Your Easy Guide To Filters

The appeal of Instagram isn’t just being able to share photos with friends—all of those filter options sure do make us look good, too! It turns out, applying filters to your images gives you greater creative control and can make your shots more memorable.

Here’s a quick guide to filters and how to get started using them:

What is a filter?
To understand how a filter works, imagine a pair of sunglasses. You put them over your eyes to reduce the amount of light coming in. Sunglasses can change the look of things as you walk around—filters are like that, too. They change the look of images you capture via your smartphone or tablet.

Where did filters come from?
Filters actually date back to film cameras (remember those?)—even the great photographer Ansel Adams used filters to get the look he wanted. When you’re using a full-frame camera, filters are added directly to the lens. A filter can certainly protect an expensive lens, but mostly they are there for creative control. One of the most popular filters to put on a traditional camera is a polarizing filter. It cuts down on glare, can offer more contrast (so that sky will have a deeper blue), and can even allow you to shoot through a window and get rid of the reflections. Filter apps try to mimic these same effects.

Where do I find the filters in my smartphone?
You can employ some of the same old-school camera filter tricks, and so much more, by using filters on your smartphone. After you shoot your images, you can find filters to apply to them in your camera app’s editing section. Photographer Richard “Koci” Hernandez has a beautiful course on where he shows his process of shooting with an iPhone. Your camera app should have editing functions that include scenes or filters with different names. Koci Hernandez’s method is to play around, applying the various scenes (or filters) to see what they do to your photos.

How do I use filters?
For starters, check out the filters in the iPhone Camera+ app ($2.99), where you have everything from polarizing to vibrant color filters, and even one called, “Ansel” that transforms your images into stunning black and white. Not an iPhone user? Check out the array of Instagram filters the app offers with names that speak to the personality or mood of the filter, such as Slumber or Lo-Fi.

Some programs will allow you to apply more than one filter to a single photo, while others won’t. You can do what is called “app stacking” and use several programs to layer different filters on top of one another to create a unique looking photo. You might do one adjustment in your camera’s editing function, and then save it before opening in another application such asPixlr, where you can then add a texture, a vintage filter, or maybe even some text.

The thing to remember with app stacking is that with every additional filter you add, the original photo gets degraded slightly (meaning pixels in the image are being altered, so that when you want to enlarge the image, you will have less ability to do so without it getting blurry). For most purposes, this will not be a problem; it’s just something to keep in mind for times when you know that the image needs to be a certain size.

Koci Hernandez stresses that it doesn’t matter what app you use, or your level of expertise. “Don’t limit yourself,” he says. “Play with all of the tools and find your look. It’s ultimately about creativity. Find your creative home.”


Susan Marque got her M.F.A. in creative writing from The New School, writes for magazines, television, and is currently working on a memoir. She is also a healthy food expert, loves both food and tech, and all things photo related. Her photo art has sold in Beverly Hills and London. The opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are solely his/her own.