How to use a circular polarizing filter correctly to improve your Landscape Photography

Using a circular polarizing filter correctly to improve your landscape photography is a basic skill that all landscape photographers should have.  Experienced landscape photographers know how to do this instinctively.  However, learning to use one correctly can be a bit of a hurdle for amateur photographers at first.  In my last blog post I talked about all the pros and cons to consider when using polarizing filters in landscape photography, but I thought I’d expand on the topic with practical examples from a landscape photography session I had at Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park which is just a short drive from where I live in Banff, Alberta.  In this post, I’ll explain, with examples, exactly how to use a circular polarizing filter correctly.

Just a few hundred meters down a popular walking trial from the parking lot at the end of the Yoho Valley Road in Yoho National Park is the viewpoint for the spectacular Takakkaw Falls.  The photographs I’ve included in this post were taken from that viewpoint.  I should also mention that it is possible to walk up to the base of the waterfall and stand so close to it that you’ll be soaked by it’s spray, which is pretty refreshing on a hot summer day.  This large beautiful waterfall is 302m high from it’s base (991 feet) making it the 45th highest waterfall in Eastern British Columbia, Canada.   The road is closed during the Winter and Spring due to the high avalanche risk from the large slopes on which the road is build so it’s best to plan your visit there during the Summer or the Fall.

Now I’ll get straight to the point of this post and give you some practical tips on using a circular polarizer correctly.

A circular polarizing filter has it’s greatest effect when the camera angle to your subject is 90 degrees to the sun.  That is to say that a polarizing filter has it’s greatest effect when the sun is immediately to your right or your left from your shooting direction.  The filter will still have a lesser effect and smaller angles to the sun, but it will have no effect if you point the camera directly towards the sun or if you photograph with the sun directly at your back with your shadow cast immediately in front of you.  To learn the technical aspects of using a polarizing filter for landscape photography, please take a look at my post on the pros and cons of using a polarizing filter for landscape photography.  At the Takkakkaw Falls viewpoint between 12 noon and 1pm the sun is angled 90 degrees to my right immediately over my right shoulder as I look squarely at the waterfall.  As I rotate the polarizing filter attached to the front of my lens I will be able to see the maximum and minimum effect achievable when using this filter.  At noon, the sun creates creates nice side lighting on the cliff and the waterfall adding emotional depth to the photograph.  Once again. I won’t get into those technical details about what the effect is here since I recently detailed what that in my recent blog post I linked yo above, but you can assume the effect you see in the photographs below are about as dramatic as you can expect with this filter.

Once you have the correct camera angle to the sun simply look through the view finder as you rotate the filter.  What you see will be what you get in the final photograph.

In this first photograph below I rotated the polarizing filter so it no effect and all the unpolarized light was allowed to reach the camera sensor.  The photograph is good but it could be a little better.  This photograph is pretty close to what I saw with my eyes without wearing polarized sunglasses.


Takakkaw Falls with No effect from the polarizing filter and No Clouds
In this first photograph the polarizing filter is rotated so no unpolarized light is filtered out rendering the sky a lighter blue colour and allowing too much reflected light off of the cliff to be captured in the photograph.  his photograph is too contrasty and is a typical result for a landscape photograph captured at mid-day.


In the second photographed below I rotated the polarizing filter attached to the front of my lens so it filtered out the maximum amount of unpolarized light.  You can see that the sky has become unnaturally dark blue.  The side lighting on the cliff has rendered it unnaturally contrasty too.  If you were to view this landscape photograph critically you would come to the conclusion that the sky is unnaturally dark and you’d judge this as an example of a poor photograph depicting the sky unnaturally dark blue to almost black and the landscape unnaturally contrasty, which they are.  

Takakkaw Falls with the polarizing filter rotated to filter out the maximum amount of unpolarized light.
Takakkaw Falls with the maximum amount of polarization possible. All of the unpolarized light possible is filtered out. The sky is rendered unnaturally deep blue in colour and all of the reflecting sunlight off of the cliff is removed resulting in a photograph that is too contrasty.


     In the last photograph in this post I feathered the rotation of the polarizer between having no effect and having the maximum effect so the photograph captured reproduced a realistic blue sky.  And that is the key.  You need to judge what is realistic as you rotate the polarizing filter while you are looking through the lens.  Once you see a believable effect you can stop rotating the filter and assume it is set correctly.  The amount you rotate the polarizing filter to achieve an affect that you judge as natural is a judgement call you make on scene as you rotate the filter on the lens while looking at your subject through the view finder.  What you see is what you get (wysiwyg) when is comes to adjusting your polarizing filter.  You need to make an objective judgement call on what look is realistic to you for the photograph you want to create.  In this final photograph, which is also the lead photograph at the top of this post, I also waited until the clouds I wanted in the photograph moved into position to create an interesting sky instead of having an empty and boring big blue sky.


Takakkaw Falls with clouds and good use of a polarizing filter
Takakkaw falls photographed with a polarizing filter rotated so it filtered out part of the unpolarized light (reflected light) in the scene rendering the sky a realistic blue colour and removing much of the reflected light off of the cliff. I also waited until some clouds filled the empty blue sky to add another interesting compositional element to the scene and bring balance to the photograph.


I hope you found this post useful and please feel free to share it if you did.  Also, if you would like to hear more of my photography tips on technique, locations and gear reviews then please join my facebook page where I frequently post links on my facebook page to blog articles on these subjects written by myself and other professional photographers.  Lastly, if you’re interested in a more intensive photography experience  then maybe check out the landscape photography tours and workshops I’ve been hosting for the past five years throughout the year in my home, Banff, where I grew up on Cape Breton Island and in Japan, where my wife Kazue is from.  Please keep an eye on my website for my latest offerings.  

Thank you and Happy Shooting!