When Not to use a Circular Polarizer

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A circular polarizer is a filter that is really worth having because it’s great for reducing glare from reflective surfaces. It draws the glare from wet leaves or the surface of a pond and allows you to see more detail and color. It also helps cut through haze to enhance the blue in the sky.

But there are times when it is best to remove the circular polarizer before taking a shot. One of these times is demonstrated by Jay while shooting sea anemones under water at Olympic National Park.

In this case the decision whether or not to use a circular polarizer filter sometimes comes down to its one main side effect: light fall out. When you mount a circular polarizer filter on your camera lens, the amount of light reaching your camera decreases by 1-2 F-stops. In other words, a circular polarizer acts as an ND filter no matter how you rotate its front element.


Exposure: 1/160s @ F7.1, ISO 100

Here is a photo that Jay took with a circular polarizer in Olympic National Park. There was enough light to get away with using a circular polarizer in this photo because I took this photo at midday.


Exposure: 1/50s @ F10, ISO 500

Here is another shot of a sea anemone taken at Olympic National Park. This particular image was taken late in the day under a thin layer of clouds. I did not have enough light to use a circular polarizer; when I tried to use one, my shutter speed dropped so low that the sea anemone’s slowly-moving tentacles blurred. Because of this, I positioned my camera to eliminate the reflections and took the shot without the polarizer.  Even without the polarizer, the light was so low that I had to bump my ISO up to 500.

This is exactly the kind of information you will find in our Essential Filters Course. We include a variety of real-world case studies so that you can see and understand the thought process behind our on-location workflow.

Here is a short video on the same topic for those of you who like to watch videos. 😉

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

  • Bruce A Lindman

    If your polarizer was reducing the shutter speed that much, it is because it was eliminating the very glare that you eliminated by re-positioning your camera. Essentially, the light it was blocking was exactly the light you did not want in the first place.
    Had you tried your polarizer in your new location, with your boosted ISO, chances are it would not have dramatically affected the shutter speed and it would have resulted in richer colors.

    For the most part, polarizers block the light that tends to overexpose images.

    • Love your comment…it shows that you love to know the reasons behind the workflows.
      While your assessment about the polarizer blocking the unwanted light is correct the definition of “unwanted light” depends upon the objective you are trying to accomplish, the composition you want and to some extent position of the sun. My ideal choice of shooting The Siblings would been a different composition…but the glare coming from the sun was too much. In his case the unwanted light became a liability and the use of the Polarizer was must. By selecting a different composition, I was able to all but eliminated the glare without using the polarizer and increase my shutter speed without sacrificing the ISO…and come away with composition that I liked.
      There were other situation when the glare on the water was crucial to the final objective…and in this case as well we left the circular polarizer off.