Update: Several people have mentioned the use of polarizers to reduce glare on water – this is still a reasonable use of a polarizer, however, that is not the focus of my article. Most photographers use polarizers for subject matter other than water, which does not result in a benefit that cannot be gained through post-processing. If you shoot water extensively you may still find one useful, but otherwise, read below to see why I think there are better filters to keep on hand.
You have probably heard many landscape photographers strongly expressing their unconditional need for using circular polarizing filters, but why? Traditionally, polarizing filters are popular because they offer enhanced colors and reduced glare, but with powerful post-processing techniques this isn’t as necessary. Colors in the sky can easily be enhanced, and the effect of glare typically does not negatively effect the image quality. Before I discuss my preferred filter, let me explain a few more reasons to ditch the polarizer.
Post-processing accomplishes the same thing
Software such as Adobe Lightroom or Aperture are powerful tools for enhancing RAW files to reach similar results that a polarizing filter would. For enhancing colors in the sky or on foliage, utilizing the luminosity adjustment sliders handles this nicely. You can see the effects of this on the grass and sky in the example below.
They don’t work on wide-angle lenses
Most landscape photographers use ultra wide-angle lenses, such as a 14-24 or even a 17-35, but unfortunately, polarizing filters do not work on these lenses. The result will be strange dark and light patterns in the sky due to the physics of the filter. The minimum safe distance to use is about 24mm, maybe slightly less depending on the subject matter. While landscape photography can still be appealing with more telephoto lenses, it doesn’t capture the essence in the same way an ultra wide-angle lens does.
Effectiveness varies based on angle from the sun
The polarizer has its maximum effect when the direction you are shooting is 90º from the sun. When this changes, it loses its effectiveness. The direction of a good landscape picture can not always be changed to meet this demand.
Difficult to work with
During harsh lighting conditions it can be a challenge to rotate the filter to find the desired effect. It helps if your camera has live view, but it’s still not easy.
The Neutral Density Filter
What is the solution then? Ditch the circular polarizer for the 10 stop neutral density filter. This filter will improve your landscape photography dramatically in comparison to the polarizer. Keep watching for the follow up article on neutral density filters!