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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.

 

Common Misconceptions: How to Use a Light Meter

This is the first in a brand new series of posts called "Common Misconceptions." As a teacher with well over 100 clients, I've run into just about every single common misconception there is to be found in photography. So with these blog posts, I aim to spread the word on what's wrong and what's right!

The Misconception:
When shooting in full manual, the correct way to meter is to line up the light meter indicator at zero, like so:

Shooting in Full Manual

Why This is Wrong:
The zero on your meter does not mean "correct." The zero is simply a reference point for your meter. Just like altitude has sea level as a reference point, your camera's light meter has a reference point. With altitude, you can go above sea level and below sea level, but sea level (which would be "0") isn't any more correct than any other value. Same with your light meter - you can go above zero and below zero, but zero isn't any more correct than anything else.

If you always line the meter up at zero when shooting in Manual, you'll find that many of your pictures come out too bright or too dark, like so:

Taking Pictures in Full Manual

Taking Pictures in Full Manual

In both of the above examples, zero gave me a bad exposure. So, you see, zero doesn't mean correct - it's just zero.

The Truth:
There a few different techniques for how to use a light meter correctly. The Zone System is possibly the most well-known and easily one of the most effective, but I teach my own brand of manual photography that involves an easy-to-apply 3-step process that's just as effective and even easier to learn than the Zone System. But whatever metering technique you use, lining it up at zero does not result in a correct exposure. And regardless of whether you're using the camera's built-in light meter or some sort of handheld light meter, you don't just get the meter to zero. The other numbers on the meter are there for a reason. You have to know how to use them. If you're interested in learning my easy-to-apply metering process for manual photography, I've dedicated an entire 6-week online course to learning it. More details about that course and a free preview can be found here.

My Thoughts and Rants:
I run into this misconception all the time. It drives me nuts. It doesn't drive me nuts that students think this is the correct way to meter - after all, this is what they were taught by someone who was supposed to be knowledgeable and I can't expect students starting out to know how to manually meter for real. What drives me nuts is that a lot of reputable (I use that term loosely) photography instructors actually teach this as the correct way to shoot in manual! I've even heard that instructors from Adorama are teaching students to line the meter up at zero all the time!

I'd love to have a word with these instructors because the truth of the matter is they themselves have no idea how to shoot in manual but they are too proud to admit they don't know. Instead, they just spread their ignorance to eager amateur photographers who are then left wondering why more than half their pictures come out wrong. There are far too many people out there teaching photography who really have no business doing it.

My question to these inept instructors is "If you just want to get it to zero, why does Canon and Nikon even include the -3, -2, -1, +1, +2 and +3? If it was just a matter of getting it to zero, all they'd need is a little red light on the top of your camera that lit up once you got the correct exposure." Those other numbers to the negative and positive must be there for a reason. And by the way, if it's just about getting it to zero, save yourself the effort and put your camera on full auto, because that's all full auto is doing.

So don't buy into this misconception! Learn to shoot in manual the REAL way!