Why You MUST Have a Polarizer


Gavin hardcastle polarizer featured

Ever wondered how professional photographers achieve such lush, vibrant colours and that magical “atmosphere” in their images? BAM – they use a polarizing filter or “polarizer”! I could never have achieved the shot above without a polarizer.

hoya-polarizer.jpgWho would have thought that just one slice of wafer thin glass slapped on the front of your lens could transform your photographs from “meh” to “woah” with just a quick turn of the hand?

You MUST Have a Polarizer!

As a landscape photographer I won’t go anywhere without at least a couple of polarizers in my bag of goodies. My wife loves them too because she never has to ask me what I want for Christmas, the answer is always “a polarizer please”.

Can you spot the difference between the two shots below?

Gavin hardcastle with polarizerGavin hardcastle without polarizer

The effect is pretty dramatic in terms of how the polarizer removes all of the white glare from the wet rocks. It also allowed for a longer exposure so that I could capture more movement in the water.

So what does a polarizer do?

In a nutshell, your polarizer allows you to control the reflected light that you didn’t even realize is messing up your shot. It’s like putting a pair of shades on your camera (or monacle I guess). Here are just a few reasons you’ll love a polarizer:

  1. Allows you to see through shallow water by excluding light reflecting from the surface.
  2. Gives you deeply saturated colours by excluding reflected light, for example, wet rocks or leaves.
  3. Allows you to control which light reflections you want to keep. Lets say you’re shooting a shiny surface like a wet car, a polarizer will allow you to change the angles of the reflected light on the curves of the bodywork. See video below.
  4. Brings back definition to blown out clouds that may appear too bright without your polarizer.
  5. Allows you to use slower shutter speeds for milky water shots. You’ll never shoot another waterfall without one.
  6. Allows you to shoot through glass that would otherwise show obscuring reflections.
  7. It protects your lens from impact and the elements. It’s easier to replace a $100 filter than a $2000 lens.

Video of a polarizer in action to manipulate the reflections on paintwork.

Here’s another example of the way a polarizer allows us to see right through shallow water.

Gavin hardcastle polarizer yosemite

When NOT to use a polarizer

A polarizer reduces the amount of light that enters your lens. If you need to shoot fast, like in a dark canyon or a night time rock concert, ditch the polarizer. Low light situations won’t benefit from a polarizer because you’ll need all the light you can get for fast shooting.

If you want reflections, like in a lake scene, use a circular polarizer so that you can take a shot WITH the polarizer engaged and another shot WITHOUT the polarizer engaged. That way you can decide which you like best during editing and maybe blend the two for the ideal look.

Like to shoot rainbows? Ditch the polarizer or the rainbow will be invisible, it’s reflected light remember.

Which brand to choose

In all honesty I’ve used them all and I can’t recommend one brand over the other. Your challenge is to find one that fits the diameter of your lens. Try finding an 82mm at short notice and you’ll know my pain. Shop online for the best deals.

Invest in the most effective camera accessory money can buy, treat yourself to a polarizer then go create some awesome images.

What’s your recommendation for an absolute “MUST HAVE” in the camera bag?

Here are a few filters to check out:

Further reading on using filters:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • What about using polarizers with wide-angle lenses? I’ve heard that’s a big no-no as the breadth of sky you get in the shot means different areas of the sky get affected by the polarizer differently. I use a 10-18mm wide-angle (at 1.5x crop factor) – and have avoided buying a polarizer for it so far for this reason. Advice welcome!

  • Konrad Sarnowski

    “Like to shoot rainbows? Ditch the polarizer or the rainbow will be invisible, it’s reflected light remember.”

    That’s partially true – in some situations if you rotate polarizer correctly, it is possible to darken the background, so the rainbow itself will look more saturated.

  • Vic Gedris

    Yes, you may get that effect in the sky. But a few things to remember: 1) You can control the strength of the polarization by turning the filter, and 2) It’s useful for things other than sky shots, like most of the examples above.

  • Guest

    My favourite filter! I never leave home without it 🙂

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    You are correct Charlie. What I do is take two shots, one with the polarizer doing it’s thing and then another with the polarizer disengaged. I then blend the two in Photoshop, takes about 2 seconds.

  • Spoonie

    Those interested in which polarisers may be better than others (considering they vary in price from less than $20 to over a hundred) may be interested in this review:


    Its a little old now, but most of major brands are reviewed, and interestingly the most expensive filters are not always the best.

  • Great article on polarizers and how effective they can be. Rainbows however, are not reflection but refraction. Hence I have successfully used a polarizer to intensify the colors. Typically for rainbows, I suggest you position the elements in the opposing direction to max polarization. It is best to experiment for best results.

  • Jacobus Lavooij

    Thanks for this great article about polarization. I personally fancy photography. But sometimes i wonder how those professionals capture suce magical scenes while i cannot? But thanks to you now i have my answer. I have another interest, creating wordpress themes, to find them visit below.

  • lauraannettephoto

    I love my polarizer and wouldn’t dream of leaving without it. Since I am also a get it right in my camera and spend less time in post I also cary a expo disc for white balance.

  • I don’t have one. Never have. I guess I have to quit my job now? Just kidding 🙂

  • Another case when you shouldn’t use polarizers: when shooting with an ultra wide-angle lens!

  • Awesome article

  • augustoanouelp

    I’d add to the list Marumi Super DHG circular Polarizer: one of the very best indeed, but less expensive.

  • JR

    One of the best times to use a polarizer is for a beach shot. You can control the reflections from the sand and it will make the sand more white also.

  • John

    Is it me or my computer or the picture without the polarizer looks better than the one with it?

  • well that goes for any filter due to the cut off they’ll cause

  • Which one? They all look better with it to me.

  • That’s not what I had in mind. You can prevent the cut off by using slim filters. But if you put a polarizer on a UWA lens you’ll get uneven polarizing effect.

  • oh okay, gotcha!

  • Buzz

    From a nature obsessed but photogrhing newbie this is an awesome piece of info. The results speak for themselves. Off to hunt down the Polarizer. thank you and here’s to more info from the experts.

  • Raj Rajeshwar

    One of the better occasions try using a polarizer is perfect for a beach shot. You are able to handle this glare on the mud and it also is likely to make this mud more white likewise.

    Our website:
    photographer in gurgaon: http://www.rajrajeshwardigitalcolourlab.com

  • Christine Silver

    Hi John – I agree: the waterfall without the polarizer looks better to me too! It’s all about personal preference. I like having options.

  • Christine Silver

    I only have one negative: I recently attached a circular polarizing filter to my camera and now I can’t remove it! Any tips on how to do this? It just keeps going round and round and I can’t see to be able to grip the thread.

  • JvW

    You should see two serrated edges on the filter: one on the end that you turn, and one up against the barrel of the lens. If you can’t get a grip, try a rubber band around it.

  • Christine Silver

    Thanks JvW – I think only one edge is serrated, the other (the one that actually attaches to the lens) is smooth. But the rubber band may do the trick.

  • theRev46

    reflection and refraction form a rainbow, remember your back is to the sun when you are looking at a rainbow.

  • Marinus H.B. Vesseur

    Cheap polarizers work too, but they can be very dark. The better ones achieve the same effect without taking all that much light away. Maybe for that reason the cheaper pol filters tend to cause autofocus to fail on our Sony A57 and A77 cameras – and yes, I know you have to use circular polarizers (the only type you can get now, it seems) in conjunction with autofocus. The only brand that works for us is a Tiffen circular pol filter that looks a lot less dark than various obscure brand filters we tried.

  • Christine John

    The 82mm is on an incredible sale at B&H for another few hours just for tonight! http://www.bhphotovideo.com/find/dealZone.jsp

  • Thanks for the reminder. I forget to pack it the day I shot this through glass. I had to remove the reflections in Photoshop. Car video is great example of how much it can effect image. http://jason.bennee.com/blog/2012/08/model-melbourne/

  • nightryder21

    Tony Northrup will not be pleased. Lol

  • Truelight

    I’ve had this happen with a wide angle on and a shot that includes a lot of sky. Looks great through the viewfinder and you’ll think you’re really popping out the clouds. Until you get back and go to edit the shot and see the light and dark areas in the sky where the polarization has been applied differently in various spots. Not good. For reflections and foliage, great. For wide-angle sky shots, leave it off.

  • Lisa Woodwick

    Should I have both a UV filter and a polarizer to take outdoors shots?

  • felix kern

    “If you want reflections, like in a lake scene, use a circular polarizer so that you can take a shot WITH the polarizer engaged and another shot WITHOUT the polarizer engaged.”
    You can do this also with a linear polarizer by rotating it.
    You need circular polarizers that your Phase detect AF workes properly.
    Neverthless the pictures you take with a circuar and a linear polarizer should look the same.


  • Jason N photography

    Does the polarizer work differently than a neutral density filter? I would have used the ND filter for the waterfall and I don’t have a polarizer yet.

  • Stoffers

    I looked online for an 82MM CPL, Amazon can have it at my house in two days, that’s pretty short notice, especially since it would be Sunday when it arrived.

  • Angel

    Agreed. I prefer without, too.

  • Piotr Jedrzejczak

    I was shooting racing motorcycles with circular polarizer attached to 70-300 zoom lens and the autofocus in my Nikon D90 could not keep up! I will be afraid to try this again with fast moving subjects, great color saturation does not compensate for blurriness where sharpness should be.

  • KC

    Polarizers are handy, but awkward. I don’t think anyone has created a digital equivalent yet. You can replicate the effect with a bit of effort.

    Yes, polarizers do cut light transmission.

    They need to rotate. A bayonet lens hood and a polarizer isn’t going to be practical.

    If vignetting is a concern (shouldn’t be) a slim step-up ring and a larger polarizer is an answer.

    As for the lens hood issue, a screw-on, rubber, wide angle, lens hood mounted to the polarizer will solve the problem and make the polarizer easy to turn.

    Now, if you really want to have some polarizing fun, there’s two kinds of polarizers, circular and linear. If you’re in a studio setting with continuous light you can polarize the lights with linears. (Linears are like polarized sun glasses, without the tint).

  • Lipcsei Gábor

    I prefer the waterfall picture without the polarizer too. For me it seems more realistic as the wet rocks reflect the light and don’t seem so dry.

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