Last week we took a look at using circular polarizing filters to reduce glare and reflections, and to enhance the appearance of blue skies. In this week's post, we introduce the use of orange filters. It may seem counter-intuitive, but orange filters are used with black & white photography - not to impart color to a scene, but to enhance your photographs in other ways.
Photographers have used a variety of colored filters in black & white photography for many years, including blue, green, yellow, red and orange. The orange filter falls between yellow (whose effects are fairly subtle) and red (which can produce a dramatic, near infrared appearance). I've used all three of these filters in my photography, and I find the orange filter to be the most versatile for everyday use. A helpful discussion of various colored filters for black & white photography can be found here.
An orange filter has a few features that make it useful when shooting in black & white: (1) It cuts light entering the lens by nearly 2 stops, letting you shoot at bigger f-stops, (2) it darkens skies (and other blue and green objects), and (3) it produces flattering portraits by reducing freckles and skin blemishes. All of the filtered images in this blog post were shot using an inexpensive Sunpak YA2 orange filter.
You may be thinking that this is all well and good, but what possible use is it in your color DSLR camera? As it turns out, it's still quite useful. Virtually any DSLR has the option to shoot in black & white. Typically you can set your camera to shoot in RAW + JPEG. The advantage of shooting both image types simultaneously is that the RAW retains all the color data, so you can always go back and get a color image if you want it. By setting the JPEG to record as black & white, you'll get a separate file that you can use immediately, without needing to convert a color photo later on.
Most cameras can be set to show the subject in your viewfinder as black & white, so you have a better idea of how the black & white JPEG image will look. Many photographers choose this approach so they can get a better feel for how a scene looks in monochrome. If you can afford the steep price, Leica even makes a high-end digital camera that shoots nothing but black & white! Some subjects simply lend themselves better to black & white than color. Naturally, you can also use an orange filter with traditional black & white film.
Here's an example of a landscape scene, with and without an orange filter in place. The photos have been re-sized and had an equal amount of contrast applied (they were a little flat straight out of the camera). They were both shot on a digital Fujifilm X-E2 as straight black & white JPEGs, and were taken moments apart in direct sunlight.
Next, let's look at how orange filters can make skin appear smoother and more even-toned. The following photo depicts a middle-aged, portly, European-American male subject. Both images of our subject in this combined image have been cropped and re-sized, but have not been digitally altered in any other way. Notice how the filtered photo (right) produces a "smoother" looking complexion.
A strong case can be made that orange filters are no longer essential to today's digital photographers. Depending on the software you have available to you, it is possible to apply virtual filters to a digital image in post-processing with very pleasing results. The popular Silver Efex Pro software, for example, allows you to apply a variety of digital filters to photos when converting to black & white. Photographer and blogger Ken Rockwell takes the position that it's best to shoot in color, then adjust the color channels before converting to black and white.
Some digital cameras, such as the Fujifilm "X" series, actually have filter simulations built into their black & white JPEG settings. To take advantage of digital filtering, you will need access to either a camera or software that will do the job. Most professional photographers strive to get their images right (or as close as possible), "in camera." This reduces post-processing time, which often means better results and more time spent shooting. I enjoy messing around in image editing software, but there's something to be said for taking the most direct path. So whether you choose to use a physical or virtual filter depends entirely on personal choice, and how comfortable you are manipulating an image after shooting it.
Orange filters are relatively inexpensive, so for those with the inclination and patience to experiment, I'd recommend giving them a try in your black & white photography. If you're a film shooter, you'll find that orange filters are doubly useful. Compare the two film photos below for a vivid example of what an orange filter can do for black & white film photography. These images were sharpened and cleaned for minor dust spots, otherwise both are untouched after scanning.