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10 Photoshop Filters You Should Definitely Know

posted by Matt Ward on Jan 20, 2010.

In this post we are going to look at 10 filters that I think every Photoshop user should know. Mastering these 10 tools will certainly help become a more advanced and rounded Photoshoper. Filters include Offset, High Pass, Polar Coordinates and 7 others.

If you’ve worked with Photoshop for any significant amount of time, you will know that the application comes packed with a broad range of different filters, which can be used to create some really awesome effects. You may also find that the sheer number of filters is somewhat overwhelming!

In this article, we’re going to look at 10 Photoshop filters that I think every user should know. We’ll talk about what they do, and more importantly, why you should get to know them all.

1. Gaussian Blur

Filter » Blur » Gaussian Blur…

I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times that I use this one. It’s a wonderfully simple blur filter, but also gives you a very high degree of control over precisely how strong of a blur you want to apply. It’s a great tool for softening edges or spreading colour out across the canvas.

For example, one lighting technique that I use quite frequently involves creating a layer with a coloured light, which I give an Overlay blending mode. I can start off by simply painting a simple block of colour with a large, soft brush, over one of the textures from my Texture Pack 1

Add a large circle of blue

Add a large circle of blue

I can then apply a Gaussian blur of 100px to really soften the “light” up.

The colour is difused by the gaussian blur

The colour is difused by the gaussian blur

Then I just apply the Overlay blending mode, to get an effect like this one.

Layer duplicated and set to Overlay

Layer duplicated and set to Overlay

I’ve also used this filter to add a faked depth of field to a photo, to soften certain gradients and to add certain glow effects to type. It’s just so incredibly useful!

2. Add Noise

Filter » Noise » Add Noise…

It took me a while to start working with this filter. I had used the Reduce Noise and Despeckle filters on some rough stock photography before, but I couldn’t figure out why anyone would even want to add noise. Eventually, though, I got with the program.

When creating certain types of illustrations – or even some UI elements – adding a bit of carefully controlled noise is an excellent way to add a bit of extra texture. Take this image of my Imperial Leaf pattern for example. First, we see it without noise.

Simple, flat pattern

Simple, flat pattern

Next, we apply just a little bit of monochromatic noise, with a uniform distribution.

With just a bit of noise added

With just a bit of noise added

Notice that the pattern now has just that much more texture and depth to it. It has more of the appearance of a photograph than the large, unbroken and coloured spaces of a vector pattern. Of course, it’s a filter that requires a delicate restraint. The idea is usually to add just a tiny bit of noise for the sake of added texture. Too much noise, however, can quickly destroy the design. Fortunately, we have the Undo command, and the power of non-destructive editing, which I will get to below.

3. Clouds

Filter » Render » Clouds…

This is another filter that is really great for adding extra texture to your work, especially if you are looking to develop a nice smokey effect. When you run the Clouds filter, Photoshop basically takes your current foreground and background colours and creates a random, cloud-like effect like this:

A simple render of clouds

A simple render of clouds

If we set the blending mode to multiply over a nice red-to-black radial gradient background, we get the beginnings of a nice, dark red smokey effect.

Clouds layer new set to multiply

Clouds layer new set to multiply

With just a bit of extra work, this could become an awesome background for a dark or fiery design.

4. Texturizer

Filter » Texture » Texturizer…

The Texturizer filter is similar to the Clouds filter, but with a few more options. There are four different types of textures that you can choose from – Brick, Burlap, Canvas and Sandstone. You can also adjust the scaling of the texture, the relief (ie the perceived depth) and the direction of the lighting. This last option can be particularly useful if you are working on a piece with an existing light source.

Here are some textures created with this filter:

Four different coloured textures created with the Texturizer filter

Four different coloured textures created with the Texturizer filter

Also, while you can render clouds into an empty layer, the Texturizer filter won’t work this way. It actually needs to work on something. I will often just start by filling the canvas with a solid colour, but you can apply texture to a photograph or other graphical element too.

5. Lens Flare

Filter » Render » Lens Flare…

I admit, the lens flare can be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands! A poorly executed lens flare can leave a design looking almost painfully amateurish. Still, if executed properly, it can be an incredibly useful filter.

Normally, I will take a plain black layer and render my lens flare onto that. Then, I can use some sort of blending mode in order to better apply the lens flare to whatever I’m working on. For example, here is a simple black layer with a 105mm Prime flare.

A simple lens flare

A simple lens flare

Now, with the same background we made with the Clouds filter, I set the lens flare layer to Color Dodge to get this:

Turns into a powerful effect through blending

Turns into a powerful effect through blending

I would probably do a bit more work to soften up some parts of the lighting effect on this one, but the filter is definitely a good start.

6. Spherize

Filter » Distort » Spherize…

Spherize is an awesome distortion filter, which basically takes a flat image and distorts it so that the details of the image itself appear to be wrapping around a sphere. Obviously, it’s a very specialized kind of filter, which you probably won’t use all the time, but I have found it useful in several projects in the past.

One of the ways that I find that this filter works best when working with textures, which you can basically turn into a textured glove or sphere of some sort. Let’s take this simple stone texture, also from Texture Pack 1, as an example:

Start with a simple texture

Start with a simple texture

Make a circular selection in the middle of the texture, create a clipping mask to hide all of the excess texture that we won’t need. Then, apply a Spherize filter. I would use a strength of about. If we add a simple Inner Shadow effect layer style, here’s what we get:

Use the Spherize filter to give the texture shape

Use the Spherize filter to give the texture shape

Again, this piece would probably need some work to help bring out the proper sense of depth, and maybe sharpen up some the details, but the filter certainly gives us a good start!

7. Polar Coordinates

Filter » Distort » Polar Coordinates…

This is a cool filter, which you can do a lot of interesting things with. When you use the Rectangular to Polar option, it basically compresses your image, the twists it around the canvas’ center point. It really isn’t the easiest thing in the world to explain, so let’s look at an example. These screen shots are taken from a previous post, entitled Quick Tip: Create A Simple Sunburst Element.

sunburst-004

10 vertical black stripes

From this simple set of vertical lines, we apply a Polar Coordinates filter, and we get something like this:

The final product

The final product

Notice the way document is distorted and warped around the center point. It’s kind of like what happens when you take a Slinky and twist it so that the two ends meet. Make sense?

This is one filter that I would recommend you experiment with. It can be a bit tricky, and can sometimes yield some somewhat unexpected results. It’s still awesome though!

8. Lighting Effects

Filter » Render » Lighting Effects…

This filter allows you to apply various types of lighting effects to the layers in your designs. This can be particularly useful when working towards some of the effects that are extremely popular these days. There are also a ton of different options, including three types of lighting, the choice of colour, intensity, and many others. The filter also comes with several presets, which you can use as they are or as a starting point for creating your own custom lighting.

The preview is a pretty useful part of this filter, too, since it allows you to select and modify the shape of the light itself, giving you a remarkable degree of control over your effect.

As an example, let’s take this this same texture that we used in the Gaussian Blur example.

Another simple texture

Another simple texture

Now, here are three different lighting effects on the same image, each using one of the different presets.

Lighting Effect 1

Lighting Effect 1

Lighting Effect 2

Lighting Effect 2

Lighting Effect 3

Lighting Effect 3

These lighting effects represent only a very small sampling of the different things that you can do with this filter, which is why I think it is so valuable, and absolutely worth getting to know!

9. Offset

Filter » Other » Offset…

The Offset filter is a useful little tool for shifting the position of pixels on the canvas. I will often use this filter when creating repeating patterns in Photoshop. When you run it, you are given the choice of how much you want to offset the image on both the horizontal and vertical planes. Because I am usually creating patterns, I generally offset by exactly half the width and half the height, so that what were originally the four corners of my image now meet in the center.

For example, here is an image of a lovely young woman that was made available as a free download from iStockPhoto some weeks ago (cropped down to a 500px square):

A simple image, which we will offset

A simple image, which we will offset

Now, if we apply an offset of 250px and 250px, we get a result like this:

The offset applied

The offset applied

It may not look all that useful on a photograph like this, but it’s a great way of creating perfectly matching, seamless edges for patterns!

10. High Pass

Filter » Other » High Pass…

I actually picked up on this filter from an article posted over on the GoMediaZine, entitled “Photoshop Tip: Sharpening with Photoshop’s High-Pass Filter”. It’s an incredibly easy way of achieving good, controllable sharpening of your images.

Basically, you just duplicate the layer that you are wanting to sharpen and run a High-Pass filter on it. If we do this on the same image that we used for the offset, we get something like this:

The image with the High Pass applied

The image with the High Pass applied

Not too pretty, I know. However, if we set the blending mode of this new, filtered layer to Overlay, suddenly we can see the sharpening occur. Here is the same image again, with the left half sharpened and the right half unchanged:

Compare the sharpened (left) against the unsharpend (right)

Compare the sharpened (left) against the unsharpend (right)

You can also achieve something similar with the Soft Light and – blending modes. And, if you don’t want to the sharpening to be quite as strong, just pull back the opacity of the filtered layer. This is a great technique for making quick and non-destructive changes to an image.

Be Smart With Your Filters

Well there you have it – 10 of my favorite Photoshop filters, most of which I am certain will be of some value to you if you use Photoshop to any significant extent. I do suggest that you go ahead and play around with them a bit. Experiment and get to know how these different filters actually work!

But I would also encourage you to be Smart with you filters.

I’m playing on words a bit, but here’s the basic gist: any filter applied to a Photoshop Smart Object is applied as a Smart Filter. What does this mean? Simply put, it means that the filter becomes editable! You will be able to see the filter in the Layers Palette, the same way you would see a Layer Style. You can then go ahead and double click it to reopen the settings dialogue and make slight modifications, if necessary! Or, you can just delete it entirely, and see the image return to its original state.

Trust me – learning this literally transformed the way I approached a lot of my Photoshop work. Plus, knowing that I could easily go back and either remove or alter a filter’s settings has afforded me a lot more creative freedom. Hopefully it can have the same effect for you!

I hope you enjoyed this post, and maybe learned about a filter or two you hadn’t used before. What about you guys? Are there any filters that you use all the time that didn’t make this list? I’d love to hear about your own experiences with filters!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Jan 21, 2010

Chris Thurman says:

I don’t frequent the filters menu as much as I should (except for blurs) but now I’ve got some reasons to explore. Thanks for the explanations.

Jan 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

No problem Chris. Have fun with your experimenting! :)

Jan 21, 2010

pasxal says:

Very nice overview! Normally the word “filters” make my toes curl, but finally someone who understands the good use of filters :)

Jan 21, 2010

Jim Gaudet says:

Great list Matt,

I am becoming addicted to Photoshop and can’t stop reading new and old techniques.

I still have to wrap my mind around blending modes.

Thanks,

Jan 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Hey Jim! Glad you enjoyed the article. I am thinking of writing a similar post about blending modes, and trying to demystify them as much as possible! Feel free to drop me a message if there’s any specific blending mode you’re really interested in.

Jan 21, 2010

FreeYorker says:

Thanks. Awesome Post/))))

Jan 21, 2010

Shurandy Thode says:

Great round up Matt looking forward for more great articles :)

Jan 22, 2010

Thinkcreative says:

Really liked this topic. These I use frequently. I just wanted to add the motion blur.
Looking forward to the post about blending modes.

Jan 22, 2010

M. joshua says:

Good stuff!

Jan 22, 2010

Mare Downs says:

Thanks for the details on the Filters. I’ve learned a few good things.
I always pass this info on to my husband’s photography class to help the kids understand … your efforts are appreciated by all.

Jan 23, 2010

James Fleeting says:

Awesome article. I normally don’t use filters mainly because I always hear people urging others to stay away from them. I guess its about having an understanding of them. Guess I need to play around with them more.

Jan 23, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Hey James. I totally think it’s about understanding how Filters work!

Jan 24, 2010

Richard Georges says:

Awesome post Matt

I was already familiar with the usual suspects, but the Offset tip and that High Pass trick looks really effective. Thanks again!

Rich

Jan 24, 2010

Me says:

Thanks for the great tutorial! Much appreciated. I’ll be using them in my next project for sure.

Jan 26, 2010

Hannah Trinity says:

I’ve used some of them and others I haven’t and I’m both impressed and thankful that I follow your blog. Photoshop is really powerful.

Feb 2, 2010

Luke Sheppard says:

Not the best example of High-Pass sharpening. The high-pass should be set so that only the most prominent lines on the image are visible on the grey. That’s the whole point of it – it only has an effect on the most prominent features of the image.

Otherwise, a great list!!

Feb 10, 2010

Michael Marks says:

Great article, thank you.

Jun 16, 2010

clippingimages says:

Great share man…thanks …gonna be handy for me …like the work

Aug 12, 2010

Rokaiya Yeasmin Munni says:

Great photoshop filter design. Thanks for the posting.

Oct 3, 2010

iainspad says:

Good advice there Matt! You certainly have a good choice of proper filters and ways of executing them into your work :)

I find filters tacky over half the time as it usually ends in bad results but the decent, useful ones, like Gaussian Blur or High Pass, are very useful and one cannot work without most.

Feb 10, 2011

Photoshop Tutorial says:

Great Post Matt…

Here is what i would like to add

I personally feel that the high pass filter is a good tool to increase sharpness but when coupled with channels, it results in one of the cleanest extractions i have ever come across..

Also i wanted to mention that using the light filter coupled with channels u can achieve amazing 3D like effects…

Just thought those two uses were worth a mention

Mar 21, 2011

Ron Baker says:

Matt
I appreciate so much your posting regarding the filters I have been enjoying the techniques you have so graciously post for everyone to use. I will be watching for more. Thanks

Jul 7, 2011

sasu says:

thaks for the tips

Jul 23, 2011

April Roberts says:

i’ve used a few of the filters but will explore more of them now. Thanks for the informative tutorial !

Oct 2, 2011

Michael says:

The filter that I really appreciate is the High Pass technique. Since learning how to use it to sharpen photos, I use it much more then photoshop’s sharpening filters, because they also sharpen any digital image noise and we all know how much we don’t want that.
It also does it more subtly and it just does a better job! Thanks!

Dec 4, 2011

Peter says:

Good article.
Another use of add noise filter is when you have been restoring a photo, some times the results can look too smooth and artificial.
A little bit of noise can make the retouched image look a lot better.

Jan 11, 2012

Being Manash Pratim says:

Thanks… Its really some of importants tips…..

Jan 16, 2012

Nasrin says:

hi, thanks for your learning filters. Really it;s useful. but i have a question: I have a picture but the quality is not suitable for my work, if i want to design it again it won’t be the same as the original one. I know it has a solution but i don’t know. would you help me??

Really thanks

Mar 19, 2012

Saeed says:

thank you specially for sharpening…

May 15, 2012

Prigent says:

Thanks mate !!
That’s really interesting to find a tutorial on this topic !!

Jun 9, 2012

Sarah says:

Hi Matt,

I know more about Gaussian blur now

Thank you

Jun 29, 2012

Bettina says:

Hi
I hope you may know?
I was wanting to pixelate the edges of artwork in photoshop CS4.
So they gradually disappear into the background, making the edges softer. But I need the pixels not airbrush strokes, as print needs to be sent to the print for screen printing.
Possibly I could send you a picture of what I am trying to archive
thanks Bettina

Jul 4, 2012

aya says:

thanks

Jul 19, 2012

MemeRe says:

I will definitely be trying several of your techniques. Thanks for sharing.

Aug 1, 2012

Mina Irani says:

Thanks a lot Matt. the great tut
These filters are very useful for me.
thanks man

Aug 21, 2012

Tom de Jongh says:

Really, I haven’t used most of these filters in years. I did use them when I was new to photoshop and it was all like WOWWWW niceeeee.
But Flare, Clouds, Offset, Texturize. When would you use these filters? What’s a practical use for them?
Spherize too.
At least I think you won’t use them for photo editing.

Aug 29, 2012

MJ Prescott says:

This was an clear, concise and easy to follow. I stumbled upon it by searching for something else, but will put it to use in Photoshop.

Mar 1, 2014

Michael says:

Perfect, big thanks!

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