Let Color Guide You to Better B&W Images

I am learning how the techniques for making better B&W film photographs have direct application to my digital B&W images as well, which is a great way to retain the heritage of previous knowledge as technology changes.  Not surprising, though, since light is light regardless of the tools we use.

For years I didn’t quite “get” the whole B&W photography thing.  The world around me is in color and that’s the way I wanted to preserve it in photographs.  Ironically, it’s the immediate feedback provided by digital that got me to thinking more about monochrome compositions as a way to minimize the “seduction of color,” as Jay Maisel says.

Once I became more comfortable with exposure, lighting, compositions, etc. (thanks, RMSP!) I found myself returning to film – first medium format and now large format as well.  And B&W has been in my film holders more and more as I explore shapes, textures, tones and contrasts trying to “see” beyond the color.

The lesson I’m working on these days is using color filters to modify my film images.  Sounds odd, but modern B&W film is sensitive to the range of RGB colors we associate with digital capture, and color filters help adjust B&W images based on manipulations of RGB values.

The primary lesson I’m working on with filters is this:  for a specific colored filter, the tones in the composition made up of that color will be lighter and the tones of the opposite and complementary colors will be darker (opposite/complementary on the color wheel).  Varying degrees of filter color density will give varying amounts of change.

For example, a sunny day with big puffy clouds against a blue sky and a composition of a forested mountainside.  With no filter the blue sky will be brighter than your eye thinks because the film is more sensitive to blue wavelengths.  As a result, the brightness of the sky will be close to that of the clouds and you’ll see little contrast between them, leaving a flat appearance to the sky.  Putting an orange or red filter on the lens will result in blue light being absorbed, rendering the sky darker without affecting the clouds.  Now the image will show bright, white clouds against a dark sky with the degree of darkness depending on the density of the orange or red filter.

In another example, objects of different colors but with similar luminance values can show up in an unfiltered B&W image as the same shade of gray.  By using a filter to block one color preferentially,  you can darken one object enough to make it stand out.  Say your image is of apples in a tree with green leaves where the whole tree is evenly lit.  If the red apples and green leaves are equal in luminance they will show up as the same shade of gray in your picture – probably not the result you want.  By putting a red or green filter on the lens you can darken either the apples or the leaves enough to make them stand out separately.

More on this for B&W film can be found at http://www.fineart-photography.com/bwfilter.html

Why this is important to digital is that the same RGB colors can be adjusted to enhance your B&W images when you convert them.  The software programs I use (Lightroom, Photoshop, NIK Silver Efex Pro 2) all provide the option of adjusting individual colors even after conversion to B&W, either globally or locally.  With this capability you can post-process your image as if you had used a color filter for B&W film, but with the advantage of being able to make as many changes as you like.  Adjust the blue sky by “adding” a red filter and make those puffy clouds stand out, or showcase those red apples in a green tree.


What I’m doing now is looking for image opportunities that I know will be B&W in their final form, and paying attention to the colors in the scene so I can use these “digital filters” in post processing.  Here’s an example from a photo tour I did of Great Sand Dunes National Park in southeastern Colorado.  I wanted to show the lines, curves and texture of the sands but in color it all came out the same (the color image has not been processed).  Only in B&W did I get the look I wanted.

So keep your colors in mind when you’re out scoping B&W opportunities and use them along with your digital tools to create the look you want.

5 thoughts on “Let Color Guide You to Better B&W Images

Beth Button

A good article with helpful information and presented simply and with clarity.

Nice work Mel!

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Barry Grivett

Ditto. V-e-r-y interesting: makes me want to try B&W where color just doesn’t do the image justice.

Ann Glover

Love your article. I grew up with B & W film and love working with digital B & W. Thanks for the great article.

Susan Wolfe

Ever the instructor, Mel, but thankfully you’re thorough and easy to understand. Thanks for sharing your insights here.

why is the sky blue

looking for you , you got facebook?

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