– between the earth and the sky. If you are into shooting landscapes, overcoming this hurdle will require you to have one of two filters (if not both) in your arsenal, even if you don’t use filters in any of your other photography.

Polarizing Filter

Polarizing filters– sometimes called the secret weapon of professional landscape photographers– create richer, more vivid colors. The filter pulls double duty by (1) cutting down on reflections from bright surfaces like water and rocks, and (2) adding rich blues to skies by darkening them and increasing the color and tonal saturation throughout the frame. Polarizing filters are most effective when shooting at a 90-degree angle to the sun. It will therefore be least effective when the sun is either in front of or behind you. Polarizing filters will also enhance clouds, but you have you to be careful with your lens choice. Just like you can overdo it in post production, it’s quite possible to overdo it in-camera if you use a polarizing filter on a super-wide-angle lens. The result will be uneven shades of blue in an over-saturated sky.

Without a polarizing filter.

Without a polarizing filter.

With a polarizing filter.

With a polarizing filter.

Neutral Density Filter

Neutral density gradient filters help balance the exposure between the ground and sky to capture a range of exposure that the camera cannot possibly handle on its own. If you expose for the ground, you’ll get a gray or white washed-out sky. Exposing for those awesome blues and soft, billowy clouds, on the other hand, will make the ground so dark you’ll lose much of the detail you set out to capture in the first place.

A wide view of a hand-held graduated neutral density filter illustrates how valuable it is to capturing accurate colors in landscape photography.

A wide view of a hand-held graduated neutral density filter illustrates how valuable it is in capturing accurate colors in landscape photography.

The filter itself is dark at the top, completely clear at the bottom, and essentially shades of gray in between. Available in two varieties, the circular version attaches to the front of the lens like any other traditional filter. The other type is a square or rectangular filter that you hand-hold in front of your lens. Both work the same way, darkening the sky to avoid blowouts, while leaving the ground untouched and unfiltered. It’s a seamless transition that ensures proper exposure throughout the frame– making sure you get vibrant, saturated, and (most importantly) accurate colors in all of your landscape shots.

Neutral Density Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons User Kain Kalju.

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Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

  • Amy

    If using a neutral density filter do you have to make sure that it is parallel to the horizon? (Never used one before). Thanks 🙂

  • It might be worth mentioning that the square filters are usually combined with (rotating) filter holders so you don’t need to hold them in front of the lens. The big-square-filter/filter holder combination is useful because you can buy adapters for various lens diameters, so you can use the same (expensive) filter on several different lenses if you buy a few cheap adapter rings.

    (The one downside I can think of is that you can’t use your normal lens hood with them, and they’re more fiddly/more stuff to carry around.)

  • Jeffrey Guyer

    Excellent point, Matt. Thanks for contributing!

  • Aankhen

    That confused me no end.

  • Kris

    Yes, it’s obviously the exact same photo with an oddly purplish blue gradient covering the sky (and trees!). Not only is this lazy, it doesn’t even show you the effect the polarizing filter would have on the reflections in the water. How hard would it have been to provide an actual example?

  • Jeffrey Guyer

    While I stand by the original photos, I didn’t want this turning into a debate which would have negated the learning experience. I’ve therefore updated the post with a new set of examples for the polarizing filter.

  • stargate

    You mention (correctly) that a polarizing filter is most effective at 90 deg to the sun and the only example is a picture with the sun in the frame 🙂

  • Thanks Matt, exactly the question I had after reading this article (“why use a handheld one over a fitted one?”)

  • One question I’ve always had about graduated filters is how you deal with horizons that aren’t completely flat. Assuming that the graduated aspect of the filter is straight across the middle of the filter, how do you then compensate for, say, a building or tree that extends into the other portion of the filter? Or for a landscape that has hills and troughs? How do you match the graduation to the variation in the line of the horizon? Thanks!

  • It would be nice also to see some comparison examples of the effect on reflections and creative uses of each scenario (with/without reflections, angles to the sun etc, how to make the best of each etc).

  • Chris

    What is the consensus for using a polarizer with a DSLR? I’ve read that they we’re more of a benefit to film, but not so much for digital. Thoughts?

  • Marcikutya

    This isn’t true. The effect for DSLR is nice as for film.
    Said that only circular polar filter is suitable for DSLRs, because the older type linear filters can cheat the Autofocus. This also isn’t true, this is only marketing.

  • As I understand it, they’re one of the few filters that you can’t easily reproduce with digital post processing (as once the light’s been captured by the sensor, you have no way of knowing the polarisation it had, so it’s data that’s lost even in RAW.) Definitely worth it if you want to bring out that sky or reduce reflections from water. Polariser and neutral density filters are the only ones I use.

    (Also: consider non-gradient neutral density filters. Something that simply reduces the amount of light coming into the camera across the whole frame is really handy if you want to increase your exposure time to get more “motion” captured and stopping down your aperture isn’t doing enough…)

  • John McLeod VII

    Graduated filters have to be rotated so that the graduation is parallel to the horizon. The advantage of the square filters (preferably in a holder) is that they can be rotated and slid to match the subject (tilted horizon as in mountain shoulder at 1/3 into the frame…)

  • Chris

    Thanks Matt!

  • Chris

    Perfect, thanks.

  • Patricia Pope

    Thank-you..I have a new camera and did not know much about filters…now I do.
    At least what to buy for the different effects.

  • marius2die4

    It is ok to use CPL filter, but for example, the look of the sky through this filters is not sow nice. And also you will lose about 1/3 stop of light.

    Also if you use some cheap filters, your colors will be modified, not original.

    Some of my pics, many with CPL and some with Gradual ND?


  • Bull Rhino

    I don’t leave home without it, although I may have fallen victim to the marketing claim that I must have a circular polarizer. I’ve never tried a standard one with my DSLR. I know one thing for sure and that is that the example photo was not using a circular polariser because when you are aimed toward the sun the polariser has no effect on the blue in the sky. If you like to shoot landscapes and or photos with water in them you will greatly benefit from having a quality polarizing filter.

  • SH

    Polarizers are used to both decrease the brightness of clear sky, but more importantly to remove unwanted reflections (from the surface of water or other shiny surfaces). E.g., imagine a scene on a lake, the lake has some rocks just below the surface, a polarizer can help to remove the reflected sky on the water’s surface and reveal the rocks below. You attach the filter and rotate it to the best angle for removing the reflection, they work best when the camera is aimed at 90 degrees to the sun. A good way to check that is point your hand like a gun with the thumb aimed at the sun, your index finger points to the plane the polarizing works best in. This effect cannot be replicated in software of any kind and is essential for serious landscape work since it will also help remove glare on foliage, sand, rocks, etc. and creates a beautiful deep blue sky.

  • dav

    In an N.D. filter, which type (number) should i buy first for a beginner. And as i already have a polarized filter, can i put them together, and will that produce a higher f stop number.

  • debesh

    Hi, can I use more then one filter at the time? shoule I keep the uv filter all the times?

  • sayan sen

    what are the good and budget ND filter manufacturers??

  • Brad

    Charlie, Grads are not always the perfect solution. When a building or tree projects into the sky, it will be darkened by the filter as well. You may be able burn and dodge in raw processing to correct for it, or you need to take two exposures, one with the filter and one without, and blend them via your favorite software method.

  • Daniel Hamelin

    I bought a variable ND filter, you turn it and it changes density

  • Jeffrey Kafer

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure a polarizing filter doesn’t do what the picture suggests when pointing it right into the sun.

  • Stephen

    Check out the blog by Matt Koslowski for some great examples of landslides using these filters.

  • Honestly they are a tad expensive but i couldn’t live without em now

  • LovePhotog

    For those unaware, polarizing filters also help glare on tree leaves (most anything obviously). The biggest difference you’ll notice with this filter is a landscape view of lake and trees. The glare will be reduced on the lake producing darker blues (and possibly seeing deeper into the water) and the greens in the leaves often appear deeper as well as the glare is removed. This is more evident on bright days of course.

  • Octavian Iolu

    Polarizing filters work best if you are at an angle of 90 degrees in relation with the light source. In your example the sun is straight up in front of your camera. You captured the worst way you could use such a filter. If you had the sun to your left or to your right, then it would have been a better example. This site is called „digital photography school”, and the teachers should be more „schooled”. Hasty article…

  • rwhunt99

    Maybe I’m not using it right, but I’m having trouble, when I rotate the filter, I rotate the lens (end) and screw up the whole image. for instance, zoom and or focus. I get frustrated and quit trying to use one. How do you rotate and keep focus?

  • William

    What lens are you using? With several cheaper non pro lenses( and some higher quality lenses) the lens will rotate when focusing or zooming. Experiment with your lens by focusing and zooming, watch if it rotates while do it. That may be your answer.

  • rwhunt99

    Exactly, that is my problem, when I focus and then try to adjust the filter, I move the lens and ruin the focus and or the zoom. Then I’m not sure if I rotated the filter correctly. I use a kit zoom lens most of the time. I used to have a polarizer with a little stick you can use to rotate the filter with, but I lost it. The one I Have now, I think is a bit stiff which causes the problems, not sure if there is a way to lubricate it to rotate more smoothly or not a good idea.

  • William

    What brand polarizer? I use Hoya and no tightening problems. I would not try lubricant, as it may attract dust and dirt.

  • Clarke Warren

    Where are the editors???

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