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The How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop, Part 8: Filters

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One of everyone’s favorite parts of Photoshop is the filters menu—it’s a big box of weird, fun effects. Read on and learn what filters are,and what they can’t do, and effective ways to use them.

This is part 8 of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop. If you’ve missed any part, you can start at the beginning with Part 1: The Toolbox, Learn Basic Photo Editing in Part 5, or simply continue reading to learn about the filters menu and how it works.

The Big Box of Crayons

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It’s an easy thing to fall into running dozens of filters on images without rhyme or reason. Playing with filters can be fun, but rarely will give a result that doesn’t look like a heavily filtered photograph—the unmistakable “made in Photoshop” look. The filters menu is like the giant box of crayons many of us used as children: bright and colorful and full of potential. However, simply having the big box of crayons can be temptation to use as many of them as possible, simply because we can.

Experiment with filters frequently, but don’t fall into the trap! Use filters creatively and sparingly; try to focus on your photographs, rather than trying to use every crayon in the box.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

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If you put the wrong number into your calculator, do you get the right answer? That, in a nutshell, is the concept of “Garbage in, Garbage out.” Photoshop filters work pretty much the same way. You can perhaps get a different looking pile of garbage if you start with a terrible image, but you’ll never get anything that isn’t garbage. At best, you can use filters to distract from the worst bits of rubbish.

Filters are simply programs that process existing images in different ways. If you have an image that is damaged, torn, or worn away, no amount of Photoshopping or filters will ever bring it back. If images are restored, it’s never a result of a clever Photoshop user recreating what she thinks belongs there, not what filters put there.

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Beginning with an image like the HTG logo, the image is clearly low quality as it’s an internet graphic pulled it straight off the frontpage. The image is lossy and looks poor, full of low resolution smeared pixels and JPG artefacts–all fine for webpages, but not for art files.

Even running a Threshold filter (Image > Adjust > Threshold) merely distracts from the fact that my original image was a low-resolution JPG. Similarly, Photoshop will not add detail the way the FBI computers do in movies. If the detail doesn’t exist, no amount of filtering will make it exist. Until we learn to make computers that can create new information, we’ll have to create good images in the first place, or rely on artists to do it for us.

What Can Filters do?

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Starting with this base image for comparison, let’s take a brief look through some of the many filters and see what they look like. No description necessary, the images here describe the filter far better than words.

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Filter > Artistic > Colored Pencil

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Filter > Artistic > Cutout

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Filter > Artistic > Watercolor

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Filter > Blur > Gassian Blur

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Filter > Blur > Motion Blur

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Filter > Blur > Radial Blur

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Filter > Blur > Smart Blur

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Filter > Brush Strokes > Accented Edges

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Filter > Distort > Pinch

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Filter > Distort > Shear

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Filter > Distort > Spherize

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Filter > Noise > Add Noise

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Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise

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Filter > Pixelate > Color Halftone

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Filter > Pixelate > Crystalize

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Filter > Pixelate > Mosaic

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Filter > Pixelate > Pointilize

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Filter > Render > Clouds

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Filter > Render > Difference Clouds

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Filter > Render > Lens Flare

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Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask

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Filter > Sketch > Bas Relief

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Filter > Sketch > Reticulation

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Filter > Sketch > Graphic Pen

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Filter > Stylize > Extrude

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Filter > Stylize > Find Edges

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Filter > Texture > Patchwork

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Filter > Texture > Stained Glass

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Filter > Texture > Texturizer

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Filter > Other > Maximum

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Filter > Other > Minimum

Combining Filters for Better Results

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As we’ve seen in older articles using Filters, combined artfully, they can create excellent effects. Their combinations will only “filter” information—necessarily giving you less than what you started with. But, with clever application, filtering images can give you something that looks better (or at least different) than what you started with. Keep in mind, that it is not the filters themselves that are improving the image in this case, it is you, and your clever combination of Photoshop commands and filters. While Photoshop can only make garbage from garbage,  a skilled Photoshop user can turn even a terrible image into a something worthwhile.

Photoshop tips left you confused? Start at the Beginning! Check out the previous installments of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop.


Image credit: Crayola Image by Kurt Baty, released under Creative Commons. Garbage Skip by Snowmanradio, released under Creative Commons. Image of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck by Royal Family of Bhutan via Wikipedia, released under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 11/30/10

Comments (11)

  1. Eek

    i might be coming into this a little late but you are using CS5 right?

  2. Eric Z Goodnight

    Most of the ones featured here are available in nearly any version of Photoshop. But, yes, this tutorial is written with CS5.

  3. Mark

    What did “Smart Blur” do?

  4. Eric Z Goodnight

    Smart blur is one of the tricks to clean up noise, dust, and a general grimy look photos have. There are other ways, but smart blur is a pretty good way to do it.

  5. Hatryst

    Very nice article :)
    In fact, I’m glad I already knew EVERYTHING mentioned in this article ;)
    Tip: Try applying two or more filters together. Also, try changing order of application of multiple filters…
    There are just ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES of what you can do in Photoshop !!

  6. E. Loftis

    I am using Photoshop elements 8 and not even the premium. Must upgrade to PS 9 Premium. I have
    been able do do a few things with Elements. What were they intended for ? I got an email advertisement from Adobe last week. They want $599.85 for Photoshop CS5.
    I have an old HP all-in-one printer that is 11 years old. I have been reading about an
    HP Office Jet 6500A Plus E All-in-one Printer E710N. What printer do you use & what do you
    reccomend?
    My wife is the photographer. So are my daughter & son-in-law. Really would like to have a copy
    of CS5. I have a 1TSeagate external HD and it has over 6000 images on it.
    Have enjoyed your “Photoshop” series. Thanks for doing it. Esley L. Loftis, jr

  7. Eric Z Goodnight

    @E. Loftis: Elements is a light version of Photoshop for organizing and light photo editing. For the relatively small price, it actually gives you excellent photo editing capability. It frustrates me because I’m used to Photoshop and run into features it is missing when I use it.

    If you, your wife, son or daughter think you can really improve your photography with CS5, I can’t recommend it more. It won’t organize your images, but you will get photo editing capability for those 6000 images.

    As far as printers? There are a lot of features that are thrown in–card readers, built-in scanner/faxes, etc. In my eyes the only important features are print quality and cartridge yield. Consumer print cartridges are basically designed and priced to rip people off–or rather their whole business model is built around selling printers at a loss and cartridges at a HUGE markup.

    Epson is a good brand, and I’ve seen new HP photo printers make fine images. Stay tuned, because I’ve got tutorials for improving the quality of home prints coming in December!

  8. burb0n

    thanks for this. i like your guides!

  9. Esley Loftis

    Thanks for your quick reply. I was in Office Derpot in Hattiesburg, Ms. this morning. They have a
    nice supply of HP and other printers. There are some very nice printers there. They have an Adobe
    Photoshop CS5 : Student and teacher for $199.95. I asked the store rep about it. He took one look
    at me and said “you can’t prove you are a student or a teacher.” He said you had to be a student
    before you could purchase that. It is there for those that do qualify.
    I will be looking for the next installments of photoshop.
    Later, Esley Loftis

  10. John

    Really a quite good series! Here’s hoping you do one on Lightroom soon, just started playing with it.

  11. shankar

    Thanks a lot for the tutorials Eric… Loved this 8 part series a lot. I am a beginner in photoshop and have learnt the basics and picked a few tricks here and there. Keep the good work coming.. Thanks a ton!

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