When and How to Use a Circular Polarizing Filter

As a landscape photographer, you might have a few different filters in your gear bag. Maybe you like the way a circular polarizing filter (CPL) looks, maybe you’re a fan of the 3-stop neutral density filter, or maybe you prefer the 10-stop ND filter. Or just maybe you’re starting out in the field and have no idea what any of these filters do. Here, landscape photographer, Joshua Cripps focuses on the CPL and explains how it can increase color saturation and seriously enhance the sky to be an incredible royal blue in your images:

What Does a Circular Polarizing Filter Do?

The circular polarizing filter is considered a must-have for landscape photographers. Here’s a breakdown of what it does:

  • Blocks scattered light from entering your camera
  • Reduces haze
  • Increases color saturation
  • Gives the sky a royal blue hue
  • Cuts reflections off wet and metallic surfaces
  • Increases clarity
  • Lets you see under the surface of lakes and streams

reduce reflections photo

Sounds pretty amazing, right? Why would anyone not want to use a CPL? Well…

The Downfalls

The polarizing filter doesn’t work at all when you’re pointed directly at or directly away from the sun. A CPL works best when you’re pointed 90 degrees from the sun.

  • If you’re shooting directly into the sun, say at sunset, your polarizing filter is doing absolutely nothing for you.
  • If you’re shooting with a wide angle lens, you might see uneven color tone in the sky because the filter will create a stronger or weaker polarization effect in different parts of the frame.

uneven color tone photo

Tips to Maximize the Effects of a CPL

  • You can adjust how strong you want the polarization to be by turning the filter.
  • To fix the uneven polarization problem, don’t use as wide of a lens, or shoot on a cloudy day.
  • When turned to their strongest effect, most polarizers eat up about two stops of light, so you’ll need to change your camera settings to compensate.

clouds break up polarization effect

All in all, a circular polarizing filter is a valuable tool and is definitely worth having in your camera bag. When you use it is really up to you though. It just comes down to your artistic intention—does it fit with your vision? Let us know what you think. When do you use a CPL?

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