Stylize Your Images Using Digital Filters

What makes winning /images win? Apart from the opportunities and advantages that are afforded by huge leaps in digital technology, one point stands out, as always—style! Today’s light-meter technology helps ensure technically correct exposure, but it’s personal insight and style that bring the exposure to a higher level—being aesthetically correct! The same can be said for the aesthetics of composition, color treatment, focus, contrast, balance and every other aspect of an image that strikes your eyes and grabs your mind. Aesthetics and style help make an image stand out.

On the topic of aesthetics with creativity and style, I’d like to focus on filters, more specifically, digital filters. If your experience with photography predates digital, you’ve probably used any number of filters, such as UV, polarizer, graduated neutral-density, neutral-density, close-up, infrared, color balance, color-correction, special-effects, skylight, haze and maybe more. The approach of using such filters always has been rather easy, but there has been a fundamental weakness—that is, the effects being embedded into your film’s exposure were virtually irreversible.


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But today, digital photography’s quantum leap is substantially a result of the sophisticated software filters built into advanced cameras and from filters that are built into software. Here, I’ll concentrate on the software’s filters and provide you with examples, and I hope inspiration, that will point you in the direction of thinking “out of the file.”


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When I make a picture, I think about achieving the best original file and about how I’ll use the image, and sometimes, the original shot isn’t the best (maybe more often than I’ll acknowledge). I don’t discard it; I keep it and take the opportunity to examine it using software, where I frequently find parts of the image that can be turned into a winner through cropping and prudent creative use of the software’s special tools—filters.

In “Think Different About RAW” (Digital Photo Pro, Sept./Oct. 2008), I spoke to the topic of the power of using multiple file types and editing/filtering tools from several software programs on a single image file. In this article, I’ll use three software features and three file types (JPEG, TIFF and RAW NEF files), all combined and enabling creation of a single image presentation with my personal style.

Today’s light-meter technology helps ensure technically correct exposure, but it’s personal insight and style that bring the exposure to a higher level­—being aesthetically correct!

Old-Time Lighthouse
My objective was to convert the lighthouse scene, taken on a dull day using a Nikon D3 and a Nikkor 24-120mm VR lens, into an image with the look and feel of a very old, turn-of-the-century image. To do this, I applied a selection of filters, and along the way, came up with a sequence of adjustments that would enable me to finish with a selection of different looks for the picture.

…digital photography’s quantum leap is substantially a result of the sophisticated software filters built into advanced cameras and from filters that are built into software.

Figure 1: This is the finished image. Following are the steps I took to get there. The original image was a RAW (NEF) file, which was edited and filtered using Nikon Capture NX 2 and Nik Color Efex Pro 3 filters. I subsequently saved it as a NEF and then saved it as a TIFF for further filtering using Photoshop CS3 and the Nik Silver Efex Pro plug-in.

The first adjustments were to crop, straighten and make minor retouches to remove dust spots from the image using NX 2’s Auto Retouch Tool.

Figure 2: The day’s weather was uncommitted! Light wasn’t bright, and contrast and detail were hard to see and rather dull—not enough detail and dynamic range to provide the look I wanted. So I converted the image using a Fog filter and applied NX 2’s Selection Gradient tool to adjust the soft-edge separation between the upper foggy area and the lower less foggy area. I cut the fog’s effect near the buildings’ rooftops.

Figure 3: Next, I converted the flatly colored image into a black-and-white that I’d subsequently adjust for contrast, brightness and detail.


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Figure 4: I applied Paper Toner to give the image a brown tone and an older appearance, and applied Unsharp Mask selectively to the buildings and rippled water. I also noticed some additional retouching that was needed and used NX 2’s Auto Retouch brush to clean up some small spots.


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Figure 5: I finished working on the NEF in Capture NX 2, saved as TIFF and opened the TIFF in Photoshop CS3. It was time to make some adjustments using Nik Silver Efex Pro.


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Figure 6: I chose to add Silver Efex Pro’s Blue Tonal to the image; that was a change from the Sepia toning I had applied in NX 2. Since I was able to switch applied tools, virtually at will, I felt comfortable experimenting.


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Figure 7: I took a look at the Coffee Tonal filter; it looked better, but I wasn’t finished experimenting.


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Figure 8: I tried the Sepia Tonal and decided on that as my toning choice.

I decided on one additional step—the application of an additional Silver Efex Pro filter; I saved the Figure 8 image, then reopened it in Silver Efex Pro and applied the Antique Plate filter. Now I was satisfied. The scene and the aesthetic appearance that I applied enabled me to render a high-quality image with the aged appearance that complements the subject.

Study, Learn And Experiment
I’m brought to this point by way of my years of studying, learning and experimenting with a myriad of software products. Although I have current favorites, my search for the new, unusual and creative never will cease. I encourage you to wring the maximum out of your image files and enhance creativity. Search out software that meets your creative needs and fulfills your technical requirements. Then, take advantage of the opportunities of jumping back and forth among file formats to f
inally achieve the rendering and versatility that you crave.

Good luck as you enjoy your adventure in photography.

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