Using Polarizing Filters to Improve Your Waterfall Photographs

by | September 5, 2011

© Kari PostBefore photography went digital, filters were a regular part of every serious photographer’s kit. In the film days, photographic filters were necessary to help control exposure, saturate and color correct scenes, and add special effects. Now with digital, many of these filters are no longer necessary; the look they produce can easily be duplicated in Photoshop. However, there is one filter that digital has not been able to replace: the polarizer.

Polarizing filters work by cutting the amount of polarized, or reflected light, that reaches the film or digital sensor. Polarized light is everywhere, in reflections on the surface of water and glass, glistening off the surface of leaves, and even in the soft blue of the sky. In photographs, polarized light often makes things appear shiny. The use of a polarizing filter can reduce this, and helps saturate the colors of a scene, particularly landscapes with a lot of foliage and a vast blue sky.

I don’t always use a polarizing filter, but one of my favorite subjects to shoot, waterfalls, practically requires the use of one. When photographing waterfalls, polarizing filters help cut through the reflections of the water on the surface of rocks and even the water itself. The polarizer also helps saturate the colors of the leaves and surrounding foliage often found surrounding some of my favorite falls.

In these images, you can see how a polarizing filter can be useful in waterfall photography. The first image was taken without filtration, the one in the middle with partial filtration, and the last one with the filter at full strength. For the purpose of this illustration, these photos were processed minimally, using the exact same settings. I used a Canon 5D Mark II, 17-40mm lens, and Hoya “Moose” Warming Polarizing filter.

Unfiltered waterfall © Kari Post

Partially filtered waterfall © Kari Post

Polarized waterfall © Kari Post

I’ve sometimes found that it is beneficial to have a little polarized light to show off the textures of the scene or colors reflected on the surface of the water from the surrounding landscape, so I usually experiment with various strengths of filtration when photographing a waterfall. Since the result can easily be previewed through the viewfinder or on the LCD on the back of my camera, I can quickly decide what amount of filtration I like best for any particularly scene.

The Essential Guide to Photographing Waterfalls eBook by Kari Post

The Essential Guide to Photographing Waterfalls
Photography eBook by Kari Post

For more tips on photographing waterfalls or the use of polarizing filters, purchase Kari’s eBook The Essential Guide to Photographing Waterfalls, available through the NatureScapes Store.

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