When NOT to use a Polarizing Filter

Yes I just blasphemed against the gods of landscape photography. Not using a polarizing filter for landscape photography could be considered sacrilegious among some circles and indeed, I myself have written ad nauseam of the importance of this simple yet powerful photographer’s tool.

When not to use your polarizer

Now I’m going to selectively contradict myself. The fact is that in most outdoor photography situations a circular polarizing filter can hugely improve your photographs, but there are times when leaving that shady piece of glass off the lens can actually gives better results.

What does a circular polarizer do?

Circular Polarizer Comparison

As I’ve mentioned in my previous article (Why you MUST Have a Polarizer), a polarizer reduces reflected light before light enters your lens. The term circular refers to the fact that the filter can be turned by hand to engage or disengage the polarizing effect. This is most effective on reflective surfaces such as water, glass, wet rocks, cars.

Most of the time you want to control those reflective surfaces and reduce the glare of reflected light, but what if you like that super wet look and the glare on certain surfaces? Let me show you some examples of where I felt that NOT using a polarizer actually made for a better image.

When feflected light has colour

When NOT to use a Polarizwer for landscape photography

In the image above, I decided to remove the polarizer because the reflected side light on the wet rocks in the foreground had a distinct red colour which I really liked. Using a polarizer would have reduced this red reflected light and would have made for a less dramatic image.

When you want that super wet look

When not to use circular polarizers in landscape photography

With this image I found that the wet rocks had lovely highlights that caused a soft glare from reflected sun light. Even though the highlights didn’t really have any dramatic colour like the previous image, I still felt that wet look made for a better image so I opted not to use the polarizer

In very low light or totally shaded areas

When you don't need to use polarizers in landscapes.

This shot of Silver Falls State Park was a long exposure in very dim light, inside a canyon that had no direct sun light at the time. When the sun has gone down and it’s starting to get dark, there’s little point in using a polarizer for a scene like this.

The only wet surfaces that could cause glare are the wet leaves in the foreground and it was so dim that there was no glare at all.

Night shooting

Don't use a polarizer for full moon photography

When you’re shooting in the dark of night, it’s mostly likely that you’ll 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 higher ISO setting. Do yourself a favour and remove the polarizer. In the full moon shot above, the polarizer would only have served to slow down my shutter speed.

When you want reflections in water

Not using a polarizer in landscape photography at Silver Falls State Park

Here’s where you want the best of both worlds. Let’s say you like the look of your image WITH the polarizer on. Your colours 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.

The simple answer is to take two shots. One with the polarizer engaged and another with the polarizer disengaged, or removed entirely. You can easily blend those two exposures in Photoshop to take the best elements from each. With 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.

When you want to shoot rainbows

Don't use a polarizer when shooting rainbows

I’m sure I’ll be corrected by our more well educated readers, but from a polarizers standpoint, a rainbow IS reflected light and that means that if your polarizer is engaged, the rainbow will perform a disappearing act in your photo. Disengage or remove the polarizer and presto, it’s back in your photograph.

But still, don’t forget your polarizer

As I mentioned at the start of this article, most of the time my polarizers live on the front of my lenses. If I leave the house and forget my polarizers I’ll actually turn around and drive home because they’re such an essential part of my kit. That being said, it’s important to recognize when conditions call for the removal of said polarizer and I hope this article helps you to identify those golden moments so that you can get your best shots.

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