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

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

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.

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?

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.

Filter > Artistic > Colored Pencil

Filter > Artistic > Cutout

Filter > Artistic > Watercolor

Filter > Blur > Gassian Blur

Filter > Blur > Motion Blur

Filter > Blur > Radial Blur

Filter > Blur > Smart Blur

Filter > Brush Strokes > Accented Edges

Filter > Distort > Pinch

Filter > Distort > Shear

Filter > Distort > Spherize

Filter > Noise > Add Noise

Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise

Filter > Pixelate > Color Halftone

Filter > Pixelate > Crystalize

Filter > Pixelate > Mosaic

Filter > Pixelate > Pointilize

Filter > Render > Clouds

Filter > Render > Difference Clouds

Filter > Render > Lens Flare

Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask

Filter > Sketch > Bas Relief

Filter > Sketch > Reticulation

Filter > Sketch > Graphic Pen

Filter > Stylize > Extrude

Filter > Stylize > Find Edges

Filter > Texture > Patchwork

Filter > Texture > Stained Glass

Filter > Texture > Texturizer

Filter > Other > Maximum

Filter > Other > Minimum

Combining Filters for Better Results

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.