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Working in a ‘Filtered’ World: 3 Expert Perspectives

Photoshop filters are the Rodney Dangerfield of the creative world: They may be wildly popular, but they still don’t get any respect.

Maybe filters are tough to love because they give photographers and illustrators easy access to assembly-line creative techniques and many tend to take a “more is better” approach to using popular filter effects.

The truth, however, is that filters aren’t inherently good or evil. They’re tools, and when used properly they serve a useful purpose. That’s the message we got when we spoke with three prominent artists about their attitude towards living in a world where filters are frequently used, often abused and constantly maligned.

Avoiding the "Creative Dead End"

Photographer Michael Herb noted, as many other photographers do, that filters sometimes represent a creative dead end. “A lot of people take filters at face value and never do anything more,” he said. “They take a photo, throw a filter on there, and upload it. Eventually, it becomes so bad that you can pinpoint what filters a photographer is using just by looking at their photos for a split second.”

Yet Herb also pointed out that filters serve a valuable teaching purpose. “I tell people that a filter is like a tutorial,” he explained. “It’s a recipe. Like any recipe, it’s meant to be tweaked after you learn it. Take that filter, learn what it’s doing, figure out why you like it – reproduce it and make it your own. Don’t use it as a crutch, use it as a tool.”

Applying the effects of a filter with a pressure-sensitive pen tablet or display is the most intuitive way to “flavor” and image to your liking. Through the use of a layer mask for example you can essentially “sprinkle” on a filter selectively, only in the areas that you want. A little more in some, a little less in others.

Seeing Your Art Differently

Illustrator and Fashion Institute of Technology faculty member William Low also mentioned the role that filters can play in a teaching environment. When Low works with students in the classroom, he often recommends using the Paint Daubs filter in Photoshop to avoid the tunnel vision often associated with painting on screen.

“When you paint traditionally, you have the ability to look at the entire piece from a distance,” Low said. “On the computer…the student’s tendency is to overwork details because they’re not able to see the entire piece.”

According to Low, the Paint Daubs filter helps students to “see” a piece in its totality, rather than fixating on isolated details. “It forces the brushstrokes to open up and flatten out. It’s a good way for them to sort of lose all the details – it’s a teaching tool that helps students ‘learn how to see.’”

Achieving Your Vision

Finally, when we spoke with photographer Joel Grimes, he acknowledged that “push button” techniques quickly lose their appeal when they become popular. “When everyone has access to [a popular filter] it will kill the look pretty quick,” he said. “You have to be really careful.”

At the same time, however, Grimes takes issue with the notion that using a filter – or any creative technique – is a litmus test for identifying “real” artists.

“If you use one filter or another, it doesn’t matter to me,” he stated. “What matters is whether you achieved your vision as an artist. Did you get there? That’s the most important thing.”

Grimes said he understands the feeling that filters are an unfair shortcut, especially for less experienced photographers. “I had that happen many times where I get emotionally attached [to a photograph] because I did it the hard way,” he said. “But I still believe that the most important element in the creative process is whether you were able to fulfill that vision.”

Putting Filters to Productive Use

There are a plethora of filters available today. Some can make an image look retro; others can be whimsical or even outrageous. Others can “correct” elements of an image. As experts like William Low, Michael Herb and Joel Grimes point out, these types of filters can enhance your creative vision and offer powerful teaching tools. But as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility – a responsibility to use filters with a deft touch and a sense of creative purpose.

Some of the most successful filters, in fact, are those that have been developed with the idea of selective application in mind. Two good examples are those available in the Nik Collection by Google, and Perfect Suite by onOne Software. In Color Efex Pro (part of the Nik Collection), users can elect to “brush” on an effect directly from the filter’s settings utilizing the pressure sensitive control of a Wacom pen tablet. Similarly, with Focal Point (part of the Perfect Photo Suite) users can the size or opacity of the filter’s effect based on how hard they physically place their pen to the tablet.

Don’t forget that your ability to apply filters in Photoshop and other image editors isn’t limited to a plug-in developer’s choices. You can always apply a filter selectively through the use of a layer mask and a pressure-sensitive brush in Photoshop. The more you work with these tools, the better you’ll get at using them to serve your artistic vision – and not the other way around.