Filters - Other solutions
Historically photographers used filters to control light, and produce a range of effects as well as change the tones of specific colours in Black and White photography. In addition in the darkroom other changes could be made by using photographic paper with different contrasts, holding back (dodging) or adding in additional detail into shadows (burning). We could also alter the angle of the baseboard to correct perspective and a range of other techniques. Composite pictures and more were possible.
Quality photography has always been a two stage process, capture the image as well as we are able and then make changes and improvements in post production.
Today few of us use a wet darkroom anymore, time has moved on and we now use an electronic darkroom or photo editing software. In some ways this allows more to be done quicker and opens up possibilities for a far wider range of people.
Filters fall between the labels of 'no longer needed' and 'essential to use'. With current editing software a large percentage of what we used to use filters for can now be achieved in editing. In these areas we now have the option of either using filters or producing similar effects at the editing stage. Some other benefits that we could get from filters cannot easily be produced in other ways, but perhaps have other options if we search amongst other techniques that could be used.
For most digital photographers, the filters that they will use will include graduated filters to hold back part of the exposure, usually the sky, and polarising filters.
I am not aware of any effect or method that can be used that will produce the same effects as using a polarising filter. You can use multiple exposures and a black card to produce a similar effect to graduated filters but only for non moving items. We explain this in the double and multiple exposures article.
This article looks at alternates to some filters, however some photographers may prefer to use filters and feel that in this way they are more in control.
Alternative to using graduated neutral density filters or 'grads'
These are used to deal with the extreme differences between the bright and dark areas of a picture, we have an article on ND graduated filters that explain their use in more detail. Many of us still choose to use filters in some situations, for example with railway photography, where the extremes in brightness between white steam and smoke in a bright sky against a dark train in the shadow of trees is often too great to handle in any other way.
Some cameras do have facilities built in that attempts to handle a greater exposure tolerance, an example of this is the Active D-lighting in the Nikon D300, D3, and D700. What this does is lighten dark areas, so you can turn down the exposure (negative exposure variation) and what would otherwise then be too dark is recovered automatically. This is a great benefit, but does not remove the need for 'grads' in some extreme situations.
Within editing software, we can bring out detail within darker areas. This means we can often reduce the exposure (negative exposure variation) so that highlights are no longer burnt out and then recover the detail in the darker area bringing this back to normal. Capture NX and NX2 allow this to be done in a number of ways, with NX2 you can use the quick adjustments to do this, use D-lighting or use the brightness/contrast sliders and the graduation control together. Providing you know what you are doing, this allows in many situations a very similar effect to be achieved to using 'Grads'. There are however limitations, and if you try to take this too far, for example railway photos, you will find that pulling an extreme amount of detail out of very dark areas creates a lot of noise.
Alternatives to black and white tone control filters
Conventionally we used filters in B&W photography to change the relative contrasts of different colours. A coloured filter has the effect of lightening the same colour and darkening the opposite, so if we were taking a red rose against a green background, then without any filters we would have about a mid grey in front of a mid grey. If we were to use a green filter then green would be lighter and red darker, or we could use a red filter to make red lighter and green darker. The most common filters used were yellow or orange to add more contrast between clouds and the blue sky. We can put our cameras into black and white, use an appropriate white balance setting (not auto) and add filters.
Some digital cameras, for example the D80, D300, D700 and D3, have inbuilt electronic filters to achieve these effects, you just put your image into black and white and select the colour filter in the same area of the menus. One of the benefits of in camera or on camera filters is that you can see the effect when taken, or with live view even before its taken.
Some editing software has the equivalent filters, for example Capture NX and NX2, you have a superb black and white conversion filter and this both allows you to mimic filters of any colour but also vary the strength of these.
Alternatives to sunset or mood changing filters
Conventionally we used coloured filters to improve sunsets or manufacture them, this is simply a case of using a special multi coloured filter or a series of coloured grads and streak filters. We can likewise 'improve', coastal views, autumn colour scenes and more. Very many landscape photographers use filters a lot, including some that class editing as cheating. See the article on Colour grads for more details.
In camera we can produce some effects with the way we select or set the white balance, for example we can set the 'PRE' using a blue/grey card instead of a white one and get a warm up effect, very similar to a warm up filter. Many cameras have a time of day (warm, cool) form of adjustment red-blue, with most Nikons this is on the sub command dial when setting the white balance settings on the camera body. You can also adjust it from the menus. With some like the D300 you can move the colour balance in any direction by varying degrees. You can also set the colour balance to a specific temperature having a similar effect of just about any camera.
In editing of course we can achieve very similar effects, with just about any decent editing package. If you have difficulty achieving the results you require take a look at what can be achieved by using feathering and the opacity mixer with more extreme effects that may be easier to achieve. In capture NX2 a combination of several simple tools will allow us to acchieve just about any result we require.
Is it cheating
Some look on all effects in editing as cheating when the same effect produced within the camera, including multiple exposure techniques and using filters, and in a wet darkroom is not considered cheating. Others of us have other interpretations, to me a genuine image is anything that can be produced by any means from one picture, and this includes getting rid of the occasional telephone wire, or improving colours, and a composite image as something that has other items brought in from elsewhere. Perhaps with news reporting and the like, we should look at minimal adjusting, but for other uses, we often want to 'improve' the image as an artist would if painting it.
While you can achieve similar results in many cases with other methods and within the filter section we have other articles that show you how to achieve results in a number of ways, many people like the direct and perhaps easier to understand affect of filters. Filters used in combination with editing techniques will allow the best results to be achieved, but usually requires the greatest skill or experience, as you have be able to visualise an effect at the point of capture that involves editing.
Filters won't allow a poor photographer with no skills to achieve quality works of art, you tend to need more, rather than less knowledge, to get good effects. On the further information page with the filters section we have information on where you can get training that will help.
Generally its best to start with a circular polarising filter and a small number of ND grads, and get the hang of using these, before moving on to other filters.
See also: Filter Section for more articles.