Why you should always pack a circular polarizer filter in your camera bag

Certain pieces of gear never leave our camera bag when photographing landscapes and nature. A circular polarizer filter is one of them. Here’s why you should always carry a circular polarizer and a quick method to figure out when you might want to use it.

Circular polarizers are a type of filter that helps to cut reflections and glare, providing more color and contrast to certain scenes. The physics of how these filters work can be pretty technical, but you can learn more about it here. In simple terms, the circular polarizer allows you to block particular directions of polarized light. This is the same technology found in many sunglasses.

Unlike other lens filters, a circular polarizer has a ring that you can spin 360 degrees. Rotating the filter will remove more or less polarized light, increasing or decreasing the filter’s effect depending on the rotation. Always experiment with the rotation of the polarizer before clicking the shutter.

With digital photography, a circular polarizer isn’t always needed. You can achieve some of the color and contrast effects during post-processing instead. While polarizers aren’t required as often as in the film days, there are still times when you will want one.

Determine when a circular polarizer could be used

What impact will a circular polarizer have on your scene? The easiest method is to take the filter out of your bag and hold it up to your eye. Rotate the filter to see how it impacts your scene’s glare, color, and contrast before you put it on the camera. For some scenes, the effect will be subtle or non-existent. For other scenes, the effect can be quite dramatic.

circular polarizer

When to use a circular polarizer

Water reflections

One of the most obvious times to try a polarizer is for photographing water, like a flowing river or the surface of a lake. A circular polarizer can reduce or even eliminate the glare and reflection on the water’s surface.

waterfall without circular polarizationSilver Falls in Mt. Rainier National Park
Waterfall photographed with and without a circular polarizer. Notice the dramatic blue color of the river is revealed, and the foliage colors become more saturated.

Wet surfaces and foliage

Like the surface of the water, wet rocks or leaves can have significant reflections that hide their underlying color and detail.

Sculpted red walls of Avalanche Gorge in Glacier National ParkSculpted red walls of Avalanche Gorge in Glacier National Park
Wet rocks photographed with and without a circular polarizer. Notice the glare on the wet rocks is almost removed by the filter.

Clouds and atmospheric haze

Polarizers can darken skies and brighten clouds. They can also cut through the glare of atmospheric haze. While the effects can sometimes be dramatic, be cautious about how much of the effect to apply, as it can sometimes leave the sky looking unnatural.

Photographed with and without a circular polarizer. Notice how the filter darkens the sky and dramatically enhances sunlit clouds. It also darkens the green foliage but has little effect on clouds without sunlight.

Black & white

Black and white photos allow much greater creative freedom in adjusting brightness. A polarizer can be helpful to darken a sky or enhance clouds when shooting for black and white.

When not to use a circular polarizer

Wide-angle lenses

Wide-angle lenses can show uneven polarization effects, particularly in the sky, where blotches of different brightness are unattractive and impossible to remove.

Angle of the sun

Polarizers work best when the direction of the sunlight is at a 90-degree angle to the camera. When the sun is directly behind or in front of you, the effect of a circular polarizer is minimal.

Desired reflections

Sometimes a reflection is desired as part of your composition. Removing a reflection with a polarizer will make the image look dull. If you still want to use a polarizer to enhance the sky, take another picture without the polarizer to capture the desired reflection. Then merge the images during post-processing.