The Filter Trap
In the modern world of photography, there are two kinds of filters. One kind goes in front of a camera lens and is designed to improve the appearance of the images you shoot with it. There are also software filters used as Photoshop plug-ins that are also meant to make your images look better. Both types of filters can be helpful when used in moderation, but both can easily be overused too.
People just starting out in photography sometimes look at the results more experienced photographers get and feel frustrated that their images don't have the same impact. How do others get such amazing colors, they ask. Why do their own images lack the "pop" that others are able to capture? I can remember feeling that way myself at least. If you read any of the popular photography magazines out there, you will no doubt hit on the idea of screwing various colored or otherwise specially formulated filters in front of your lens. There are countless varieties for sale. You can even get graduated orange filters intended to give you an "instant sunset" appearance even in broad daylight. At first, the results of using such filters can seem like a godsend. "So that's the secret," the aspiring photographer might say to themselves. Find the right filter and you can do anything. Or so it may seem.
But the results are an illusion that is never quite right — close, but not quite. The shadows are wrong, or the color of the sky bleeds over onto the land. Or even that every shot taken with a given filter looks just a bit too much the same. And more even more filters can't solve things either. At some point, you could easily spend more time and effort on trying out filters than on composing the shot in the first place. You've fallen into the Filter Trap. Your entire focus shifts from the search for the perfect scene to photograph to the search for the perfect filter.
The Filter Trap has a new counterpart in the digital age. Photoshop is an amazing program that can do even more thanks to its plug-in architecture. Buy some Photoshop filters and with a few clicks you can change the whole look of a photo. Buy some more filters and with a few more clicks you can tweak things even more. Maybe this is the way to get the results you are after. But this too can become a trap.
There's a saying that if you are good enough with Photoshop there's no need to go out and take photographs anymore. This may be a bit of a stretch but I have seen some pretty cool works of Photoshop art that look almost like reality. Most of us don't aspire to such feats, but it can be tempting to try out all the various third party plug-ins and filters available for Photoshop. But at some point the quest for the perfect filter can take over from the quest to capture the perfect scene in the camera. It may be satisfying to find the perfect plug-in to compliment an image, but for me at least it is far more satisfying being in the right place at the right time to capture such an scene for real, right in front of me as the sun rises over my shoulder in the cool mountain air.
I do use some filters of course, both in front of my lens and in Photoshop, but I tend to keep the list fairly short. In the field I carry polarizers, graduated and regular neutral density filters and occasionally a few other odds and ends. When I do use a filter, I prefer quality filters from companies such as Singh-Ray. Stay away from cheap filters. There's no quicker way to bad images than to use bad filters. In Photoshop I generally stick with what Adobe provided apart from perhaps sharpening and occasionally noise reduction.
Don't get me wrong — I own plenty of filters acquired over the years. I just rarely use most of them. I still have a stack of screw-on camera filters on a shelf upstairs, right next to a pile of plastic boxes, each one filled with a Cokin graduated filter of some kind. I keep them around to remind me of how my approach to getting good images has changed over the years. Yes, I once was caught in the Filter Trap just as some of you perhaps are or were. I also have a bunch of Photoshop plug-ins, some of which no longer work with current versions of the program I'm sure, but many still would I think, if I were to try installing them. They basically just sit there too though, but in a folder on a hard drive rather than a shelf like my unused camera filters. These days I tend to be more interested in images than in filters.
So if you've fallen in the Filter Trap, there is hope. Put a bit more effort into being in the right place at the right time to capture what you are after and your level of creativity will likely improve at the same time. Push yourself to be a better photographer rather than a filter expert.