Does Using Art Filters Limit Your Style?

Every photographer has a favorite image style of the moment: Black and white. Sepia. Pop Art. Yet, back in the film era there was a manual process in order to “exhibit” this style. A photographer had to buy the proper film, mix the right amount of chemicals, and lastly expose the correct amount of light to the paper in order to get the print to reflect “their” style. Nowadays, however, click a tab via one’s favorite program and presto! That snapshot has become a wonderful piece of art….or is it?

Split tone

Various versions of Adobe Lightroom start with about 20 or more image adjusting presets pre-installed for photographers to use at their disposal. And admittedly, I use them from time to time, my favorite being “Direct Positive”, “Punch”, and “Black & White – High Contrast #4”. However, I use them for their intended purpose, to act as a post-processing time-saver to obtain a desired and established effect. Nevertheless, every now and then I notice myself starting to rely on these presets too readily and I need to stop myself and ask — why? Isn’t the photo I shot good enough; did I shoot for the intention of this effect; and if not, then I need to shoot it better.

Moreover, the popularity of the iPhone and apps such as Instagram have pushed the use of art filters into daily photography ten fold. While I neither own an iPhone nor have used the app myself (therefore making it difficult to justifiably add my critique of the program) I have nonetheless seen its affect all over Facebook and with friends. Mundane photos suddenly seem appealing due to the digital application of a vintage pop art photo filter. Maybe it’s a human condition; that the older an image looks the more it catches people’s attention because age signifies quality, longevity, and rarity. But I digress.

Instagram, Lightroom, and applications like them are not the problem however. In fact, I have noticed several photographers who have used Instagram very skillfully in their art and have brought it’s usage to akin of a Polaroid camera. The problem is becoming reliant on such filters to create the appearance and acceptance of art.

My thinking here as I shoot more and grow as a photographer is that “composition” + “process” = “art”. Perhaps it’s crude to reduce something so subjective into a mathematical equation, but I honestly believe that this equation works. If composition is the way an artist arranges and frames a picture and the process is the means and steps taken to conceptualize the idea, then art must be the culmination of framing the steps taken in order to conceptualize an idea or expression. Once those two are combined, then an expression is created; whether it’s good or bad is merely subjective criticism. What I fear is happening, however, is that the simplicity of art filters distracts and even eliminates the process from the equation. That both current photographers and new photographers, especially, are forgetting how to manually achieve these art styles like Pop Art or Sephia in which these filters duplicate, rush to use them to follow the latest trend without understanding the meaning or purpose behind that process, and skip out on experimenting with their own skills that could eventually lead to new unique style and techniques that they themselves would be able to call their own. It is a great disservice for the field of photography  because not understanding the meaning of one’s process of their work leads to one  misunderstanding the meaning of their own art.

But what about in-camera filters?

Shot with the E-PL2 Diorama filter.

So far I have tilted this discussion towards post-processing and disregarded the growing trend of built in filters in professional cameras. As far as I know, only three camera lines have live view art filters built-in; Sony NEX series, Olymplus E-Pens, and the Nikon 1 (all of which mirrorless cameras) and is one of the reasons why I bought the Olympus E-PL2. By having live camera decisions take place, shooting in this manner is akin to selecting the type of film you want. This allows for the process to work simultaneously with the composition and thus can reinforced the concept behind the art being created due to an immediate expectation of the end result. Nevertheless, even the usage of these live camera filters should be tamed to a degree because the abuse of these filters can still lead to a lack of self understanding as to why an image is shot the way it is other than the mere fact that it is appealing to the eye.

I guess what it comes down to (and I’ll leave it for further discussion in a future post) is why do photographers shoot what they the shoot?What is the meaning of one’s own work? And perhaps this is only coming more apparent in the digital photography where taking images is virtually free, abundant, and instantaneous. For when a product can be instantly created, it’s value will likely be just as instantaneous and then be discarded in the same manner.

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Lastly, here are some articles from photographer Kirk Tuck’s on his blog that I read on a regular basis. It isn’t necessarily on this topic but did light the fuse to get me started thinking about it.



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