Using Color Filters for Black & White Portraits

If you’re new to the world of using on-lens filters for black and white photography, here’s a quick primer.

filtermenuA Yellow filter darkens skies  and is typically used for landscapes but when shooting in snow, it can produce brilliant textures. An orange filter produces effects similar to the yellow filter but skies are darker and clouds more defined. An orange filter can be used in portraiture under household (tungsten) light sources to produce smooth skin tones. A red filter turns skies black with maximum contrast while in portraiture, freckles and blemishes can be eliminated. A green filter is useful for landscapes as it lightens vegetation but doesn’t darken the sky as much as the red filter. For portraits, skin tones may be more pleasin, but freckles and blemishes are more apparent.

The color head shot of Emily was made as a reference to show the effect of using digital filters in-camera for direct monochrome capture. For this shot, the EOS 1D Mark II N was set in “Faithful” Picture Style. The lens used for this entire series of photographs was the now discontinued EF 135mm f/2.8 SF. Shutter Priority mode exposure was 1/100 sec at f/6.3 and ISO 400.


No Filter: If you select “Monochrome” from the  Picture Styles menu, this is the result you achieve, but what happens when you add a digital filter?

Green filter: The Green filter is usually my favorite filter for portraits because of the pleasing things it does for skin tones but maximizes Emily’s freckles, which is not a bad thing. There is no one-size-fits all approach to what filter works best. The text provides some guidelines, but experiment with the kind of pictures that you make to get the optimum results.

Red Filter: Emily’s freckles are minimized with the Red filter but it washes out her red lipstick. If you like this look but want to punch up lip color in black and white with this filter, blue lipstick is the way to go.

Yellow Filter: My first filter choice is usually Yellow, probably because that’s a general-purpose filter for outdoor photography but it works well for this portrait of Emily because he’s a blond and makes her a little “blonder.”

Orange filter: The Orange filter produces a softer look and produce smooth skin tones in portraiture, when photographed under warm household light (tungsten) sources.


My book, Creative Digital Monochrome Effects is currently out-of-print but is available from Amazon at an affordable price with used copies available at a giveaway—less than a buck— price. Pick up inexpensive copies of this books for yourself or your favorite photographer.

Author: Joe Farace

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