The Ultimate Guide To Special Effect Filters For Digital Photography

Some filters should be in every photographer’s bag, like a polariser and neutral density filter. Others, like coloured filters, are simply personal preference. But there’s a third category too. Special effect filters create unique looks, and while they aren’t the best for every photo, they add artistic flair with a simple filter instead of an intensive Photoshop process.

Special effect filters, unlike polarisers and neutral density filters, aren’t there to perfect what we see, but to add or alter what’s already there. Filters like cross star, soft, fog, multivison, infared and others are good options to amp up the creativity in your photos.

Cross Star Filters

Star filters, also called cross filters, take a point of light and turn it into a star. One filter may turn the light source into a six point star, others a four or eight point star.

Cross star filters are typically the circular, screw-in type. If you look closely at a cross star filter, you’ll see a small grid pattern inside the glass. That’s what catches the light and turns it into a star.

Useful in a variety of lighting scenarios, cross star filters add a bit of flair to an image, without looking overly fake. Cross star filters are best used when there’s just one or two light sources—a lot of small lights turned into stars can get a bit distracting. Light sources can range from the sun to artificial light.

Can the cross star filter be mimicked in Photoshop? Yes, but it’s not the simplest edit. Adding a filter to the end of your lens is much less time intensive, and cross star filters are rather inexpensive.

Soft or Diffusion Filters

Most of the time, photographers are aiming to get that pin-sharp image, to a point where sharpness has almost become obsessive. But intentionally rendering an image a bit soft has a place in photography too, usually for an artistic effect.

Soft or diffusion filters were once popular for portraits, but have a variety of uses. The softening, dreamlike effect they produce is also good for artistic still life images. A soft filter is a bit different look than motion blur or simply a shot that’s out of focus.

Can the soft filter effect be mimicked in Photoshop? Yes, and unlike the filter, in Photoshop the photographer has a bit more control over the intensity of the effect. There’s about half a dozen steps involved though.

Centre spot filtersCentre Spot Filters

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Centre spot filters are diffusion or soft filters on the edges, but clear in the middle. Some are even designed simply as a soft filter with a hole in the middle. The design allows the centre of the frame to remain sharp, while the outer edges of the frame retain the same effect a soft filter has.

Centre spot filters are typically used when the subject is the centre. Creating a soft, dreamlike background, the subject, when placed in the center of the frame, is still soft. The filters with a hole in the middle, instead of clear glass, usually leave a ring in the image where the effect begins.

Radial zoom filters are similar, but instead of the soft focus effect on the outside of the image, a motion blur is introduced. This same effect can be achieved by zooming in during a longer shutter speed.

Can the center spot filter effect be mimicked in Photoshop? Yes. There’s a few more steps involved than just a soft filter effect, but the look of this filter is fairly easy to mimic in post processing.