Software (or apps, if you prefer) such as Instagram or Lightroom come loaded with various image processing presets. These have different names depending on the software but the usual tile applied is ‘filters’. This is what the are called in Instagram and what most people tend to refer to them as.
What are Presets / Filters?
Basically, they are a step of predefined post-processing modifications which alter the appearance of an image. They will usually alter the colour balance, exposure, contrast etc in an image to give it a predetermined appearance.
To show this, I have a fairly lacklustre photo taken in downtown Nashville on a dreary, rainy day.
I will now fire this photo through Instagram and apply different filters to show their effects. I haven’t done any post-processing to these images other than apply a filter.
As you can clearly see the base image has been altered substantially. The most obvious alterations in each case relate to the colours and contrast.
The question now is, has the image been enhanced by applying these filters? Although its a matter of personal taste, I would say the image has been enhanced in all the examples.
The example image given above is a fairly poor photo to begin with. It’s composition is poor with too much weight in the centre and bottom right of the image and too much dead space at the top. There isn’t enough tonal variation to provide interest in the photo and the colours are messy and unrelated to each other. The contrast alterations in the images and the unified colour schemes help provide images that are more pleasing to the eye and partially rectify some of these obvious problems with the base image.
That being said, I still wouldn’t say that any of the images are amazing after having the filters applied but they are an enhancement over the original.
It’s all good….or is it?
So, in the small test above it would seem that these filters provide a quick, easy way to enhance your photos, which is exactly what they do. The programmers of the filters are pretty knowledgeable and have produced a range of universal filters which can provide an enhancement to many photos. They are great for people with little artistic knowledge and little time as a way to enhance their images
So what could possibly be the downsides to using these. There are many so let’s go through them:
This to me is the most obvious problem but one which many won’t see. If you look at the above examples, one thing will probably be apparent, and that is that you have seen similar looking images many times before. Many people will see this as an upside as they will believe their image conforms to an acceptable style used by others. However, this really isn’t the case and it probably highlights a wider issue with society in general.
People love to conform to socially accepted norms. This is understandable, as standing out your own is scary, and you risk being labelled as a pariah. Just look at the way people dress and make themselves up to look. The majority follow one of only a few standard trends and pay lavishly to look like everyone else who follows this trend. They somehow misguidedly believe this promotes their individuality but nothing could be further from the truth. It is understandable that in an often ignorant and judgemental society that such conformity is preferential for social integration but it certainly won’t make them appear unique.
And it’s uniqueness, which ultimately fosters rarity, which is attractive and awe-inspiring. An example of this is blonde hair. Back in the day, blonde hair was seen as a very attractive feature because very few people has blonde hair in adulthood, thus it was rare. However, once peroxide became widely used and hair dying became popular, anyone could quickly and easily have blonde hair. So, is it still attractive to have blonde hair? It depends on the individual but it’s not nearly attractive as it used to be because it is now omnipresent.
The same is true in photography and any art form; rarity and uniqueness are attractive features. Thus by using these preset filters on your photos you walk the road of conformity and risk stripping the individuality from your images.
I wrote quite a length blog post about this here – Cultivating a Style
I shouldn’t attack features such as Instagram’s filters too much as the software has a lot more flexibility in post-processing over and above adding a filter, and the filters themselves have some amount of customizability to them which can further alter the appearance of an image. However, the effects of the filters are usually quite strong and applied with little alteration by most, resulting in this predetermined, standardized appearance, which they give an image, becoming dominant.
Promotes Poor Quality Photography
Another problem with using these presets is that they mask poor quality images. Poor composition in an image cannot be substantially rectified by applying these filters however these filters can act to lessen it’s impact by altering aspects of the photo such as colour and contrast. Thus, by using them there is a danger you will not address the problems with your photography and merely mask them with filters. However, as my example above shows, the resultant images are still quite poor because the base image was poor to begin with. As Butthead once said: “You can’t polish a turd, Beavis”
Lessens Desire to Learn
This leads on from the previous issue. Because filters can partially lessen problems in images with a quick click of a button, it must also surely lessen the desire to learn more about how to enhance your photography. If you choose not to use preset filters, you must address the problems within your photos by learning about all the individual components of the images such as colour, composition etc, what is good or bad about these, and how to rectify this manually.
But this is just symptomatic of the ‘quick fix’ society we live in. Instead of spending time learning and practicing, we all just want a quick fix to the problem even if that quick fix isn’t that good.
Should you use them?
As you can tell I am not a great fan of these presets / filters but they can have some positive uses. If you are pushed for time and need to throw up a photo, they can act as a nice, quick enhancement. If you lack photographic skill and knowledge they can help enhance your images, but the downside of this is they could also dampen your desire to learn.
Whether you should use them or not is up your own individual circumstances and preferences. However, they are certainly worth exploring just to see what they do to your photos, providing you don’t use them all the time as they may lessen your desire to enhance your photographic skills and leave your images looking bland and just the same as everyone else’s out there.
One good use I have found for them is to go through them to see what they do to an image and use this as a indicator for how to process your photo. For example, you may apply a filter with low contrast and you like how the image looks with this. Thus, without actually using the filter, you can post-process your image manually to provide a low contrast look which you know will look good but it will still retain more individuality. Just as long as you don’t try and copy the filter exactly.
Thanks for Reading,