Color filters in black and white photography: An introduction and examples

When I was first into film photography and shooting a lot of black and white (which was about 35 years ago), I never explored the use of color filters for image enhancement — in part because I didn’t know anything about it, in part because we weren’t taught anything about it in high school photography class, and finally in part because I couldn’t have afforded the filters anyway. With my renewed interest in film, and in shooting a ton of black and white, I’ve become interested in ways to achieve better, more interesting photos — especially in situations where things seem washed out, or when subjects fail to “pop” in the image. That’s where color (and other) filters come-in.

Both the blessing and the curse of black and white, I suppose, is that everything renders as shades of gray. It’s really not possible to tell the difference between red, green or blue — they all look the same, depending on the lightness of the color. Yellows, like the color of my MINI Cooper, appear basically white; you’d not even notice the white decal on the side unless you looked really hard at this image. (The car in color is in the inset for comparison; same car, same lower checkered side decal — big difference.)

The story is similar in many photographic situations, and long ago people figured out that colored filters over the lens will darken or lighten certain colors at the expense of others, allowing you to tailor the results.

While you can easily read what the various filter colors do in black and white, there’s nothing like seeing the results, and I was anxious to try them out. 

That’s why a recent listing at National Camera Exchange in Minneapolis caught my eye; they had a really nice filter and hood set for my Rolleiflex, and I couldn’t resist getting it. With a price tag of just $200, it was a little steep perhaps, but the set is nearly mint in condition, and includes a beautiful little lens hood, two Rolleinar sets (1 and 2), a UV filter, an H-1 filter (it’s a UV filter, but designed for color photography) and four color filters to play with:

  • Gelb-Mittel (Medium Yellow)
  • Hellgrün (Light Green)
  • Hellrot (Light Red)
  • Hellblau (Light Blue)

As near as I’m able to find online, these sets were sold with the case, hood and Rolleinars, and then you could pick the five filters you wanted to fill the five spots for them. Observant readers will count that my set has six filters (four color filters, and the two others); it does: the “extra” one was banging around inside the lens hood in the case, so… Bonus, I guess. (I’ve since gotten a separate Rollei leather filter case for it that I found in great nick on Etsy.)

Setting-up what might not have been the ideal test, I put my Rolleiflex on a tripod and set it up outside, taking the same shot with each of the different filters. In the shot were sky, clouds and a tree (for the chlorophyl) — things that are often enhanced by filter use. The missing ingredient was a human; these filters can have an impact on skin tones, but that’ll be a test for another time. 

Let’s jump right to the examples, starting with the non-filter reference shot:

No filter

So here we see the original image, as shot. Since yellow filters are among the most commonly used in black and white, let’s see how the image looks with the Gelb-Mittel (Medium Yellow) filter attached.

Gelb-Mittel (Medium Yellow) filter attached

Yellow filters have a relatively subtle effect, as you can see. The clouds do pop out a bit more, while the leaves of the tree are more pleasing as well.

According to Rollei, these filters are good for landscapes, snow, and clouds, rendering yellow and green lighter, blue darker. With the subtle effect, the yellow filter may become a standard fixture for outdoor photography for me. 

Now, red.

Hellrot (Light Red) filter attached

Here we can see a pretty dramatic difference. The sky darkens-up considerably while the clouds still pop nicely. In this particular shot, I see no downside, other than the fact that the red filter requires a few stops more light. 

Supposedly red filters are a help in haze and fog, but the effect is pretty dramatic in this otherwise normal shot. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but I actually rather like it.

Rollei says that the red filters are for hazy distant views, rendering red lighter, blue-green darker, and that they give a stronger effect than orange filters. I don’t own an orange filter (yet, anyway), and can’t compare on that point. 

So, let’s try green.

Hellgrün (Light Green) filter attached

I don’t see a huge difference with this filter; the foliage does look a bit lighter, and the clouds pop a little more than no filter. Otherwise, not a massive difference in this particular shot.

Rollei suggests green filters for landscapes, snow, and clouds, rendering green lighter; reds, certain skin tones, and blues darker.

Now, blue.

Hellblau (Light Blue) filter attached

Not much of a shift here from the original, except the lower clouds in the shot are even less visible. Blue filters can darken an image and reduce contrast, as well as increasing haze and fog, which could be interesting in some situations. This light blue is so light that it’s unsurprising the results are barely visible. 

Rollei says only that they are for “artificial light” and for rendering reds darker. I suppose a blue filter would make tungsten light sources look cooler and more natural; not sure that’s going to translate that well in black and white. 

The blue filter did have one benefit; remember the MINI Cooper at the top? Add the blue filter, and suddenly the car’s yellow body isn’t indistinguishable from its white top any longer. The difference doesn’t seem massive at first, but notably, the decal pops from the body color quite nicely.

And there you have it — visual results of these specific Rollei filters. For a much more in-depth view of how colored filters can be applied, and the results they provide, my favorite article on the topic is available at Photography Mad. They cover other colors (e.g., orange), and provide a number of other tips and examples.

Happy shooting.