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Yellow Is The New Grey


Yellow filter with Kentmere 400 B&W film


What if I told you that to improve your photography you should learn about colour!? Well, yes… obviously, but aren’t we talking about Black and White Photography this month? So can’t we just forget about colour until October?! Nope!! To improve your photography in every format (including B&W) knowing about colour is very helpful!!

Last week Digital Len made a great post about lighting! See it here: https://www.framefocusfoto.com/post/using-light-in-black-white-photography


What you will see from the examples is that tonality was massively influenced by the lighting in the image. If you haven’t read it, go have a look and then come back to this article. Pay particular attention to the histogram examples he provided.


But tonality is not only influenced by light, it is also influenced by colour! The sensitivity of a camera or film to different colours is called Spectral Sensitivity. The more sensitive a medium is to a certain colour, the lighter it will render in the image. Generally speaking Panchromatic film, and digital images converted to B&W display sensitivity to a wide range of colours, and so in even lighting this can lead to rather dull looking photographs. To create depth and interest, we can move the tonalities of different colours apart by using different colour filters. Let’s have a look at the examples below.

We have a bowl, with green, red and yellow sweet peppers. The scene is broadly side lit by a window. All the pictures were made with a Fuji X100V with following in camera profiles applied:


  1. Standard Colour

  2. Acros

  3. Acros + Yellow

  4. Acros + Red

  5. Acros + Green


Scroll through the thumbnails to see each example. The first picture is our reference to see how the different filters change the tones of the colours from the “real world” scene. The first B&W image is a simple conversion to the Acros B&W profile. In this particular case the tones between each pepper have some separation. It doesn’t look bad, but let’s see what happens with the next image. Already with the application of the Yellow filter, we can see an increase in contrast! It looks much better!


In the example with the Red filter, the contrast has increased even more! Look how dark the green pepper has gone! For this particular picture the Yellow filter would probably be just right, the Red takes the contrast a bit too far for my taste.


The last example a Green filter was applied, this has the least amount of contrast and renders the peppers in flat tones.


Another interesting observation is that the bowl does not change much in tonality as you change the filtration. It is a fairly neutral tone. Same can be said for the wall in the background. But have a look at the table. For the basic conversion and the image with a yellow filter it has taken on a dark tone overall, however with the Red filter it has gone even darker! This is because the table was reflectIng some of the blue light from outside the window, and when you use a red filter, blue light gets darkened in dramatic fashion!


The opposite can be said of the Green filter, look how the green filter makes the table far lighter than in all the other examples! It has lightened the table so much in fact that it is almost the same tone as the green pepper!


That’s all well and good! But what does it mean to us in practice? Let’s have a look at a couple real World examples.


The first picture in this post was made on Kentmere 400 film and with a yellow filter on the front of the lens. In reality the Harley was yellow, the jacket blue and the taxi in the background was red. But the yellow filter has separated them all nicely. The Harley’s tank is almost white (it was yellow remember), the jacket contrasts it nicely since it was blue, the yellow filter darkened that a little and the red cab takes on a tone somewhere between the two of them.



This next example was made with an orange filter on the front of the lens! I realize we didn’t discuss orange filters in our examples at the start of this article, but Orange is essentially halfway between Yellow and Red. An orange filter will still allow the sky to be grey, though a darker shade than would be the case with yellow. The boat on the right was blue, and the one on the left yellow! Look how dramatically the filter has separated them! Also note how in the sky, the clouds have been separated nicely. Without a filter they would have taken on a similar tone to the sky and the image would have less interest from a tonality perspective.

This last example was made with a Fuji XE3 with the Acros + Red film simulation applied. The high contrast of the scene was first and foremost because of the fortuitous lighting, and then increased further by using a red filter. You can see how dark the clouds behind the buildings have been rendered. In reality they were a dark, moody blue as there was a storm brooding in the background.


In summary. Using filters either digitally or physical filters for film change tonality and contrast. As a general rule of thumb you can always use a yellow filter, it will normally provide a nice range of tone and contrast. Orange is useful if you have dramatic clouds in the skies but you don’t want to make the blue portions of the sky go totally black, and red will really pump up the contrast and render skies on a sunny day close to black. Green is a filter I almost never use, but has a role to play in portraiture in particular. It can also be helpful for certain landscapes, it will brighten up green foliage.


For those of you converting colour images to B&W in post production this will still be very useful to you! Most editing software allows you to edit individual colour channels for B&W images. So applying those colour channels using all the above examples you will get a similar results. Editing photos this way really allows you to fine tune the tones of your picture!


Happy photographing and stay tuned for more next week!


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