Once upon a time, a “photo filter” was one of those things you screwed on to the end of your lens. Filters came in different colors, and some of them even added special effects to your photos, such as a soft blur or a starburst effect. Today we still use some types of screw-on filters (most notably the polarizing filter and the neutral density filter), but most other physical filters have fallen out of use—primarily because post-processing can now do what those filters could do without all the extra hassle and expense of buying them and carrying them around.
But today, “photo filter” doesn’t exclusively refer to those physical, screw-on filters. If you ask the more youthful members of the photography community what “photo filter” means, they’re just as likely to say “Instagram” as they are to say “polarizer.”
Now, here’s the thing about Instagram filters and the like: there’s no doubt that they’re cool. You can apply a simple Instagram filter to your photograph and make it look like a photo that was shot in the 1970s, or like something that Andy Warhol painted when he was done with that Campbell’s soup thing. But how much filtering is too much, and what’s the best way to apply those filters? Keep reading to find out.
How much is too much?
If you've ever heard the expression "less is more," you can use that as a mantra for the application of Instagram filters, or any other filters that might be built-in to your smart phone, point-and-shoot camera, or post processing software. Generally speaking, you can make an OK photo look good if you apply an Instagram filter to it, and you can make good photos look great the same way, but you can’t cure a bad photo simply by applying a filter. And you should also keep in mind that sometimes the use of those filters can obscure the finer points of a great image, detracting from some of it’s already positive qualities.
For example, if you apply that 1970s filter to a landscape photo, you may wind up with a photo that looks like something out of your childhood travel photo album, without so much of the modern beauty that you captured in the original. By muting colors and adding a faded look, you’re actually making the image less stunning and therefore less compelling than the original. So it’s important to evaluate every image before you apply a filter, so you’ll have a good idea of what you’ll be adding and, more importantly, what you’ll be taking away.
In most cases, subtle is good, over-processed is bad. An over-processed image may look interesting at first glance, but when you over-process too many images in the same way it can start to look a little tacky. And over-processing causes some permanent damage, too—for example, when you increase the saturation or over-sharpen a photo, you may increase noise, or muddy the transitions between colors. That’s why it’s always a good idea to do your processing on a copy of the original (never overwrite the original) and look closely at the details after you’ve applied the filter. If you start to see problems at the pixel level, it might be best to choose a more subtle application of that filter, or another filter altogether. Now, Instagram itself generally produces pretty good images without a lot of pixel-level problems, but other filters may not work so well, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Instagram is one of the more popular filter applications, so for this discussion we’re going to talk about some of the most used Instagram filters, what they actually do to your image and what types of photos you should use them on.
That 1970s or vintage look can be achieved with the Valencia filter, which essentially just takes bright colors and makes them look dull. This is similar to what can happen to an old photo when it languishes in a non-archival photo album for too long. I hope the irony isn’t completely lost on you—when we put modern photos into modern albums, we usually work pretty hard to make sure that they aren’t touched by acids or lignins that can damage them and cause premature fading. And yet, there’s this Instagram filter that can make them look this way on purpose.
Beautiful day with Jenna and Nicole at santa monica pier beach by Flickr user Karol Franks
Now the difference of course is that you’ll always maintain a copy of the original, so the “damage” of the Valencia filter isn’t going to be permanent. And there is a whimsical appeal to creating a modern image that looks old. Use Valencia any time you want to add a sense of the past or a nostalgic mood to your photograph. You can also use it if you have a lot of bold colors in your photos that you think may be distracting from the subject, but you don’t want to go full black and white.
X-Pro II is a vignetting filter, but it does more than that—you’ll get a darkening near the corners and edges of the image, but you also get bolder, brighter colors towards the center. This creates a sort of tunnel effect, which subtly draws your viewer’s eye into the scene. You’ll get the biggest bang for your filtering buck by using X-Pro II on images that have a centrally-oriented subject—rule of thirds images may look a bit odd since the brightening effect happens at the center of the frame rather than on either side. This makes it a great filter to use for portraits or for natural subjects such as flowers
Untitled by Flickr user Masaki E.K.
Lo-Fi is similar to X-Pro II, except that the brightening effect is applied evenly over the entire image. Lo-Fi increases the saturation—in other words, when you use it you will considerably brighten up the colors in your photograph, making them bolder and more vibrant. You’ll see an increase in contrast, too, and you may also notice that your blacks become blacker and your whites become whiter. You may lose a little bit of detail in the highlights and shadows when you use Lo-Fi, so watch out for this.
The best time to use Lo-Fi is when you want to make colors stand out. If you’re photographing a bouquet of flowers, for example, the Lo-Fi filter is going to make those beautiful colors much bolder and more brilliant. This filter is popular for photographing food, which can look a little dull and gray especially under dim indoor lights. Use it to bring out the colors in nature, in big cities, and to help add contrast to images shot in dim light or on overcast days.
Lower Mosley Street, Manchester by Flickr user 23narchy
There are some Instagram filters that just have a universal appeal, and Mayfair is one of them. Generally speaking, people are more likely to “like” or comment on Instagram photos that have had Mayfair applied to them than any other Instagram filter. Mayfair is a pretty subtle filter, especially compared to the others we’ve looked at thus far—it gives your photo a faint pink cast and, like X-Pro II, you’ll get a brightening towards the center of the frame and some vignetting, but the effect is much more subtle than it is with X-Pro II. In fact the effects are mild enough that you can really use this filter for almost any photo—evenly lit scenes work best, but you won’t ruin a photo that’s not evenly lit if you use Mayfair on it.
Lake Monroe #Sanford #florida #instaflorida #instasunset #sunsetlovers by Flickr user Daniel Piraino
Photographers love the golden hour for a reason—photos shot during the early hours of the day or the late hours of the afternoon have a warm, golden tone to them, which makes them seem to almost glitter. You can give that subtle sunset effect to any photograph using Instagram’s “Rise” filter, but it will do more for your image than just give it that golden hour mood. That slight yellow-gold tint can also soften up blemishes and other imperfections of the skin, making it ideal for portraits.
Rise can also be used for photos that are slightly underexposed—it can help bring out the detail in darker parts of a scene, as long as the underexposure isn’t severe.
Tree shadows. #ondragontime #southernillinois #fallcolors #fall #leaves #backyard #eveninglight by Flickr user Alex Haglund
Inkwell is a basic desaturation filter, which means that you use it when you want to remove the color from an image. It’s great for subjects that have a lot of texture or an interesting pattern—basically any subject where color is either not important or where that color detracts from the other qualities that the subject has. For example, you may be shooting a portrait of a brightly dressed person, and feel that those bright colors are a distraction from the person’s face or from a mood you’re trying to create—Inkwell is a great filter to use in that situation.
upload by Flickr user o_andre
Of course, there is something to be said for “Normal.” Behind Mayfair, “Normal” is one of the filters that actually attracts more attention on Instagram, perhaps because people are attracted to images that look natural after so much time feeling overwhelmed by photos that have been over-filtered. Unless your photo really has a need for filtering, don’t be afraid to put it out there as-is. There’s nothing wrong with photo-realistic, and if your instinct tells you that those filters are actually going to detract from your photo, don’t use them.
Instagram is great fun and I have to confess to being a little wooed by all those cool filters myself. The great thing about Instagram and other similar photo sharing applications is that we don’t have to put out our most professional, most serious work—it’s a time to be light hearted and not take ourselves to seriously. And those filters are a great way to do that.
- How much is too much?
- Don't over process
- Don't apply a filter unless you have a good reason to
- Make sure you aren't creating pixel-level problems
- Gives a vintage look
- Good for making images look nostalgic
- Good for desaturating without going full black and white
- X-Pro II
- Vignette and brightening
- Good for centrally-oriented subjects
- Brightens and saturates
- Good for making colors pop
- Subtle vignetting and pink cast
- Good for most photos
- Gives photos a golden-hour look
- Good for creating a warm mood or simulating sunrise/sunset
- Desaturates image, converts to black and white
- Good for subjects that have distracting or unimportant color
- Don't think you need a filter for everything; photorealistic can be compelling, too
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