a photo of green water and blue skies over a beach in the galapagos

Do you Need a Polarizing Filter for Nature and Wildlife Photography Expeditions?

Filter manufacturers may not really enjoy this post, but the truth is that filters are very antiquated in the world of digital photography.  With the incredible abilities of programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, Picasa, iPhoto, and others, you rarely have the need for physical filters anymore.  Now, with the click of a button, you can “cool”, “warm”, and color correct your photos after the fact with incredible precision and ease.

However, there are a small handful of filters that are still quite important to have, the effects of which cannot be perfectly replicated in photoshop or similar programs.  These include Neutral Density, Graduated, and Polarizing filters.  For this post, we’ll be talking about Polarizing filters.

a graphic explaining how polarized light works

Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polarizer

For starters, let’s look at what a polarizer even does.  Basically, it’s a piece of glass that has invisible bars to it that only allows light to pass through at a certain angle or range of angles.  As you can see from the above graphic, light starts out in all sorts of directions, but then passing through the Polarizer, it is filtered into a more orderly set of wavelengths.

To skip through a bunch of scientific explanation, the basic outcome is two-fold.  One, you get rid of a good bit of reflection, and two it produces much deeper shades of blue when photographing skies.  Most photographic polarizers are what’s known as circular polarizers, as they can be rotated to produce a gradient of polarizing intensity.

So, when might all this be useful?

Filtering out surface reflection can be very helpful when photographing watery landscapes.  But, not just any water…it has to be smooth, highly reflective water.  For instance, say you’re photographing breaching humpback whales in choppy water…what will happen?  Not much.  Sure, the bright glare on the water will be cut down slightly, but frankly, not significantly.  What if, however, you’re photographing a lake with river rocks below the surface?  Yep!  That’s a perfect time to use a polarizer, as long as you want to also capture the rocks below and the water isn’t too deep.  Scenes in Glacier National Park are ideal for this, like the below.

Credit: https://wallpapersite.com/images/pages/pic_w/4939.jpg

But truthfully, what most photographers enjoy most about polarizing filters is their ability to yield more saturated-looking skies.

a beautiful photo of turquoise water and blue skies over gardner bay in Galapagos

The basic gist is that blue light is much more scattered than other colors.  Thus, by polarizing (i.e., filtering) the blue light, you are providing some organization to the scatter of light and thus increasing its purity or saturated-look.

a photo of polarized sky above a yellow flower in baja mexico

But now comes my take on it all.

Even though I’ve been a professional photographer for many years now, have guided hundreds of photo expeditions across the world and live and breathe photography as a career and passion, I very rarely encounter scenes where I can or want to reduce the surface reflection of water.  It’s happened maybe 2 or 3 times in my entire career, to be frank.  Thus, that’s not the draw for me. Most of the time I’m actually trying to get the reflection on a lake or pond to mirror the mountains, or clouds, or trees, or whatever.

I love saturated blue skies as much as the next guy.  However, there’s one big problem with using the polarizer to do this.  Once you take the photo with a filter on your camera, yielding very saturated skies, it’s difficult to remove this effect, should you not want so much saturation.  On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to increase the saturation of skies on an under-saturated photo via photo editing software.  Therefore, I find that you are really committing when you use a polarizer, such that you must know you want a heavily saturated blue sky before you even have the chance to review the photo on your computer.

So, it’s not a no-brainer for me to bring and use a polarizing filter.  Mix this with the fact that a polarizing filter does limit the amount of light coming through to your sensor (i.e., you need a longer shutter speed, higher ISO, or larger aperture to compensate for the exact same shot without the filter), and I’m very on-the-fence about whether you need a polarizer or not.  If you know that you’re headed to a place like Glacier National Park or China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park and will be in the company of many scenic, placid lakes, it very well might be worth it.

I often get the question of whether you need one in places like Antarctica, Greenland, or the northern Arctic, where there is lots of ice. My answer is…kinda. In these areas, when you get blue skies, you already get really great saturation and contrast and I don’t feel like a polarizer is worth the effort of taking on and off throughout the trip. You might be slightly different photos of icebergs with a polarizer, as some can have subtle hues of blue and in rare occasions green, which can be saturated via a polarizing filter.  However, it comes back to my thoughts above, in that these can also be saturated in editing software, such that you may be spending money and time with little payoff by relying on a filter to saturate these colors for you.

At the end of the day, filters are usually small and lightweight, so they aren’t that much of a burden if you want to bring one. And, you might find that you really enjoy its benefits.  However, if you choose to bring one, do use caution and avoid “over-polarizing” your skies.  If you feel like you could be, take some shots both with and without your polarizer so that you make sure you get the shot you want.

Hope this helps, and if you have questions or thoughts on using polarizers, be sure to leave a comment below!

All the best,