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Getting Lost in Filters

There exists any number of methods for trying to improve your photography but it's tempting to hold out hope for a silver bullet that can work miracles without much real effort. Simply by means of an exotically colored piece of glass in front of your lens, or a few quick mouse clicks in the right software filter you can change the look of an image dramatically. But at what cost?

When I bought my first "real" camera many years ago, I also naturally bought a number of accessory items including a tripod, camera bag and of course some lenses. I also bought several glass filters in various colors of the rainbow. I had a warming filter, a cooling filter, one to correct for fluorescent lighting and so on. I even had a gel filter holder I had read about in a book by John Shaw and a green filter to go in it that was supposed to enhance images of vegetation. I thought I was getting well equipped and well prepared to take the best shots I knew how to.

Since I was just learning back then, not everything I shot came out as I planned and I worked to figure out why. To help capture better images, I invested in a Cokin filter holder and their G1 and G2 (gray) filters. These were effectively graduated neutral density filters that weren't truly neutral enough to label as such but they were cheaper than Tiffen and others. After reading their sales brochure I also talked myself into buying tobacco, magenta, fog, yellow and other colored graduated Cokin filters. And yes, I bought a graduated sunset filter. I was serious.

After going this route for a time, I eventually learned that all these sort of filters could easily become crutches, their use serving in many cases as a surrogate for proper skills and technique. The only real way to get images with rich vibrant color was to be in the right place at the right time. One could easily fake the look of sunset in midday with the right filter, but it could never look as true to what a sunset actually looks like as a real sunset. And even if it were possible to mimic the effect with a filter, one would still be robbed of the experience of being there when the sky really looked that way. For me at least, I've grown to value such moments greatly, a feeling of deep satisfaction no filter can replicate.

At least some of you can no doubt relate to at some aspects of all this. Beyond being photographers, we're all human after all.

I went on a somewhat similar tangent with software filters when I first started learning Photoshop. Photoshop was plenty powerful even back then, but the learning curve was steep as it still is. So I invested in plenty of filters from Kai's Power Tools, Extensis and others in my quest for simpler image greatness. These days of course Nik Software is the king of the hill in Photoshop filters. The list of filters in their flagship Color Efex Pro is long and includes effects with impressive names such as "Monday Morning," "Sunlight," "Glamour Glow," and "Indian Summer."

Yes, I own Nik Color Efex Pro as do plenty of you reading this I'm sure. They advertise everywhere. And in the right circumstances they can create impressive results too so anyone browsing their website gallery surely would be tempted.

I don't want to knock Nik. As a feat of software engineering they've done an impressive job, but just as with glass and resin filters for use in front of your lens, it can be all too easy to get lost in filters. Both types of filters can appear as easy roads to image greatness yet serve only as distractions from the actual hard work of honing one's craft of actually being somewhere when things looked as they do in that Cokin sales brochure or Nik Software website gallery.

Filters, both physical and digital, can help overcome limitations inherent in the image capture process. They can also subtly work to augment an already good image to make it even better. But now as back when I first started in photography there are just too darned many filters, and too many people looking to them as a quick fix for what ails their photography. Capturing good images can be hard work. It can be challenging. But it can also be rewarding. As I mentioned earlier, there really is no substitute for being somewhere when everything comes together and you can witness it in person. Capturing it in photography allows you to recall that experience.

Of course the human mind can be a fascinating thing, and the way we recall our experiences doesn't always jive with a literal rendering. I'm certainly not against subtly accentuating aspects of an image to make it look closer to how I remember it even if it really didn't when I am honest with myself. Slightly glamorizing or stylizing an image isn't a sin. Photography is an art after all. Pure documentary image making has its place in journalism, photographing judicial evidence and the like, but its potential for conveying a mood or concept goes far beyond that.

Creating a filter effect that never really existed at all is basically no different than adding objects to an image that weren't really there or taking others out that were. It has been said that if one is good enough at Photoshop they don't even need to go out taking pictures. But that's not what I strive to do at least.

It can be easy to get lost in filters. Learn to use them to enhance your photography, not substitute for it.

Date posted: July 21, 2013


Copyright © 2013 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Are Filters Still Needed for Digital?
The Filter Trap
Why I Don't Like Sunset Filters

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