When we think about black and white photographs, we generally associate them with an absence of color.
This is certainly not the case.
Like all photographs, black and white images are made from light, and light consists of innumerable wavelengths that produce the colors we see with our eyes. With black and white photography, we might not see the saturation of colors the same way, but the luminance values of these colors remain the same whether we view them in color or black and white.
This is why it’s so important to shoot digital black and white photos in RAW mode so that we can later manipulate these intact luminance values to control the contrasts within our digitally-converted black and white photos.
All of this is based on the use of physical “color” lens filters, which filter out different wavelengths of light to produce varying contrast effects in black and white photography.
A red filter produces dark, dramatic skies in landscape photos while orange filters can radically reduce the appearance of freckles and other skin blemishes in your portraits.
Of course, this means carrying a set of filters with you constantly and also compensating for the slight reduction in light with adjustments to your exposures.
But what if I told you that your DSLR or MDC (mirrorless digital camera) most likely has all of the color filters you will need for outstanding black and white work right at your fingertips?
I know, I was initially just as surprised as you are. Read on.
Black and white digital filters
Real black and white color filters work to filter out other wavelengths of light that don’t fall into the color spectrum of the filter. This means red filters allow red wavelengths to pass, blue allows blue, etc.
The cool thing is, many major camera manufacturers have seen fit to include digital amalgamations of these color filters. They could very well be slightly buried in your camera’s settings, but Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Panasonic all offer models which sport built-in black and white color filters.
As always, your camera user manual is your best friend. However, you may often find these filter options (if you have them) in the monochrome settings of your digital camera. In our example, I’ll be using a Canon 5D MKIII.
I’m about to say something not usually encountered when it comes to digital photography these days – when using these digital black and white filters, it can be best to shoot JPEG…not RAW.
Sure, you’re going to lose some post-processing leverage, but seeing that you can see the effects of your filter choices and you likely intend to end up with a black and white photo anyway, there’s not much reason to save the color information with a RAW file.
The wonderful thing about digital black and white filters is that you can enjoy real-time feedback of the filter effects.
Which filter to use?
We’ve touched on a few of the circumstances where color black and white filters are best suited. In most cases, your digital camera will have a set of digital color filters from which to choose: red, yellow, orange, green and blue. These options, however, will vary. For instance, my 5D MKIII has no blue filter option.
Have a look at some examples and each of these below. I’ve used the same scene to show the varying effects of each filter. I’ve also listed a few quick scenarios that may help you choose a particular filter setting.
Here’s the original color photo for reference:
This filter is a great way to pump in instant drama to most black and white landscape photos.
The red filter drastically reduces the transmission of blue wavelengths, thus darkening blue skies and making clouds pop. Some scenes can take on an almost infrared appearance.
Taking it down a notch from the heavily-apparent effects of the red filter, the orange filter produce similar, yet subdued, contrasts to its red cousin.
Orange color filters are great “general purpose filters” for adding in contrast to your black and white photos. They darken blue skies and help to bring out the appearance of clouds.
Orange filters are also great for reducing atmospheric haze and fog.
A yellow color filter produces effects even less “in your face” than the orange filter. A yellow filter is a good option for bringing out the contrasts of foliage and can also be a good choice for a general black and white photography filter when the orange filter is a bit too harsh.
The next two filters are less useful for most shooters but still bear mentioning. Well, not less useful, but perhaps not found as commonly in black and white photography as the other color filters I’ve mentioned.
Of course, this filter allows the transmission of green light. This makes it a good choice for flower and foliage photography as it helps to add contrast between the often green-colored stems and leaves of the plants. All while providing separation from the different-colored flowers and blossoms.
Green filters can also brighten blue skies but not as much as the last filter we’re about to discuss.
Final thoughts on in-camera digital filters…
Digital photography has made many things easier and more accessible for photographers. Even more fortunate, many of the same tried-and-true technical and optical principles still apply to our digital cameras. Built-in digital black and white color filters are just one of the many benefits of our brave new digital age.
Many popular camera manufacturers have included digital black and white color filters with their digital camera offerings, so check your particular model.
Black and white color filters allow you to add instant strength and contrast to your black and white photos.
Depending on your particular scene or subject, you can produce amazingly powerful black and whites before you ever download them from your camera. Color black and white filters have long been a standby of serious photographers, and it’s great to see them still holding their own, albeit in a more modern, digital incarnation.
So go out and try these black and white digital filters, and share your photos with us in the comments section!