File Under: Multimedia, UI/UX

Use Filters in Photoshop

OK, you’ve created your own weblog and your hands are shaking with excitement and terror. You just posted an excellent new piece that details your grievances with that jerk Kelly at work, an essay that is by turns insightful and thrillingly alive with a kind of erotic frisson. But where are your readers? Where are the hits? Why aren’t people falling over themselves to get at your sweet, sweet words?

There are many possible explanations, but one is that people are shallow, crass, and easily distracted by shiny objects. If they come to your site and just see a page full of text, their eyes will glaze over and they’ll head right on back to the Nude Animated GIFs site.

But, but, it’s the content that’s important, right? Shouldn’t your razor-sharp writing be enough to keep their attention? Wouldn’t dressing up the text with pretty pictures almost be an insult? Isn’t it what’s in here (gesturing toward heart) that matters most of all?

Yes, truly, but in the real world people like to see their content all gussied up, preferably as sextastically as possible. Sure, you can give them a few well-cropped and color-adjusted photos. But your blog also needs its fair share of arty, distorted, eye-searing pictures! And what about a zany logo?

Enter filters!

You may not be an artist – so what if your talent lies in crafting the written word? – but I’m here to tell you that while technology can’t yet generate interesting writing (check back in 2006 when Microsoft Grisham comes out of beta), it can do a lot of artistic legwork for you. It’s a secret that Web designers have known for years:If you can score a copy of the 800-pound behemoth known as Adobe Photoshop, you can fake artistic ability with the best of them.


  1. Filter Up!
  2. Photo Phreaking
  3. Useful Filters, Eyesore Filters
  4. Logo, go, GO!

Filter Up!

Yes, Photoshop is expensive, and yes, it can have a pretty steep learning curve. As for the first problem, let’s assume you can borrow a friend’s copy, or perhaps pick up the cheaper, more streamlined Photoshop Elements. As for the learning curve, the good news is that we can safely ignore just about everything the program has to offer except what lurks under the Filter menu.

Sure, Photoshop can put your head on a bodybuilder’s torso or change a hideous pink sweater to a eye-bleeding orange, but that involves reading the manual and rooting around in the toolbar and palettes and the like. With filters, all you have to do is choose an effect and see what happens. They’re all about trial-and-error and learning-by-doing.

Filters got their name from the world of photography, where you could change how a picture looked – brighter, redder, fuzzier, etc. – by placing a filter over the lens. Photoshop filters do the same thing, just with much more variety and weirdness. The program comes with dozens of built-in effects that can make your photograph look like everything from a Seurat painting to a bad photocopy. And once you get tired of those, you can pick up some free ones or buy some from third-party companies like Xaos Tools, Alien Skin, or Flaming Pear.

So fire up Photoshop, open up any image, and then start making your way down the Filter menu. Pick one and watch the dark magic unfold. Some filters (the ones with “…” after their names in the menu) will pop-up a dialogue box before working. Just hit OK to see the default action, or drag the sliders around and see how tweakable everything is. Most filters have a preview window to give you an idea of how messed-up your picture is about to become. Nine times out of ten I have no clue what a particular variable means, but I can mess around with it and see the results, so from then on I know what to expect.

Now that you’ve got the gist of filters, let’s take a look at a few examples.

Photo Phreaking

Let’s say I have a blog on Tripod that’s all about me, my thoughts on life, the pretend conversations I have with my cats, and sonnets about my enchanted experiences at the Renaissance Faire. Keep in mind that this is purely hypothetical. I update my blog with seven or eight thousand words a day, but would like to break things up a little with some nice pictures.

So I do what any self-respecting weblog author would and take a photo of myself in the bathroom mirror. That way people can put a face to the name, which can simplify matters when filing for a restraining order. The snapshot ends up looking more like an ad for the camera:


Plain-old unfiltered snapshot.

Let’s take it to the next level. The most popular use for Photoshop filters is tricking people into thinking you have artistic abilities. So I go to the Filter menu and right up top is a collection of filters filed under Artistic. Yes, I would like to be artistic. I laugh at the suckers who went to art school and click on Watercolor.


The Watercolor Palette in action.

Up pops a box that shows a preview of my photo under the influence of the Watercolor filter. (Note:If you can’t see the entire picture in the preview window, you can click on it and drag it around to see other parts.) Below are some sliders that let me fine-tune it:Brush Detail, Shadow Intensity, and Texture. What does Brush Detail mean? Who knows – let’s slide it around. Looks like the lower the detail, the blockier and faker my picture gets. So I crank that up to 9, and turn the Shadow Intensity to 0 so it’s not too dark. In this example, the lower the Texture setting, the smoother it looks, so I set that to 1. Then I hit OK to see what it looks like.


Hey, Mom! I do have talent after all! Look at this watercolor I painted!

OK, Mom isn’t buying it. You’ll never understand my art, Mother!!! Maybe she’ll be more convinced by a sketch. I head on down to the Sketch sub-menu and choose Chalk & Charcoal. Again, three sliders to adjust how it looks. Charcoal Area and Chalk Area let you balance how much of each drawing tool you use, and Stroke Pressure lets you control how many sketch-strokes appear. Did I learn this in the manual? Oh no way. I just messed around with them to see what they did. Here’s what I ended up with:


I just sketched this up at the local cafe!

My skills are growing exponentially. I slap that on my weblog, write “Untitled Self-Portrait [24 x 18", chalk & charcoal]” underneath it and pass it off as my own handiwork. My site is getting more visually interesting and now the galleries are calling. So I crank out some more fake art using four of the other filter faves:


The Underpainting filter.


The Pointillize filter.


The Graphic Pen filter.


The Stained Glass filter.

But there’s more to filters than duping people. They can also be instruments of Boundless Good and Wretched Evil, as you’ll see.

Useful Filters, Eyesore Filters

Aside from art-simulating filters, there are also what I like to call Actually Useful filters and Beautiful Eyesore filters. In the first category is a set of tools that are relatively subtle and can vastly improve your pictures, if used with care. They can be found under opposing headers:Blur and Sharpen.

Blur filters soften the focus of your picture, while Sharpen filters make it clearer. If you don’t want to mess around with sliders and settings, just choose Blur or Blur More (or Sharpen or Sharpen More), which apply a subtle version of the filter. If you want to have more control over, crank up Gaussian Blur or Unsharp Mask, two of the most widely used Photoshop filters.

I often use these Actually Useful filters in conjunction with other filters. For example, Watercolor could cause some jagged edges in a picture and ruin the illusion of authentic paint-on-canvas. Blurring the picture slightly can smooth out those edges.

Or you can pretend you’re a better photographer than you really are by selecting a portion of your picture and blurring it out, as if you’d carefully adjusted the focus when snapping the photo:


(This does, however, require a quick trip to the toolbar. I used the lasso and sloppily drew a line around everything except the camera, thereby selecting it. I then blurred the background with Gaussian Blur.)

At the other end of the spectrum are the Beautiful Eyesores. These filters are all about messing up your picture quickly and efficiently, and have been responsible for some of the most astonishingly awful website designs ever. Gaze upon the retro headache of Color Halftone:


…or the eerie wonder of Plastic Wrap:


…or the funhouse mirror of Pinch:


…or the disco fever of Glowing Edges:


…or the infamous Lens Flare:


These are but a small sample. Dig deep into the Filter menu and push those sliders to the extreme to really see what horrors Photoshop is capable of inflicting.


But even Beautiful Eyesores can have palatable results. Let’s try throwing them at something other than a photograph.

Logo, go, GO!

Up till now we’ve been working with photographs which are, of course, Photoshop’s favorite thing. But what if I wanted to make a logo that featured the title of my site?

Let’s say – again, hypothetically – that my weblog is called “Josh’s House of Stank.” I type the title into Photoshop and give it a blue background. (This calls for another brief trip to the toolbar to use the Type and Paint Bucket tools.) Like so:


Fine enough, but boring. What happens if we throw some filters at it? Let’s give ye olde Pinch another shot:


Not bad! Or maybe the aforementioned Glowing Edges:


Weird! Encouraged, I try some new ones, like Radial Blur, Mosaic Tiles, Emboss, or Extrude:





As always, just choose some at random and play around with their options. Photoshop filters are extremely powerful and any one of them, even the most egregious Eyesore, can do something great if applied to the right subject and tweaked in the right direction.

So play around with them for a while and before long you’ll have something intriguing enough to catch a visitor’s eye. Then they’ll be hooked, and will finally read your words, and after that … it’s all over. You will own them.