George Wilson: Contrast Filters for Black and White Portrait Photography

Black And White Filter Illustration 590 492

Black and white (monochrome) is about contrast. In the late 1970’s I first picked up an SLR, and this formed the basis of my understanding and my methodology. This basic understanding carries through to my work today. Black and white imaging needs contrasts to help the tonal values of various greys to give depth to an image.

The first contrast is in focusing. I use a wide aperture to create a field of focused to un-focused areas of the frame. The second contrast is light to dark. Here I try to place subjects of different tonal values against one another, basically lights against darks. Combining similar tones creates a flat, almost muddy, appearance in the image.

The third contrast is textural. I use the same theory with light to dark, but with opposing textures. Paying attention to the contrasts and getting at least two of the three in your image will produce a better overall photo. In my own work, B&W images are not converted from color in post processing; they are captured using the monochrome setting on my camera with close attention to the three contrasts. Filters in black and white photography are about contrast, but in portrait work – they help with skin tones (textures) and that is how I employ them.

The issue, however, is that many colors, when captured in B&W, render similar tonal values. For example, some shades of red, green, and blue look completely different in color, but almost identical in black and white. This can cause objects in a black and white image to blend into one another, leaving you with a photo that is flat, lifeless and lacking in both contrast and definition. It is, therefore, necessary to separate them further with the use of contrast filters. Do you see the word I used? Contrast filters! Contrast is what we seek in B&W and these filters are a tremendous enhancement to your work if used properly.

There are four filter colors that are available in the monochrome menu on the modern DSLR: red, yellow, green and orange. In my camera bag, I carry these as glass filters as well and have expanded the group by one with green/yellow. Yes, I am a traditionalist. I still use glass filters rather than the digital ones. For me it is about control over my images and the exposure. In my bag I also carry an analog light meter, another “ancient” tool for controlling my exposures.

Without getting into the technical aspects of why the filters work, the basic premise is: In order to lighten a color the most, use the same color filter. This being said, B&W contrast filters create some great affects in portrait work, but not all filters are appropriate.

For the examples, I enlisted the help of a young friend of mine, Shelby. The first image is a color reference shot. Note that Shelby has a fair complexion and light hair. In the image she is wearing a black shirt as well. The next image, I have turned her slightly and had her look towards me with her hair coming down over her shoulder. This posing change delivers a more slender appearance to your subject. I then wanted to emphasize her long hair, so I had Shelby drape it over her shoulder and look towards my camera. This is a monochrome image – not a color converted image. Note the tones of her hair and her complexion. See how they translate to monochrome.

In the first of the contrast filter shots, I have chosen the red filter. These are preferred by landscape photographers and do not normally find their way into my portrait work. In landscape photography, the red filter will turn a blue sky almost black and make clouds jump from the frame (think of an Ansel Adams landscape image) with deep rich blacks and vibrant clouds.
Red filters have a very strong effect and greatly increase contrast. They're often considered too "harsh" for portrait work, but can be used to produce striking creative effects. If you look at the red filter image in the reference set, you will notice a dramatic increase in contrast. Skin tones have lightened and shadows on the eyes have increased. Shelby’s hair has also darkened a bit. In my opinion, the red filter gave less than flattering portrait results.

Next, I switched to the orange filter. This occupies a slot between red and yellow in my filter wallet. It has a nice balance between properties of both and is one of my two “go to” filters for monochrome portrait images. This also is a very good general purpose filter. In portrait photography, however, an orange filter reduces the appearance of freckles and blemishes, smoothing skin for a healthy, smooth look overall. Comparing the unfiltered monochrome image with this, you will notice a very nice change in Shelby’s skin tone.

The second of my “go to” filters, the green-yellow filter has a very nice effect on reds and red tones, making it work well on skin tones just like the orange filter. It yields slightly more texture giving a more natural look to the image overall. The orange filter on fair complexions can sometimes smooth unrealistically. In the landscape photographer’s kit, this filter helps differentiate between various shades of green foliage.

Staying with the line of green filters, I now placed the green filter in front of my lens. It is substantially darker than the other filters and resulted in my opening up almost two stops for the exposure. You can see this in the increase of the out of focus area behind Shelby. This filter greatly enhances the contrast and detail across leaves and I use it heavily in my flower work. In portrait work it does affect the natural red tones in complexions. I feel in Shelby’s case it gave too much texture to her skin and lightened her hair just a bit. The skin texture results alone dictate that I not use this with portraits.

The last yellow filter now comes out of my filter wallet. This was the first colored filter I owned back in my black and white film days. It is a great starter filter, but again has specific uses and effects. This filter produces the most subtle effect of the five colored filters. In some cases the difference is barely noticeable, but it can help to “lift” a photo just enough. In portrait photography, yellow filters produce warm, natural, pleasing flesh tones, like an orange filter but less intense. Note the differences between the skin tones with this and the orange filter. There is slightly more texture in the yellow filter image.

If you're serious about black and white photography and equally as serious about black and white portrait work, then a selection of colored filters is a great addition to your camera gear. They are available on your monochrome camera menu as well, so there is no reason not to experiment. Different complexions may yield different results. In general, using filters will allow you much more control over the way your photos appear, helping you to create a better image in the camera first rather than on the computer later.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit

Leave a Comment

Activate Popup

Let's Keep in Touch

Be the first to know about new lighting lessons, contests, events and promotions by signing up for the Photoflex monthly newsletter and updates from PromarkBRANDS.