How I ruined my photos with a Circular Polarizer

A circular polarizer is one of those filters that is really worth having. It is great for reducing glare from reflective surfaces. It will pull the glare from wet leaves or the surface of a pond so you can see more detail and color – and it helps cut through haze to enhance the blue in the sky.

The filter is made up of two rotating elements, and seems pretty simple to use… just screw it onto your lens, and then rotate the outer ring until you get the effect you want. At least, that’s what I thought when I first went to Death Valley with my brand new wide-angle lens and my expensive new circular polarizer.

I planned to use my circular polarizer filter to make the most of the complimentary colors – a brilliant blue sky and the golden light on the rippling sand.

Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California (CA), USA

Circular Polarizer created a large Blue Blob

But I was in for a surprise. I didn’t really know how my circular polarizer filter worked – and that lack of knowledge ruined every single photo of the Mesquite Dunes.

At first, I was baffled. I thought there must have been something wrong with my camera. But, I did my research, and I discovered that the effect produced by the circular polarizer filter is highly dependent upon the angle of the sun. Shooting with a wide angle lens can cause uneven polarization… which produces a dark “blob” in the sky.

A bit of knowledge would have saved me a lot of money… and a lot of work. I might have come away from that trip to Death Valley with a collection of images I would have been proud of.

You can be sure I was ready when I returned to Death Valley for another try. This time, I knew when to use my filters, and when to leave them in my bag… and my photos show the rich colors and beautiful textures I had originally envisioned.

Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California (CA), USA

Taken without Circular Polarizer

This is exactly the kind of information you will find in our Essential Filters course. We start out with an in-depth discussion of the different filters that we carry. We explain why we carry them, how they work, and the problems that you might encounter in the field. We’ve included lots of examples for using each type of filter… and we don’t stop there. We follow it up with a variety of real-world case studies so you can see and understand the thought-process behind our on-location workflow. You’ll see the effect of each filter on the backs of our cameras, and you’ll learn as we explain our camera settings and choices in the field.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams

  • marc S.

    Were you in a hurry? Didn’t the viewfinder show the anomaly? I remember last time I was there it was 90 something minutes after the sun came up. Breathtakingly hot. I cut my shoot short. Back in the film days.

    • I did see a slight the bit of gradient on LCD and in viewfinder but I never realized how bad they would get after post processing. Remember my skills at the time were not quite what they are today.

  • Peter Tellone

    Good Article Jay, I have always agreed about this and glad to see you say it (cuz I have no audience) so that the “I always have a polarizer on” people may think twice, but then again, they probably won’t. They do have a purpose but it’s usually not why people use them.

    Good job my friend

    • Thanks…I have another article (a short video) were the decision to use or not to use a polarizer depended upon the available light. Will schedule it for a post sometime in April.

  • Been there, done that, Jay. It was a disappointing day. 🙂

    • Yep…I learned my lesson the hard way. Now a days our workflow has evolved to take multiple shots with a polarizer and put them together if needed. 🙂

  • John

    The title should read: ”How the lack of knowledge about using a polarizing filter led to me rouining my photos.” The way you wrote it gives us the impression that the filter itself was to blame for ruining your shot, but it was your lack of knowledge not the filter, the title is misleading (probably serves as clickbait).



    • I can see your point. I always take the issue that ANY equipment (including the smart ones like a computer) are only as good as the person using them. So, I don’t interpret the title the way you do….and then there is a technical and design limitation to the number of characters in the title.

    • Andrew

      Dude. Be chill.