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Filter Guide: Have Digital Cameras Made Coloured Filters Obsolete?

While digital photography certainly has its roots in film, the advancement of the digital sensor has changed the way we shoot. ISO is a setting, and not a film sensitivity rating, for starters. But digital cameras also have the technology to handle different light sources built right into the white balance settings, where film photographers relied heavily on filters to compensate for the colour of the light in their images.

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The human brain recognises different light sources and adjusts automatically. What your brain processes isn’t exactly what the eye sees. But cameras see light as it is, without a “brain” to interpret the scene for them and adjust for different levels of light or different types of light. Automatic white balance is often sufficient for adjusting to the different light sources, but not all the time. This is where manual white balance comes in. Filters will do the job as well. Alternatively, the effects of coloured filters can often be easily applied in Photoshop or Lightroom.

So, what exactly are coloured filters? Do digital photographers still need them in their kit? Here’s what you need to know about colored filters.

What are coloured filters?

Coloured filters affect the colour of the light or alter the colours in the final image. There is quite a range of coloured filters, but they fall under two larger categories for light balance filters and coloured filters.

Light balance filters

Light balance filters accomplish what a digital camera’s white balance settings can correct. They change the temperature of the light, giving the image either a more blue color or a more orange color. To use a light balance filter on a digital camera, set the white balance without the filter first, either manually or by choosing a preset like daylight (don’t use auto). Then add on the filter, or the camera will compensate for the filter.

Warming filters adjust the temperature more towards the warm side. A warm filter can mimic the orange effect you get from shooting in golden hour, though it won’t lessen the intensity of shadows at midday. Some camera settings have a warm auto white balance that will create a similar effect without a filter. You can also create a warming effect by using a preset white balance with a warming color card, which is light blue instead of white.

A cooling filter does the opposite by introducing a bluer tone into the image. They can be used to negate that golden glow from shooting towards the end of the day, or to otherwise adjust the colour temperature to a cooler tone.

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Coloured filters

Coloured filters are exactly what they sound like; a piece of colored glass you place in front of the camera’s lens. These filters change how the camera sees the light, and the effect depends on the color of the filter.

  • Blue filters will enhance reds and oranges, while playing up the contrast a bit.
  • Green is a good color for skin tones, especially under artificial light sources.
  • Red filers absorb blue and green. They’re used for high contrast black and white photos with a very dark sky.
  • Orange filters are often used for enhancing a sunset.
  • Yellow filters are often favored for their ability to provide a more realistic look to landscapes.
  • Yellow-Green filters have the most uses all around, ranging from portraits to greenery.

Coloured filters can also come in a graduated format, which means half the filter is coloured, gradually becoming clear on the other half. Graduated filters are commonly used to apply the filter affect to the sky, but not the rest of the scene.