(Don't fear) the filter

It wasn't always the case that the use of a Photoshop filter would earn you nothing but a knowing sneer from your audience. There was a time when the application of a Kai's Power Tool would actually cause onlookers' jaws to drop in honest amazement.

Nowadays, though, the majority of digital artists don't like to be caught hanging around anywhere near the Filter menu; it's become something of a guilty secret. But if they're pushed, most will admit to being regular filter users, usually starting with Gaussian Blur but often progressing to the harder stuff. The question that needs addressing is, can filters be used responsibly?

The problem

"When computers burst onto the scene, it was all about Photoshop filters and digital illustrations," says Henry Obasi, an illustrator who is proud of his practical skills, of his craft. Henry believes the early years of the digital revolution relied more heavily on the Filter menu: "It's like when artists discovered the Twirl filter years ago," he says, taking an example we're all familiar with. "Every illustration and its mother was twirled under the notion of 'Damn this shit looks cool. Look at what it does to the pictures!'."

"Lens Flare is classically overused. It has been since it came out really," says Antony Crossfield, Creative Director at London's top retouching studio Metro Imaging. "It's such an easy thing to do," he says, adding that the problem starts because, "People think it's a quick way to improve an image." This belief is subject to erosion over time, says Antony: "There's just not enough variation - the more you see it, the easier it is to notice." Eventually, every time you see that Lens Flare you downgrade your opinion of the image that contains it, just because you know how it was done.

John McFaul identifies the root cause of the problem. "Among the students I teach, 50 per cent of them just want instant results," he says. In essence, it's the perfectly natural desire for a quick solution that leads to an incautious rush to the Filter menu.

"You need to take a bit more time," says John, who's own approach to digital illustration draws on traditional techniques and intuitions. "Take the chance to open doors on new things. Maybe even get away from the computer for a bit..." he advises. The reaction and subsequent move away from using Photoshop filters is understandable as part of our growing digital sophistication. "It's about progress," says Henry.

Away from the computer

People were involved in disciplines such as photography, illustration and design long before the arrival of computers. In fact, the computer is still a relatively recent addition to the tools used for these disciplines. So much so that the digital world is just starting to make ground on the processes which analogue production invented.

John McFaul has a background in traditional media, and says: "Process is too important to me to readily accept a quick fix." His belief in the importance of process is echoed throughout the digital arts. "You've got to get your hands dirty," says Henry Obasi, going on to explain that you have to create images using inks, paints, oils or whatever you can find in order to truly appreciate the power that filters offer you as a graphic artist.

The right stuff

"In a broader sense, everything you do in Photoshop that changes an image is filtering," says Harald Heim of The Plugin Site. An obvious cheerleader for the Filter menu, Harald continues, "Taking that idea to its natural conclusion means purists would have to return to analog photography." Harald has a point, but what the 'purists' are advocating is a return to process, to craft.

"Illustration has been going from strength to strength in recent time," says John McFaul, who reckons the problem isn't just filters themselves but a general rise in illustration standards. He continues: "So if you're relying on filters then your work will look crude by comparison." The same is true in the world of high-end retouching. "Half the skill is to make it look like it wasn't used at all," says Antony Crossfield. "That's the guiding principle behind all the work we do."

This isn't a ban on filters, far from it: "They're a neat way to get things going quickly," says Antony. "But again, the main thing is to cover your tracks." The retouching business is clearly never going to endorse the heavy use of artistic filters but everything has its place: "There is potential in there - you just have to learn how to use them effectively."

Where and when

"The use of a filter is justified if it adds to the final image, but not when it's simply used with a 'because we can' attitude," so says Terry Steeley, designer, photographer and Photoshop maestro. John McFaul takes a similar position when he says, "The idea is first and foremost; the thing to avoid is looking like you have a filter with some artwork attached."

It's no good using the filters as a substitute for creativity, but as part of a solution they could be the perfect tool. "You have to treat it as something that needs exploring. Don't let it dictate," says John. Antony Crossfield agrees, adding: "You can use them to get somewhere but not as an end in themselves."

Terry Steeley says, "Good use is seldom the standard use of the filters without additional refinements." Heeding this advice, the central task is to rein in the power of these effects so that they don't dominate the work they're in. This power was what made them so immediately attractive; it's also what made them so quickly familiar. Now it's what makes them difficult to rehabilitate.

Plug-in potential

"There is potential in there - you just have to learn how to use them," says Antony Crossfield, highlighting the central issue. The filters themselves have done nothing wrong, it's their inexpert use which has caused the problem. Because of their obvious power and the extremity of their action on your pixels, you have to use them delicately.

Terry Steeley echoes Antony in believing filters will make a comeback: "I'm sure there's loads of potential, now that Photoshop has the new Filter Gallery enabling users to see how different combinations of filters and settings will appear." This development suggests that Adobe itself is aware of a need to finesse their filters.

Henry Obasi takes a similar line: "Interaction between the various filters can produce an infinite number of permutations and results, so of course there's potential there." The job of the artist is to find that potential: "Many may be bad, many may be good, but for the artist this can only be good in the long run."

Even Antony, the most dedicated retoucher, is willing to say a kind word: "Plastic Wrap is kind of tacky, but I like it. It looks a bit like being covered in dribble." We get the picture. The basic message seems to be that these are powerful items and if you want to avoid ending up like Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, you need to claw back the integrity of your image every time you use a filter.


So what's inhibiting the re-uptake of the filter? Howard Wakefield of Saville Associates, one of the figures behind the development of Peter Saville's waste paintings, has an idea: "When do you have the time to play and experiment?" he asks.

By common consent, this is something you need plenty of time for, even if you only want a basic grasp of the possibilities. But, as Howard says, "There's always a deadline that needs priority, so taking the time to explore the possibilities of a filter is a luxury."

Those filters that work as shortcuts remain in use, but the exploration of their creative potential isn't something a jobbing illustrator has too much time for. "Over the last few weeks I've probably used most of them," says John McFaul, "but I know what's going to work."

But does this mean you can't touch the Filter menu till you've become old and wise? "You don't necessarily need years of experience. You just have to be willing to challenge yourself," says John. Henry Obasi puts it very neatly: "There are no rules, it's simply about whether they help you create a good piece of work.