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When Not to Use a Polarizing Filter

When not to use a polarizing filter

Polarizing filters are an essential tool for landscape photographers, but here’s the truth:

Sometimes, using a polarizer is a bad idea.

I said it! Yes, not using a polarizing filter for landscape shooting could be considered sacrilegious in some circles, and indeed, I myself have written ad nauseam about the importance of this simple yet powerful photographer’s tool.

However, today I’m going to selectively contradict myself. Because while a circular polarizing filter can hugely improve your photographs in most outdoor photography situations, there are times when leaving that piece of glass off the lens can actually give better results.

Below, I list all the times I believe that it’s better to avoid using a polarizing filter, and I include example photos to help you better understand how a polarizer will negatively affect your images in those specific scenarios.

So if you’re ready to learn all about the times you should keep your polarizer packed away, let’s get started!

What does a circular polarizer do?

Circular Polarizer Comparison
When you place a polarizer over your lens, you eliminate specific types of reflected light from reaching your camera sensor. Note how the unpolarized image (right) features very wet rocks. When I applied the polarizer (left), the reflections were dramatically dampened.

A polarizer reduces reflected light before it enters your lens. It doesn’t completely eliminate all reflected light; instead, it targets polarized light, which is created when a light source bounces off certain materials.

Note that circular polarizers are designed for flexibility. These filters include two pieces of glass, and by rotating the front element, you can engage or disengage the polarizing effect.

When not to use your polarizer

Now, a polarizer is useful when shooting reflective surfaces such as water, glass, shiny cars, and wet rocks; by putting a polarizer over your lens, you can cut down on reflections to highlight colors and details underneath. Landscape photographers constantly use polarizers to shoot fall foliage (to reduce reflections on the waxy leaf surfaces) and waterfalls (to reduce reflections on wet rocks), while cityscape and product photographers sometimes like to rely on these filters to avoid extreme reflections on cars and buildings.

Most of the time, you want to control those reflective surfaces and reduce the glare of reflected light to let the colors and details underneath shine through. But what if you like that super wet look and glare on certain surfaces? What if you think it enhances your photos?

In those cases, you’ll want to leave your circular polarizer in your camera bag. Let me give you some examples where I felt that not using a polarizer actually made for a better image.

1. When the reflected light has color

When NOT to use a Polarizer for landscape photography sunset image
For this sunset photo, I decided to work without a polarizer. I knew the filter would cut down on the reflections on the wet foreground rocks, and I absolutely loved those gorgeous colors!

For the image above, I decided to remove my polarizer, and here’s why:

The reflected light on the wet rocks in the foreground had a distinct red color, which I loved. The rocks were a beautiful deep red that matched the water and the bright sky, and by working without a polarizer, I was able to maintain that harmony throughout the image.

Using a polarizer would have reduced the beautiful red reflected light, resulting in a less dramatic image.

So if you’re faced with a scenario where you appreciate the color of the reflected light, don’t be afraid to take that polarizer off. Reflections can add beautiful color to an image, and that’s not something you want to miss out on!

2. When you want that super wet look

When not to use circular polarizers waterfalls on rock
If I had used a polarizer, the wet rocks would have lost those subtle highlights.

Since wet elements tend to produce contrast and desaturate colors, photographers generally use circular polarizers when faced with waterfalls, seascapes, etc. But wet objects can look good in certain situations – sometimes, the wet reflections create pops of brightness that enhance the resulting image.

For instance, look at the long-exposure image above. If you check out the wet rocks, especially those in the bottom left-hand corner and the wall jutting out in the midground, you’ll notice some bright highlights. A polarizer would reduce contrast in these areas to help the real color of the rocks shine through – but I quite liked the way the highlights caused a soft glare from reflected sunlight.

So even though the highlights didn’t really have any dramatic color, I still felt that the wet look made for a better image, so I opted not to use the polarizer.

3. When photographing in very low light or in totally shaded areas

Waterfall in the rainforest
When the light is low, a polarizer won’t do much to help – and it can force you to use frustratingly long shutter speeds.

When the sun has gone down and it’s starting to get dark, there’s little point in using a polarizer. Polarizers only cut down on reflected light, and when the light is dim, reflections are pretty subtle.

Plus, using a polarizer in low light will force you to use a longer shutter speed; circular polarizers block out a couple of stops of light, which can make a big difference when you’re working in dim conditions.

The shot above features a waterfall at Silver Falls State Park. It was a long exposure in very dim light, taken inside a canyon that had no direct sunlight at the time. The only wet surfaces that could cause glare were the leaves in the foreground, and the light was so dim that there was no glare at all.

Therefore, I opted to leave my polarizer off my lens.

4. When you’re shooting at night

Full moon in the desert
Photographing at night? Leave that polarizer in your camera bag. This shot didn’t need a circular polarizer as there weren’t any reflections to reduce!

If you read the last section carefully, you probably know what I’m going to say here.

Polarizers only help when dealing with reflected light, and when you’re photographing at night, there won’t be a whole lot of reflected light to handle.

Additionally, when you’re photographing at night, you want to get as much light as possible into your lens. A polarizer is going to reduce the amount of light and force you to use a longer shutter speed or a higher ISO setting.

So if you’re shooting in the dark, do yourself a favor and remove the polarizer.

When capturing the full moon shot above, the polarizer would only have served to slow down my shutter speed, so I kept it stowed away in my bag.

5. When you want reflections in water

Waterfall at Silver Falls State Park
If you like the reflections in the water but also want to capture deeply saturated colors, you can do what I did here: Capture two files, then blend them together in Photoshop!

Sometimes, you come across a scene with reflections in the water, and they look beautiful. One option is to ditch your polarizer and shoot with a bare lens.

But let’s say you like the look of your image with the polarizer on. Your colors are nicely saturated and all of the glare has been reduced from the surfaces, but you’re annoyed to see that the lovely reflections in the water have either vanished or diminished.

What do you do?

The simple answer is to take two shots – one with the polarizer engaged and another without the polarizer. Then you can blend the two exposures in Photoshop and take the best elements from each.

For the shot above, I really enjoyed the look of the reflected waterfall in the pool, so I took two shots with different polarizer settings and then combined them.

6. When you want to shoot rainbows

Don't use a polarizer when shooting rainbows
When you’re capturing a rainbow, your polarizer shouldn’t be on your lens.

I’m sure I’ll be corrected by our more well-educated readers, but from a polarizer’s standpoint, a rainbow is reflected light.

Regardless, if your polarizer is engaged, the rainbow will perform a disappearing act in your photo.

Disengage or remove the polarizer and – presto! – the rainbow will be back in your photograph.

In other words, if you want to photograph a rainbow successfully, where all the colors are as vivid as possible, take that polarizer off.

Note: If you want to reduce reflections in other parts of the shot, you can always use the technique I mentioned above, where you capture two shots – one polarized and one unpolarized – and blend the files together.

But still don’t forget your polarizer!

As I mentioned at the start of this article, a polarizer is a key landscape photography tool.

In fact, if I leave the house and forget my polarizers, I’ll actually turn around and drive home; they’re that important.

At the same time, I urge you to learn when conditions call for the removal of your polarizer, and to confidently unscrew that polarizer when the time is right.

And I hope this article helps you identify those golden moments so that you can get the best possible shots!

(Of course, if you’re unsure whether to shoot with or without a polarizer in a specific scenario, you can always capture multiple shots, then decide which one you prefer when you’re back at home.)

Now over to you:

Do you use a polarizing filter? How often? Are there times when you prefer to go without it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Gavin Hardcastle
Gavin Hardcastle

is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

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