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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

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.