Are Filters “Cheating” in Photography?

Melbourne, 2016
Melbourne, 2016

One of the common misconceptions I think there is in photography is that using filters, presets, or any sort of post-processing (or ‘Photoshop’) is somehow cheating.

That somehow “real” photographers don’t use filters (thus the abundance of the #nofilter hashtag on social media).

No, using filters are not cheating.

Even in the days of film, everyone used some sort of “filter.”

Marseille, 2013 / Shot on Kodak Porta 400
Marseille, 2013 / Shot on Kodak Porta 400

For example, camera film is some sort of “filter.” Different films gave a photograph different looks or aesthetics. Shooting black and white film is a “filter” — nobody sees reality in monochrome, so black and white film filters your reality into black and white.

When it comes to color photography, shooting negative color film and positive (slide film) resulted in different images. Negative color film is less saturated than slide film, and gives different color hues and tones.

Prague, 2015 / Shot on Kodak Tri-X pushed to 1600
Prague, 2015 / Shot on Kodak Tri-X pushed to 1600

Even when shooting, many color and black and white photographers would use different screw-on lens filters to make different types of images. In color photography, you could add a “warming” filter in front of your lens, which made your photos look more sepia. Or you could use a “neutral density filter” which limited the amount of light that entered your lens, which allowed you to shoot longer-exposures of landscapes.

For black and white photography, there are a plethora of filters you can screw on your lens: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and magenta — which changes the brightness of different monochromatic hues in your photograph. Shooting black-and-white film with a yellow filter increased the brightness of yellow things in your frame (like the skin tones of people). Shooting black and white film with other filters darkened certain colors, and brightened certain photos.


I am personally a huge fan of filters on social media apps. I do believe that the aesthetic, filter, or type of post-processing in a photograph can make it better. Why? Because a certain filter will change the emotion or the mood of a photograph.

If you are photographing raindrops against a window, and want to evoke a somber mood — using a blue or “cool” filter to emphasize that mood will help you achieve what you’re trying to convey to your viewer.

Portugal, 2015 / Shot on Kodak Tri-X pushed to 1600
Portugal, 2015 / Shot on Kodak Tri-X pushed to 1600

If you want a more “timeless” look, using a warm color filter (that simulates the look of film) can give you that effect.

If you want a timeless and minimalist photograph, using a black and white preset or filter will help you achieve that aesthetic.

Downtown LA, 2015 / Processed in Lightroom with Tri-x 1600 simulation preset

The reason I think a lot of people think that using filters are “cheating” is because we often over-apply filters to bad photos. We think that adding a filter to a bad or so-so photo will somehow make it better.

The best analogy I can give is the following: a little bit of salt will make a good-quality steak taste even better. But no amount of salt will make a rotten-piece of meat delicious.

Salt is the filter, or the post-processing. Use it in moderation, and for photos which are already good in the first place.


In terms of using filters or presets, I’m a big fan of the VSCO presets (available on mobile and Lightroom) as well as the Snapseed presets (on mobile). Or you can download the free Nik Plugins for Lightroom/Photoshop that have great color and black and white presets. To get started, you can also download my free Lightroom Film Simulation Presets.

Or of course, you can skip the hassle of all of this post-processing stuff, and just shoot film.

Whatever preset, look, or aesthetic you’re going for — my suggestion is to try to keep it consistent with your project, series, or body-of-work. By constantly changing how your photos look, you will never achieve any sort of visual consistency to your images. Sometimes having too many different types of presets on your images can be a distraction.

So limit your palette, by sticking with one preset, filter, or type of film for 1 year. This will help you hone your artistic vision, and give your work some sort of consistency and coherence.

Downtown LA, 2015 / Processed in Lightroom with "Trix-1600" simulation preset
Downtown LA, 2015 / Processed in Lightroom with “Trix-1600” simulation preset

I do recommend you to experiment with different filters, presets, and films — but once you find something you like, try to stick with it for a while. Otherwise you will never find a “look” that will satisfy you.

Have fun, experiment, explore, and make photos which bring you personal happiness and significance. There are no “right” or “wrong” post-processing methods, looks, or aesthetics to your image. Just do what looks good to you.


To learn more, check out Photography 101 >