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  Filters and Digital Photography
by Barry Baker

Why use glass filters in the age of digital photography and Photoshop? There are numerous reasons, including saving your precious time and preserving the detail in your photographs. Although many of the effects of filters can be artificially introduced into an image, photographing the image correctly in the first place could save hours of time in front of the computer later. Unfortunately, it is not true that digital filter plug-ins can correct everything in an image.

The hardest filter to digitally copy is the polarizer. While some of the effects of the polarizer can be copied in a plug-in, the true benefits of using a polarizing filter can only be captured at the time the photograph is taken. The polarizing filter controls a problem called “blooming”, which for outdoor photographers can be a real issue. Blooming is caused by glare that results in a total white out of detail. See the example of the non-polarized photograph. While not totally bloomed out the detail is still largely gone and there is no putting it back. In the example I took with the polarizer the blooming is totally controlled. This is a very powerful reason to use a glass polarizing filter as opposed to a digital plug-in. In the photograph of the blooming sheep, a polarizing filter would have prevented the blooming effect. The sheep are made of painted wood and were photographed in bright sunlight, which is why the imaged bloomed out to the extent that it did. Foliage, flowers and most types of nature photography will benefit from this filter. The effect of removing the glare allows the natural color that is already present to be more vividly recorded. In the first unpolarized image (see example one), notice the glare on the leaves and to some extent on the flowers themselves. In the second polarized image (see example two), note that the glare is gone and the color saturation has improved due to the removal of the glare. Also, please note that higher pixel count cameras with many smaller pixels bloom much worse than lower pixel count cameras with larger pixels. As we have progressed into these 10 and 12 megapixel cameras, the polarizer has become an even more important part of my photography.

Other subjects that benefit from glass polarizing filters are glass and water. Yes, with a digital plug-in you can partially remove the glare in the glass or water to improve the image, but you cannot restore the detail of what was behind that glare. If it was obscured by the glare, it was never recorded in the image in the first place. The surface of water creates a light barrier which makes it very difficult to photograph anything beneath the surface. By eliminating reflections, the polarizing filter will tend to make water and other reflective surfaces, such as glass, more transparent. This makes it easier for the camera to capture what is below the surface. If your goal is to photograph the fish or aquatic plants beneath the surface, then the polarizer is a great help (see example three). If your goal is to photograph reflections in the water, the polarizer will remove a lot of the glare from the surface of the water. This could dull your image too much (see example four). Also, the polarizing filter can turn blue water green. If you are photographing a lake such as Lake Tahoe or Lake Louise, do not use a polarizer or your beautiful blue lake will be green! The effect of the polarizer will also vary depending on your angle in relation to the reflective surface. If you are positioned fairly low above the water, the effect will be very limited. If you shoot from a higher location such as a bridge or a tall tripod with camera pointed down, the water could look totally transparent.

Color correction filters are also being abandoned too quickly. Yes, one can duplicate many of the effects in digital, but if you’re shooting a lot of the same colored flowers, such as yellow, a lot of time can be saved in front of the computer by just adding the 81A or 81b warming filter at the time that you took the photographs. A white balance tip for using color correction filters: Do not use AWB (auto white balance). This setting will cause the camera to try to counteract whatever color effect you are trying to add to the image, by removing that color, or by adding the opposite color to cancel it out. Remember to use the presets in the white balance selection menu. For example, if you are photographing on a sunny day, use the sunny day setting. This will lock in the white balance so that it does not take out the color you are trying to add to the photograph. My advice is not to abandon a real glass filter in favor of the virtual one. It will take a lot less time to put the filter on the lens before you start your photo session than it will to make your corrections on the computer afterwards.

Click here to download a printable version of Filters and Digital Photography.

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