So why use color filters for black and white film?
Simple → Creative Control.
Color filters for black and white film can help enhance contrast between two different colors. Often with out the filter these colors would render the same tone of grey. This is something you might or might not want.
A simple example would be white clouds on a blue sky.
Most films will render the sky and clouds nearly the same shade of white or grey.
Generally speaking, panchromatic black and white films are more sensitive to blue light than how our eyes perceive it.
Using a color filter that blocks out blue light (yellow, orange, red) turns the blue sky portion darker. It will mostly leave the clouds alone (If we compensate for the loss of light by the filter.) This increases the contrast and separation in the final image.
OK, So what are the filters doing?
So basically, when using color filters, to some extent, we are letting certain colors pass through the filter and blocking light of the opposite color.
When you block light hitting black and white film it creates less density when printing this area onto photo paper (or scanning) and it will receives more light causing more density on the final print in that area.
A blue sky is just one example of how you can use filters for black and white film.
Using a spot meter through the colored filter will also show you if the filter will give the separation between two objects or colors.
Milwaukee Art Museum – Filters For Black and White Film
In the above video I give a simple demonstration and use common black and white filters for film. Shooting HP5 black and white film on my Hasselblad 500cm, I locked the composition off with a tripod to give the same framing.
I chose the Milwaukee Art Museum for this demonstration as it is a white structure (one that I find interesting) that will give good contrast between the sky, building and foreground. to show how the different filters affect the image, predominantly the sky in this case.
EXAMPLES – Some Common Black & White Filters
Yellow Filter For Black and White Film
You can see the yellow filter gives nice separation between the blue sky and the white clouds.
A light yellow will give the most subtle effect and many prefer it for general use as it gives the final image a natural look to our eye.
Orange Filter For Black and White Film
You can see the orange filter gives a more dramatic separation between the blue sky and the white clouds, darkening the sky a bit more.
It also starts to add contrast to the foreground and shadow areas (open shade contains a cooler temperature light – towards the blues)
Red Filter For Black and White Film
Red filters will block the most amount of blue light rendering skies dark grey and even black at times.
You can also see the dramatic contrast increase throughout the image in the foreground and shadows.
There is also an underexposure in the shadows from not giving enough compensation for the red filter.
Green Filter For Black and White Film
The green filter gives the least dramatic result in this situation.
However in sand stone and oranges tones it can enhance the contrast greatly by blocking those colors opposite of green
The green filter also lightens the grass and bushes as it lets more green light pass through to the film.
Another aspect of using filters with black and white film is that they all block visible light and will need an exposure correction.
Filters will come with a filter factor from the manufacturer and this can be applied to the final exposure.
A good rule of thumb that I often use is:
This is of course a generalization and you should do your own testing for film and specific filter etc… However, I have found the above to work pretty well in most circumstances .
These are the filters I used for the above shots:
Hope this helps visualize and wrap your head around how color filters work for black and white film! Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!
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