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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