The Influence of White Balance on Our Perception of the Polarization Effect in Landscape Photography

The Influence of White Balance on Our Perception of the Polarization Effect in Landscape Photography

A polarization filter is a great tool for reducing glare on shiny surfaces. A welcome side effect is the more saturated colors. Especially during autumn, a landscape photo will get a nice warm appearance. Unfortunately, automatic white balance may counteract the effect.

The polarization filter is one of the filters that can give a great benefit to landscape photography. Although a lot of beginning landscape photographers will use the filter mainly for achieving a sky with a deeper contrast, the filter is intended to reduce reflection and glare on shiny and reflective surfaces. I use the Haida M10 polarization drop-in filter for my landscape photography.

The most common use is with waterfalls and water streams. A polarization filter will make the water more or less transparent by reducing the reflection of light on the water surface. On some occasions, you will be able to see the bottom of a stream, removing all traces of the water above. Although this may not always be the desired effect, a smaller amount of polarization may take the edge of the reflections, giving the image a nicer appearance. The glare on wet rocks can be removed as well, which gives the photo a nicer contrast. Most waterfall photos will benefit from that, just as in the example below.

Streams and waterfalls are not the only subjects that can benefit from the use of a polarization filter. Moist leaves are also highly reflective, something you may have noticed when photographing in a forest. Especially during autumn, the leaves can get a washed-out appearance. Of course, colors can be increased in post-processing, but the white reflections on the leaves will remain. A polarization filter can remove this reflection on most occasions and you end up with a warm, saturated color.

I have gathered a few examples of how a polarization filter deepens the contrast and increases the saturation of the landscape. This effect can not be achieved in post-processing, which makes the polarization filter an essential tool for this kind of photography.

In both examples above, the left image is without a polarization filter. The right image is with the maximum amount of polarization. Both the images with and without polarization have the same post-processing.

I noticed how the polarization effect is sometimes almost invisible when you’re in the field. The image on the back LCD screen or in the viewfinder seems to lack the polarization effect, no matter how we rotate the filter. If you’re new to polarization filters, this may be discouraging.

If you experience the lack of polarization effect when checking the result on the LCD screen, this may be due to the white balance setting. A lot of photographers are using the auto white balance setting, leaving it up to the camera to neutralize any possible color cast. As we know, the camera will try to give the image a neutral-looking appearance, which works on a lot of occasions. But when a polarization filter is used, this may counteract the saturating effect of the filter.

The difference is visible in the before-after image below. Both of the images are with maximum polarization, but the one on the left is with the white balance set to daylight, and for the one on the right, auto white balance is used. 

I have made a couple of other test shots to show how the auto-white balance is affecting the appearance of the photo. The polarization itself is not affected, of course. That remains untouched by the white balance setting, but it will affect our perception of the result. By leaving it up to the camera to set the white balance, the effect may appear visually reduced or even removed from the image. Or so it seems to us.

These three examples show a white balance set to daylight on the right side image. On the left side, the white balance is set to auto. Be aware that every camera brand may show a slightly different auto white balance result. These examples are made with a Nikon Z 6 II.

I have been a supporter of a daylight white balance setting for a long time. This originates from a distant past, from the era of analog photography. At that time, we primarily shot on daylight film. I love how a fixed white balance in digital photography imitates the good old daylight film. As a result, it shows the change of light throughout the day without any correction, retaining any natural color cast like from a sunset or a sunrise. It will also retain the increased saturated colors that become visible with polarized light.

Although the white balance can’t influence the polarization effect itself, it can reduce the appearance of more saturated colors. We can correct this in post-processing by changing the white balance again, of course, but it might be helpful if the full effect is visible on screen or in the viewfinder when we are on location. It will help determine the strength of the effect and give us a good idea of how the result will look.

For those who are shooting primarily in-camera JPEG, the white balance setting is even more important. What you see on screen is often the result, unless you will post-process the JPEG image. That’s why choosing a good white balance is even more important for the JPEG photographer.

Bottom line, although white balance setting doesn’t influence the polarization effect itself, it can make the effect less visible on screen, and thus leave you with the idea it doesn’t work that well.

What white balance setting are you using for your photography? Are you using auto white balance or a fixed setting? Please let me know your thoughts on this subject in the comments below.