Creative Technology Explained

A Newbie’s Guide to Photoshop Filters and What Each One Does

Shianne Edelmayer Updated 08-07-2020

In Adobe Photoshop, filters are individual algorithms (or behind the scenes calculations) that alter the appearance of an image. For example, a simple filter might blur a selection, while an advanced filter could make a photograph look like a hand-drawn sketch.

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In this guide, we explain what Photoshop filters are, and what each one does. Helping you make your images look better than ever.

NB: We used Adobe Photoshop 2020 for this article. The article also assumes a basic working knowledge of Photoshop’s user interface, so it will not cover Video Filters, the Filter Gallery, or the Blur Gallery.

1. Photoshop Blur Filters

When you’re trying to figure out the purpose of filters in Photoshop, the Blur category is the easiest one to explain. The general idea is to soften the image, but each particular filter under the category uses a different softening approach.

Average

This filter finds the average color within a selection, then fills the entire selection with that color.

Photoshop Filters Explained Average Filter

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Blur

The blur filters average out the pixels next to hard lines and defined edges. This effectively smooths the transition of those edges and reduces noise.

Blur More

Blur More does the same thing as Blur, but it increases the effects of the Blur filter and makes them more visible.

Box Blur

With Box Blur, every pixel is softened by the average color of its neighboring pixels within a set radius. The larger the blur radius, the stronger the effect.

Photoshop Filters Box Blur

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Gaussian Blur

Gaussian Blur is a quick blur tool that uses the weighted color average of all pixels in a selection. The resulting effect is similar to looking at the original image through a hazy-but-translucent screen.

Lens Blur

Lens Blur replicates the depth of field that one can get when using a camera. If you are confused over the purpose of various filters in Photoshop, especially this one, in simpler terms it means:

Lens blur helps certain objects stay in focus, while others are blurred out. It’s almost as if you’re seeing objects at a distance, and your eyes are focusing on particular things.

To learn more about this phenomenon, check out our beginner’s guide to digital photography A Beginner's Guide To Digital Photography Digital photography is a great hobby, but it can be intimidating, too. This beginner's guide will tell you everything you need to know to get started! Read More .

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Motion Blur

Motion Blur is the ability to blur a picture in a particular direction at a given intensity. It can sometimes look like the blur that you see when an object is moving very fast. Think of it like taking a photo with a very long exposure time.

What Is the Use of Filter in Photoshop? Creating a Motion Blur

Radial Blur

Radial Blur creates a blur that moves in a circular direction, either using Spin mode (as if the image were spun around a certain point), or in Zoom mode (as if the image was rushing at you).

Shape Blur

“Shape” blurs an object according to a custom design. You can find several custom shape presets available right out-of-the-box on Photoshop, but there are plenty of third-party apps, too.

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What Is the Shape Blur Filter in Photoshop

Smart Blur

Smart Blur blends similar pixels together according to a given threshold. This often creates a pastel effect that flattens the image. The larger the threshold, the flatter the image.

Surface Blur

Surface Blur blends pixels together, but avoids edges or leaves those edges intact. It’s great for smoothing out an object’s appearance without losing its shape or definition.

2. Photoshop Distort Filters

While the previous section might have seemed long, in fact, we’re just getting started. There are still a lot of filters in Photoshop to cover!

After Photoshop’s Blur filters, the Distort category comes in. Distort provides reshaping effects to an image. Basically, it takes the image and “moves” the pixels around without any kind of blending or blurring. Here’s a list of what each preset does:

Displace

Displace shifts the pixels according to a displacement map. A displacement map is a special kind of image that dictates the movement of each pixel.

Pinch

The Pinch filter squeezes the outside of an image towards the center of that image, as can be seen below.

What Is Filter in Photoshop to Use Pinch

Polar Coordinates

Polar Coordinates convert the position of an image’s pixels from rectangular coordinates to polar coordinates. This makes the image look like it’s being reflected off a metal sphere.

Ripple

Ripple alters the selection so that it looks like the image is rippling along the surface of a body of water.

What Are the Filters in Photoshop Like Ripple Effect

Wave

Wave is a more advanced version of the Ripple filter. It provides greater control.

Shear

Shear transforms an image along a hand-drawn curve, which makes it great for custom images.

Spherize

This filter makes the selection look as if it’s bulging out of the screen in a spherical shape.

Twirl

Twirl spins the selection around its center, but does this action more intensely towards the center, and less intensely on the edges.

Filters in Photoshop Twirl

Zig Zag

Finally, Zig Zag distorts a selection radially around the center. However, it uses a zig-zag pattern instead of straight circles.

3. Photoshop Noise Filters

In image processing, “noise” refers to pixels that have incongruous color values. In many cases, these colors are randomly distributed. Think of it as a marriage between television static and a kaleidoscope.

Add Noise

Add Noise creates pixels of random colors all across the image. Pixel distribution can be Uniform (strictly random), or Gaussian (according to the bell curve). It can also be monochrome.

Photoshop Filters Explained Add Noise

Despeckle

Despeckle removes noise by blurring the image everywhere except where the edges are detected. Edges include any areas that have significant changes in color.

Dust and Scratches

This filter reduces noise across an image by finding areas where dissimilar pixels are located. It then adjusts them to be more similar.

Median

This filter looks for pixels of similar brightness within the selection area, then discards pixels that are too dissimilar and applies a median brightness.

Reduce Noise

This filter preserves edges while reducing noise across an image.

4. Photoshop Pixelate Filters

Photoshop Pixelate filters take a group of pixels and turn the colors the same shade, which effectively makes them into one bigger “pixel” in turn. However, as always, different filters within this category take different approaches to how pixel groups should be combined.

Color Halftone

This filter replicates the halftone effect by converting the image into a series of dots of varying sizes. Dot size is proportional to the brightness of that area in the image.

Filters in Photoshop Color Halftone

Crystallize

This filter combines pixels in certain areas to form a pattern of large, single-colored polygons, imitating a crystallization effect.

Learn the Photoshop Filters Definition for Crystallize

Facet

This filter groups similar-colored pixels together while retaining the general shape and form of the image.

Fragment

Fragment takes every pixel in the selection, then:

  1. Multiplies that number by four.
  2. Takes the average color value.
  3. Offsets it from the original pixel position.

The result is something similar to a double-vision effect.

Mezzotint

Mezzotint is a feature that roughens up an image according to one of several patterns that you can choose from. Black and white patterns are used in grayscale images, while saturated colors are used in color images.

Photoshop Filters Mezzotint

Mosaic

Looking for an easy way to make pixelated art? Mosaic groups similar pixels together into square blocks. Each block becomes one color that represents all of the pixels that were joined to form that block.

Pointillize

This filter fills up the image with the current background color, then recreates the image using dots while leaving a few small spaces empty.

The final result resembles a pointillism painting, as can be seen below.

Photoshop Pointillize Filter

5. Photoshop Render Filters

Unlike the other filters in Photoshop that we listed, Render generates entirely new effects from scratch that are independent from the image itself.

Clouds

This filter creates a cloud-like pattern using the current foreground and background colors.

Difference Clouds

This filter does the same thing as the regular Clouds filter, but follows it up by applying the resulting cloud pattern to the current selection using the difference blending mode.

Fibers

The Fibers filter is a really neat tool that creates a cloth-like pattern, using the current foreground and background colors.

Filters in Photoshop Fibers

Lens Flare

Circular Lens Flare simulates what happens when a light is shined into a camera.

Photoshop Lens Flare

Lighting Effects

This filter transforms the image as if different kinds of lights were being shined on it. It comes with 17 different presets, but you can also create your own.

6. Photoshop Sharpen Filters

This group is the opposite of the Blur category. When an image is sharpened, pixels of similar colors are altered to improve contrast, which reduces the appearance of softness.

Shake Reduction

Shake Reduction is a handy filter that helps you reduce the shaky camera motion or blurring effect that you sometimes see in photographs.

What Is the Shake Reduction Filter in Photoshop

Sharpen

This filter improves clarity by reducing blur and increasing contrast.

Sharpen More

This filter has the same effect as Sharpen, but amplifies and makes the filter effects stronger.

Sharpen Edges

This filter detects any edges in an image. Then it sharpens them by increasing contrast, while non-edges are left untouched.

Unsharpen Mask

Similar to Sharpen Edges, this filter provides variables that you can adjust for more precise control over the contrast adjustment.

Smart Sharpen

This is a more advanced algorithm for sharpening. It grants you control by opening up a brand new dialog box and letting you adjust the variables involved.

Filters in Photoshop Smart Sharpen

7. Photoshop Stylize Filters

Stylize filters are probably our favorite filter category, in that these filters creates some of the most memorable effects.

Diffuse

Diffuse moves around pixels to soften the focus of a selection. There are four different categories of Diffuse filters: Normal, Darken Only, Lighten Only, and Anisotropic.

Emboss

Emboss makes a picture look like an object has been raised on a metal surface by converting all fill colors to a monochrome shade.

Photoshop Filters Emboss

Extrude

Makes a selection look 3D.

Find Edges

Locates the edges in an area, traces them, and creates an outline around that image.

Oil Paint

The Oil Paint filter is a perfect filter for any budding artist to try out. With this filter, you can turn any selection or image into an impressionist painting.

Photoshop Filters Oil Paint

Solarize

Solarize takes an image and blends its negative and positive values together.

Tiles

Tiles takes an image and cuts it up into multiple squares.

Trace Contour

This filter locates the brightest areas in your image and outlines them to create a contour map.

Wind

Lastly, wind breaks up your image along a horizontal grid to create a “windblown” look.

Photoshop Filters Wind Effect

Use These Photoshop Filters to Improve Your Images

Filters are a foundational component of Photoshop, and learning what each one does is a significant step towards mastery of the program.

Without any knowledge or experience with Photoshop filters, your Photoshop skillset is more limited than you might think. So don’t be afraid to scroll up and study them again.

After that, you should check out these essential Photoshop editing tips and tricks Learn Photo Editing in Photoshop: Get the Basics Down in 1 Hour Photoshop is an intimidating program—but with just one hour, you can learn all of the basics. Grab a photo you want to edit, and let's get started! Read More . We also recommend reading up on Adobe’s Photoshop tutorial series on YouTube Adobe's New Photoshop Tutorial Series on YouTube for Beginners Try out a new Photoshop tutorial series on YouTube launched by Adobe itself. Read More .

Related topics: Adobe Photoshop, Image Editing Tips, Jargon, Photoshop Tutorial.

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