Using Color Filters with Black-and-White Films

Using Color Filters with Black-and-White Films


The medium of black-and-white photography, viewed as art, puts a high premium on sheer photographic quality. Filters modify light in a wide variety of ways, and their correct and appropriate use is often what separates first-rate from mediocre photography, in both black and white photography and color photography. Below are some typical usages for each of the major types of filters.
The major role of color filters with black and white films is to differentiate colors that would otherwise appear as the same tone of gray in a photograph. They also "penetrate" haze (by absorbing light scattered by airborne particles).

Relative Brightness/Contrast Effects

  • Black and white films, of course, translate the various colors of original subjects into shades of gray corresponding to the relative brightness, or reflective power, of those colors. There is no connection between colors, as it is perceived by the eye and brain, and the shade of gray that will be seen in a print except in relative brightness. Very frequently, two very different colors will reproduce as closely similar gray tones. For example, if photographed with no filter, a brown snail on a green leaf may blend with the leaf, if the two colors are of approximately equal relative brightness. Use of a green filter will darken the tone of the snail. The subject can thus be made to contrast favorably with its surroundings.

  • The photographer must learn to perceive colors according to their relative brightness, to relate these to the tone of gray that will represent them in a picture, and to know which filters will set them apart visually. The knowledgeable photographer can thereby emphasize or deemphasize almost any portion of a given scene or subject in which there are differing colors. Once you realize that you can and must learn to perceive colors as tones of relative brightness, you can learn to look through a given filter and accurately judge what its effect will be on a film, with regard to any particular subject matter. Almost all color differentiations in the black and white medium depend upon this.

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