Do Software Filters Beat Glass Filters?


I was cleaning out my gear drawer recently when I came across a couple of holders for Cokin filters. The filters had long since been sent to an eBay afterlife, but tossing the cases started me thinking, mainly about how I hadn’t missed the things a bit.

Surely I’m not the only one who recalls the excitement back when of getting a Cokin or Tiffen catalog, seeing all the effects I could achieve with this or that filter and deciding “Gotta have it.”

Of course, I never used any filter (aside from the glass-saving UV filter) a fraction as much as I imagined I would. And even when I did use one, I regretted it at least half the time, either because the effect was too strong or I had used it ineptly.


Now, I have a handful of Photoshop tools I can use to create any effect I might want — everything from nicely polarized skies to neutral-density light balancing. And when I decide that on second thought, I’d rather just play it straight, the effect goes away in a click.

Sure, I’m a firm supporter of the idea that it’s better to get the best the image you can in-camera. But “best” is a tricky concept. If you take it to mean a well-balanced exposure and thoughtful composition, who’s going to argue against that?


But effects are a different matter. Even though a certain tint or starburst pattern may be what you see in your mind’s eye, the mind is subject to change. Even filters meant to balance difficult exposures can be a cause for regret — fail to match the filter pattern precisely to the scene, and you can do more harm than good.

For me, “undo” rocks, as I’m sure it will for a lot of Instagram users in 10 or 15 years, when fashions have changed and somebody wants to know what this era actually looked like.

Yet I have lingering pangs of guilt, as if I’ve chosen the quick, dirty and less honorable route and in the process whizzed on the graves of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Am I overlooking some innate advantage to relying on glass over software? (Maybe that by being more difficult to apply, physical filters inherently discourage overuse?)  B&H still sells everything from halo filters to 1,257 kinds of polarizers, so some of y’all obviously thinks glass=good.

Image credits: Ashley Pomeroy, Filter Forge, Kallemax

  • Student

    How about when you want to use the lens wide open on a sunny day? A good ND filter will make that possible.

    I also take issue with the idea that a polarizer can be applied in software. With a polarizer, you have complete control over what gets reflected. I photograph cars and I can make the side of the car reflect very strongly while making the paint on top of the car dead flat.

  • ennuipoet

    Like you said, you need to use them correctly or don’t use them at all. There simply is no replacement for a Neutral Density filter or a Graduated ND filter in software. (Yes, yes, you can emulate a GND to a certain extent, but it always looks like what it is: Photoshopped.) I’ve never been a fan of the hued filters, though I did use them a bit in in B&W film, and any Sepia toning I did was all in the darkroom. So, yes, Analog filters blow software out of the water when used properly, and in context.

  • lennartbnl

    I have never used any filter like that, but it seems most of it would be possible in post. I think to settle the question you’d have to take some photos with them then take the same photos without and try to get as close as possible in photoshop. I’d love to see that :)

  • oldtaku

    I’m down to 3 filters and a trick filter:
    – Circumpolar to kill reflections
    – Graduated ND for bright sky/dark land
    – Variable ND to slow down exposures

    – Infrared (okay, you don’t need this)

    I don’t really think you can fake the first three other than merging multiple exposures to get the graduated ND effect. I do agree about all the other filters – they’re just not worth the time, hassle, and messing with your RAW for me.

  • Burnin Biomass

    As others said, I still have a ND and a polarizer shoot with yet.

    When shooting slide, I used my 81A a good deal along with the Tiffen Warming Polarizer. The 85 to a lesser extent. I can do warming in PS now, so those got unbagged.

    I LOVE that I don’t take all my B&W filters around anymore. I always had far more colors than I really used.

  • Northbound

    Agree on the ND filter. I have three different sizes variable-NDs in my bag (58mm, 67mm, and 82mm) and step-rings for the filter sizes in between.

    Where I live, in Greenland, the light is very intense, especially from March till June, and shooting wide open, even as slow as 2.8 is asking for overexposure trouble.

    1/8000 is just not enough. And on the Fuji X-series and 6D where 1/4000 is max shutter speed it’s even worse. For that I don’t see any other solution than NDs.

  • nameless

    Must have filters: ND(regular or graduated) and polarizer.

  • Michael Andrew Broughton

    what a load.

  • Andy

    I’m with everyone below, I use a polariser to remove and sometimes increase reflections on water and glass (something you can’t do with software) and I couldn’t survive without a graduated ND and my polariser as and ND to balance sky and ground and decrease shutter speeds. You just can’t do those in post. And applying a polariser “effect” looks nothing like a real polariser. For film, they are still just as relevant. Sorry, but software filters are just the lazy way out.

  • Mead Norton

    Using filters correctly is much easier than trying to add in the effect after the fact in photoshop or any other editing program. I regularly use polarizers, variable ND filter, Graduated ND filter and even warming filters- especially useful when using a filtered flash

  • Cam K

    They have an old saying in newspapers that you should never use a question as your headline if the answer to the question is “no.” Apparently, on the internet, the question doesn’t have to have an answer at all.

  • Sterling

    If the you (the author) believe that a polarizer is only used to get “nicely polarized skies” then yes, you are missing out on an innate advantage of glass over software. At least in the case of the polarizing filter.

  • Herr_Synnberg

    This is silly. There is no software filter that can replicate what an ND or a Polarizer can do. Hell, I’d even argue that a good grad ND is better than doing it in post.

    Try shooting with strobes with a long lens wide open without an ND and let me know how it goes when you “Fix” it in post.

  • Klaus Schmitt

    Certainly not, if you plan on doing not just conventional, but multispectral photography (including UV + IR), where the front filter ultimately defines the spectrum recorded and previously unseen patterns appear. See attached quadriptych example using a Bidens flower in visible, UV, simulated butterfly + bee vision. See also more about that on my site

  • James Conner

    Although Photoshop can darken blue skies, it cannot remove reflections or do the other things a polarizer does. Nor is Photoshop a substitute for neutral density, infrared, and ultraviolet filters, or some special effects filters such as star screens. But the channel mixing functions in Photoshop do eliminate the need for the red, green, and blue filters we used with black and white film, and Photoshop’s color adjustment functions color conversion and correction filters we used with color film.

    The channel mixing defaults for Photoshop are, incidentally, pretty insipid. Instead of the default orange filter, which is supposed to approximate a Wratten G, try red 100, green 100, and blue minus 100, for a more dramatic effect.

  • Marc Khoury

    This is somewhat reminiscent of the old discussion of SLR v/s DSLR. whether the new (at the time) digital cameras will be as good. I find it strange that to this day there is still resistance to photoshop (even Lightroom) as though they were only used by traitors to the craft.

    As cameras get better even ND & polarizer filters will go out. Just like the digital sensor was the evolution of film; so is photoshop the evolution of the dark room and filters and others.

    I may wrong, but I think the resistance to software is due to “laziness” on the part of people to learn how to use it. Somewhat under stable considering the sheer amount of stuff that need to be learned.

    That being said, other than the UV filter, I find most others only useful in a nostalgic way.

  • Herr_Synnberg

    Absolutely not.

    I use plenty of post production in my work and consider both PS and LR as indispensable tools, but so are my filters. This isn’t a this vs that argument. ALL OF THE ABOVE are necessary and valid tools. It doesn’t matter how good cameras get, you won’t get a multi-minute exposure during broad daylight at usable apertures without an ND filter. It doesn’t matter how good cameras get, you won’t be able to cut down unwanted reflections without a polarizer. There are many, MANY uses to filters that either the author and his supporters are not aware of or just won’t admit.

    My Lee filter system costs more than my copy of Lightroom and has helped me do things LR or its big brother can’t hope to achieve.

  • alreadyupsidedown

    UV filters have been pretty much proven, for the average photograph, to lower contrast, decrease sharpness, and add aberrations and ghosts. In my opinion, other than provide protection for your lens, they are a complete waste of time and money, not the ‘essential piece of kit’ your photo store would have you believe. Why would you shove some random piece of glass on your lens unless it did something actually useful?

    Polarizing filters are impossible to replicate in software, unless your software can tell from a single white pixel, ‘which angle’ the ray of light is coming from, and if it should be blocked or not. For those who photograph lots of water and reflections, they are more than essential. ND’s are essential for keeping shutter speeds manageable, if you’re trying to get the most out of your fast lenses in bright light. ND grads are the closest to being replicated in post, if the sky falls within your exposure. But sometimes it doesn’t.

    I agree that resistance to digital processing is a strange phenomenon. It’s just our modern equivalent of the darkroom. The idea that photos must be perfect ‘straight out of the camera’ is a joke… Ansel Adams was a darkroom master, he new how to get the most out of the tools he had available to him. This actually ties in with my previous point… We’ve always been able to achieve some of these effects in post.. but using traditional techniques such as dodging and burning. People must realize, that things really haven’t changed all that much.

  • Marc Khoury

    I realize now that my last line suggested I think all analog equipment is useless. That was not my intention.

    I wanted to simply point out the absolute certainty in which people address the issue of using software filters v/s the real thing.

    The software is being pushed forward by leaps and bounds, and while the technology today still requires the use of some filters, there is no definite indication that soon they will become obsolete.

  • Marc Khoury

    “This isn’t a this vs that argument. ALL OF THE ABOVE are necessary and valid tools.”

    Exactly. You have certainly said things better than I have.

    “There are many, MANY uses to filters that either the author and his supporters are not aware of or just won’t admit.”

    It is also possible that the author and his supporters have no need within their photography (thus far anyway) for these uses.

    The biggest sign that filters are still needed is the fact that they are still being manufactured and sold. However, their uses are decreasing gradually, and soon there ‘might’ be the possibility of no longer needing them.

    But advanced photoshop users (which most photographers aren’t) know that there is no more than 5% that cannot be achieved in post. (by advanced I am referring to those who have taken seminars that require you to have 10 years professional experience in photoshop in order to be eligible to attend).

  • murhaaya

    I have a green filter on my OM-1 loaded with Tri-x all the time. I know when to pick a yellow, orange or red when shooting architecture depending on how much pronounced effect of the darkened sky I want. I choose blue one when I want freckles on a girl to pop out. R72 infrared when shooting kodak HIE.

    Plus ligth balacing filters are as useful for digital photography as they were for film photography. Shooting nightime cityscapes for example, lit primarily by sodium vapor lamps or any source that is close to monochromatic for that matter, you can shoot digital without the filter but because of the disbalance of the colors, you either get one color exposed just right and two other channels are underexposed (try pulling something close to neutral from under a sodium vapor lamps) or you overexpose one channel and have those other two well exposed. By using a let’s say a strong blue conversion filter in front of a digital camera, you will get not perfect but more neutral color rendering in the camera and more room for RAW editing later with all three channels pretty much equaly saturated.

    There’s no undo on film.

  • mrbeard

    i prefer to use a starburst filter on my camera than edit on photoshop, because i can see in real time how it interacts with the enviroment and plan my shot accordingly.

  • AntonyShepherd

    I have to agree with some posters that there’s no substitute for a polarising filter when using it to reduce glare. I’ve had shots where reflected glare from the sun would have whited out any detail had i not used the polariser to cut the glare.
    Similarly ND filters can’t be substituted for, as when those highlights are gone, they’re gone.

    (As an aside, with every new camera release they’re keen to tell us how high the ISO can go – but isn’t it possible to turn the ISO down? For some purposes it would be great to have 25 ISO, or even 12 ISO! If we had lower ISOs then we’d be less in need of full ND filters!)

    While if you’re shooting digital and converting to black and white, as a rule you don’t need coloured filters such as red, yellow, green etc, you would still need those if you were shooting a Leica M Monochrom – or any digital camera converted to monochrome use.

  • Rob S

    No substitute for an ND filter when you want to shoot water at slow speeds on a bright day. Yeah you can simulate a polarizer by pumping the blue you are adding data that wasn’t there. With a CP I can have the data originally.

    I agree that some day a LOT of people will wish they had their original “negatives” from Instagram.

  • bob cooley

    You won’t see polarizing filters properly replaced by Photoshop or by
    camera software. You are in the realm of physics here. While its easy
    to simulate the darker tones, the ability to control and remove
    reflections can’t be globally done in Photoshop.

    I’m not seeing a lot of resistance to Photoshop in the above comments, almost everyone uses PS or LR (or alternates) for post.

    But Photoshop is not the philosopher’s stone – it doesn’t do everything.

    ND, Polarizing, and UV filters are all tools that change how the light
    actually hits the sensor, and while some similar effect can be achieved
    in PS, its never exactly the same, and takes a lot more effort.

    Calling photographers ‘lazy’ for using the correct tool isn’t called for either.

    I’m a shooter of almost 3 decades and a Photoshop user of since 1990, and having fairly expert knowledge of both, I can tell you with certainty that its more advantageous in many ways to use the analog versions of some of these tools; it’s not fear of tech – I’m deeply immersed in it – its just using the right tool for the best outcome.

  • Marc Khoury

    I realize I took a more general approach by saying that photoshop can beat glass filters. and while globally it can’t do many things, you still can do them nonetheless.

    To remain on point, do Software Filters beat Glass filters? The answer is probably a tie… I would tip it slightly towards Software Filters.

    As for the lazy bit, I am not excluding myself from the lot. I’ve been using photoshop for over 20 years and long ago have realized that there is an immense amount of learning to do. As such, I simply opted to improve my photography skills and knowledge and minimize as much as possible the work needed in post.

    “I can tell you with certainty that its more advantageous in many ways to use the analog versions of some of these tools;”

    I agree 100%. it is more advantageous. Which suggests that it certainly can be done, just that currently its easier or as you said more advantageous to use analog versions.

  • Marc Khoury

    I agree. Sadly I believe I completely miscommunicated my point. I am not saying there is no use at all under all circumstances, no matter what for Glass filters.

    I’m just saying that the uses for them are decreasing further and further, as the software takes on bigger and more complex forms.

    I have filters and still use them. Just not much as I used to, to the point where I feel like I don’t need them anymore. I’m not giving them up yet. if ever.

  • David Becker

    Note: Canon G series, Nikon P7xxx and several other prosumer compact lines have built-in ND filter functions that do an effective job of buying you three extra stops. Not perfect, but good enough. Surprised it’s not a more common option.

  • Herr_Synnberg

    That’s again a physical filter. The only difference is that it’s not added in front of the lens. It’s NOT a software correction. The only way to do that in software (in-camera) is to have an ISO rating that’s 3 stops slower.

  • Theranthrope

    This is relevant to my interests…

  • deadlock

    Agreed. The only two filters that can’t be fully emulated in digital post-process are, in my opinion: 1) neutral density filter (as long as the dynamic range of sensors is limited), 2) polarizing/spectral filter (as it’s not possible to filter-out the light that’s been captured and retrieve the original information). Everything else is just primitive equivalent of tone mapping which is best done in digital.