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Colored filters for B&W photography

These solid-color filters are not for color film


Yellow, yellow-green and green are perhaps the most-popular filters for black and white film photography.
Yellow, yellow-green and green are perhaps the most-popular filters for black and white film photography.

Colored filters for black and white photography are of two types:
(1) Correction filters that correct the way colors are rendered in tones of gray, and
(2) Contrast filters, that increase or decrease contrast.

The photographic reproduction of any color can be altered by filters.

A FILTER LIGHTENS ITS OWN COLOR

A colored filter causes more light of the filter’s color to strike the film or your digital camera's sensor, making that color appear as a lighter gray than it would without the filter. At the same time, it reduces the amount of light of the filter's complementary color, which will appear in a darker gray tone.

What is a complementary color? Essentially, it's any color's opposite color. Visit Light and its color for a thorough explanation, but for now, all you have to know is that a complementary color is one of a pair of primary or secondary colors that are in opposition to each other on a color wheel.


This means that a blue ball photographed through a blue filter will show up as almost white in the final image, but if the blue ball was to be photographed through a yellow filter (which is the complementary color for blue), it would render the ball as almost black.

The rule to remember is: Use the same color filter to lighten that color, and the complementary (or opposite) color filter to darken it.

Our section entitled How colored filters work explains why this happens. Keep in mind that the intensity of the effect is controlled by both the density of the color filter in use and the subject's color saturation.

Exposure is affected by the amount of filtration. The denser the filter, the more the exposure must be increased to compensate for the light being absorbed by the filter. (See Filter factor.) Surprisingly, however, slight underexposure can often provide the filter with even greater effectiveness.

The most popular colored filters for black and white photography are yellow, yellow-green and green, with orange and red following hot on their heels.

Compare this color image with the black and white images below that were taken using colored filters.
Compare this color image with the black and white images below that were taken using colored filters.

Photographed using a yellow filter. Notice how the red and green blend together in one shade of gray, but the yellow is lightened.
Photographed using a yellow filter. Notice how the red and green blend together in one shade of gray, but the yellow is lightened.

YELLOW FILTER

Film is extra-sensitive to blue light. Black and white film records blues as slightly lighter, and yellows and greens as darker than might be anticipated. Because a yellow filter absorbs blue (its complementary color), it provides significantly greater contrast between blue and yellow or white subjects. A yellow filter absorbs UV and is useful in reducing haze, particularly in aerial or mountain photography. It is a good filter to use when doing underwater black and white photography. Snow scenes improve with a yellow filter.

Like most filters, the yellow filter is available in various densities. The greater the density, the greater the contrast between blue and white objects in a scene. For example, when shooting a scene with clouds in it using a deep yellow filter, the clouds stand out as bright white against a dark sky. A light yellow filter will render the sky in a more natural-looking shade of gray.

The most-popular density of yellow filter is the Wratten No. 8, formerly designated the K2 filter. This light to medium-yellow filter is also sometimes called a Y2 filter, and has a filter factor of 2, which means it requires a one-stop increase in exposure. If a single filter could be considered the "standard" filter for black and white work, it would be this yellow filter. Many photographers who shoot black and white film have the No. 8 yellow filter attached to the lens for much, if not most, of their photography. It gives a natural look - normal tonal rendition - on black and white film to the sky, sunsets, distant landscapes, foliage, outdoors portraits against the sky and water scenes, and is ideal for architectural stone, sand and wood when they are illuminated by direct sunlight or a blue sky.

A deep yellow filter like the Wratten No. 9 (which is considered by some to be a medium-yellow filter and was formerly designated the K3), emphasizes reds and orange tones, which is excellent for brilliant sunsets in black and white, but not for portraits since it causes facial blemishes and freckles to stand out. (Switch to a lighter yellow filter for outdoors portraits, like the Wratten No. 8. It produces a more natural rendering of skin tones.) The No. 9 deep yellow has a filter factor of 4.

A very deep yellow filter (sometimes called a light orange filter), the Wratten No. 15 - which used to be designated the G filter - dramatically darkens blue sky and water scenes, and decreases the haze effect in far-off landscapes. It also emphasizes the texture of architectural stone, wood, sand and even snow when illuminated by direct sunlight or by a blue sky. This dense yellow filter is effective when copying documents on yellowed paper and is commonly-used with color infrared film for special effects.

Other less-commonly used yellow filters include:
Wratten No. 2B - pale yellow. Useful in absorbing ultraviolet radiation.
Wratten No. 2E - pale yellow. Absorbs UV radiation similar to the 2B, but also absorbs more violet.
Wratten No. 3 - light yellow. Mainly used in aerial photography to partially correct excess blue.
Wratten No. 12 - deep yellow. Also known as the “minus-blue filter” in the same way as the Wratten No. 32 is the minus-green and the Wratten No. 44A is the minus-red. This filter cancels blue light when exposing infrared-sensitive film, and is good for haze penetration, especially in aerial photography.

YELLOW-ORANGE FILTER

This Wratten No. 16 yellow-orange filter has a stronger effect on skies than do the yellow filters, increasing their darkness significantly but still within the realm of credibility. It is effective in reducing facial blemishes and skin spots for portraits, and absorbs a small amount of green. It has a filter factor of 3, requiring an exposure increase of one-and-two-thirds stops.

YELLOW-GREEN FILTER

Great for black and white landscapes, the Wratten No. 11 yellow-green (or yellowish-green, or yellow-greenish) filter not only darkens blue skies and whitens clouds, it also enhances green foliage in landscapes by slightly lightening it, giving it a natural appearance and often improving detail.

Formerly designated the X1 filter, it can also be used to correct for tungsten lighting, giving a natural tonal relationship with black and white film under tungsten light. It is a better filter than straight yellow for portraits of caucasians because it lightens their skin and shows facial blemishes less, and is particularly effective for outdoor portraits with the sky or foliage as a backdrop.

The yellow-green filter has a filter factor of 4, requiring an exposure increase of two stops. The denser dark-yellow-green filter (Wratten No. 13) has a filter factor of 5, necessitating an exposure increase of two-and-a-third stops. It's a good filter for dramatic portraits of men illuminated by tungsten light.


GREEN FILTER

Although the green filter is suitable for multi-colored subjects in general, color balance of the subject must be considered carefully because of this filter's tendency to cut out both blue and red at the same time. The green filter absorbs ultra-violet, violet, blue and red, subduing (darkening) red and bringing out greens in brighter tones. Nature’s greenery – its grass, shrubs, trees, etc. – improves in appearance when a green filter is used with black and white film.

Because reds and greens generally reproduce on black and white film in more or less the same shade of gray, a green filter (which causes reds to darken and greens to lighten) will separate the two colors in the image.

The green filter (Wratten No. 58, formerly designated the B filter) has a filter factor of 6, requiring an exposure increase of two-and-two-thirds stops. A deep green filter (Wratten No. 61, formerly called the N filter) has a filter factor of 12, requiring three-and-two-thirds stops more exposure. The Wratten No. 99 green filter is equivalent to a green No. 61 plus a yellow-orange No.16 filter, and is useful in the printing industry.

ORANGE FILTER

An orange filter goes a step beyond the yellow filter in bringing out contrast between blue and white tones in a scene, rendering a sky in very dark shades of gray while clouds remain a bright white. Its high blue/green absorption also causes greens to come out much darker. The effect is highly dramatic, and may be overkill for most landscapes. However, because of its dramatic contrast, an orange filter can make an excellent picture with the right subject – a bright red factory belting out clouds of steam and smoke, for example.

Because a filter transmits more of its own color to the film and that color is rendered in a lighter shade of gray, an orange filter can be complimentary to skin tones and can make freckles and other blemishes seem to disappear. However, people with sun tans will appear paler.

The orange filter is somewhat more effective at haze reduction than the yellow filter, and can be very effective in shooting snow scenes or in underwater photography. It can be an excellent filter for black and white architectural photography, lightening the color of orange and brownish bricks, and is good for accenting detail in textures of trees, stone, sculptures and so on.

The orange filter (Wratten No. 21) has a filter factor of 5 and requires an exposure increase of two-and-one-third stops. A light orange (Wratten No. 15 - also known as a deep yellow) filter provides more contrast between cloud and sky than the yellow filter, but lightens skin tones so much that people can look anemic. A Wratten No. 22 deep orange filter has even greater green absorption than the No. 21.

Photographed using a green filter. Notice how the green background is lightened overall, while red and blue are darkened.
Photographed using a green filter. Notice how the green background is lightened overall, while red and blue are darkened.

Photographed using a red filter. Notice how the blue and green are rendered in almost the same shade of gray, but the red is significantly lightened.
Photographed using a red filter. Notice how the blue and green are rendered in almost the same shade of gray, but the red is significantly lightened.

RED FILTER

If an orange filter goes beyond yellow in terms of increasing blue-white contrast, a red filter takes it one step further. This is the dramatic, high-contrast filter for black and white photography. Red filters lighten red, orange and yellow, and greatly darken blues and greens. Skies and foliage come out incredibly dark. Shadows are deep. Skin tones are blanched, especially those of women. The red filter is also very effective in reducing haze, more so than yellow filters in far-off landscapes, and makes sunsets more brilliant.

If the film is slightly under-exposed when using a red filter to shoot an outdoors scene in broad daylight, the contrast is so great that you can achieve a night-time, moonlit effect, especially when used in combination with a polarizing filter. The red filter is also used for infrared photography with black and white infrared film, and with color film for underwater photography to restore red lightwaves absorbed by water. Like the deep yellow filter, it enhances textures in architectural stone, wood, sand and snow under a blue sky.

The red filter (Wratten No. 25, formerly designated the A filter) has a filter factor of 8, and requires an exposure increase of three stops. This filter is sometimes called the “red tricolor” when it is used for color separation work in three-color printing. (The “green tricolor” filter is the Wratten No. 58, and the “blue tricolor” is the Wratten No. 47B.)

A deep red filter (Wratten No. 29) is even more extreme. It will turn a blue sky black, and is useful in long focus shots to darken a pale blue sky on a distant horizon. (The sky just above the horizon is usually much paler than the sky overhead.) It has a filter factor of 16, requiring an exposure increase of four stops. This filter is also known as the “deep red tricolor” for its printing applications under tungsten light.

There is also a Wratten No. 26 red filter that is mainly useful with a No. 58 (green) filter for viewing low-relief, sculpted objects in three dimensions, and a Wratten No. 92 red filter used for densimetric measurement of color films and papers.


MAGENTA FILTER

Magenta is composed of half-red and half-blue, and is the complementary color of green. This means it will darken objects that are green (which is why it sometimes referred to as the “minus-green” filter) and lighten objects that are bluish-red, or blue or red.

With a Wratten No. of 32, this filter has a filter factor of 2.5, and requires an exposure increase of one-and-a-third stops.

VIOLET FILTER

The Wratten No. 34A violet filter has minus-green and plus-blue properties, meaning that it will darken objects that are green and lighten those that are blue.

BLUE FILTER

The blue filter, which is probably the least-used colored filter (probably because it tends to exaggerate haze - a feature that can be very effective in creating three-dimensionality in far-off landscapes), is sometimes used in black and white portraits, where it is particularly effective in close-ups when the subject’s eyes are blue. Blue eyes become significantly lightened, almost hauntingly so. The blue filter absorbs some of the red cast from incandescent lights, and tends to darken red clothing.

A blue filter will lighten blue and deepen red, making lips appear darker and, unfortunately, also darkening any reddish skin blemishes. Yellow is the complementary color of blue. For subjects with blonde hair or very white skin, the blue filter keeps them from appearing too light since it darkens yellow colors. Although its haze-accentuating characteristic may be useful in landscape photography by increasing the sense of depth, the sky appears quite pale, almost white, when a blue filter is used for landscapes.

When used with color film and underexposing by a stop or two, a blue filter can make a daylight scene look like it was photographed at night. It is also used by some photographers in photographing snowy scenes with color film.

The “true-blue” filter has a Wratten No. of 47 and was formerly called the C5 filter. This is the blue tricolor filter used in separating blue in three-color printing. It has a filter factor of 6, which requires an exposure increase of two-and-two-thirds stops.

There are at least three versions of deep blue filter - the Wratten No. 47B deep blue filter (also known as the “deep blue tricolor”, which has a filter factor of 8, calling for an exposure increase of three stops, the Wratten No. 49 (which used to be designated as C4), and the No. 50 deep blue, which has a filter factor of 20 and needs an exposure increase of four-and-a-third stops. Then, there is the Wratten No. 98 blue filter, which is equivalent to the 47B deep blue filter plus the No. 2B yellow filter, and is used in making separation positives from color negative film, and for three-color printing.

Other blue filters include the Wratten No. 47A filter, which is light blue and is used in medical applications; the Wratten No. 38A, which absorbs ultraviolet, green light and a lot of red light and is used mainly in specialized photomicrography.; and the Wratten No. 44 and 44A filters, which are light blue-green, and are used for minus-red applications

OTHER FILTERS FOR BLACK AND WHITE FILM

Neutral-density, polarizing, ultraviolet (UV) and a number of other special effects filters can be used for both black and white and color film, and for your digital photography.

Further information...

How colored filters work