Time Travel with One Click: Effects of Digital Filters on
Perceptions of Photographs
Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania
Today’s digital photographs are being heavily “filtered.” By
simple clicks on mobile apps like Hipstamatic and
Instagram, users can easily apply digital filters to their
pictures to create effects such as faux-vintage and light
leaks. To understand the potential impacts of photo filters,
we conducted an online experiment and investigated how
the use of the black-and-white and film-style photo filters
changed viewers’ perceptions and descriptions of
photographs. We found that photo filters substantially
increased viewers’ perceived temporal distances to
photographs. Participants also tended to describe analogue-
style photos more interpretively and tentatively than
unfiltered ones, indicating an increase in construal levels.
We suggest that the widely used photo filter is not just a
tool to change aesthetics; it also adds a layer of history,
meaning, and defamiliarization to photographs, allowing
users to construct a mental distance in images that deviates
from everyday experiences. We offer insights into the
psychology of visual styles and implications for designing
filter apps and photo-sharing platforms.
Digital filter; construal level theory; visual style; mobile
app; computational text analysis
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):
Today’s visual culture is characterized by the widespread
use of digital photo filters. With filter apps like Instagram
or VSCOcam, users can easily apply interesting effects to
their pictures, for example, simulating the look of analogue
photography or transforming a picture into a sketch (Figure
1). It is estimated that about half of the photos uploaded to
Instagram have been processed by one of its retro filters
. According to a parenting website, millennial parents
are even naming their babies after Instagram filters .
As a technological innovation and a cultural phenomenon,
the photo filter has invited a lot of discussion in the media
[2, 9, 14]. Some have celebrated that filter apps provide
ordinary users with convenient ways of exercising
creativity and producing shareable images, while others
have questioned whether the prevalence of photo filters
encourages the visual sameness in photography or harms
the credibility in photography by adding a fake layer of
history and sentiment to pictures [2, 9, 14]. Despite the
HCI’s community’s long-standing interest in photographic
practices (e.g., ), not many studies have empirically
tested the effects of photo filters. A few existing studies
have so far mainly focused on filters’ aesthetical appeal or
users’ motivations to use filters [6, 31, 35]. Some important
aspects of the digital filter, for instance, its resemblance to
analogue photography and its link to nostalgic consumption,
are noticeably understudied.
Drawing inspiration from photography, psychology and art
theories, we conducted a pioneering experimental study and
investigated the impacts of photo filters from multiple
perspectives. First, we propose that digital photo filters, by
imitating the look of analogue photography and distorting
the original color in photographs, can defamiliarize our
experiences of ordinary objects and increase viewers’
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Figure 1. Photos processed by different mobile filter apps,
with specific filter names in brackets.
psychological distances to images. In addition, we use
computational text analysis to compare viewers’
descriptions of different versions of photos and argue that
the use of photo filters can increase viewers’ construal
levels, leading them to perceive images more abstractly and
interpretatively. At last, this study also takes participants’
individual differences into account and question if they
moderate filters’ effects. In sum, this study provides fresh
insights into the psychology of the digital filter, a popular
feature of today’s social media design, and offers
implications for designing future photo-editing and photo-
Previous research on the effects of photo filters has mainly
focused on aesthetical appeal and visual engagement. Given
the popularity of filters, one may simply assume that photo
filters should make a picture more attractive. Users have
expressed that filters allow them to improve the aesthetic
quality of photos, adjust contrast, exposure or color, and
make photos look fun and unique [6, 31]. However, people
may prefer the original photo under certain circumstances:
For example, the original photo is of good quality or the
filter is so bold that it may distract viewers from the photo
itself . The hashtag #nofilter has also gained popularity
on Instagram, signaling a user’s claim that the
accompanying photo has not been processed by filters .
Empirical studies have so far reached no decisive
conclusions regarding filters’ visual appeal. One study that
experimentally examined the effects of three popular
Instagram filters—Earlybird, Hefe, XProII—on people’s
aesthetical ratings of photographs found that people
actually preferred unfiltered photos over filtered versions
. Another experiment that investigated non-
photorealistic rendering—which transformed photographs
into stylized paintings—showed that this technique actually
had detrimental effects by reducing viewers’ emotional
responses to images and producing more confusion and
distraction . However, an analysis of Flickr photos
revealed that filtered photos were 21% more likely to be
viewed and 45% more likely to be commented on by
viewers . Specifically, filters that increased warmth,
exposure or contrast, as well as those creating a vintage
effect, made photographs more attractive to users. In
contrast, filters that produced photographic artifacts or loss
of highlight details were less engaging . Given the
inconsistency in previous studies, we propose a research
question whether filtering photos impacts their visual
appeal in this study.
RQ1: How does the use of photo filters impact the visual
appeal of photographs?
The photo filter is not just an aesthetic tool; it also distorts
the depicted reality in photographs. Some scholars argued
that with filter apps users could create random and
serendipitous effects in their photos, and aestheticize the
imperfections embedded in analogue-look filters, thus
countering the flawlessness of digital photography . A
comparative analysis of Instagram users and analogue
photographers showed both groups used these technologies
to escape from the stark reality created by digital cameras,
and to give meanings and celebration to their daily
Such findings echo with some art theorists’ claim that the
defamiliarization of ordinary objects plays an important
role in the production of art . By presenting common
things in an unusual way, the technique of defamiliarization
primes viewers to pause and wonder at objects that are
otherwise taken for granted, producing an artistic
experience of the routinely seen. As Susan Sontag put, “the
photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences
or find new ways to look at familiar subjects—to fight
against boredom” . From this perspective, the photo
filter more than changes photographs’ look; it provides
users with convenient and fun ways to distance their
pictures from the reality as well as to elevate otherwise
Construal level theory
As analogue photo filters resemble an aesthetic from the
past and create a deviance from the reality in photographs, a
theory that particularly deals with our perceptions of
distance—construal level theory (CLT)—should be relevant
here. Psychologists and HCI researchers have applied the
framework of CLT to study the impacts of various visual
media, such as images versus words , teleconference ,
3D panoramas , and virtual immersive environment .
Different communication mediums can effectively change
our perceptions of distance and consequently how we think
As CLT posits, the way an individual perceives an object or
an event is influenced by psychological distance, which
specifies how far away one feels the stimuli is from the here,
now and the self. Objects or events are perceived in four
dimensions of psychological distance: temporal (now vs.
past or future), spatial (here vs. remote locations), social
(self vs. others), and hypothetical (reality vs. counterfactual
or unlikely events) [25, 44].
CLT posits that psychological distances impact how we see
things. For events or objects at the far end of psychological
distances, we think about them in abstract ways (high
construal level). In contrast, for things at the near end of
psychological distances, we perceive them in a more
concrete and detailed way (low construal level). In addition,
changing construal level can also influence people’s
perceptions of psychological distances. For example,
thinking about actions in an abstract instead of a concrete
way leads people to estimate the actions would happen in
the more distant future .
Color vs. black-and-white
Research has shown that B&W and color photography
impact our perceptions of content in different ways [19, 21,
22, 41]. Particularly, previous research has shown that
B&W photography is linked to more abstract, superordinate
construal, while color photography is associated with more
concrete, detail-oriented construal , which may offer us
some insights into the effects of photo filters. The link
between monochrome imagery and high construal level
may have several explanations.
First, B&W photography completely removes the color
from the original photos, creating a monochrome world that
is not familiar to the naked eye . The loss of color and
the defamiliarization of the depicted objects in B&W
photographs can make it more difficult for viewers to
recognize and process the content in the photographs [22,
41]. Meanwhile, as people generally associate distant
objects with difficulties to observe and apprehend,
cognitive disfluency can increase psychological distance
and construal level. For instance, subjects assigned to a
questionnaire printed in an illegible font wrote more
abstract answers than those seeing an easily readable font
. Therefore, by raising the level of disfluency, B&W
photography is able to increase viewers’ construal level.
The temporality embedded in B&W imagery may also
account for the increase in psychological distance. Since
color photography replaced B&W photography as the
prevailing form of photography around the 1960s–1970s,
people may associate monochrome imagery with a more
distant past. Movies like American History X (1998) and
The Phantom of the Opera have exploited the temporal
connotation in B&W imagery and used it to represent the
scenes that happened before the scenes in color.
Photographers also argue that B&W pictures have a more
timeless look than colored ones . For instance, the
World Press Photo of the Year 2015 was awarded to a
B&W photograph, as “it’s a very classical photo, and at the
same time it’s timeless” .
In addition, monochrome photos highlight the depicted
objects’ overall shapes and forms, while color photos
facilitate attention to details and local features .
Compared to a B&W version, colored presentation of
messages often draw people’s attention to more peripheral,
irrelevant and detailed information , reflecting low-
level construal. In summary, the defamiliarization of reality,
the loss of color and details, and the unique visual style
associated with a certain time period, may all link B&W
imagery to high construal level.
Photo filters and construal levels
Similar to the effects of monochrome imagery, analogue
photo filters may also increase psychological distance and
construal level by distorting the original photographs and
creating a visual style that deviates from the reality.
Without the aid of original colors, people might need
additional efforts to retrieve and process the messages
conveyed in filtered photographs. In addition, different
aesthetic styles of photography are often linked to different
time periods. The transition from film photography to
digital photography happened around the 1990s and 2000s
. Studies also linked the use of photo filter apps to a
nostalgic desire to connect with the past [12, 31]. Therefore,
we should expect that filters that imitate certain historical
styles of photography should influence how viewers
construct the temporal distance of photographs.
H1: Compared to the original version, the use of B&W
and film-style photo filters increases viewers’
perceptions of temporal distance to photos.
As CLT posits, people experience different psychological
distances—whether it is temporal, spatial, interpersonal or
hypothetical—through similar mental mechanisms [7, 44].
Things perceived as distant or close in one dimension are
also likely to be perceived similarly in other dimensions. If
photo filters can increase perceived temporal distance, this
effect should also extend to perceived spatial distance.
H2: Compared to the original version, the use of B&W
and film-style photo filters increases viewers’
perceptions of spatial distance to photos.
Construal level also impacts how people construct and
describe events or objects. People tend to use more abstract
and interpretative language to describe people or events that
are psychologically far away [15, 25]. Based on previous
research, we expect that different construal levels should be
reflected in the following linguistic features:
Articles and numbers. Articles (e.g., “a,” “the”) are often
used to refer to concrete objects or events, and numbers are
used to specify the quantity. These two features may signal
a high level of linguistic concreteness . In one study,
articles and numbers negatively correlated with the level of
interpretation and linguistic abstraction in participants’
descriptions of photographs .
Tentative words. Linguistic abstraction is related to the
level of interpretation . When construal level increases,
people tend to make assumptions about events, instead of
describing what they directly see. In one study, when
describing a place, subjects’ use of tentative words
positively correlated with their estimation of the physical
distance of that place . As photo filters may increase
psychological distance and construal level, we expect that
subjects use fewer articles or numbers but more tentative
words (e.g., maybe, perhaps, or, guess) for filtered
H3: Compared to the original version, viewers describe
the B&W and film-style filtered photos in a more
abstract and interpretative manner, which is manifested
in (a) fewer articles and numbers, and (b) more
At last, a few individual factors may impact how one sees
and interprets photographs, moderating the impacts of
photo filters. As many photo filters imitate visual styles
from certain periods, age should play a role here as people
of different age cohorts may differ in their exposure to
various photographic aesthetics and technologies. People
from the older generations might have witnessed how
photographic aesthetics changed over decades, either from
B&W to color photography or from film to digital
photography. The younger generations might have less
memory of the history of photography while being more
familiar with widely accessible photo-filtering apps that can
easily change the look of photographs.
In addition, people’s knowledge of photography and
involvement in photography can also influence whether
they can recognize the potential manipulation in
photographs and how they use digital filters. In one
experiment, exposure to the technique of photographic
manipulation led participants to regard news images less
believable . Interviews of filter users suggested that
casual users often applied filters to substantially change the
look of their photos with bold effects and visual artifacts,
whereas serious amateurs who had experiences with
professional cameras and post-editing software tended to
use filters to do tasks like color correction and prefer more
subtle effects . However, previous studies have rarely
examined the roles of individual differences, so this study
proposes a research question regarding the potential
moderating roles of participants’ age and photographic
knowledge in the effects of photo filters.
RQ2: Do viewers’ age and photographic knowledge
moderate the impacts of photo filters?
A total of 201 participants located in the United States were
recruited from the crowdsourcing platform Amazon
Mechanical Turk . Some demographic characteristics of
the participants were obtained, including gender (56.7%
female), age (M = 36.2, SD = 12.4), and education
attainment (high school graduate or less = 13.4%, some
college = 27.9%, college degree = 46.8%, and postgraduate
Participants were randomly assigned into three conditions
(between-subjects): original (N = 72), B&W (N = 63) and
film-style (N = 66). Each participant was exposed to ten
photos and instructed to describe each photo as well as
answer several questions about it. One subject in the film-
style condition was removed from the dataset as he/she was
repeating the same sentence in the descriptions of different
photos, which resulted in a sample size of 200.
Ten photographs—referred as P1–P10 in the paper—were
used in the study, which covered a wide range of topics,
such as war, celebrity, festival and environmental pollution.
All the photos featured some people with actions and a
moderate amount of details so viewers could potentially
engage in some levels of interpretations about these
people’s intentions or behaviors. These photos were also
linked to some kind of event or remote places since
participants were asked to estimate when and where the
photo was taken in the study. All the photos were cropped
and displayed in the same size (width 730px, ratio 3:2).
Photos were processed with two filters (B1 and P8) from
the mobile photo-editing app VSCOcam, which gave them
a B&W, or a film-style, instant Polaroid look, respectively.
Figure 2 illustrates how the same photo differs across the
Visual appeal. We constructed the scale based on previous
research on the interestingness of news photographs .
The scale had four five-point items (α = .839): the photo is
of good quality; the photo draws my attention; the photo
provokes emotions in me; I would like to know the story
behind the photo. Participants’ ratings of the ten
photographs were averaged.
Perception of temporal distance. On a scale from 1980 to
2016, participants indicated in which year they thought the
photo was taken. Participants’ perceived temporal distance
was calculated by subtracting their averaged estimates of
the ten photographs from 2016.
Perception of spatial distance. One a scale from 0 to 10000
miles, participants estimated how far away each photo was
taken from where they were. To give them a reference point,
participants were told that the distance between New York
and San Francisco was about 2500 miles. In CLT literature,
estimation of distance has been conventionally used as a
proxy for psychological distance [3, 27]. Participants’
estimates of the ten photographs were averaged.
Figure 2. Examples of photos across three conditions.
Linguistic features. For each photo, participants were asked
to describe the photo in a few sentences. In this study, we
chose the software Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count
(LIWC) to computationally analyze subjects’ descriptions
of photographs. LIWC is a program that categorizes words
into psychologically meaningful categories, which has been
widely used in the field of psycholinguistics . Given
that the average length of participants’ descriptions was
very short (M = 21.4 words, SD = 11.5), we used the
averaged numbers of words belonging to the article,
number, and tentative categories as dependent variables
instead of LIWC’s default metrics (percentage of words), as
percentage measures tended to be unstable when divisors
were small . The length of participants’ descriptions did
not significantly vary by condition, F(2, 197) = 0.91, n.s.
Photographic knowledge. On five-point scales ranging from
no understanding to full understanding (α = .942),
participants indicated how familiar they were with the
following terms: exposure, aperture, white balance, depth
of field and HDR (M = 2.50, SD = 1.12).
ANALYSIS AND RESULTS
For R1, H1, H2, and H3, we conducted a series of ANOVA
tests and planned contrasts that compared the means of the
two filtered conditions to the original condition. Table 1
provides the correlations among the dependent variables
examined in the study.
Impacts on visual appeal
RQ1 asked whether the photo filters influenced
photographs’ visual appeal. There were no significant
differences among the three conditions, F(2, 197) = 1.69,
n.s. (Figure 3a). Additional planned contrasts, however,
indicated that film-style filter might decrease photographs’
visual appeal, though this trend was only approaching
statistical significance, p = .068, Cohen's d = 0.33.
Impacts on psychological distances
H1 predicted that the B&W and the film-style filters
increased viewers’ perceptions of temporal distance, which
was supported by the results (Figure 3b). There were
significant differences among the three conditions in terms
of participants’ average estimation of temporal distances,
F(2, 197) = 30.74, p < .001, partial η² = .238. According to
participants’ estimates, B&W and film-style filtered
pictures were taken 5.90 (p < .001, d = 1.31) and 3.60 years
(p < .001, d = 0.86) earlier on average than the original
H2 predicted that the two photo filters impacted people’s
perceptions of spatial distance, which was not supported by
the results. No significant differences were found, F(2, 197)
= 0.79, n.s. (Figure 3c).
Impacts on LWIC linguistic features
H3 looked at how different photo filters impacted the
linguistic features of people’s textual descriptions of the
photographs. In terms of articles and numbers (H3a),
ANOVA tests and planned comparisons showed no
differences, F(2, 197) = 1.09 and 0.21, respectively, n.s.
(Figure 3d, 3e).
The differences among participants’ use of tentative words
(H3b) were approaching statistical significance, F(2, 197) =
2.60, p = .077, partial η² =.026. Planned contrasts revealed
that the film-style filter led subjects to use 0.30 more
tentative words on average in each description, which was
statistically significant (p < .05, d = 0.34), but B&W filter
did not have a significant effect (n.s.) (Figure 3f).
Table 2 provides some examples of participants’
descriptions that differ in the use of tentative words. Under
low construal levels, subjects described the photo in
Table 1. Correlation matrix of dependent variables. Partial
correlations among linguistic features controlled for the length
of descriptions are provided in brackets. N = 200. ** p < .01, ***
p < .001.
—Original —B&W —Film
Figure 3. Means and standard deviations in brackets for
dependent variables across three conditions. Error bars
represent 95% confidence intervals.
concrete details and used few tentative words. In contrast,
subjects under high construal levels made inferences or
hypotheses about the situation and people’s intention,
which led to an increase in tentative words (e.g., or, some,
RQ2 asked whether individual characteristics moderated the
impacts of photo filters. We used a regression-based
approach to better detect the interactions between
categorical and continuous variables while retaining the
moderators’ effects on the outcomes . Using effect
coding, the analysis treated the original condition as the
reference level and recoded the other two conditions as
B&W (original = −1, B&W = 1, film = 0) and film (original
= −1, B&W = 0, film = 1). We created four interaction
terms that multiplied moderators (mean-centered) by
As summarized in Table 3, one interaction term
(photographic knowledge × B&W) was significant (β =
−.173, p < .05) in predicting linguistic tentativeness, while
three interaction terms were approaching statistical
significance—age × film (β = −.139, p = .095) and
photographic knowledge × film (β = .145, p = .087) in
predicting visual appeal, and age × film in predicting
temporal distance (β = −.136, p = .067).
Table 3. Regression analysis with interaction effects between
individual characteristics and experimental conditions.
Standardized coefficients are shown. PK = photographic
+ p < .10, * p < .05, ** p < .01, ** p < .001.
—Original —B&W —Film
Figure 4. Interactions between individual characteristics and
experimental conditions. Error bars represent 95% confidence
A group of children
smile up at the camera
with their hands
A group of African
children. They appear
rather healthy and
vibrant. It appears that
they are playing a
game, most likely
football with a home
A new born baby is
everybody in the
picture's hands then
the baby is extremely
This is a baby is some
sort of trauma. It may
have been born
prematurely or the
mother may be hurt in
some way. Doctors
are trying to help the
An American soldier
is giving water to a
young girl. The girl
has a number 2 on her
The little girl is a
survivor from some
sort of traumatic event
or natural disaster. It
is very endearing to
see the soldier
comforting her and
taking care of her.
A helicopter has just
dropped of US troops
in the desert. The
solder's form a circle
on the ground with
their guns drawn
Their packs besides
Looks like location is
somewhere in the
middle east. Soldiers
are defending a
landing zone for
This is a man holding
a small turtle above a
fishing net. The man
is wearing a dirty
white outfit and the
sleeves are duck taped
shut. He is standing
on a boat with this
An oil covered turtle
being held by a
worker in a white
coverall. This seems
to be part of an
recovery and rescue
after some kind of oil
Table 2. Examples of participants’ descriptions differing in the
use of tentative words (underscored).
We further illustrated the interaction patterns in Figure 4.
Both age (β = .162, p < .05) and photographic knowledge (β
= .211, p < .01) had positive impacts on visual appeal.
However, while the younger generation found different
versions of photographs equally appealing, the film-style
filter decreased photos’ visual appeal for older viewers
(Figure 4a). In addition, while viewers who were
knowledgeable about photography liked all three versions,
less knowledgeable participants particularly found the
analogue-style photographs unappealing (Figure 4b). Age
also decreased perceived temporal distance (β = −.192, p
< .01). The B&W filter increased perceived temporal
distance among participants across all age groups, but the
use of film-style filter only impacted the younger
participants (Figure 4c). At last, the more knowledgeable
about photography people were, the less tentative they were
in the descriptions (β = −.183, p < .01). This trend was most
prominent in the B&W condition (Figure 4d).
Post-hoc analysis of linguistic features
As an exploratory step, we also applied a text mining
technique to investigate other potential ways of how photo
filters might impact participants’ language use—
specifically, what linguistic features could best differentiate
the three experimental conditions. The analysis used
participants’ descriptions as text input and the three
experiment conditions as the labels to be predicted. We then
extracted terms that had the strongest correlations with each
condition—in other words, terms subjects used
disproportionately more in one condition versus the other
two . Given the effects of photo filters are not widely
examined in previous research, this data-driven approach in
linguistic analysis—sometimes referred as the “open-
vocabulary approach”—should generate new insights that
might not be captured by pre-defined word categories and
present a more comprehensive picture of digital filters’
effects, providing directions for future research .
Figure 5 summarizes the results for each photograph. We
only looked at unigrams (single words) that appeared at
least 5 times in the descriptions. We also retained all the
words that passed the significance test of p < 0.05 without
further adjusting p-levels. It is important to acknowledge
that this section of analysis is exploratory and might
produce spurious positives. Other studies that adopt a
similar approach often use a more stringent significance
level corrected for the number of features examined (e.g.,
). However, compared to those studies using big data,
this study had an extremely small dataset (N = 200), and
doing so would substantially reduce our power to detect
potential differences. Future studies are needed to
corroborate the following interpretations.
Based on the analysis, we can notice several trends:
Tentativeness. Consistent with our previous findings,
participants used more words that indicate tentativeness for
analogue-style filtered images, including P1 (probably,
seems, or), P2 (perhaps, appears, maybe), P4 (sort), P5
Figure 5. Terms used by participants that best differentiate the
three conditions (
original, B&W, and film
) in each photo.
Horizontal axes represent correlation coefficients and vertical
axes represent log-transformed frequencies.
Credit: P1, IamNotUnique/Flickr; P2, Israel Defense Forces/Flickr; P5, Sylvain
Pedneault/Wikipedia; P7 , NOAA; P8, Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikipedia; P9, Stinkie
Pinkie/Flickr; P10, Holger Motzkau/Wikipedia; Others in Public do main.
(appears), P6 (or, seems), P7 (appears, trying), and P8
(appears). B&W filter also led participants to use more
tentative words in P1 (some, perhaps) and P2 (some).
Interestingly, participants also used more “I” when
describing P2 and P3. Further inspection of participants’
use of first-person pronouns suggested that this often
signaled expressing personal interpretations (e.g., “I am
guessing…,” “I presume…,” “I think…”) or uncertainty
(e.g., “I cannot tell if…,” “I could be wrong…”) in the
sample. These trends corroborated the claim that the use of
photo filters might lead to tentativeness and analytic
thinking, indicating an increase in construal level.
Accuracy. The use of B&W photo filter might lead subjects
to incorrectly identify the objects in pictures. For example,
in P1, subjects in the B&W condition were more likely to
say that one child was holding a pineapple, though the
object was actually a handmade ball. In P6, subjects tended
to see the helicopter as a plane in the B&W version, instead
of a chopper in the original version. In P9, participants
tended to see the small objects flying in the sky as confetti,
but they were actually kites, noted by viewers who saw the
unfiltered version. This trend seemed to indicate that by
removing the original color in photos, B&W filters might
make it more difficult for viewers to recognize the content
in images, which could lead to more errors.
Details. Subjects seeing the original version seemed to be
more likely to mention details in the background or objects
in the periphery. For example, subjects noticed a fishing net
shown at the bottom of P7, the kites flying in the
background in P7, and mentioned the sky more in P3 and P9.
They also noted that the person on the left in P4 was an
American soldier—possibly due to the mark on her
clothes—while participants in the B&W condition simply
referred her as a woman. Meanwhile, B&W pictures
seemed to highlight the contrast between black and white
regions, making objects that were originally in black or
white more prominent to viewers. For example, participants
in the B&W condition tended to point out the white lab
coat and black gloves in P7, and the B&W wedding attire
in P10. Participants also seemed to pay more attention to
the people in B&W photographs, as they mentioned more
the young boys in P1, the woman in P4, the man in P8, and
the women in P9—though this might also due to people in
B&W used more vague and abstract terms to refer to people.
Emotion. Participants were more likely to mention the
emotional expression in B&W photographs. They were
more inclined to say that the children were smiling in P1,
the baby was crying in P2, the girls were having a good
time, and the couple were behaving happily in P10. This
observation seemed to echo with some photographers’
claim that B&W could accentuate emotional expressions in
With the wide availability of camera phones and online
photo-sharing platforms, more and more people are
practicing photography. A variety of photo filter apps have
also changed the way of photo-editing, providing average
users with easy and fun ways of reworking their photos.
This work probes into this technocultural phenomenon and
demonstrates how the use of photo filters could shape our
perceptions and interpretations of images. The findings
have implications in multiple aspects.
Understanding affordances of photo filters
Available HCI studies on the effects of photo filters have so
far mainly focused on visual engagement and yielded
contradictory results [6, 32, 35]. In this study, the film-style
filter might actually decrease visual appeal, though this
effect did not reach the conventional level of statistical
significance. In addition, this research brought the concepts
of defamiliarization and psychological distance into our
understanding of visual styles. People found both B&W and
film-style filtered photographs more distant than unfiltered
ones on the temporal dimension, and the effect sizes were
quite large. People also used more tentative words when
describing film-style filtered images—which appeared as a
medium-size effect—indicating an increase in personal
interpretation and construal levels.
The post-hoc analysis of linguistic features not only
corroborated the finding that using the digital filter
increased linguistic tentativeness but also provided some
new insights. Particularly, the use of B&W filters might
highlight the emotional expressions in photos but make it
more difficult for viewers to correctly identify the objects,
while unfiltered photos made participants notice more
background details that might be easily ignored in filtered
versions. These findings seemed to suggest that photo
filters did increase construal levels by decreasing cognitive
fluency and shifting viewers’ attention from local details to
global themes in pictures. Nevertheless, future studies are
needed to further examine these claims generated from the
The two filters studied also had distinct effects. Compared
to the film-style filter, the B&W filter evoked a stronger
sense of past but failed to statistically significantly
influence visual appeal or linguistic tentativeness.
Interestingly, the trend that photographic literacy decreased
tentativeness was most salient in the B&W condition
(Figure 4d). This might be due to that B&W photography
has been long and commonly practiced among amateur
photographers—especially in documentary photography
and portrait photography [14, 34, 47]—thus not being seen
as a novel or unfamiliar visual style by photographically
knowledgeable participants. While the B&W filter
substantially distorts the look of a photo by completely
removing its color, it might have less defamiliarization
effect to provoke higher levels of mental construal than the
In combination, this study highlights filters’ potential multi-
sided effects. A visually unfamiliar filter might make an
image more difficult to process and less appealing.
However, the digital filter may also defamiliarize objects
that are often seen as banal and commonplace, and help
users construct a temporal distance in their photos. The
defamiliarization might also provoke mental activities of
high construal levels, such as imagination, contemplation,
and interpretation, which are essential in creating artistic
Design photo filters and visual interfaces
This study indicates that digital filter is more than an
aesthetical tool and app designers might construct different
filters that fulfill certain purposes. For users who want to
distance their photos from the reality, designers might
provide a visually unfamiliar filter that imitates the look of
analogue photography—like the one used in this study—to
evoke a sense of time as well as more contemplation and
analytic thinking among viewers. For users who want to
candidly record the moments they capture in photos,
designers might provide filters that do not substantially
distort the original look of photos.
When designing visual aesthetics, practitioners should also
take the characteristics of the users into account. For
example, in the results, the analogue-look filter was not
popular among people who were older and who had less
knowledge about photography, while the younger
generation and more knowledgeable viewers appreciated
filtered and unfiltered versions almost equally (Figure 4).
Therefore, photo-editing apps might be improved by being
tailored to different types of users. For example, social
media apps like Instagram might change their default order
of photo filters for different people and recommend certain
filters to users that they might most appeal to.
It might also be interesting to design features that allow
users to preview the potential effects of applying different
filters before they publish their photos to online social
networks. For example, the linguistic analysis in the study
implies that textual data like comments on photographs can
be a rich source of discovering potential patterns of digital
filters’ effects. One might use the huge amount of social
media data or findings from crowdsourcing experiments
like this study to develop algorithms that can reliably
predict the social feedbacks a photo might receive if
processed by one particular filter. As some computer vision
works have already started to use computationally
calculated visual features to predict images’ popularity and
users’ emotional status [36, 45], this should be a promising
direction for future research and design.
The HCI community has also been interested in how to
better visualize temporal data in different interfaces (e.g.,
). This study suggested that the impacts of digital filters
on perceived temporal distances were quite prominent.
Therefore, it might be possible for designers to use different
filters to visualize temporal data while simultaneously
producing the psychological feelings of time. For example,
in a newsfeed that predominantly features images and
videos, using photo filters might be an easy way to
effectively convey temporal information to viewers.
Additionally, future studies might also examine what exact
visual components of photo filters—for example, a change
in saturation or a warm hue—that contribute to their effects
on our perceptions of images and see if these effects also
extend to abstract color schemes or visual artifacts that can
be more widely applied in design.
The results may also indicate that some levels of distortion
and defamiliarization in visual communication design might
be valuable as they can reshape users’ experiences of the
familiar and the ordinary. As previous research has
indicated, people take photos not only to document
moments of their lives and share them within their social
networks but also to elevate these special moments from
their everyday experiences [18, 29]. Filter apps might allow
users to add an additional layer to the documented, to
rework the present as a potential past, and to distance their
pictures from the mundane and the realistic. Future research
may wish to examine how visual styles might impact our
involvement with other types of visual media, such as
videos and virtual environments.
Construal level theory and application
This study also contributes to our understanding of CLT.
The use of B&W and film-style indeed increased perceived
temporal distance, though the effect did not extend to the
spatial dimension as hypothesized. The correlation between
perceived temporal distance and spatial distance was also
not statistically significant (Table 1), which seemed to
contradict CLT’s claim that all psychological distances are
correlated. One explanation might be that the heterogeneity
in participants’ locations might add too much statistical
noise to the analysis. Based on IP addresses, additional
analysis that only included participants located in the
contiguous United States (N = 193) and controlled for their
states and geographic coordinates, however, still revealed
no significant differences. Another explanation might be
that participants were unable to translate psychologically
felt distances to estimates of concrete numbers.
Nevertheless, some previous research did point out that
priming distance on the temporal dimension did not always
influence people’s perception of spatial distance, arguing
that the spatial dimension is more primary than the
temporal one [10, 48]. Further studies may use participants
located in one location and photos of the same location—
for instance, a famous landmark—with more subjective
measures of spatial distance to see if filters impact
perceptions of spatial distance.
Future studies can also examine the exact mechanism of
how an analogue-style filter shapes people’s interpretation
of photographs. In this study, subjects’ perceived temporal
distance did not correlate with the linguistic features in their
description (Table 1), which seemed to indicate that it was
not the temporal distance that mediated the impacts of
visual styles on viewers’ construal levels. Thus, other
mechanisms, such as color distortion, cognitive disfluency,
and defamiliarization might play a role in the process,
which suggests arenas for future research. In addition, the
number of tentative words used did negatively correlate
with the number of articles (r = −.407, p < .001) and
numbers (r = −.240, p < .001) used, when the average
length of descriptions was controlled for (Table 1). This
seems to suggest that the use of articles and numbers could
still signal higher certainty and lower construal level, but
was not sensitive enough to reveal the effects of photo
filters on language use in this study.
As psychological distance and construal level can shape
people’s attitudes and behaviors, the HCI community has
been increasingly interested in applying CLT in designing
persuasive messages and technologies (e.g., ). An
increase in construal level can lead people to focus on more
primary features of objects, think about actions in terms of
goals instead of means, and interpret people’s behaviors
based on dispositions rather than specific situations .
Therefore, we can also use different visual styles to
effectively change how people perceive things and their
subsequent attitudes and behaviors. In an experiment, the
use of B&W photography led people to focus more on the
primary function of a product rather than its secondary
features . The photo filter might serve as a convenient
tool for us to engineer attitudinal and behavioral changes
via changing construal level.
The current study has several limitations. First, only ten
photos were used in the study and the photos chosen might
be too specific to represent all genres of photographs.
Future studies can further our investigation by looking at
other categories of images, such as landscape, portrait and
food. In addition, the photos used in the study were
generally of good quality: viewers gave them an average
rating of 3.84 on a 5-point scale of visual appeal. Future
research may examine how filters impact more amateurish,
technically flawed or low-quality pictures. The effects of
photo filters might not be consistent across different kinds
of photos. Future studies might also wish to look into the
potential moderating roles of photos’ characteristics.
As many images are viewed, edited and circulated on
mobile screens these days, future studies might wish to ask
participants to view photographs on mobile phones instead
of computers. Previous research suggests that different
photo sizes can impact people’s aesthetical evaluation of
photographs , and it would be interesting to see if the
screen size moderates the impacts of filters. We also used
between-subjects design in this experiment in order to
prevent subjects from recognizing the presence of filters
and consequently adjusting their answers. But this strategy
might not fully simulate users’ experience of picking up
one filter from multiple options on their mobile apps, and
future research can also explore this direction.
At last, the study only examined two filters in this study. In
addition to distorting colors, mobile filters can also change
the photograph by adding grains, scratches, vignette, frames
and light leaks, or even transforming it into a painting
(Figure 1). Given the diversity in today’s photo filters,
future studies might further investigate the effects of other
types of filters as well as different components of filters.
We examine how the widely used photo filters impact
people’s perceptions and interpretations of photographs,
inspired by defamiliarization theory and construal level
theory. We showed that the use of two photo filters—one
B&W and one analogue-style—substantially increased
viewers’ perceived temporal distances to photographs, but
not spatial distance. Subjects also tended to describe
analogue-style filtered photos more interpretively and
tentatively than unfiltered ones, indicating an increase in
construal level. Individual characteristics like age and
photographic knowledge moderated the impacts of filters.
We offer insights into visual styles, photographic practices
and construal level theory, and provide implications for
designing photo filters and visual interfaces.
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