Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Working with colored lens filters and converting to black and white, part of The Practicing Photographer.
- The modern digital camera delivers an incredible amount of image quality, high image quality, I should say. And with the flexibility of digital shooting you can really play with that image quality in a lot of ways, it's still as good as digital cameras are a lot of us still often go, Oh, yeah that's good, but I'm gonna really fix it up in post. I'm gonna do a lot of things in post. I'm gonna change this in post production, I'm gonna fix this in my image editor, and so on and so forth. Consequently, a lot of us don't think the way that film photographers used to think about filters and by filters I mean filters that you screw on to the end of your lens.
This week on The Practicing Photographer we're going to look at a really good use for lens filters for digital photographers. And I'm going to speak specifically about shooting black and white with lens filters. This is something that film photographers were very used to doing using using colored filters to tone their images in particular ways to get particular contrast ratios, darken some things, lighten others. We don't worry about that as digital shooters because we know we can go into post production, and tone any color to any shade of gray that we want, that is one of the great advantages of shooting in black and white is the freedom we have to tone things in different ways.
There are some advantages, though, to using colored filters and I want to show you what they are. I've got two different colors of filters here, I have a red filter and a yellowish orange filter. A colored filter brightens the color of that filter, so if I put this red filter on red things in my image are going to get brighter. But it's not just red things, it's the entire red component of color is going to get brighter and a lot of different colors have red in it and so that's going to affect the brightness of a lot of different things in my image.
It's also going to really impact contrast in my image. You know, actually before I put this filter in, let me show you the shot I'm going to do without the filter. I've got this nice red barn back here with all these green plants in front of it. I'm just gonna take a shot. What drew me to this image was the barn and then the fence here is really nice. And the play of red against green is cool. So I've got a pretty wide angle lens on my camera, I'm shooting at the equivalent of about 21 millimeters on a full frame camera. So I'm just going to focus up a shot, I'm going for deep depth of field so I'm at about F8, and I get this.
That's my color image. A conversion to black and white would look something like this. I think that I can do better than that with these filters. So I'm gonna just take this red filter. I had to buy a filter that's the correct size for this lens. This is a 72 millimeter filter, unfortunately this is the only 72 millimeter lens I have, so I can't use it on any other of my lenses, which is frustrating. I also bought a 58 millimeter red filter which fits four of the lenses that I have for this camera. So that's something to consider when you're shopping is do you really want to invest in a filter that only works on one of your lenses, or do you want to try and get a size that you can spread across more lenses.
I really shoot with this lens a lot I like working with wide angles so I figure this was a worthwhile investment. I now do nothing any different than what I would normally do. I focus, I meter, and I take the shot. My auto focus system works fine through the filter, my light meter works fine through the filter. So I don't need to do any adjustments to that. Now I may find that in some situations with certain filters, depending on the strength of the filter, that I take an exposure hit, that is the filter cuts out some light and so I need to over expose, or my shutter speed goes way down.
So that's something to keep an eye on. But for the most part, I'm finding that I'm not taking a big hit on either of these filters. I'm putting the yellow filter on now, and I'm going to grab that one, not looking at these images yet, we'll take a look at those in post and see what we can come up with. So just so you know with this filter on I'm at 140 second of a second for a shutter speed. Without the filter I'm at a 90. So this is taking about a stop off. But I've got so much aperture and ISO latitude that that's not really a problem.
So there are other colored filters out there, there are green filters which are going to make green things lighter, that might be very interesting for working with some of this vegetation. There are blue filters and those don't really do much for black and white photography, they might make the sky brighter, but typically you want more contrast in the sky, and the red filter is going to get me that. If red lightens red tones it darkens the tones opposite on the color wheel. So I'm really gonna get some nice darkening in my cooler tones. So that's shooting with a colored filter for black and white.
Later we'll look at post production. I've copied all of my images into the computer, now I shot without a filter and with, so we have some things to compare to. This is the shot with no filter, obviously it's in color, I'm ultimately heading to black and white. We'll get to that in a minute, I just want you to see what these look like straight out of the camera. This is the red filter, believe it or not. And you can see that there is not a trace of color left in this image and that's going to mean that my black and white toning controls aren't really that useful.
And what I mean by that is where normally I would be able to tone the blue bits specifically, I'm not going to have that here because Lightroom's just gonna read this all as red. And then finally, here's the yellow filter. And here I've still got a little bit of color detailing, you can actually see some distinction between the green and the red that you can't see over here. This just really blocks out everything. So let's start by taking a look at a black and white conversion of the color image. I'm here in Lightroom, this exact same conversion would work the same way in camera Raw, or even with a black and white layer in Photoshop.
I think they're all gonna pretty much give me the same recipe for this image. And I get this. Not a bad image. It's pretty uniformly gray down here. These are all pretty dark tones and a quick look at the histogram over here shows that the majority of my tones in the image are clustered over here, so this is basically everything in the foreground and this blob is the sky. So my foreground area doesn't have a lot of contrast in it. I would want to punch that up and this is the image that I was going to go for. Let's go over here to the red filter and throw on a black and white conversion.
And, wow, right away everything's really different. The fence is all white, here's the regular black and white conversion, here's the red filter version. And look at my histogram, I've got all this extra contrast and in fact, the foreground is now coming into the same tonal range as the sky which is nice. It's in addition to breaking up the foreground I'm getting this kind of cool rhythm of light, dark, light. So that's working really well. A couple of other little things to notice here, obviously the main one being that the fence looks white here, or not white, but very bright, as does the barn and this is textbook red filter.
Red things are going to go brighter, but I'm also picking up more contrast here on the plants in front of the fence. So overall, this whole area that was completely flat and that was going to need a lot of work is seeing a whole lot of contrast. So right away I'm getting a big improvement in the image. I'm a little surprised that the sky is not doing more. Here, look at this area in here, there are some clouds up here. I'm seeing a little more here, but not a lot. And the problem here is I'm not going to be able to go in with the selected adjustment and tone down the sky the way that I can here.
And what I mean by that is this was originally a color image so if I click with this tool and drag up here I can darken the sky to a lot more contrast between the sky and the clouds. Here, I'm going to have to do this with an adjustment layer and some careful brushing and masking. It's not at all impossible, it's just a little bit more work. I think it's worth it for the overall improvement that I got down here. Let's take a look at the yellow filter. Hit it with a black and white adjustment. Also a very nice image, this has lightened up some and it's pretty much between the other two. So this is the red filter, notice how bright these areas are in here.
Here they're not as bright, but I have more detail, which is nice. Here I've lost some details out to pure white. I can probably bring those back and maybe bring them back with a little bit of contrast. But here, they're already there. That said, my initial hit on this foreground area is that it is going to need a contrast adjustment. It's kind of like the original image, in that this is a uniform level of tonality for the most part, and on paper that's gonna look pretty flat, so I'm gonna need to punch that up.
It's just that it's a brighter uniform layer of contrast, or level of contrast, as compared to the first one. So let's see, let's get these side by side here so that you can see them all. Clear this out of the way. So this is my original. This is the red filter. This is the yellow filter. And the way that I'm telling the difference is that this one is more contrasty than this one. This one is brighter than this one. So overall, I think this is a success. This image is definitely better off with my red filters.
It's a little bit of a, I don't know, it's an interesting test for this particular problem because we're shooting something red. So I want to show you another couple of examples here that aren't so perfectly tailored to a red filter because there's actually something that we're not seeing here thay I was expecting and that is a lot of little micro contrast detail that you'll often see. Here's an image shot in color, obviously, and here's a black and white version of it. This is a straight black and white version of the color image. So you can see that I haven't really done anything to it, I've left the blue where it was.
Here is the red flter version, I'm sorry, the framing is a little bit different, by the time I got the filter on it someone had gotten in my way or something, and taken a step. I actually think I like this framing better, anyway. So this is red filter and here is the straight conversion with no alteration. Let me show you these two side by side. So this is color image converted to grayscale, this is red filter converted to grayscale. And wow, the red one's so much nicer. My sky's gone really dark, I have a lot of nice contrast between the sky and the clouds.
But I really like what the building has done, it's gone really bright which is making it stand out against the background really well. And again, as I said before, it's just breaking up the uniformity of tone. This is a lot of very similar tonality, the sky is very similar to this, this isn't that much darker, on darker paper this is really just going to read as wall of gray. This has punch and a lot of variation in it. That said, I still wanted to do somethings to this image. So I took it into Photoshop and did some edits and came up with this.
I've just punched up the contrast a lot more. So you can see here is the original, watch this area in here, this is before editing, this is after. So I've tried to brighten the sky and clouds, I have darkened these window frames and generally just increased the contrast on the face of the building. Let me show you how I did that. Very simple use of adjustment layers I'm gonna launch this into Photoshop. And you'll see that I created seperate layers for different parts of the image. And by using layer masks I can isolate and constrain those edits.
So here is an adjustment layer that is targeted just at the building. You can see I've really put my black and white to where they need to be so that I've got good contrast on the building. Here's another layer targeted at this building, again,a simple black white adjustment and contrast increase. Then I went after the clouds, so this is before, and this is after. Just punched those up with a really fine edged, or blurry, soft edged brush I was able to brush over the clouds in a way that didn't give me hard edges. And then finally I worked on just some of these birds here, just lightening up their lighter parts.
So just because I'm shooting with a red filter that doesn't mean that I give up on edits. It's just that I get a stronger starting point. And by stronger, I mean it's great in this image that I already had the sky darker. I didn't have to try and mask around all these birds to darken it up. I also didn't have to try to darken it in my black and white conversion. A lot of times to take a sky this dark I'll end up with bad posterizing meaning bad banding in the sky. So let's take a look here in Lightroom at this image.
So this sky is much lighter than the sky that I got with the red filter. If I come in here with this tool, I don't know if you can see it, but, as I darken it, well, actually it's not too bad, but there's a tiny bit of banding happening up here. That's going to be more pronounced on paper because a piece of paper's gonna have even less room to hold that detail than my screen is. One more example, this is a color image that's been converted to black and white. This is a red filtered image that's been converted to black and white.
And yes, I know, it's not exactly the same image, I tried to get that bird to fly through again, but he just wouldn't do it. But look a the sky, big difference in the sky. But also look at the quality of the highlights versus the foreground of the birds. I just got a lot more contrast here on this one than I do on this one. Same thing over here and of course, the bridge is showing a little more contrast. This is unedited, I've done nothing but taken it out of a camera and do a black and white conversion. So if you like black and white shooting I really recommend getting some of these filters and experimenting with them.
As I said, be careful about your choice of filter size. Try to get one that's gonna work with the greatest number of lenses. But if you're not real sure if you're sold on this technique, note that filters are more expensive if they're bigger. So maybe pick your smallest lens size to start with. You could buy a small 58 millimeter filter, say, for not that much money and be able to dabble with this and see what you think about it. Red is going to give you a stronger result than yellow, so if you're wanting to hedge a little bit you can go with yellow instead of going full on into the red. But the downside of the red is that I'm losing shadow detail because things are going so contrasty.
Yellow is still gonna give me a leg up on my black and white conversion because it's going to introduce some more contrast that I'm not going to have to do in editing. Really easy way to make your black and white prints more striking.
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