NOTE: You will find the YouTube video version of Using Contrast Filters with Polaroid SX-70 Black and White Film at the end of this post.
Polaroid Black and White integral film for SX-70 cameras has become a favourite of mine. I love the deep blacks and crisp whites of this contrasty film yet it still captures a good range of subtle mid-tones. As opposed to colour SX-70 films, which often have pink highlights among other odd tonal shifts, the black and white films have a consistent, reliable tone. Right out of the camera, the images have a neutral tone but, over several hours or days, the tones warm up. Not to an over-the-top sepia tone but a subtle warm quality that adds depth to the picture. Lastly, Polaroid monochrome films develop faster than their colour cousins; images can be evaluated in five minutes compared to fifteen minutes for colour. It just makes the Polaroid workflow that much more enjoyable.
Coming from a black and white film background, I am well-acquainted with the use of black and white filters to enhance the tonal rendition of monochrome negatives and prints. And that technique works equally well with Polaroid black and white integral films.
Here’s the theory: if a black and white filter—which is actually a solid colour filter, either yellow, orange, red, green or blue—is placed over the lens when using a black and white panchromatic film, it will pass through light that is the same colour as the filter, thus lightening that colour in the final print, and absorb light that is the complementary colour, thus rendering it darker in print. The net effect is an increase in contrast.
Here’s a typical colour wheel, used by artists and designers everywhere, showing the primary colours (in our case, the colour of the filter) and their complementary colours. A red filter would lighten reds in a subject and it would darken the complementary colour, in this case any greens in a subject. Bear in mind that colours adjacent to red on the colour wheel will also be lightened but to a lesser extent. Similarly, colours adjacent to green on the wheel will also be darkened but to a lesser extent.
Using black and white filters might seem counter-intuitive when working with overly contrasty Polaroid film but it can work wonders with localized tones. It’s a little like applying a Texture or Clarity filter to a digital image file in Lightroom or doing some careful dodging and burning while printing a film negative. But Polaroid integral films cannot be post-processed so everything needs to happen at the time of exposure. This makes the use of filters even more useful than with regular black and white film.
There are a few equipment requirements to make this work with Polaroid film:
It’s best to have a camera with manual exposure control, such as the MiNT SLR670-S. Because filters add density, there needs to be a means to adjust the exposure time and/or aperture to compensate.
My film of choice is Polaroid Black and White 600 which I can use with my SLR670-S camera. There is also an SX-70 version for vintage, unmodified SX-70 cameras. Both versions work well although the SX-70 film seems to go a bit more brown. And a tripod will likely be required, given the film’s slow speed and the filter’s 1-2 EV light loss.
Using the SLR670-S requires a filter holder such as the SX-37 from Retrograde Engineering. It has a 37mm filter mount but I would advise a 37mm-40.5mm step-up ring; there are far more 40.5mm filters available than for 37mm.
I try to use inexpensive Tiffen filters, when available, and the more expensive B+W filters where Tiffens aren’t available. My rationale for choosing the cheaper filters is that Polaroid images are quite small so any benefits of a better quality filter are likely imperceptible.
My 40.5mm filter kit includes:
- A Tiffen Deep Yellow (Wratten 15)
- A Tiffen Red (Wratten 25)
- A B+W MRC 040M Orange (Wratten 16)
- A Tiffen Blue (Wratten 47). This is a recent purchase and has not been tested.
As noted above, these filters typically require exposure compensation; a yellow filter would normally require a +1 EV exposure increase, an orange +2 EV and a red +3 EV. However, with Polaroid Black and White 600 film, I find that a +1 EV exposure boost works best with yellow and orange filters and a +2 EV boost works best with red filters.
Lastly if you have a vintage, unmodified folding SX-70 camera, try experimenting with the MiNT SX-70 Lens Set; it has light yellow and blue filters and should have similar, if less pronounced, effects. And, if you have a Polaroid Now+, it comes with light yellow, orange and blue slip-on filters. The filters also cover the camera’s electric eye and will work in auto exposure mode. But there is also the option of using the camera in manual exposure mode with the Polaroid app.
Here’s a set of Polaroid photographs showing the effect of each filter.
The first one was taken with no filter. Certainly an acceptable result, but let’s see what black and white filters add to the image. As we go through these examples, bear in mind that it is difficult to exactly match the exposure of each picture.
This was taken with my deep yellow filter at a +1 EV exposure increase (compared to the first non-filtered photo). Yellow is said to show a more natural rendition of the actual tones of a subject than a non-filtered black and white version of a subject. In this case, the blue sky and green grass are tonally closer to the actual scene tones.
The orange filter, with the same +1 EV exposure increase, darkens blue skies even more (blue is the complement of orange) and shows more detail in the tree bark. This filter tends to brighten the small orangish details of the bark. There’s also more detail in the grass and the stone monuments.
I call my red filter the drama queen of filters. Even though this picture is a little too light, the blue sky and green foliage are dark (green is the complement of red) which really punches out the white church. Note the halo-effect on the upper tree branches. And the contrast in the grass and monuments is quite vivid. Wow!
Black and white might not be your go-to film for fall foliage photos but here’s a quartet of Polaroids taken with an orange filter. The bright yellow leaves pop against the dark brown foliage and deep blue sky.
Over many years of film photography, I have tended to use orange filters with landscape-oriented subjects and, today, I find it works just as well with Polaroid films. However, red and yellow filters have their own unique impact on the final photo. Yellow filters are said to improve skin tones, for example. The lighter yellow K2/Wratten 8 filter might be a better choice for those doing portrait work or wanting a modest increase in contrast that reproduces subjects closer to their natural appearance than the stronger deep yellow K3/Wratten 15 filter I use.
There are also other filter colours available. A blue filter is useful in making blue skies very bright. And a green filter will lighten true-green foliage and darken bluish-green foliage, adding depth and detail to a forest scene. I would recommend playing with each to see what fits your vision and your subject.
Polaroid’s black and white films are, in my mind, their best integral films and using black and white filters are a great way of eking even more magic from this magical material.
Give it a try and let me know what you think in the comments below.
MiNT Camera SLR670-S: https://mint-camera.com
Retrograde Engineering SX-37 37mm Filter/Lens Adapter: available on eBay at https://www.ebay.com/itm/124515912384, Etsy at https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/RetrogradeENG, and Brooklyn Film Camera at http://www.brooklynfilmcamera.com/accessories/sx-37
Here’s a selection of 40.5mm black and white filters available through B&H Photo: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/products/Color-Balance-Black-White-Contrast/ci/16772/N/4026728356?filters=fct_circular-sizes_27%3A40.5mm
For a more detailed understanding of black and white filters, check out this excellent guide from Freestyle Photo: https://www.freestylephoto.biz/black-and-white-filters-tutorial
More From Me:
Check out my SX-70 YouTube videos at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7d0LyjlePCsIFkZfaZjgZQ
My review of the SLR670-S: https://walkclickmake.com/2021/03/24/the-polaroid-folding-sx-70-on-steroids-a-review-of-mint-cameras-slr670-s/
WalkClickMake blogsite: https://www.walkclickmake.com
Firmangallery portfolio and store: https://www.firmangallery.com
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