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Filters & The Creative Process
Good news for all my friends and students who have been eagerly chomping at the bit to get their hands on the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizing filter: they’re back in stock. Now I know y’all don’t like these things, and I’m as guilty as anyone of struggling to learn to use this filter a little more judiciously. I also know not everyone is on board with the use of filters at all – last time I posted about this kind of thing someone accused me of lacking integrity – oddly not something I’ve been indicted for when using a 17mm lens or duo-tone treatment on the print. I know, Galen Rowell wouldn’t have done it this way, but then I’m not Galen Rowell. So I’m putting my armour on and cutting/pasting an article that Singh-Ray just released on their blog that has some of my thoughts on the creative use of filters in digital photography. Feel free to disagree if this is one of your weird little hobby horses, but let’s keep the ethical assertions to a minimum. This is art and if you can’t be an anarchist as an artist, you may as well get a job making motivational posters. You do things your way, I’ll do things mine
From his home in Vancouver, Canada, international assignment photographer David DuChemin roams the world specializing in humanitarian projects and travel workshops. He’s also the author of Within the Frame, a noteworthy book on his images and the thought process behind them. Here’s a brief example of that process as applied to his Singh-Ray filters. “I just got back from teaching workshops in Italy on the beautiful Ligurian coast, and then later in Venice. These workshops, whether in Italy or further abroad in India or Nepal, are often the times I learn the most myself. Nothing galvanizes what I’m learning faster than teaching it to others — and one of the things I am consistently asked about is my use of filters. I think the digital world continues to labour under the delusion that optical filters are a thing of the past and that most of the effects once possible with filters can now be done as easily in Photoshop. The more I show my students the filters I use and give them a chance to try them, the more certain I become that filters still have an essential role in digital capture.
“Photography, for most of us is not merely a technical pursuit, but an aesthetic one. If that is true then what truly matters is what our images look and feel like. Filters still enable an aesthetic that’s not possible through simple post-production, and in some cases not possible at all, even in Photoshop. The aesthetic they enable may be forcing a slower shutter speed to blur motion, or polarizing light to reduce glare, or knocking part of the frame down a couple stops to darken a sky or lighten a foreground — in each case the filter remains a mainstay in the photographer’s kit.
“The images that accompany this article were shot in Italy this spring. So much of my time is spent in the so-called ‘Third World’ that being in a place like the Italian Riviera and Italy was magical — so different from what I usually photograph — and with that difference came a different experience. When I looked for tools to help me express how I felt about the magical light in these places, the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue, complete with un-corrected colour cast, was what I settled on for these images. Did it look like that? I’m not sure that’s the point. It felt like that and I’m more interested as a photographer in communicating my own very subjective response to places and moments than I am in pretending at objectivity.
“What the digital world at large has at times failed to recognize are two important understandings. The first is that every technical decision at the point of capture has an aesthetic implication and that means filters will allow you a significantly different look than a mere adjustment layer in Photoshop can replicate. The second is the importance of the creative process itself. Most photographers I know struggle to find a balance between the Artist and the Geek. Optical filters, used well, can meet the needs of both.
“When I made the transition to digital I sold my film gear and a box of filters, most of which I’d never use again even if I had them now. At the time I was told that, ‘you don’t need filters when you shoot digitally.’ I believed it for a long time until I began looking at the work of photographers I really admired – particularly those working in fine art and landscape disciplines. What I saw was a noticeable difference in the aesthetics of their photographs, and it pushed me into what is now nearing the end of a year spent learning about and playing with filters.
“I now carry 2- and 3-stop graduated ND filters (both soft transition and hard transition), a Gold-N-Blue and an LB Warming Polarizer. It’s a small set of filters, and it doesn’t take much room in my bag, but I no longer leave home without them. Together they allow me to capture a broader dynamic range of light, turn mundane light into spectacular light, take longer exposures, and deal with reflections on water. All of that without hours in Photoshop. In fact my images captured with the use of filters consistently need less work in post-production than others. But the biggest benefit my filters have brought me is in service of my creative side, the Artist.
“We all work differently but many of us seem to work dialectically. In other words we begin with A, we react to B, we get C. While this thought process can and does happen in the darkroom, it is much more powerful when used at the point of capture. When you put a filter on the lens you see the results immediately, you react to it, it gives you an idea, helps you see in new ways, and then you change what you’re doing, follow the muse. In my workshops, I’ve seen this process over and over again in my students. They’re shooting a scene, they look at what I’m shooting and exclaim, ‘Wait! How come that looks so different from mine?’ I explain, hand out my filters for them to play with, and watch them run off giggling. The key word in there is ‘play.’ Creativity is one big ‘what if,’ and the more we engage our craft with a sense of play, the more creative and unique our results. Engaging that sense of play is an important step in the creative process, allowing the filters to not only change the way the image looks but to change the very process, making these simple tools a catalyst to in-camera creativity — something Photoshop, for all its marvels, can’t do.”
The Singh-Ray blog is an excellent source of inspiration and information about the use of filters. Find them HERE. As an aside, the year I have spent learning filters has been an interesting one and I’ve waded through a number of frustrations about the differences in sizes and mount-options and it can be confusing at times. Not sure why there can’t be a little more clarity on all this, nor am I sure why some of the best lenses have 82mm threads while Singh-Ray’s screw mounts are sometimes only as large as 77mm. Anyways, I plan to address this kind of thing in an upcoming eBook when I return from Iceland and have a chance to shoot some images to illustrate. Questions about filters – leave ‘em here.