A Guide to Color Filters with B&W Film

Color Filter Lens

Our guide will explain using yellow, orange, red, and green with black and white film photography. We’ll discover when best to use them and the kinds of outcomes achieved with each color. There will also be tips and examples showing each of the filter types. You’ll also find some great resources at the end to reference our B&W Film Index and make sure you have what you need for processing and printing.

How Does Color Filters Affect B&W Film?

When you shoot black and white film, it’s tough to get the same effect as shooting color. B&W film records the colors of light as white, and color filters block some wavelengths from being captured. When taking pictures, they act as sunglasses, filtering out specific frequencies to not distract from your picture’s quality. The process often makes objects appear clearer because their background has been eliminated, along with all those pesky reflections that can get in people’s shots without asking. Colored lens filters can help to ensure objects remain well defined in images while still providing some vibrancy for mood shots or scenery backgrounds.

Choosing the Right Color Filters

As a B&W film photographer, you probably know that there is a lot of debate about using colored filters in your photography. Some say they should not be used at all, while others believe that they can add interesting effects to the final image. Many kinds of color filters are available today, but most photographers use these standard colors; yellow, orange, red, and green. These colored filters have been around since the early days of film photography and have been used by professional photographers ever since then.

Cons to Consider When Using Color Filters

The color filters covered in this article refer to the circular type. Mounting lower-quality filters on the front of a lens can increase the risk of flare. However, some filters with more expensive and advanced coatings can overcome this risk.  Although, flare can happen with good filters as well which is why it is good to have a lens hood as well.

Each filter reduces the amount of light transmitted by 1 to 4 stops and could significantly affect your shooting style. It is recommended to use a film such as Delta 400 or Tri-X 400.

Delta 400 Film Review | Tri-X 400 Film Review

400 ISO film will still allow enough light even with -4 stops. In obtaining test shots for this article, we were able to shoot with 50 ISO and 100 ISO with a red filter during the day without a tripod. A tripod is a great way to achieve balance as pushing film increases contrast (as do filters) so the contrast could get way too strong especially with a red filter.

Most newer cameras use TTL metering to correct the impact of filters automatically. Some older models will need to have exposure adjusted manually – reference an owner’s manual to see how your camera meters correctly. However, beginners should stick to a film camera with TTL metering until they get used to the process and outcomes of using colored filters. It is also essential to consider the use of SLR versus Rangefinder-style cameras. With an SLR, you will see the impact of the color filter when framing the shot. However, with a rangefinder, you won’t see how the color filter impacts as you are not looking through the lens.

Using Color Filters

To get a more creative and exciting look for your black and white photos, be sure to not only convert them with the right color filter but also experiment by using an assortment of different ones.

If certain colors in a scene seem too similar, it can make the B&W picture relatively flat and milky. You can change this mood by adjusting the color contrast. A color filter allows you to alter accents of colors in different tones from their original representation.

Yellow Filter (-1 Stop)

Yellow Filter

A yellow filter gives an excellent balance between photographic effect and ease of use. Many people like to “bring out their clouds” with this type. The yellow filter darkens blues but reproduces green and other colors in lighter shades. It gives more differentiation between different kinds of leaves while flesh tones have a natural look. It works well with pictures containing people against an environmental background.

Orange Filter (-2 Stops)

Orange Filter

Orange filters are more dramatic than yellow but less so than red. The sky will take on a dark tone when recorded in blue skies thanks to its strong contrast with the clouds and gives off an impactful look that other colors cannot match. Orange also helps penetrate through haze efficiently, giving flowers their signature “pop.” So if you’re into your landscape shots and lush floras, screw on the Orange filter.

Red Filter (-3 Stops)

Red Filter

A red filter is the go-to for bold and dramatic effects. Not only will it give your photos a more intense feel, but using this type of color eliminates any haziness that might be present in those shots with mixed material buildings or foggy landscapes – giving you clarity where there was once misty atmosphere before. When you add a red filter to your camera, blue skies will become very dark. Instead of looking at pictures in which there are endless amounts of fluffy white clouds drifting lazily across an open field or high above some pretty scenery, now they come out dark and ominous providing a much more dramatic feel.

Green Filter (-2 Stop)

Green Filter

Green filters are used almost exclusively for scenes that contain a lot of green. A green filter will allow leaves to appear more natural with a lighter feel to them. It will lighten dark green leaves, which usually read as very deep in shadows without it.

Although this solution might not work for every type of landscape photograph, it’s often an ideal fit when applied to ones with an abundance of greens.

Side-by-side examples

B&W Film Used With Color Filters

Portraits on Ilford Delta 400

Cityscape on Ilford Delta 100

Still Life on Tri-X 400

Daylight scene on Ilford Delta 400

Portrait on Kodak Tri-X 400

Daylight nature scene on Ilford Delta 400

Final Thoughts On Using Color Filters

Using a colored filter can create a unique look for B&W photography. Experimenting with different filters can yield beautiful results. We can all agree that it isn’t always necessary but may provide exciting effects for particular subjects or scenes. The kinds of effects that you never knew were possible, simply based on the color in the scene. Keep in mind that when it comes to exposure compensation, the outcomes will vary depending on the brand and filter type. For the purpose of this article, we used Tiffen Filters and were pleased with the outcome. Don’t forget to check out our Film Index for all you need to know about Black and White films. Once all is said and done, remember to check out The Darkroom’s easy online order form to get your rolls processed and printed.

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34 replies on “A Guide to Color Filters with B&W Film”

I’m interested in getting a 47B (blue) filter. I’ve read that enhances freckles and fog/haze. Could you please add this filter to these comparisons? It would be very helpful.

With my (cheap) non-Tiffen blue filter and my spotmeter, I measure – 3.5 to 4 stops, in accordance with the measurement of my other cheap filters and the information given here.

Excellent article, by far the best I’ve seen to date explaining the nuance and effect color filters have on B&W photography. I’ve been shooting M/F with my Hasselblad 500 C/M for several years now, and am in the final throws of completing my very first home built L/F 4×5 field camera. Just this past week I’ve picked up a set of Y-O-R-G filters, a box of Ilford HP5+ sheet film and will be in Asheville N.C. the first week of April 2022 on the maiden voyage of my new 4×5. I’ll have my Hassie and 15 rolls of Kodak Portra 400-NC with me, so wish me luck. Hopefully I’ll return home with something worthy of framing.

For anyone with a vintage film camera that is sitting idle and not being used, I challenge you to ( Get Up – Stand Up – Express Yourself ) or give it to someone who will.

Regards to all my fellow film shooters.
Sonny P.
Lewisburg W.V.

Sonny, I own a 4×5 camera, with a few film holders. Do you have any interest?
I found your comments interesting.

The article says, “It is also essential to consider the use of SLR versus Rangefinder-style cameras. With an SLR, you will see the impact of the color filter when framing the shot. However, with a rangefinder, you won’t see how the color filter impacts as you are not looking through the lens.”

This seems to deprecate the use of colored filters with rangefinders in favor of SLRs.

For me, I see this as reversed. With the SLR you must look through the darkening effect of the filter, and while this may give you some idea of how colors will be effected, the overall darkening of the viewfinder is often way too much and makes even framing difficult. On a rangefinder, you don’t have this problem as you are not looking through the filter, and you are not having to take it on and off. For me, this is much better. If you wish to see how colors are effected, simply look through the filter before putting it onto the camera.

It’s difficult to achieve the same impact while shooting black and white film as when shooting colour. Color filters prevent some wavelengths from being captured on B&W film, whereas colour filters prevent some wavelengths from being captured on colour film.

My guess is that titles are placed on the wrong photos. The titles go from top left, down left, top middle, down middle, top right, down right. But the pictures go from top left to top right and then again the next line. Now I see that the if you open image in a new tab the file names correspond with that. You can see that especially with the guy with the red hat. The red filter should brighten the hat the most, so therefore picture 5 is taken with the red filter.

Only because you did this guide so well I was able to tell :).

1 2 3 1 3 5
4 5 6 not 2 4 6

Absolutely agree. The wrong labels are applied which makes the examples very confusing, showing the wrong effect for the filters.

When I became interested in photography, there was no digital. I like digital, but there’s something about film that digital can’t match. Look at the black and white photos of Ansel Adams.

The artical was about colored filters with b&w film. I always thought that a colored filter will lighten it’s own color and darken the others. In the shot with the guy wearing a red hat, the 21 orange filter lightened the red hat. So if I photograph a red rose, green stem, a red filter will not lighten the red rose? I want two pictures of a red rose, green stem. One where the rose is white and a dark stem, the other where the rose is dark and a light stem.

Now what about the cityscape? All the pictures look the same (well at least to me) As Kodak says, a no.12 yellow filter will make the sky look natural, while a 25 red will make the sky look almost black.

B&w film is very sensitive to the color blue (I don’t know why) so a scene with a blue sky, the sky will be very pale gray, almost white, and if there’s clouds, the clouds won’t show up or will be hard to see depending on the scene, so a colored filter should be used.

So how do you know what filter to use depending on the effect you want?

In the first example with the person in the red beanie. Are the Orange and Red supposed to be swapped? The beanie is significatly brighter with the orange filter than the red filter, but shouldn’t it be the inverse?

Thank you for article 🙏🙏🙏 I have a question about Cityscape on Ilford Delta 100 – between Green and Orange. Blue sky and greens with Orange filter look lighter, than with Green filter.

In 2011, I made a New Year’s Resolution to photograph the year 2012 exclusively with B&W film. I rediscovered the classic look of B&W film when I photographed the final Space Shuttle landing; since it was a pre-dawn landing, color would have been wasted. I used the four filters mentioned in the article. It took about three months before I was able to visualize a scene in B&W

Very good filter use examples.

I have been filter buying this week to complete a good collection, including a set of tricolor separation filters for creating color images from B&W film (for daylight: #25 red, #47B blue and #58 green; for tungsten: #29 red, #47 blue and #61 green).

Unlike digital media or color film, a correctly processed B&W film negative will last in the order of 500+ years. There is no better low-cost method for the preservation of color images than RGB separations using B&W film.

Please wish me well since I’ll be bringing my Hassie along with 15 rolls of Kodak Portra 400-NC film. If I’m lucky, I’ll have something that’s worthy of being framed when I go back home.

The captions are not matched with the photos. To see the correct filter, right click on an image and open in a new tab. The title of the tab will indicate the actual filter used.

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Fantastic article. One correction — the Red and Green filters are mixed up in the set of examples titled “Cityscape on Ilford Delta 100”. You can right click on each image and see the color in the file name. Green wouldn’t make the sky that dark — only Red would do that.

Great post! I found your insights really thought-provoking. It’s refreshing to see such well-researched content. Thanks for sharing your thoughts . I’ve had a similar experience, and I couldn’t agree more with your perspective. It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

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