AgNerd Design 101: Filters and Photo Effects

A while back, my friend Mike Haley asked me what the Twitter hashtag “#nofilter” meant. At first I thought it meant that people were speaking candidly without considering their words (I’m often told I have no filter) then he clarified that people were using it in regards to photography.

Duh, Kelly. Why didn’t you realize that on your own? What kind of air-headed graphic designer are you? #nofilter is the tag used to differentiate raw photography that hasn’t been altered from photography that has had effects added to it after capture…sheesh! Anyway, after I got lecturing myself for not connecting the dots, I explained to him…or tried to. I never did get confirmation as to whether he understood or not…

Essentially, a “filter” is an effect added to an image (or a part of an image) automatically instead of doing it manually. A good example of this is using PhotoShop or Picnik to take a picture that’s already been taken and add effects to it. Like…you know, making it look like it was taken in the 1800’s or the 1950’s. Another way filters come into play is with camera phone apps. If you’ve ever used Instagram (Apple), RetroCam (Android) or another “special” camera app on your smartphone, you’ve probably used a filter.

Filters can be good. Or bad. Why the double-edged sword, Kelly? Aren’t those Instagram pictures REALLY COOL?

Well, yeah. They look cool. But there’s a time and place for filters. A lot of the time, a filter is a way to take a cruddy image and make it look more legit, which is great. Other times, filters so a bad job of trying to automatically add an effect to a picture that is better done manually. If you’re reading this, you are probably NOT a graphic designer and therefore probably have NO need to do the special effects I’m referring to when I say that some things should be done longhand rather than with filters, but it’s good to keep perspective that filters are not an end-all-be-all fix-it for everything you’d ever want to do with an image.

When considering filters that may work for you, consider what your end-goal is. What do you want to achieve with the image? You may not necessarily know how to get there right off the bat, but knowing the message you want to send with it is valuable. A lot of the times, a good photo is fine without filters. Some filters are flattering to photos, like what you’d see in Instagram (although I’ve seen poorly-applied filtered in Instagram, as well). Other times, they’re just unnecessary, and actually take away from an already-good picture. Use your discretion, and if it’s a filter that changes the overall appearance of the photo, then have a good reason for it. (Again, this doesn’t apply to filters like you’d see on Instagram, that tend to just “spruce up” a picture.)

We’re going to look at some examples. The examples are thumbnails to make it easier to fit all of them in this post, but please click them to view the full-sized version.

Here’s a picture of me enjoying a “welcome” 3-1-2 (best beer in Chicago) at the AdFarm St. Louis office. (For the record, it was about 4:30 p.m. on a Friday.) Anyway, this was taken on my Droid Incredible with the normal camera settings. (This is the full-sized version.)

I applied some of the basic PhotoShop filters to it. (In each case, there is only ONE filter applied.) Some of them add something to the picture. Some of them are just…not okay.

Sweet, dude! Look how happy and warm the lighting is! Those darker edges give it a kind of aged feel! Right on! Cool faded-looking edges. Man, is this picture from the 80’s or something?!

I don’t know why I just wrote that caption like some sort of hippy or surfer, but essentially there’s been a filter added to this picture that concentrates a lot of warm light in the center and fades outward at the edges. In PhotoShop this is just a simple “Lighting Effects” filter but depending on the service or program you are using, it could be called something different. It’s kind of got a neat effect, but I don’t really think this is a feel that I look for often. Yeah, it makes it more eye-catching and may have its place, but it would need decent context.

There are some things that programs (like PhotoShop) and services (like Picnik) try to do that computers should not be attempting on their own.

Wait, what is going on here?!

What’s going on here, indeed. Well, what’s going on here is that I used the “Color Pencil” filter in PhotoShop. The idea is that it takes an image and makes it look like it was drawn in color pencil. Obviously, it has failed horribly. Not all of the filters, often referred to as “artistic filters” are as bad as this one. Some of them actually look pretty cool when used on the right photo. HOWEVER, use these sparingly and with great care.

Oftentimes the untrained eye will try out an effect or filter and thing it looks AWESOME and the rest of the world sees it for what it is: a horrible filter application. (Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve even gotten called out in a classroom of my peers by disgruntled professors because of filter abuse.)

Where did my eyes go?

This filter is called “Fresco” but can be considered one of many “Artistic” filters meant to make a picture look like it’s painted. On a less-detailed image, or one that’s extremely close-up so fine details are larger (FYI, these extreme close-up images are referred to as being “macro”), this might work. However, for a photo such as this one with some fine details (specifically, my face) it just doesn’t work.

Hey, this one’s a little better!

To me, this one still looks terrifying and makes me want to shudder, but obviously there’s a but more attention to detail than the last paint filter. This one is “Watercolor” and it allows you to fine-tune the effect a bit more. Much like Fresco shown above, this could be neat on the right picture, but I really don’t recommend using it unless you have THE RIGHT PICTURE.

There are some things you just…shouldn’t do…ever…

Like this.

This blog is not a venue to hold a rave. Neither is yours. If I see anyone using this juvenile, dated, ridiculous, impractical filter without a VERY GOOD REASON, I will gather up all of my design books and chuck them at you one by one until you swear never to use this filter again. It’s called “Glowing Edges” and it is what 13-year-old boys used on their MySpace photos to prove how hip they were…when I was in junior high.

Oh, it looks…mysterious and ages and reminiscent of times past!

This approach is generally called “Vignette.” While I don’t think there’s a built-in function in PhotoShop to do this, I know there is on other image editing programs. Vignettes are generally identified by the edges (usually fading to black or a dark brown) and the colors are often less intense. It gives a cool aged or whimsical feel to photos. (I’m not sure how whimsical I can look giving a thumbs up while holding a beer, though.)

The filters on each program and service vary greatly. Picnik is a great way to edit and alter photos after they’ve already been taken if you don’t have access to computer programs like PhotoShop. Picnik has some great built-in features. The important part is to get a feel for what the different filters in your tools of choice can do and figure out how they work best. Over-dependence on filters can be a BAD thing, but there is nothing wrong with spicing up a picture here and there with an extra little something.

Picnik will only be available at until April 19th, 2012, as it will be integrated into Google+ as a built-in Google service. (Which, in my opinion, is pretty dang cool!)

Filters are not the only ways to add some “oomph” to your images!

In another post, I plan on talking about the use of brightness, contract, hue, saturation, lightness, and selective color. I also want to write a post on beginning color theory and the way that colors can influence the impact of your image!

This is enough for tonight, though. Please, please, PLEASE leave comments with any questions, concerns, feedback, additional thoughts and advice, etc. I want this to be a great resource for the online agriculture community and I am a strong believer that we, together as a group, can all continue to learn from each other.

Additional Resources:


10 thoughts on “AgNerd Design 101: Filters and Photo Effects

    • Thanks, Ryan! I know this isn’t too awful in-depth, but we’ll be covering some more practical stuff later on. I’m excited with where this is going!

      Thanks for the encouragement, and for reading and replying. Much appreciated!

  1. I have really enjoyed actions also {especially PW’s}. Aren’t they kinda the same thing? I am thinking they would be multiple filters applied at a certain time at a specified amount? But I guess I don’t know if that is correct.

    • By actions, do you mean changing things like saturation, hue, brightness, contrast, etc? Those aren’t necessary filters so much as they’re manual digital exposure settings. Filters tend to be a pre-packaged alteration to an image, whereas I think the “actions” you refer to are more along the lines of altering what’s already there manually, if that makes sense.

      Most of what PW does is a digital version of things you’d do in the development stage of film photography, like altering the way the light interacts in a photo. Those are mildly different from filters. I don’t know if this helps any. Did it help? If not, what can I do to clear it up more?

  2. Love that you are doing this series… I usually go unfiltered…. but sometimes a bit of editing or tweaking can really make an image much more powerful. Good to at least think about it since images are such a critical driver in sharing & hits at times.

    • Agreed, Janice! Today my roommate sparked another idea for a follow-up to this, the difference between “tweaking” things like saturation, brightness, contrast, “exposure,” etc. versus filters. I think my next post will be more of a back-to-basics one on vocab, though.

      Thanks for the support, JP! You rock!

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