To #Filter or to #Nofilter: It's Not Even a Question!

To #Filter or to #Nofilter: It's Not Even a Question!

In the days when film reigned, most people thought that once you took a photo, the image was completed. They thought that clicking the shutter was the end of the process (They obviously didn’t know much about darkroom manipulation). But, as photographers know, that “click” is only a small part of the photographic process. The rest lies in forethought before taking the image, and the way in which it’s processed after it’s taken.

With modern digital photography, most people know about Photoshop and that most images are manipulated, but they have varying degrees of knowledge about the extent to which images are changed from the “original.” Some know about the saturation slider and making the colors “pop,” while others know about how supermodels get liquefied and smoothed over.

But there’s a middle ground to processing images, and that middle ground is where we photographers use post-production techniques to translate what we saw in real life into a final image that depicts the vision we had when it was created. What makes it an art is not only what was in the image to begin with, but what the photographer does to it after the fact to fine-tune the details.

Mustang, Nepal, 2008

When I saw Patrick Beggan’s blog post about post processing, it hit the spot. I’ve seen too many people on the “#nofilter” kick, thinking that by not processing their images any further, they’re some sort of purist, or that their images don’t need any more work. Or something. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As Patrick points out, “There is truly no way to capture an image without some kind of refinement happening whether you like it or not.” By not processing the images, you’re just letting the camera’s sensor collect data and throw it through an algorithm into a JPEG (which has certain processing steps like exposure, saturation, contrast, etc. built into it) and letting it decide what the final image should look like. And most of the time, that won’t be what you saw through the lens, or how you saw it.

Shanta Golba, Ethiopia, 2016

I asked Patrick why he decided to write the blog post, and his answer reveals why a #nofilter ideology is flawed:

“I wrote this to share a realization I've had about photography with others who might be struggling to understand their own creative photography process, or just getting started. I've had this realization over and over again -- almost every time I go out shooting and then load the photos onto my computer. When you are out capturing photographs you are only completing half the act of artistic photography. When you see those photos larger and in detail, you begin to realize that what is automatically generated by your processing software isn't quite what you've seen. This article is about the second half of photography -- getting back to what you saw from the data your camera collected.”

Now, I’m not going to get into a debate about how much processing is too much. I only want to point out, like Patrick did, that every image needs something done to it to finish the product. To make it more like what you actually saw versus what the camera spit out for you. To make it fit the mood you were feeling that day. Something. This is also why most professional photographers are incredibly reluctant (or simply refuse) to hand out unedited raw files to clients: these files are only templates for a final product. They’re unfinished. They’re just blueprints. They don’t convey the artist’s final vision; letting someone else edit them (or not edit them!) would be like a painter handing over an almost-completed commissioned work with the paintbrush still wet with yellow, saying, “Why don’t you finish it?” to the client.

Taquería Guanajuato, Springdale, Arkansas, 2016

Seattle, Washington, 2013

Fayetteville, Arkansas 2016


What are your thoughts on the needs for processing images to match your vision?


All images by Stephen Ironside.

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Dieter Stalmann's picture

I personally feel that processing images to match your vision in Photoshop or ACDSee is OK. I however still struggle with the idea of changing images to reflect something that isn't real. I get the whole 'art'-thing, but sometimes it gets overwhelming and unreal. I have been to presentations of competition entries where the judges were saying 'you should have added this or that to the image' or 'modify the image by adding that colour', whilst that was not what the photographer intended to do.

Stephen Ironside's picture

There's definitely a fine (yet very blurry) line between photography and 'digital art.' At what point does a photograph become something other than "just" a photograph? At what point is it just the foundation or a part of a very different final medium? I don't think I know the answer!

John MacLean's picture

What are your thoughts on the images Ansel Adams made?

Stephen Ironside's picture

I think he was incredible, obviously, but also did lots of darkroom post-processing. Even he knew that once he clicked the shutter, the process wasn't finished.

Anonymous's picture

Nice video on one of his most famous images....

Dieter Stalmann's picture

Ansel Adams was genius. I have attempted to imitate his photo of the fork. After two hours, my image was close to what he had created. The difference: He shot with film, therefore limited amounts of attempts. I shot close to 50 images before I got it right.

Nathan Klich's picture

It depends what you want the end result to be. There is no "cut and dry" methodology when it comes to what's considered art. The issue becomes when you try to pass off a manipulation as reality; that's just fraud. I'm an avid user of PS and other pixel editors to tweak images a little bit, but I also like to go wild sometimes and make something off the wall for the fun of it. Both are art. Both are valid. One just takes more work in post while the other takes more time in camera.

Michael Aubrey's picture

I never even understood the point of the question to begin with.

We very nearly did as much post-processing power in film days as we do now, it was just more time consuming. We could boost contrast by shifting how we agitate the film in the developer. We used filters to affect contrast while making prints from negatives--I mean, a bunch of the icons themselves in PS are directly derived from darkroom tools.

Stephen Ironside's picture


Ben Silverstein's picture

I am a veteran (aka old fart) of the film and darkroom days. When digital photography came along, I was thrilled, not skeptical. Digital manipulations were much easier and quicker than their analog versions. You mention film agitation and contrast filters. Those reference the black and white process. Color was much more difficult to manipulate. For black and white, we also had different film types, different developing solutions and printing paper of various contrast ranges. The grid view in the appropriately-named Lightroom replicates the contact sheet from film days. The difference is that you can apply editing changes across several images with a single click. Dust and blemish removal on film negatives meant using pencils on the negative and/or toner and spotting brushes on the print. Extensive editing meant an airbrush. Who wouldn't embrace the digital experience?

Having said that, people can get carried away with digital editing. When producing obviously manipulated images for creative effect, e.g., Aaron Nace of Phlearn phame, they are visually appealing and impressive and we gladly suspend our disbelief when viewing them. The only problem I have with post processing these days is when people are rendered plastic and unnatural looking. Restraint needs to be used so the editing isn't so obvious. We just need to know when to stop. So do I. So I am.

Kirk Darling's picture

Even "Unsharp mask" is from a film technique. My current avatar to the left is an old image I created in 1975 using a Honeywell Repronar and multi-layers of cross-processed Ektachrome film.

For a while in the latter 60s into the 70s, there was a purist BW movement where photographers filed out their negative carriers so that the sprockets of the film edges could be seen all around--to prove they hadn't cropped the image taken by the camera. It's not like such things are new, only that they become passe...until the next crop of purists.

Ben Silverstein's picture

Uh, I was one of those sprocket guys, too. *blushes* Very cool avatar, though.

Michael Aubrey's picture

I still spend one day a week in my bath-room darkroom, developing 5x7. It's time consuming, but therapeutic for me--both the shooting of 5x7 and the tray developing.

ruben blædel's picture

Honestly! I don't see that there is a reason to debate that anymore. Some "brotherhood" like the Scandinavian "Dogme" movie/film-makers may lay upon themselves a code of rules to set boundaries to their photography - but for all others than press/documentarists - there should not be anything dictating what is photography and what is not - let the results be what we judge - and even then - the measure of quality and the perception of art is different to every country and every culture. Like with movies - what is good taste in Bollywood and in Scandinavia is very far apart - and so will be the case with photography

Chris McCullum's picture

When did #nofilter escape instagram? Can I take a #sooc jpeg and put #nofilter in the caption if I used a nd on my lens?? Is this even really a discussion???

Andrew Swanson's picture

Based on the premise of your article, if the vision is achieved without post-processing then why would post-processing be necessary? I agree that 99% of the time I would do some level of post-processing, but there have been cases where I intentionally shoot in-camera monochromatic and then did no editing to it just to see what would happen for the sake of the artistic process.

To answer directly, no I do not believe post-processing is necessary 100% of the time. I think your comment "At what point does a photograph become something other than "just" a photograph?" raises a very good question about art in general. Is intent and/or your vision the only thing that constitutes the purpose of the photograph? What if I accidentally took a picture without any vision at all and it turned to be an image that impacted someones life? So many questions and not enough answers!

Gordon Pritchard's picture

All digital images have been processed - i.e. the data file that the sensor creates from the photo sensors is effectively manipulated to create the image and is processed according to algorithms created by engineers - likely Japanese engineers - according to their visual perspective. So, 100% of the time the image is post processed.

Darren Whitley's picture

The bow hunter image isn't processed well. There's a lack of tone in the highlights on the skin and it also is too orange. The rest of the image is fine IMHO. A little history brush work on the face would fix it up.

Stephen Ironside's picture

To each his own, but at least for the "orange" part, this shot was right at sunset and lots of things were very warm-toned. I just processed to match what I was seeing outside of the camera.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

As someone who had to shoot E6 film 35mm-120-4x5-8x10 the processing options were limited, Push or Pull were your two choices. Your "vision" had to be done pre-processing. I like post processing after shooting.
In fact I shoot with PP in mind.
I have a friend who does the # nofilter thing. Problem is, most of his work looks like it was done before we had the tools to finish the last 20% of the "look" that people like today.
But I think it's a combo of arrogance or purity, not knowing what tools are available, or laziness.
In the film days did any serious photographer just send the film into a lab and consider them to be final prints...doubtful. That's why there were custom color labs, most of which lost their clients to PS.

Daniel Sullivan's picture

It's awesome to see an Fstopper writter who is from my same town, Fayetteville Arkansas!!!

Stephen Ironside's picture

Born and raised!

Daniel Lee's picture

The title actually mislead me at first but it was a good article. I thought the title was more aimed at people using presets such as VSCO to do their color work, rather than learning to do color grading themselves.

But on the actual topic the article addresses, I definitely think it's ok to PP the image to help tell your story in an image. Certain tones can help add to the mood of a scene and give a context. Also sometimes there will be a slight tint we don't want, so changing that in post should be normal and all part of the creative process.