A bit of photoshop filter research for a friend...

iffy's picture

The friend is a photography teacher at a high school. Recently the teacher that taught digital art was involuntary transfered to another school and replaced by, in her words, an "inadequate" teacher. She said the new teacher only teaches how to apply photoshop filters.

I don't have much more information than that, but she enlisted me to help her come up with some information to why this is not an effective way of teaching digital art. Her exact quote was, "why photoshop filters suck."


innovati's picture

back in 2001 I got my first linux-enabled computer, dual booting with windows XP. I had gotten used to photoshop and weaned myself from corel. Slowly I started playing around with linux more, until the only thing I still booted into windows for was photoshop.

The GIMP was there, but it didn't have filters. Yeah, it did everything else, but it wasn't as easy because I actually had to *do* whatever I wanted.

It's easy to click 'drop shadow' and see a drop shadow, but when I started using the GIMP I learned how drop shadows are actually made - to think about what it was I was doing. I would make a copy of the shape, bump it down a layer and then fill it with black, blur it and then set the opacity to where I wanted it.

This functionality of *actually doing it* is still possible in photoshop, there's nothing stopping you. Yes filters are there for your convenience and also as a way to copy your transformations into a style to be quickly applied to new objects, or to be transferred from one person to another.

I equate it to this: Learning to play a musical instrument involves both the ability to play, as well as the understanding of musical theory to be a good player. If you taught somebody how to play an instrument, but ignored the theory and just always told them the right answer instead of equipping them with the knowledge they need to figure it out on their own, you're not helping them become a good musician, you're handicapping them and as long as they're paying you, you're cheating them out of money.

Teach how to make a drop shadow without the filters, that process is the same everywhere. Teach them to think about inner glows and strokes and all of that good stuff and get them to do it by hand and submit that. Learning layer effects they can EASILY do once they have that knowledge, but learning only layer effects won't help them one bit when they sit down at any bitmap editor other than Adobe® Photoshop® ;-)

I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend teaching photoshop in conjunction with software such as the GIMP, which is cross-platform as well as open-source. Make it known how it's done in 2 different current programs and they'll hopefully seperate the skills for bitmap editing from the editor and be better able to adapt to the next bitmap editor that comes along.

It's like teaching web design versus teaching Adobe® Dreamweaver® web design. So many people who can manage to make a website in dreamweaver call themselves designers, but they don't know the first thing about the code they 'wrote' with dreamweaver and are lost without it.

A good exercise for these kidlin's might be to have them take a source image, and re-create it first using their brains in one layer group, and then again as close as they can using photoshop layer effects, which I do believe are important to know, but only after you know what it is they are doing.

aluminum's picture

It's the old decoration vs. design issue.

blank's picture

People who can’t come up with an intelligent argument against Photoshop filters on their own probably don’t know enough about Photoshop to be allowed to teach it in the first place. While many of the art and brush stroke filters left over from the 1990s should be jettisoned for the betterment of advertising aesthetics overall, there are also many extremely useful filters that production artists, designers, and photographers benefit from and need to know how to use if they’re to effectively utilize contemporary technology.

When I took painting classes, we learned about paint, brushes, thinners, varnishes, canvas, stretchers, boards etc. Drawing and drafting classes got into the details of pencils, pens, charcoal, crayons, rules, triangles, and scales. And when I took digital classes I learned how to use After Effects, Photoshop, Maya, and so on. An art education cannot just get wrapped up in theory and creativity—it needs to teach the tools as well. Otherwise the students end up with a limited toolbox that will end up holding them back creatively when they can’t get the software to do something important.

innovati's picture

I whole heartedly agree with you James - many things that have remained with software are relics of a much uglier time in computer graphics.

I just think there ought be be a balance between yes, teaching the tools needed, versus teaching one BRAND so well that they can't use anything else.

Teach to educate but don't teach them into a corner.

Imagine if you were learning painting and they taught you how to use one brand's stuff SO well that you couldn't pick up another company's product and use it? that would be both a useful and a useless education at the same time.

Looking back, Adobe's huge, it's good, it's not going to go anywhere, but software changes, standards change, product lines merge and flex.

I learned multi-page layout using Scribus, an open-source program most similar to Quark. I know photoshop and illustrator (and hence the Adobe way of doing things). I sat down at InDesign and in 10 minutes I knew how ot use it because I had 2 things:

- I knew what multi-page layout software COULD do, I knew what to expect to find and how things worked

- I knew the tools in that specific interface because they were analogous to tools in the rest of Adobe's suite.

I then took an InDesign course that taught InDesign alone, and in the process, multi-page layout. I sat down at a friend's computer that had Quark, which none of us had used and surprise surprise, I was the only one who could even begin to use it.

Teach them 'bitmap editing' skills and theory separate from 'Adobe Photoshop as a bitmap editor' in the same class yes, it's important to know, but please separate the two so the people know they know more than just photoshop thanks to their education.

iffy's picture

James - My friend is not teaching the class, she doesn't know much about photoshop that's why she asked me. I have already told her my argument against filters which essentially was that they're a tool not to be used in excess. There is a time and place but that should not be the extent of someone's education. But we are talking high school here so what is being taught should be basics. At the basics are photoshop filters.

Thanks for the other thoughts.

charles ellertson's picture

You mean the filter pull-down menus in Photoshop itself?

Well, they don't calibrate the monitor.

They don't make you get you the characteristic of an output device (printer), so you can write conversion routines (aka custom profiles) so your printed work will match what you see on you now-calibrated monitor.

They don't force you to label your colorspace, so that anyone else who has do work with your image files (except people like printers, who don't use profiles) know where you started from.

Come on, guys, there is basic stuff that has to be attended to before any other work can be done.

And, there is no filter for sour grapes.

innovati's picture

Well what I bleieve should be taught before any work is done is:

file formats!

explain how PNG, JPG, GIF, TIFF, PDF, PS, PSD all work, what their differences are and when to use them (if ever)

Too many designers still send me files as compressed JPG at 90DPI and expect that I can use them for print work.


Teach the kids a basic colour theory, the difference between additive (light) and subtractive (pigment) because like it or not, they're probably taking photographs and eventually wanting to print them down the road, yet they don't understand the conversion that's taking place to get there.

Colour Theory!

why not teach the kiddlins revisioning! how to save and name their files for easy access and how to properly label and colour-categorize their photoshop files to make it easy to come back to after a year, or for another designer to understand!

The art of making and saving clean files is often the difference between talented designers and employed talented designers.

Yes, not all of these are photoshop-specific, but you can't possibly create anything in PS without this knowledge and use it.

You and I both know the main reason kids want to learn photoshop is to mimic the cool effects they saw on band poster x, or so they can spice up their myspace pages, which is the beginnings of a passion for design > water that seed by equipping them with the knowledge to create things beyond just photos and avatars and maybe they'll grow up to be designers some day!

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

My argument would be, "There is so much more to Photoshop (and digital art) than applying filters." As others have already pointed out, there are basics that need to be taught before you even get around to applying filters: working with bitmaps, working with resolution (including how to properly re-size an image), pixel graphics versus vector graphics, scanning a photograph, color correction, working with levels, curves, etc. Oh, and RGB vs. CMYK (!).

On the other hand, to echo innovati, one ex-high school graphics teacher has told me that his students just wanted to learn how to make "cool-looking graphics" and were impatient with "theory." That doesn't seem to be the case here, though.

jupiterboy's picture

This is such a big topic, but I think a prerequisite course dealing with output devices and resolution would be a good way to start. Too many people rasterize type at 300 dots, and would never know what a 1200 dot 1-bit file was good for. I don’t think you can build a proper file without knowing where is it headed, and that leads to color management etc. If a student had a fully developed sense of the production environment they would have a sense for the goal of using a powerful raster program rather than using filter to make some digital mess.

Filters typically simplify a series of more complex moves. Maybe a good way to teach filters would be to have the students reproduce the effect without the filter.

Hiroshige's picture

I agree with jupiterboy. I've written hundreds of photoshop tutorials providing oodles of easy answers on how-to achieve digital techniques. I'm waiting for the book 'Photoshop Unplugged' to come out; I should write it. First chapter: 'The path of least resistance leads to the garbage heap of dispair.', would be all about understanding that less is not more.

Photoshop filters, layer styles and plug-ins too, should shown after learning how to stroke with the Pen tool, etc.. Fortunately, with photoshop there's at least three different ways to achieve the same digital technique ;)

Is your friend's course more about post camera photo manipulation than about photoshop?

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