Using Photo Filters

I used a Cokin mauve graduated filter to add some color to the reflections of these trees at the Patuxent Research Refuge.

Now that we’re firmly in the digital age, it’s a pretty simple thing to get yourself some photo editing software and add color to just one section of your image. But that wasn’t always the case and, back in the “good ‘ol days” of film, you needed a filter of some kind to add the color to the image when you were taking the photo. Savvy darkroom enthusiasts might have been able to use colored filters to bump the colors a bit when they were processing their prints, but this was a bit of a hit-or-miss affair and not something for the faint of heart.

If you’ve ever done darkroom work, you know what the terms “dodge” and “burn” mean in real life. To dodge an image mean putting your hand or a piece of cardboard or anything else that would block the enlarger’s light from hitting the light-sensitive photo paper. “Burning in” was dodging’s complement: any area that received more light than the rest of the image was burned in, meaning that it became darker on the final print.

Black and white darkroom work was about as basic as you could get, because the light coming from the enlarger either struck your paper or it didn’t. The more light that hit the paper, the darker the final image would be. In addition to basic photo papers, there were multi-contrast photo papers that were sensitive to a range of colors. With these papers, you could use gelatin filters in your enlarger to adjust the contrast of the final print. I had a set of these filters when I did black and white darkroom work, and I used to make several prints and try out the different filters to see which image I liked best.

Color printing was more complicated. I tried it only once or twice and then gladly paid the local photo store to process my film and prints! I imagine it’s possible to add color to portions of a photo through careful manipulation of the amount of light hitting the color photo paper and the judicious use of filters. Every print made this way would be an absolute original, and it would be nearly impossible to make small adjustments to portions of the image.

Using colored filters in front of the lens when you take the picture is much easier. And these filters work with film or digital cameras, too. Don’t be afraid to try them just because you can add the colors in later with software. Sometimes it’s not so easy, and working with the filters can be fun, too. I have about 25 Cokin and generic brand A-sized filters that I started buying in the 1980s. I probably invested a couple of hundred dollars in these, so I didn’t want to trash them. But they’re too small for my SLR’s lenses. Just recently I found a filter holder that will work with my Nikon Coolpix that cost about ten dollars. Now these filters have a new lease on life, and I have my toys back!