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How to Use a Black and White Filter to Improve Your Photos

In photography, you’re always looking for that extra percentage improvement in your work. One of the best ways you can quickly get this improvement is by using a black and white filter.

Those interested in black and white photography should know about the various filter options available to them. In this article, you’ll discover how to get more dramatic photos simply by changing the color of light coming into your camera.

So read on and find out which filters those are, and when and where best to use them. Now you’ll know all there is to know about the black and white filter options!

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Using yellow, orange or red filters on a partially cloudy day will give you good results.

The Classic Black and White Filter Group

The workhorse filters for black and white photography are undoubtedly the red, orange and yellow filters. These filters can add more punch and drama to your scene, so let’s take a look at what they do and why they’re important.

Yellow Filter

Adding this filter to the front of your lens will add more contrast, which will lead to a more dramatic look. The main way this happens is that the yellow filter will darken the skies while keeping the clouds white. To get the most out of this you’ll need to be photographing on a partially cloudy day. The filter will also add more contrast to the foliage for your nature landscapes. Now, if you’re a cityscape photographer those darker skies will make a skyscraper building jump out of the frame more. This filter will reduce the amount of light coming into the camera, so be aware of this and compensate by increasing the exposure value if needed.

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Buildings will stand out more against the sky when you use filters.

Orange Filter

You may have guessed that using orange as opposed to yellow will in effect dial up all of the effects that the yellow filter makes. Whether you want to darken those skies more is an artistic choice, but it’s always worth having an orange filter in the bag to give you that option. This filter further reduces the amount of light coming into the camera by about 1 stop.

Red Filter

Using this black and white filter gives your photo a dark foreboding look, and makes the viewer sense an incoming storm. It does this because the blue skies become black when you use this filter, so the clouds have a lot of mood and drama to them. Whether your an urban or nature photographer, this filter ensures that those particular elements jump out of the frame much more. Again, as you dial up the contrast that a red filter applies, you reduce the amount of light coming into the camera. You’ll lose around 2 stops of light with a red filter on your lens.

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The use of a red filter will give a really moody foreboding look. In this photo, you can see Sinabung volcano in the background.

Other Filter Options For Black and White Photography

There are plenty of other filters. Indeed, circular polarizing filters and neutral density filters work just as well for black and white photography. This article looks to concentrate on filters specific to black and white photography. So beyond the prominent red, orange and yellow filters, what else is out there? The answer is more colored filters – green and blue.

  • Green filter – Use this filter when photographing foliage, it brightens those areas of the image that contain green.
  • Blue filter – This filter works in almost the opposite way of red, orange and yellow filters. It darkens the warm colors and is used to separate images that have a mixture of colors. Another application for this filter is when there is mist or fog. In these scenes, using this filter adds even more mood to your photo.
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Street photography is an area that’s popular for black and white photographers.

Using Graduated Filters

The use of graduated filters for landscape photography is still very popular, even with the dawn of post-processing in photography. The aspiration to get the photo right in camera is still very much alive, and it’s great to cut down on extra post-processing if you can. In black and white photography you can use neutral density filters to balance the light out across the frame. There are also sunset filters that can be used to add reds and oranges to the top half of an image. These filters can also be used in black and white photography to selectively add the filter color effect to certain parts of the photo, giving you a little more creative control over your final result.

Screw-on Filters, or a Stacking System?

Filters come in broadly two types; Circular-shaped filters that screw onto the front of your lens and square or rectangular-shaped filters that attach to a bracket. So which system is the best for you? Those looking to use one filter at a time might find the screw-on filters work better. These filters are made of glass and are also more resilient as a result. The stacking option gives you a choice to line up several filters, one in front of the other, and to adjust the horizon line for any graduated filters you may have. So what’s the best system? There are advantages to both, but if pressed, the stacking system is a nice option.

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The use of the correct black and white filter can add more mood to a scene.

How About Post-Processing?

These days you can produce an excellent black and white photo through post-processing. There is less need to use filters, and unless you’re using film, the use of physical filters is somewhat redundant. While this is true in some areas of photography, the pervading mantra is it’s better to get your photo right in-camera.

Nik Silver Efex

There is still a place for post-processing though, and one of the best programs out there for this is Nik Silver Efex. This program has a range of filters as well – though not the circular or screw on variety! You can use the program to add either red, orange or yellow to your image. Beyond that are filters like push-process that add contrast and punch to your photo. Finally, you can color cast your photo and add a vignette to it. All the effects you could create in a dark room, are now possible with post-processing.

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Of course, you can use programs like Silver Efex to create black and white photos during post-processing.

Try Out a Black and White Filter!

Many people who like photography will no doubt be familiar with these black and white filter options. Which ones do you find the most effective? We’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section.

Those who are new to black and white photography, have you considered using filters? Which are you more likely to use; digital versions or a filter you can attach to your lens? Once again, please share your experience of filters with the community!

Now all that’s left is to go out and make some stunning black and white photos!


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Simon Bond
Simon Bond

is a specialist in creative photography techniques and is well known for his work with a crystal ball. His work has featured magazines including National Geographic Traveler. With over 8 years of experience in lensball photography, Simon is an expert in this field. Get some great tips by downloading his free e-book!
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