Has software eliminated the need for filters in the field?

By Becky Chapman

When I started in photography, the in-camera exposure was one of the most critical aspects of the image. Now when I am out in the field shooting with other photographers, I hear “it doesn’t have to be a perfect exposure, you can always clean it up in post” all the time. So, the question arises, how perfect does the exposure need to be to make a beautiful image?

It used to be “processing time” was bringing the film to be developed. Now we are spending countless hours at the computer tweaking an image to get it right after the fact. The fact is that filters played a very big role in getting the exposure correct in camera and we spent our time in the field picking the right filters, adjusting exposure and figuring out what was needed to get it right. Since we can now achieve the same results with the software available, who wants to take all that time in the field?

You can certainly add creative filters in post, including colored filters, star filters, graduated neutral density filters and other compensating filters that we once had to use at the time of the shoot. There is still a lot to be said for getting it right in camera. Using a graduated neutral density filter in the field may keep you from having to shoot several frames for a HDR image. Using a color enhancing filter at sunset can give stunning results without having to play with it on the computer and it is very satisfying to get a fantastic image with minimal post effort.

There are still some filters that are an absolute must to have in your camera bag, especially if you are shooting landscape images. The first being a polarizing filter. When you are shooting any water images, a polarizer is crucial to remove the reflections and glare from the surface of the water. There is no amount of post processing you can do to remove a reflection from a stream when you are trying to get the detail of the rocks below the surface. That is something that, at the time of this writing, is simply not available once the image is shot.

A neutral density (solid) is also a must in my bag. If you are shooting a waterfall on a bright, sunny day, you are going to have a very hard time getting the water to get the beautiful wispy look you want even with the ISO dropped as far as possible with the fstop all the way down. ND filters also allow for very interesting cloud movement shots that are simply not possible as a single shot in camera.

I do like to have a split ND filter as well, although it is becoming less frequently used due to some limitations. With a graduated ND, you have the linear separation (even if it is graduated) and very often, your scene does not have a linear separation. If you are shooting a straight horizon, like at the beach shooting the ocean sunset, it is fine. If you are in the mountains or shooting a skyline, the linear nature of the filter is limiting. HRD processing is getting so much cleaner and less “crunchy” now, so that will typically be my choice in those situations.

When it comes down to the absolute musts, to me, the polarizer and the ND filters are the only ones I HAVE to have with me at all times. Creative filters are falling by the wayside as better software is released with the same effects that can not only be turned on, but also turned off if you decide you don’t need or want them. It is very easy to add color, starbursts, soft focus rings, and countless other creative effects. I will, however, continue to carry my filter systems in my bag to be used in the situations where software will just not cut it.

Whether you choose to use a filter in the field is a very personal choice. I still see people using them, but it is much less frequent than in the days of film and darkroom processing. So, if you are feeling nostalgic and want to see how it “used to be”, grab some filters and start playing!

This is the image directly OOC with only sharpening applied

This image had a graduated ND filter added in LightRoom added diagonally from the top left.

This is the same shot with the graduated ND filter, but also some of the local adjustments with the brushes and a graduated ND from the bottom right to increase the exposure in the rocks.

As you can see, the last image has addressed several issues with the original exposure that a simple ND filter on the lens would not have been able to address. This is a situation where an added filter on camera would simply not do the job that editing software can address.

Photo processing software is getting more powerful and can do many more things now that it could even a year ago. Who knows what is coming and what will be available to us in the future. For now, I will keep my polarizer and ND filters on hand and let the software address mostly everything else.

Becky Chapman is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

From Real to Surreal in 10 Steps

Author: Joel Wolfson

Low Tide Dogs 500px_WM
Normally I go to great lengths to capture and present my subject as I saw it. My approach is based on realism when communicating the experience; whether the awe of a beautiful landscape, the intrigue of ancient architecture, or conveying the essence of a person in a portrait.

What happens if you take this concept to more of an extreme and go beyond realism? I’ll show you how I did this surreal fantasy image. It started as a photo of my two dogs exploring tide pools on their first ever visit to the ocean (above.)

It took 10 steps using Lightroom, Photoshop, and two Topaz plugins: ReStyle and Glow, to create the image below. The beauty of these 2 plug-ins is they have so many presets from which to choose. So if you haven’t learned the plugin yet, you can basically try push-button effects until you find one that fits your image.

When I am with Gypsy 500px

Here are the steps I used to create it

1. RAW is blah.
I start in Lightroom and adjust the RAW file to bring it back to a natural state as you see in the first image above. For those not accustomed to working with RAW files, the images come out of the camera looking somewhat flat and require some adjustments to make them look more like the original scene. Typically they require some increase in contrast and/or clarity, a bit of saturation, and of course, capture sharpening. These everyday tasks can also be done in Photoshop and/or with plugins such as Topaz’s Clarity and Detail.

2. Photoshop After bringing the adjusted image into Photoshop I duplicate the Background layer (Cmd-J/Cntl-J). I relabel the layer “ReStyle.” I always label my layers with something that indicates what I did with it, so I know if I need to go back to a particular layer and change it or just want to remember what I did. I make sure to select that layer and go up to my Filter menu and pull down to Topaz Labs > Topaz ReStyle launching me into the ReStyle plugin.

3. ReStyle In ReStyle I click on the Night collection in the upper left and choose the preset Electric Blue Lights, click OK in the lower right and that saves the preset back into the layer in Photoshop, yielding this:

Low Tide Dogs

4. Layer mask
I make sure my “ReStyle” layer is selected. I create a mask in this layer by going up to the Layer menu and pull down to Layer Mask > Reveal All (or simply click on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette.) I select the layer mask by clicking on it and then select the brush from the tool palette, choosing pure black as my foreground color (also in the tools palette.) With the brush selected I change the opacity (top left) to 30 percent and lighten the background rocks by painting the brush in those areas. The mask looks like this:

Low Tide Dogs Step 4 mask_WM

And now the image in this layer with the masking looks like this:

Low Tide Dogs

5. Merged layer for Glow Because I want the net effect of what I’ve done to be the basis for using my next plugin, Glow, I make sure this layer is selected, and then hold down the Option key while selecting Merge Visible under the Layer menu. This creates a duplicate layer from the stack below it. I relabel this layer “Glow.”

6. Glow using blending mode
Once I’m in the Glow plugin I go to the drop-down menu in the upper right and select the Neon category of presets. I choose the Natural Neon III preset and the image first looks like this:

Low Tide Dogs Step 6 Glow-NNIII_WM

Then, before clicking OK and leaving Glow, I go to the bottom left to the Blend Mode pull-down and choose the Screen blending mode which has an overall effect of making the image lighter like this:

Low Tide Dogs Step 6 Glow-NNIII-BlendScreen_WM

7. Layer mask in Photoshop
Although I like the look of the colored electrical charges in some of the photo, it’s a little too overpowering in the background rocks and tends to distract one from the main point of interest. So I create a mask in this layer and brush out the effect on everything but the rocks just behind the dogs. This time I have set the brush for 100 percent opacity. The resulting mask looks like this:

Low Tide Dogs Step 7 Glow-NNIII_Rocks-mask_WM

And the resulting masked image in this layer looks like this:

Low Tide Dogs Step 7 Glow-NNIII_Rocks_WM

8. Preparing for a trip to Glow
With the rocks back to a pre-Glow state they don’t fit the rest of the image so I bring them back into Glow and use the same effect as before but will ultimately make it much more subtle once I get it back into Photoshop in the last step. For now, like in step 5, I use the Option (Alt on PC) Merge Visible combination to duplicate the layer including the masking I just did. I relabel it “Glow- background” and launch into the Glow plug-in again.

9. Glow plugin for the background
Once again I choose the Neon category and select Neon Natural III but his time I leave it in the default Blend Mode of Normal. It doesn’t look much like what I have in mind but all I’m looking to do here is to use only the colors from the effect in Glow so I can make the background rocks fit in better with the rest of the scene. I have to mentally block out everything except the color in the background rocks. I click OK in Glow and am back in Photoshop with the image in my “Glow- background” layer looking like this:

Low Tide Dogs Step 9 Glow-NNIII_Rocks_WM

10. Blending mode…mask…final image
The way I accomplish my task is two-fold: First I go to the pull-down menu in the layer palette just to the left of Opacity and change the blending mode in this layer to Color. As the name implies it only reveals the color information without all the neon effects. You might ask why I don’t use the blending mode in the Glow plug-in? The simple answer is that there isn’t a Color blending mode in the plug-in. But even if there were I would still do it in Photoshop because there are several layers and masks beneath this one that affect it (when you’re in Glow the blending mode is only affected by the base image with which you came into Glow). Here’s the image after changing the blending mode to Color:

Low Tide Dogs

Secondly I create a mask and use the brush tool (similar to Step 7) and mask out everything but the background rocks because that’s all I want to add with this layer. Here’s the mask:

Low Tide Dogs Step 10 BlendModeColor_Mask_WM

And Voila! Here’s my final image:

When I am with Gypsy 500px

Behind the image- a personal note
I titled this image “When I Am With Gypsy.” The dog in the foreground dipping her paw in the tide pool is Gypsy. She and Astro (the one behind her), were both rescues and the closest of friends. In people terms they adored each other and did everything together. Gypsy passed away a little over two years ago at the ripe old age of 15. Astro will be 15 in July and is showing her age. So the meaning of the title is a double one. It can bring tears to my eyes when I look at it.

For more examples and a step-by-step video of additional images see the expanded version on Joel Wolfson’s blog.

You can click here to subscribe to Joel’s email newsletter. He publishes it 1-2 times per month and you can unsubscribe any time with a click on any newsletter.

Here is a link to his website.

Joel is an instructor for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Confessions of a Pixel Pusher – Saving the shot

Author: Paul Bartell

You’re out on a hike exploring some cool areas and the morning sunlight is dramatic and providing you with some wonderful photo opportunities. You’re mind’s eye frames an image that you just have to capture, you scramble to the perfect location but the sunlight is now shining into your lens and reflecting off of the water causing a huge amount of flare in the image you capture. Disappointed, you move on to enjoy the rest of your day hoping to capture other equally inspiring images. Once home, with the image downloaded you are faced with the decision to delete the washed out image or see if you can save it, coax some life into it to become the image you initially envisioned.


Adobe Lightroom did most of the work to save this image.


A little Photoshop work to remove the light colored waterline on the rocks and delete some of the debris floating in the water. Next a little help from a favorite Photoshop plugin, Topaz Clarity, to add some additional some depth and punch. This image is now pretty much what I envisioned that beautiful morning at Watson Lake.


I encourage you to not be too quick to discard those images that are less than perfect, you may be surprised what a little time can yield.

Paul Bartell in an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop Trip Leader and works at Artisan Colour Inc. as a retoucher and project manager for fashion catalogs. In his spare time he loves to photograph and create photo-art pieces in Photoshop. Some of his work can be seen at: http://paul-bartell.artistwebsites.com

Pinnacle Peak Hike: High Dynamic Range

Author: David Huffman
Photos Copyright David Huffman


Pinnacle Peak, a part of the McDowell Mountain Preserve in the north of Scottsdale, AZ, is a wonderful hike.  Located only minutes from the main part of Scottsdale, it is easily accessible and fun.  The trail is well-maintained, and you can choose to go the full distance for approximately one hour, or only go part way to the top.  On the way you will likely encounter many other hikers, and exercise-seekers, so if you’re taking pictures prepare for some interruptions.  I don’t let this deter you from a wonderful walk, as you will be getting significant elevation and a terrific view of the entire McDowell Mountain range in Northern Scottsdale around every bend.

On this particular day in late November, I chose to hike the trail because the weather was a little cooler and there were some clouds and overcast in the sky.  It may sound strange, but living in Arizona, plain blue skies all the time can be a little boring.  So the hike this morning caused some interesting landscapes and greater variety and modulation of the sky which I really appreciated.  I knew the contrast range could be quite high, from the bright sun and clouds to the deep shadows of the rocks, so for this particular image I chose to shoot three images at bracketed exposures from plus to minus 2 stops.

I shot the images in raw format, and upon returning home, I combined them using Photomatix Essentials software.  There are many controls in the software, yet it is easy to use. I decided to push the reality just a little bit over the edge, to make this seem a little more interesting. I hope you agree with me that the final image was worth the effort.  (The equipment was Nikon D810 camera, Nikkor 28-300 mm lens, no filter, normal exposure ISO 100, f/8, at 1/250th second, handheld with VR on.)

I encourage you to try new things, including high dynamic range imaging (HDR) to expand your photographic horizons.  You’ll also enjoy learning more at the Arizona Highways Photo Workshops, visit www.AHPW.org.  My website also offers inspiration and instruction, www.HuffmanPhotoArt.com.

Happy shooting!