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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gadget Bag: Special-Effects Camera Filters

Craft the image in-camera instead of wrestling with Photoshop

Labels: GearMore GearGadget Bag

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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Mention the word “filter” to a young shooter, and he or she probably will think you’re talking about a Photoshop plug-in. But to those who cut their teeth on Kodachrome 25 and Panatomic-X, a filter is a thin glass disc that attaches to the front of a camera lens. To avoid confusion, we call them “camera filters.” Most absorb a specific range of the spectrum and thereby add an overall color to the image. But not all filters alter colors. Some, like the classic soft-focus filter, change the image sharpness and leave the colors alone.

Certain filters can be used in combination with others, and it’s popular to use those discussed in this article with solid-color filters to create a unique result. But these shouldn’t be stacked on top of skylight, UV or other so-called “protection” filters because the additional thickness can cause the corners of the image to vignette, especially when your zoom lens is in the wide-angle position.

Can a Photoshop expert reproduce the effects of these camera filters exactly? Some will argue this point, but the general consensus is a qualified “no.” These filters change the plane of focus before the image is captured. It’s possible to achieve very similar results using editing software, but they won’t be 100 percent the same. And that’s a big part of the fun.

gadget bag B+W Cross Screen 8x
There are six popular types of special-effects filters, and all deserve a spot in your gadget bag. The star filter makes any point source of light appear to burst like fireworks. When used to photograph a birthday cake, for example, the candle flames gleam like stars. This filter is technically a diffraction grating, and the surface is etched with a dense pattern of intersecting parallel lines arranged to create small squares. Its unique physical appearance gives rise to its alternate name: cross-screen filter. Depending on the pattern, you can produce four-, eight- or 16-point stars.

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Schneider HD Classic Soft
However, it relies on a contrasty point source of light, so it doesn’t work well in bright or evenly illuminated scenes. Soft-focus filters (or diffusion filters) are the portrait shooter’s best friend; they can help obscure small wrinkles and other imperfections without destroying the image’s overall sharpness. They’re constructed in many different ways, depending on the brand, and are available in different strengths.

You can create a moody ambience with fog filters. In design and construction, they’re similar to soft-focus filters, but generally cause a significant reduction in contrast and sometimes obliterate fine detail. Try one the next time you shoot a sunrise for an eerie, supernatural effect.

If you want to feel as if you’re inside the House of Mirrors, screw in a multi-image filter. The surface of this thick filter is a symmetrical set of facets that intersect at carefully arranged angles to produce multiple images of your subject. There’s some degradation of sharpness because of the optical aberrations that are introduced by the cascading images, but color and focus are mostly unaffected.


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