More Contrast

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

For those who want to explore the world of black and white photography, there comes a time that you want to do more than just “normal” images. This is where contrast filters come into play.

What contrast filters do is modify the way the camera (and film) sees the scene. They do this by changing the way that the light values strike the film; some colors are darkened, while others are lightened. There are a lot of different filters, but the standard setup is a yellow, orange, red, and green filter. The ones I use are made by Cokin and are square in shape, so you also need their proprietary filter holder system.

To give you a better idea of what each filter does, here is a quick (and fundamental) rundown:

  • Yellow will slightly darken blue sky and shadows while lightening foliage. It is often used to give a similar image to how the eyes would see the scene (if you saw it without color).
  • Orange will give a stronger effect on the sky, shadows, and foliage producing a slightly stronger contrast.
  • Red will really darken blue sky and shadows, producing a strong contrast to the image.
  • Green will lighten foliage and lighten blue items, such as the ocean and sky.

The big thing to remember is that the filters will lighten the colors that they match. Which in black and white photography, means a lighter shade of gray in the final image. Also, they will darken the complementary color to that of the filter. So, a basic understanding of the color wheel and complementary colors is useful.

These four are not the only filters used with black and white photography. There are many more, primarily variations in the strength of the colors listed above, but there is also a blue filter that can be useful in some cases. Although it will tend to enhance haze, so images will have lower contrast, but this can be used for artistic effect.

Being able to visualize the image in its tones and values will be a great help.

I have seen suggestions of using polarizer filters with black and white photography. Now, while this could certainly help with adjusting the image contrast, they will remove the scintillations from the scene. This is a term I came across while reading The Camera by Ansel Adams. What they are is the specular highlights on things such as leaves, those bright (almost white) highlights that you often see. The filter does this because as you turn the ring, the filter effect will strengthen/weaken, and one of the biggest effects is to remove reflections from items such as windows, water, and leaves/foliage. So, while it may have an interesting effect on the overall contrast, it will “flatten” parts of the image and give an almost surreal look. But if that is the look you are going for, then go ahead.

I will say though, from personal experience, that it is not always a simple case of slapping a filter on your lens and shooting away. While you may get some good images, you are likely to be disappointed as there is still a need to learn to see in black and white. Being able to visualize the image in its tones and values will be a great help. This is something I am still learning, and I do know of a useful app available for iPhones called Contrast that can help by allowing you to see the scene in black and white; then apply a yellow, red, orange, green, or blue filter.

Originally published July 23, 2018

Ian Mildon

Ian Mildon spends his days working as a software application developer. When not doing this he is a keen photographer, working with various formats; digital (full frame, APS-C), film (35mm, 6x4.5, 6x7), mobile (phone), instant. Ian is also a fairly prolific writer, mainly on subjects pertaining to photography, although he does not limit himself to just this subject matter.

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