Black & White Photography—It’s All in the Color!

Photography, even Black & White photography, is all about color.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It truly is all about the color.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of Ansel Adams’ iconic work.  There’s a secret to how he got those dramatic skies, puffy white cumulus clouds that popped right out at you, and those sharp tonal ranges and high contrast that gave his work an almost three-dimensional quality even though they were merely shades of gray.  And that secret didn’t just start in the developing room; it started in his choice of colored filters.

There are four basic filters that a photographer uses in Black & White photography.  For landscapes, flora, and still-life photography, those filters are usually yellow, orange, and red, mostly depending on how dark you want the sky and foliage.  For portrait photography, green is the filter of choice as it increases the contrast and tonal range of most skin tones.  (Note:  Next time you watch an old B&W Three Stooges short, bear in mind that the actors are in green makeup.  Same thing for the actors in most old B&W television shows.  Back then, the actors were “filtered” rather than the camera lens.)

The choice of which filter to use depends on what spectrum of colors you want darker and what colors you want lighter.  A red filter allows the red of, say, some recently harvested radishes to pass through the filter easily.  Colors tending toward the greens and blues would be blocked.  The result on a Black & White photograph is that your radishes would come out looking bright, but the attached leaves would be considerably darker.  Substituting a green filter would darken the radishes and lighten the leaves.

But you may not need to purchase all those filters if you have a modern DSLR.  Since color filtering is similar to white balancing, you can digitally apply color “filtering” in-camera, or even in post-processing on your computer using the software that came with your camera.  But in order to obtain optimum control, you’ll need to shoot in your camera’s native raw format (see my two-part blog on raw versus JPEG:  Link to Part 1 and Link to Part 2).  Taking your pictures in raw will allow you to post-process the photograph with a digital yellow, orange, red, or green “filter,” or, since all sensor pixel information is retained in the raw file, you can make the photograph color again.  Neat trick, huh?  If you shoot in JPEG using your camera’s monochrome setting, you may want to take a series of shots using the different digital “filters” in your camera’s menu under the “Monochrome” picture style, then choosing which filtered effect worked best when determining which shots to keep.

For purposes of demonstration, all the photographs used in the rest of this article are minimally post processed to concentrate on the actual filtering effect rather than any demonstration of computer mastery.  If I were processing these photographs for display or printing, I would go further in enhancing contrast and tonal quality, but then you wouldn’t know if you were comparing filtering effects or my post-processing techniques.

This first set of photographs show a multi-colored spring toy I like to use for color calibration.  The first shot shows the rainbow spring in color (Canon Standard Picture Style).  Following renditions (using Canon’s Monochrome Picture Style) are Unfiltered, Yellow Filtering, Orange Filtering, Red Filtering, and finally Green Filtering.  Note how the yellow, orange, and red filters are basically just varying degrees of the same effect—gradually lightening the yellow-to-red range while darkening greens and blues.  The green filter gives the opposite effect.

So, WWAAD?  (What Would Ansel Adams Do?)  What was his secret for those dynamic, awe-inspiring landscapes?  How the heck did he do that?  Well, besides some really fantastic artwork in the darkroom, involving some really advanced techniques over hours and hours of processing and developing, most of his more stunning works started out in the field with a dark red filter.  So, there you have it.  If you want the digital equivalent of Ansel Adams, start with your camera’s red filtering in its monochrome picture style.  Throw in a Polarizing Filter (see Monday’s blog at this link) on top of that red filtering effect and your skies will darken even more, coming even closer to Ansel Adams’ much darker red filter.  If you don’t want that much drama, you should at a minimum set your camera to yellow filtering for most landscapes because if you don’t throw in at least some filtering at the warm end of the spectrum (“warm” colors are yellows, oranges, and reds; “cool” colors are greens and blues) then your monochrome sky will be too bright and any clouds will fade or perhaps even disappear into the background.  The following set of photographs show the effects of unfiltered B&W photography followed by yellow, orange, red, and finally green filtering.

And, finally, that takes us to B&W portrait photography and the use of the green filter for enhanced skin tonal quality and contrast.  In the following set, compare the unfiltered photograph followed by the green photograph beside it.  Then take a look at what happens using your warmer “landscape” filters, going from yellow to orange to red.  Notice how the skin gets progressively more washed out and ghostly looking when using warmer filters.

I hope you’re enjoying this week’s series on photography tips and finding them useful.  If you have any comments, I’d love to hear from you.  And if you have suggestions for future photography blogs, that would be really great.



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7 responses to “Black & White Photography—It’s All in the Color!

  1. Thanks, R.Doug! I was a photography major many many many moons ago. (Actually majored in film, but it was a part of the photography program.) I haven’t thought about any of these things in a very long time.

    Would you suggest playing with the color balance in Photoshop when you convert a color digital photo to monochrome? For those with less advanced cameras, that really the only place they can do much, I think.

  2. Hi, Camille. I’ve never gone that route with a conversion, but I would think that there is no reason why you couldn’t emulate a B&W filter by manipulating the individual red, blue, and green color channels to achieve the same effect.

    Worth a try, at any rate. Just make sure you don’t try it on the original image in case you mess it up.

    What make and model camera do you have?

    • Oh, I have a lower end Lumix, and it probably does do filters somewhere deep in its brilliant little soul. I was just asking because it’s an interesting concept, and not everybody has a sophisticated camera. And you don’t always have time to plan ahead in your photography either. There are so many things you can do in the digital darkroom.

  3. Your Panasonic point-and-shoot isn’t going to have these digital filtering capabilities.

    But I did try this little trick using Google’s free Picasa 3 software. I opened up a colored JPEG in Picasa and manipulated the picture using the Filtered B&W tool in the Effects menu. Put your cursor on the PIck Color box and slide it around until you get the desired effect. It’s that easy.

    It’s a pretty nifty little tool that gives you a MUCH broader filtering range and intensity than even the digital “filters” embedded in my Canon EOS 5D. It really worked great. Indeed, I may very well have to do a blog on this little trick. I was very impressed.

  4. I also just took a look at Windows Live Photo Gallery. You get Yellow, Orange, and Red filtering effects for JPEGs under the Black & White Effects option under the Fix menu. Tried them out and they worked great. Unfortunately, there was no Green filter effect, but you can get that with the Picasa software.

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