The best creative filters and why I love them (even though my colleagues frown on them)


posted Sunday, March 20, 2016 at 7:27 AM EDT


Wake up with IR! Here's today's dose of Caffeine Priority...

Creative filters? Some love them, some hate them. Enthusiast photographers tend to loathe them, while Instagram has certainly increased the usage of them in general. I never paid much attention to them one way or the other.

Until I fell in love with one.

But before we get to that one, I'll start with a filter type that I'm surprised more people don't seem drawn to (or perhaps they are, but just that my "enthusiast" friends aren't).

Partial color

Back in my darkroom days when I lived in NYC I used to bike a long way to get to Pearl Paints, and would wander the narrow aisles to find a specialty paint used to tint black and white photographs with color. It worked really well and was tons of fun to do. Nowadays of course, many cameras do this for you, which isn't quite as creative as painting it onto the printed image, but it's a quick way to achieve a similar effect, and one that I love a lot.

Partial Color • Olympus E-PL7

Partial Color • Olympus E-PL7

(Images have been resized and edited in post-production.
Click any image to see it as delivered straight from the camera.)


I surely didn't think I'd care for this one, in fact it's likely that I only tried it by accident. But on this sun-dappled day on the coast of South Carolina it really brought this image from so-so to pretty neat. It takes the brightest reflections and creates a sparkley pattern, somewhat like the star filters that you mount externally.

Sparkle • Olympus TG-4


My son woke up on our beach trip very upset one day. I asked what was wrong, and his lower lip quivered and he said "I can't remember what that kind of thing is to tell you I want on the camera." It took me a minute, and then I remembered that I'd just shown my kids Fragmented the day before, and they'd spent hours photographing each other and themselves. It was like having a baby sitter!

Me: "You mean Fragmented?"   /   Him: "YES!!!"

But I won't lie to you, I love it too. It's just a really neat effect when you get it right, and gives you a classic mosaic tile look. If you try it, shoot a good number of shots from different distances, as that's the best way to get one that really works for you. (And even if you don't like it, try it as a baby-sitter on vacation to buy a little extra "book time"...)

Fragmented • Olympus TG-4

Dramatic Tone

This mode is landscape magic, and the one I mentioned above as having been the first digital creative filter I fell in love with. It doesn't look at all good on the living... makes people look odd and strange. But it can take a common landscape and really light it up - give it a bit of the ethereal. Try it on different subjects and see for yourself, and shoot several variations, as the effect can change from shot to shot quite a bit.

Dramatic Tone • Olympus E-PL7

Dramatic Tone • Olympus E-M10 II

Dramatic Tone • Olympus TG-4

So there's a quick look at four of my personal favorite creative filters. All of these were taken with Olympus cameras, and the Dramatic Tone now seen on some other manufacturers' models under various names was pioneered by them. I do love some filters on other brands as well, just not as much as the Olympus versions.

So while I don't find the traditional filters like "pop color" or "posterize" particularly useful, I turn to these four often, as they can all boost the creative juices in interesting directions depending on the subject.  And if you're wondering why Fuji's film simulation modes aren't represented here, it's because I consider those a whole different category of filter, and worth a post of their own.

I've heard the argument that it's better to simply create these effects in post-production, and that's fine for anyone who has a lot of free time. With a fulltime job and two young kids I don't have much of that, and these effects save me from the process. And, of course, you can save the RAW file or just snap a regular JPEG if you'd also like to have the unprocessed version for later.

If you find you're afraid to use creative filters for fear of what your friends or colleagues might say, you're not alone! (Just look at some of the enlightened comments I've already received down below!) But the creative reward is far greater than the scorn you may feel from the beating you'll likely be taking at having used them... at least it is for me.

(Now I'll brace myself for the additional scorn on Monday morning when I get into the office...)

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Similar articles you may have missed:

Having fun with Olympus TG-4 conversions lenses

Chasing dolphins at dusk with the Olympus E-M10 II

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Caffeine Priority is a new series of short photo-tidbits to ease you into your day, and give us a chance to share a bit more of what life’s like here at IR. We're more like a group of friends testing and talking about cameras and lenses than the buttoned-down, big-corporation world that some of our photo-friends at other companies work in; hopefully these little snippets will share some of that. So... grab another coffee and join in the conversation with us down below!

What rose from the depths of this primordial sea to have an extended stay on Magic Island?
1/100s / f/1.7 / ISO 320