Nick Carver Photography Blog

Photography Tips, Tutorials, & Videos

CONTACT  |  LOG IN
 

Common Misconceptions: You Don’t Need Filters for Digital Photography

The Misconception:
Photoshop (and other image editing programs) have replaced traditional filters. I can do everything in Photoshop that photographers used to do with filters.

Why This is Wrong:
Whether you're talking about a digital sensor or a piece of emulsion, photography is all about recording light. The whole purpose of traditional filters is to alter the light on its way to the sensor or film so as to achieve an effect. Using Photoshop to mimic a filter is simply "pushing pixels." It's altering ones and zeros. It's trying to change the light after the fact.

Let's take graduated neutral density filters for instance. There are the real deal and there are imitations built into software like Lightroom. The way true graduated ND filters work is by darkening the light coming from the sky as it makes its way to the sensor. The way the "graduated ND filter" in Lightroom works is by darkening blown out pixels to make the sky appear darker. So with the real McCoy, the bright light is tamed down so that the sensor can actually record the sky in all its detail and color. With the cheap imitation, a blown out sky with no detail at all is artificially darkened without ever recovering much more detail.

Check out this side-by-side example. The image on the left was taken with no filters and the image received almost no post-production work. The image on the right is my attempt to digitally mimic a graduated ND filter on the exact same file. I used the dodge and burn tool in Photoshop along with gradients, layers and curves. It took about 10 minutes to do all that work to just one image.

Graduated ND ImitationYou'll see that the sky is a bit darker and there is a little bit more detail, but it's really no replacement for the real deal, as illustrated below. In the next comparison, take a look at how much better the image is when I utilized a simple traditional graduated ND filter. The image on the left is the same one as above - no filters with heavy post-processing. The image on the right is the picture taken correctly with proper filters with almost no post-processing work. Time spent on the computer for the image on the left: about 10 minutes. Time spent on the computer for the image on the right: about 10 seconds.

Digital Grad ND vs Read Grad NDLook at that...you can actually see detail in the sky! With a simple $40 filter and zero time spent in Photoshop, I went from a blown out sky with no detail to a beautiful sky with lots of detail.

No filters vs a Grad ND

So you can see that my Photoshop imitation of a grad ND doesn't even hold a candle to the real grad ND. It doesn't recover detail in the sky, it doesn't capture the color in the clouds and it doesn't preserve the quality of the original file. More work with worse results. I don't know about you, but I like to worker smarter, not harder.

Here's another variation on this picture that, again, utilizes true grad ND filters and received almost no post-processing.

Using Graduated ND Filters

Same goes for circular polarizers. Those filters cut through reflections on everything from water to windows to foliage. There is no replacement for that in the computer!

The Truth:
Filters are just as important today as they were with film!  There's no replacement for altering the light on its way to the sensor. And no matter how much money you spend on Photoshop and all its plugins, no piece of software can travel back in time to the moment you clicked the shutter and alter the light before it hits the sensor. Especially when it comes to blown out pixels, Photoshop just can't work miracles. If pixels are blown out, there is literally no detail to be recovered. And if you're thinking, "But Nick, what about HDR." Well...don't get me started.

My Thoughts and Rants:
I don't know where this idea started that just because everything's digital now, we don't need traditional filters anymore. I have a sneaking suspicion that it's all rooted in marketing from image-editing software companies. They want you to buy software, so they market their products as a replacement for filters. Just like diet pills trying to convince you it's a replacement for proper nutrition and exercise.

But regardless of where it came from, this mentality drives me nuts! To me, it's like using software to correct a horrible, pitchy musician who really has no business singing in the first place. Instead, let's ditch the software and just get someone who can actually sing. Is that really such a novel idea these days? What would the world be like if we never used Auto-Tune or Photoshop ever again? All the horrible musicians and photographers would drift out of sight like dregs at the bottom of a dirty bucket of water. Then all the actual talent would float to the top. Oh, also all of our supermodels and celebrities would suddenly look flawed and human. God forbid!

Bottom line is this: using software to mimic proper use of filters out in the field is the work of incompetent photographers. They can operate software, but they can't operate a camera. But don't fret if you fall into this category. We were all incompetent photographers at one point. But don't turn to software to fix your images - just become a better photographer through study and practice! Then you can save the $600 you would have spent on Photoshop for something really valuable, like filters and a tripod...or your mortgage.