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How Color Filters Affect B&W Photos

If you’re new to film photography, chances are that you’ll get into shooting black and white sooner or later because you have been inspired by the masterpieces of old masters. But before you become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson or Sebastião Salgado, there are a few introductory things you should know.

Seeing the world in black and white is the main struggle for everyone at the beginning, but like with everything else, it can be learned and practiced with a simple understanding of how colors are translated into B&W. The human eye can distinguish approximately 500 shades of gray (well, some are limited to 50, but that’s another story). On the other hand, the scope of colors feels almost unlimited by comparison.

Why are some colors identical when turned into B&W?

Imagine a bus with only 50 seats (and no standing space) that has to carry 200 hundred people at the same time. If they all want to get in, some people will have to share the same seat. It’s the same with colors turned into B&W, there are too many to fit into the 500 shades of gray, so they must be compressed to all fit in the bus. To put this into an image, I’ve turned the 6 basic colors into gray so you can see how they translated in B&W.​

We can see that some share the same seat. Look at the yellow and orange: they are nearly identical, so that affects sunset pictures. Another interesting comparison is the red and green: they are almost identical, which makes pictures of poppy field look like a muddy gray landscape… how disappointing!

Picture by Friederike Hiepko

Does that mean that I can’t take a good B&W picture of a poppy field?

Hopefully not! There are ways to change the way B&W film responds to colors. For this, you will have to rely on colored filters. Let me briefly introduce each of them:

Yellow filter: The classic among black and white photographers. Blue skies are darkened, which helps to increase the separation with the clouds. Other colors like green, red, orange and yellow will appear brighter.

Orange filter: It comes right after the yellow in terms of strength. Blues will become even darker for a more dramatic effect. Most warm colors will also show brighter than greens.

Red filter: This one is the strongest. Red will turn into white and foliage appear very dark. If you want your poppy flowers to pop out that’s the one but pay attention to the background. We can see at the horizon the light green turned also into white. It works best with darker shades of green like in the foreground.

Green filter: The opposite of the previous one. Red will turn darker and green brighter. It’s not very popular because of its limited span of action, but it can give very interesting effect when used on the correct scene.

Blue filter: Another uncommon filter but if you want to brighten blues it’s the one! Warm colors will be darkened and red turned into black, which can help to separate elements in a mixed colored scene. It also increases fog and haze which can help to emphasize a moody landscape.

One important thing about using filters is that they all reduce the amount of light by 1 or more stop. So you must compensate this loss of light when exposing. It varies depending on the filter so refer to the manufacturer’s product information.

Considering contrast when shooting B&W

Now that we know how to manipulate each color, the other element to consider when shooting B&W film is contrast.

Depending on which style you are going for, contrast will play a major role. There are no colors to define the mood of your image so the type of light is probably the most important element to create the ambiance you want to achieve. Direct sunlight can be a nightmare for color photographers, but not in B&W. If you want to shoot street photography, for example, it’s exactly what you are looking for as it will create contrast and harsh edges in your image. It will help to detach the subject from its environment and re-enforce your composition.

If you prefer a softer ambiance, look for an atmosphere with low contrast. Cloudy or foggy days are perfect for this type of images. The light is evenly distributed which result in a mellower ambiance. It’s also the ideal situation for shooting female portraits, as it makes skin looks softer and more pleasing.

Another crucial element that affects contrast is the type of film you shoot with. B&W films don’t react the same way and it’s important that you choose the proper one based on what you are looking for. This is really a matter of personal tastes and there is no right or wrong film here, just the one you like.

If I want to go for a contrasty image, Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X are my go to films. If I’m aiming for a softer image, Fomapan 200 or 400 is the one I prefer.

“There are so many films, which one is the best?”

Choosing film can be overwhelming when beginning so if you are not sure about which one you should use, check out the “Film Dating” quiz I created. It helps to find the right film for you in just a few clicks.

The last point that will influence the result of your image is the development technique or chemicals you will use. There are many ways to go when developing and the combinations of film/developer can completely change the look of a negative.

I’ll take the example of stand development, as that’s the one I’m more familiar with. Depending on the film and developer you are using, it can completely change the contrast of your photo. I have tried this approach with Fomapan 400 (low contrast) and Kodak Tri-X (high contrast).

When developed using the stand technique using Ilfotec DD-X developer, Fomapan 400 turned into a super contrasty film. On the opposite, Kodak Tri-X, which is known for being contrasty, turned into a flatter image with this process. These are just examples and combinations are infinite when developing. The best is to experience yourself with the chemicals and films you have at home. If you want more information about developing time for each film and chemical, check out this Massive Dev Chart.

We’ve now seen that many factors can influence a B&W image, but the most important point is your ability to see the world in monochrome. That’s what requires the most practice but with experience, you’ll become better — it’s just a matter of training your imagination.

If you are just starting out, forget about everything else and just concentrate on imagining a scene in B&W. Once you’ve gained more experience, it’ll be easier to apply what you’ve read above.


About the author: Vincent Moschetti is an Ireland-based photographer who is in the middle of a year-long experiment where he’s shooting only film photography. You can find more of his work or follow along on this adventure by visiting his website or following him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.

3 Mistakes Film Photography Newbies Make and How to Avoid Them

Patience is not one of my many virtues and I’ve always preferred practice to theory. Instead of taking the time to learn the essentials before starting, I usually jump in head-first… come what may! This behavior has caused me disappointment, loss of time and money.

That’s why I have decided to be more thoughtful and cautious in my approach to photography. From these bad experiences came the idea to compile the 3 biggest mistakes I made when getting into film photography so you can easily avoid them.

Each mistake here is based on my personal experience. I’m sure some of you may encounter similar difficulties, so do yourself a favor by taking a few minutes to read this.

1. Not loading the film correctly

This is probably the most embarrassing of all the mistakes I made, and the worst part is that it happened more than once! A couple of months ago, when I started this project, loading a camera with a film was something completely unknown to me. The only experience with film in the recent years was with a disposable camera so we can easily agree that I had no idea how to deal with it.

Before buying my first camera I wanted to get my hands on an SLR to see how it felt, so a friend lent me an Olympus OM10. It seemed pretty straight forward to me and I didn’t bother asking him about loading film.

I shot two rolls with it, and enthusiastically brought them to the lab. When I came back to collect my pictures the following day, my enthusiasm quickly turned into a great disappointment. Both rolls turned out blank, nothing, empty, adios! I was so excited by the idea of seeing those pictures, but they were gone forever and there was nothing I could do about it.

My spontaneous reaction was to blame the camera because there was no way that I could have done something wrong with two rolls. Then I considered that the lab could have messed-up. It never crossed my mind that I could have done something wrong. In any case, my faith in this camera was gone so I gave it back to my friend thinking it was faulty.

After this bitter failure, I got myself a Leica M6 which, I was sure, was not likely to fail on me as this modest Olympus did. Everything was fine, rolls were flying through and it was giving me complete satisfaction. But like in every love story, there are ups and downs. Our first down had to happen at some point and I think you already know what follows next: Yes, it happened again, another empty roll!

This time things were a bit different though, and I knew exactly what went wrong. When I rewound the film, I quickly noticed after a few spins that there was no resistance. Usually, you feel a tension when rewinding the film back into the canister, here I felt tension for the first 4 or 5 spins then nothing, I was turning but nothing was moving anymore. It meant that the film never moved after loading it into the camera. I had been shooting the same frame over and over.

It’s a mistake that you can avoid very easily, and I’m going to show what you should to pay attention to when loading film:

1. Once you have inserted the tip of the film inside the spool, make sure the teeth are engaged between the sprockets holes. This will ensure that the film travels correctly when you action the advancement mechanism to move on the next frame.

If there isn’t enough tension you can use the rewind knob to tighten the film’s position. ​

2. The film is now inserted in the camera and there is no way to open it to check what’s going on inside. Don’t worry, there is an easy way to determine if the film is moving forward or not.

When you use the film advance to wind the film, you simply have to check if the knob on the left (that you use to rewind the film) is turning. If it turns, good, it means that the film is properly engaged.

If the film is not moving, chances are that it’s was not engaged so you are good to open the camera and check what is wrong. This can also happen if the film breaks inside. It has never happened to me, but I know that can be an issue.

2. Not exposing correctly

If, like me, you are coming from digital, chances are you’re used to exposing for the highlights and then recover the shadows in post. Digital sensors are well-known for being able to recover a lot of details in dark areas, but don’t do so well at keeping information in highlights.

With film, it’s slightly different, so you have to rethink your approach when measuring the light of your scene. Unlike digital cameras, film is very good at keeping details in highlights even if overexposed. The counterpart is that, if it was underexposed, you won’t be able to recover details in the shadows as a RAW file would allow to.

The top photo shows an overexposed image straight out of the scanner, below it, I lowered the exposure by 2 stops in Lightroom:

All films are not equal in terms of under-exposition. The most flexible are black and white and C-41 color film. They allow you to underexpose by a few stops and still retain details in the shadows.

There is one type of color film called “slide film,” sometimes referred as E-6, that doesn’t offer this flexibility. It requires much more precision when exposing. This is not the type of film you want to use if you are just starting out. It’s also very difficult and expensive to get developed, so I would suggest sticking with standard C-41 at the beginning.

3. Buying expensive film

If you just opened to door of film photography, you must feel a bit lost by the amount of film to choose from… this is normal. I was feeling the same at the beginning and couldn’t decide which film I should buy. I started reading reviews, checking pictures on Flickr, etc.

After a while, you will notice the same names coming up over and over, such as Kodak Portra for color and Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X for black and white film. These are the most popular but they are also pricey. If budget is not an issue, you can stop reading here; however, if you are concerned about the cost of your photography, stay with me a bit more.

In my quest for the perfect film, I ended up on choosing Kodak Portra 400. The look of images really appealed to me, and it didn’t take long before a box of 5 rolls got delivered to my mailbox. Of course, quality comes at a price, but if I wanted to create this kind of images I had to put the price.

So I went on shooting and was sure that it would get fantastic images thanks to this professional film. Soon, I proudly handed over a freshly-shot roll to my local lab to get it developed. As soon as I got the negatives back, I ran home to scan those images.

My enthusiasm quickly vanished when the first images appeared on my screen. It was a real cold shower: these images had nothing to do with what I was expecting from this film.

Looking back, I figured that the problem was not the film but my lack of experience. At the time, my knowledge of film was so limited that we could consider it non-existent. To get the most of a film, there are many factors that will impact the final result. We have seen earlier that exposure is one thing but the lens, quality of light, developing process, and scanning will also play a major role in achieving this result.

Let’s be honest, if you shoot with professional film but then play cheap, like I did, on development and scanning, you will never reach this quality. It’s like driving a Ferrari with cheap tires, there’s no way you’ll get optimal performance.

If you are just starting, there is no point in buying the most expensive films on the market. You can use cheaper alternatives and get respectable results too. I’ve reviewed the Afga 200 for color and Fomapan 200 for black and white. These guys are doing a great job while saving you some frustration and money.

Below is an example of what you can get with a $4 roll of Fomapan 200:

Once you have more experience, you should definitely use those more expensive films and try to send your work to pro labs if your budget allows you to do so. They have the equipment and the level expertise required to reveal the most of your negatives.


About the author: Vincent Moschetti is an Ireland-based photographer who is in the middle of a year-long experiment where he’s shooting only film photography. You can find more of his work or follow along on this adventure by visiting his website or following him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.