Getting toned

One of the great things about black and white pictures is you can make them any colour you want.

Why would you do that? Well, sometimes it can add to an image. Imagine a picture of an old sportscar, toned in British Racing Green. How about being able to control the subtlety of a sepia tint? How about adding a hint of colour that matches the paint on the walls (or is complementary)? Or toning the highlights in a scene slightly warm and the shadows with a hint of blue?


The last one – toning the highlights differently to the shadows – is split-toning and used to be really difficult using chemicals.

Rather than smelly stuff and plastic trays, you will need somethng like Photoshop: Elements is fine, as is any similar program that will work with layers and blending modes.

Open your base image and change the mode to RGB colour (in case it is set as Greyscale). Then do all the things you would normally do to make it look nice. To change just the shadows, add a new layer above the image that has blending mode Lighten. To tone just the highlights, make the blending mode Darken. Then fill the layer with the colour of your choice and play with the Opacity to tweak the level of toning.

The following set of layers –

Set 2

Produced this picture.

The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods
The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods

If you wanted to tone with only a single colour, say for sepia toning, use a single solid colour fill layer above the image with blending mode Colour. If you want sepia, try filling the layer with the settings Red 210, Green 165 and Blue 90. Again, play with the opacity to tune the effect.


So where do you get nice colours from? Or in other words, where do you find the RGB settings for the colour of your choice?

If you have a Pantone colour in mind, there is a website here that gives the RGB values. If you have a named paint in mind, try this one.


Through a glass, darkly.

So I was listening, as one does, to some of those poddy talk-show things. A couple of them mentioned the use of filters in black and white film photography. The discussion came around to what effect filters have and what to use them for. I started by shouting at the radio (I was listening in the car while commuting). Then it migrated to ‘as any ful kno’. Then it changed to my thinking how best to describe what filters do. This is that description. You may prefer that I stayed the silent fool.

Let’s get colour out of the way first. If you avoid the use of those awful Cokin filters of yore (you thought a tobacco graduate was a university-leaver making a poor career choice?), you are left with two basic filters: neutral density and polarising.

Tobacco graduate - what was I thinking?

ND filters will let you either use long exposures for those creamy moving water shots or, in graduated form, hold back a bright sky to give the foreground a chance.

Polarisers can take reflections off glass and water, darken some areas of the sky and increase contrast. Here endeth the colour filters.

Black and white is capable of much more manipulation. The basic idea is that a coloured filter lightens its own tone on the negative and darkens the complimentary (meaning opposite) colour. “Fine” you may think “but what’s the opposite of green?”. Strictly it’s magenta, but you can vary between blue and red to get the exact effect you want.

There is a very good online resource here that describes how colours are grouped and work together and has an interactive colour-picker to let you experiment. As an aside, if you find a colour you like, it gives you the RGB values for it, which you can use in Photoshop to tone an image. Perhaps a subject for a future post.

Traditionally, anyone shooting landscapes on mono film used a yellow filter. Yellow darkens the appearance of blue, so makes the skies darker and the clouds stand out more. The haze you see over distant objects is also blue, so a yellow filter cuts through this a bit and makes the scene look a bit clearer.

This works for all colours, but there is a little complication that stops the story ending right here – colour sensitivity.

The makers of black and white film had to work hard over many years to make it sensitive to all of the visible colours of light. The first films were really only sensitive to blue and were known as Orthochromatic. Since they can’t really ‘see’ red, they can be developed under a safelight. Most photographic enlarging paper is orthochromatic. Being only sensitive to blue doesn’t matter, as the subject has already been converted to black and white on the negative. There is a real benefit in being able to see what you are doing in the darkroom (or the ‘red room’ as watchers of Stranger Things are calling it).

Gradually the manufacturers added sensitivity to green and red, giving us modern Panchromatic film that can see the full visible spectrum.

You can see the difference in portraits taken on old and new film. The old Ortho film darkened skin and lips and struggled to render skies as anything but white. And note – there is no point in putting a red filter on a camera using Ortho film – it would only have the effect of a fairly strong neutral density filter. On the other hand, if you want to recreate the old Ortho look in a scene or portrait, use a blue filter on a modern Panchromatic film.

The fun comes in that, in adding sensitivity to red light, some films strayed over the line (bad films!) into the infrared. Using a strong red filter on these films can give the effect of using specialised infrared film. This renders blue skies as black, cuts through any atmospheric haze and can render leaves and grass as white. This is because the chlorophyll reflects infrared quite strongly. So a red filter, that you might have expected to make green go very dark, can actually cause it to go white. It depends on the film though, and on the amount and direction of sunlight.

So where does this take us with filters? Filters lighten their own colour and darken the opposite colour, within the constraints of what the film is capable of seeing. A red filter will darken grass and blue skies, lighten brickwork and make pale skin paler. A red or orange filter can subdue the appearance of freckles on pale skin. A green filter will darken blue skies but also lighten grass and leaves and darken brickwork.

You can see how filters treat colours differently if you have a copy of Photoshop or Elements that can do layers. Open a colour picture in the application. Add a new layer above the image – make it a hue/saturation adjustment layer and make the blending mode Colour (or Color). Name it Filter.

Make a second hue/saturation adjustment layer on top of this one and name it Film. Double-click the layer thumbnail and drag the saturation slider to -100. This will turn the image to black and white. The layers should look like the picture below.


Go back to the Filter layer and double-click the layer thumbnail and drag the Hue slider from side to side. What you are doing is seeing how a black and white film renders a colourful scene through various colours of filter.


The picture above shows what you can do. The original image is top left. The other images are various twekas of the Filter settings. The weird image bottom right is what the colours look like in my favourite settings, with the mono-conversion layer switched off. You may just prefer this anyway.

It’s worth a play, as you may find a setting that gives you a really sharp tonal separation in what would have been a blur of blending greys.

Actually, there is one more thing you can do with colour film or digital and filters and it involves flash. Put a blue filter over the lens and a yellow filter over the flash. Shoot portraits close enough to be flash-lit. The background will go a deep evening blue. This is how to shoot day-for-night.


Try it, and try the mono filters thing too.

Catting logs

One of the benefits of digital picture files is that you can embed information in them or use tools to make them searchable. Looking for that picture of a smiling seal you took – who knows when? All the software tools exist to find it, and all the other pictures that are similar. Simples.

What do you do with physical objects though, like negatives and slides? Fine if you scan and label them all, but over years of shooting you could be looking at pterodactyls of storage and months of boring filing.

When I was young and had more time than money, I started a card filing system. I would make a contact print of my negatives and then add the film reference number to each relevant subject card. I could go to my Seals card and find the references, then pull the matching negative sleeves from their ring binders and eyeball them to find the one I wanted. This rigour and discipline lasted maybe four years. What killed it was when time got shorter (university) and the rate of taking pictures exceeded the time I was willing to put down my books (ho ho – beer, more like) to do filing.

That lasted a fair bit longer than four years, as both time and money reduced to zero.

Then, one day, I bought a scanner.

That started a craze of poring through negative sheets and slide boxes and scanning things that took my fancy. Which, obviously, all ended up in random folders without any identifying information. And I still hadn’t the time or inclination to scan every frame and log them.

What I did eventually do is take myself in hand (insert a Kenneth Williams ‘ooh!’ here).

This was mainly because I bought some proper negative filing sheets to let me move stuff from envelopes to proper A4 sheets. This made them visible. So my next trick was to drop a complete sleeve of negatives on my lightbox and take a digital picture. Same with slides: arrange into a rectangle and shoot.

So the random and invisible pictures became a set of named folders, each containing the digital equivalent of a contact sheet. And still no way of finding the smiling seal.

The final step was to add a plain text file in each folder, with the same name as the contact sheet and the folder itself, containing a description of the pictures. Basically, a simple list of what is on the negatives or slides, whether it’s good or bad, film type, development notes, location – all that jazz.

And the big question on everyone’s lips is “fine, but how do you find that picture of a smiling seal?”. Every set of pictures gets its own folder on the hard drive. The folder is named for the date of shooting in YYYY MM DD format so that they sort in date order. The folder will also probably have the main location or activity added after the date. This makes it quick to find the main home of a set of pictures, or if I have been to the same place or shot the same thing several times, I can find the occasion I am looking for. If I need to do a better search than that, I fire-up a search utility (Agent Ransack, but other products are available). This will zip through the text files in each folder and find things like ‘smile NEAR seal’.

It’s a lazy-arse and simple method, but it works for me.


Ah, screw kit!

So I’ve built myself my ultimate screw-fit kit. You may wonder why. I wonder why. As if our continued existence in this vale of tears wasn’t hard enough. Let me explain.

It all started when I realised that what I thought was a broken lens (that still seemed to work well) was actually a fine example of a rare and exotic optic. I did think of selling it, driven mostly by fear: I was walking around with a lens that on its own cost more than most of my gear combined. But the second thoughts said that the value of a lens is primarily in what it can do. So I kept it.

I had an old Pentax SV to drive it. It’s an fine old thing with a pretty good focusing screen (WAY better than a Zenit). No meter, but we’re all Real Photographers, right? We can gauge the light just by looking. Luckily I had a handheld meter too. There was no particular reason to own the SV – it was a cheap and useful fitting for the screw-mount lenses I had lying around.

Then a funny thing happened. I wandered into a charity shop and there was a Spotmatic with Pentax’s 80mm f1.8 lens on it. £40. Again – who needs a Spotmatic? But the lens was interesting. We went for a cup of coffee while I thought about it. After a very quick coffee I was back in the shop and running through the shutter speeds and apertures. And so it came to pass that it too became mine.

So now I have a brace of Pentaxes (Pentii?), a wide 50mm and a wide 80mm. Toss into the bag a Pentax 35mm f3.5 Lens that has been around for years. Add an old Weston meter and we’re done.


Ooh er. I’ve just assembled a screw-fit system. When I said it was my ultimate kit, I meant my only. It was more by accident than design. No, it was entirely accidental.

So how does this ancient ensemble work in a world of computers? Slowly. All those people who say they shoot film to slow them down could be right if they use screw kit.

The main thing is changing lenses. I can do the bayonet-twist as quickly as any psychopath. But a screw lens doesn’t tell you when it’s free – you just keep turning till eventually it comes off, while trying not to drop it when it does. Then you offer-up the new lens, get it square, try not to cross the thread, find the point where it engages and screw gently in case you made a mistake. And the base cap on the removed lens doesn’t just click and twist – you have to screw it fully home with the same care.

This is probably why old-time photographers were pictured with two or more cameras round their neck: it took too long to change lenses.

Apart from that, they are just cameras. Having a separate meter can be a bind, but you get over it. Just keep checking the reading each time the conditions change and remember what to set the camera at.

There really is nothing to get in the way. The camera will never make a mistake or get confused, because it can’t. The lenses are simple and silent. And there is a certain Zen pleasure in using the simplest equipment.

Would I use it for something important or where automation could help (like sports)? No. I use it because lets me use two lenses that I like a lot. If I had those same lenses in bayonet mount the screw-kit would never have been created. Indeed, I do use them with a bayonet mount adapter but with the loss of the auto-diaphragm.

So why the fuss and what’s the point? The cameras were cheap and work, but the main thing is that they let me use easily a bunch of old lenses I had in drawers and boxes. There is also a load of old and interesting lenses made in M42 that are either not available in the ‘proper’ mount of your choice or would be too expensive. It does make me really appreciate the invention of the bayonet mount though. For the curious, this is the line-up:

  • Yashinon 55mm f1.2
  • Pentax 80mm f1.8
  • Pentax 35mm f3.5
  • Industar 50mm f3.5
  • Helios 58mm f2
  • Soligor 35mm f3.5 (a repurposed paperweight)
  • Hanimex 200mm f3.5

I honestly didn’t start out to build a screw-fit kit: this stuff just accumulated from historic purchases of cheap stuff when I found it, plus a couple of lucky finds. I guess the creation of a system is just post-rationalisation for hoarding.

So, do I use this stuff or does it sit on a shelf and preen? A sub-set of the kit was out this weekend for a walk in some shady woods where I was going to need wide apertures (what idiot loads Pan F for anything other than clear desert skies?). Can you hand-hold an 80mm lens at 1/30th? Yes if you press the camera against a tree, safe in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if you scratch it. Or the camera.

Plus, come the apocalypse or nuclear EMP, these things will still be working. Not that it will matter when we are fighting over the last tin of dog food. Which is a cheery thought to end on.

Awkward focus

How do you focus a camera that doesn’t tell you when it’s in focus? That’s really awkward.

If you can learn how to do this trick, there are loads of interesting old cameras that you could use. They can be reasonably cheap too, as people do prefer things you can focus. And yet, you may have heard the pundits talking about magical solutions like zone focussing or hyperfocal distances. What’s a poor boy to do when you thought zones were something to do with exposure and hyperfocals were what old people went to opticians to get?

Focusing a lens means moving it nearer or closer to the film or sensor, so that the light from your chosen subject is brought to the least fuzzy point. There was some stuff about it here. Many lenses have a built-in screw thread so that turning them moves them in and out, without letting light leak past. Other arrangements are possible, but they mostly all do the in and out thing.

Now, our eyes are not perfect and there is a lower limit to the size of things we can see. As you get older, that might be grandchildren. Grant me though, that we can’t see atoms, or even molecules. So when an image is projected onto the film or sensor by a lens, there will be a range of distances where everything appears sharp. If you could look closer, perhaps with a microscope, you could see that that amount that was truly sharp was less than it appeared to the eye. This is why small prints or pictures often look sharper than they are when you make them bigger.

But for practical purposes, there is a range of distances in front of the camera between which stuff looks sharp. This is the depth of field. Where this zone falls and how deep it is depends on several things. Let’s assume for now though that these things are outside your fine control: you can make a basic choice like the camera you are using, but you can’t change the lens on it. Let’s also assume that your camera might have one of the two forms of focusing: controlled and guess, where guess includes fixed and not adjustable. If your camera provides accurate and adjustable focusing and that is what you want, then move along – there is nothing to see here. But there can be good reasons why you might want to use your adjustable camera as though it was not. The main one is often speed of use. Focusing takes time.

So, how do you make best use of either what you are stuck with or what you choose to adopt? According to type is the answer. Guessed focusing comes in three forms: fixed, zone and scale.

Fixed is where there is no adjustment possible. It’s not autofocus – it means the focus of the lens is fixed and you do your best to put the subject in the sharp zone. If you are lucky you may be able to find out from the manual or t’interweb where the focus distance is, or what the depth of field is. I have a fixed-focus camera, and the manual lists the range of sharp(ish) distances for each aperture setting. Without this information you may have to find out, or just live with it. It’s a fair assumption that a fixed-focus camera will be set to somewhere around the distance where you can get an adult in the frame, around mid-length. My own fixed-focus camera is set for about 8 feet. You could leave it at that and just work with it, or use a bit of film in testing. What you need is a long fence or railings that you can shot at an oblique angle so that your picture shows it from close to far. Before you shoot, pace out some distances and mark them with chalk or a stone. Then examine the developed image to see where it is sharp and how far away that is. Then get someone to stand that far away and look at them using the camera, to get an idea of what that distance looks like. Or make a simple version of the card rangefinder. Then shoot everything at the sharp distance.


Next up is zone focusing. This is where the lens offers a set of symbols for where it will focus. These are usually head and shoulders, group, mountains. Again, you can work with it or do the fence test to get an idea of what each setting does.

Zone focus

In the case of my camera, head and shoulders works out around 1.5 metres or a bit less than 5 feet. Groups fall at around 5 metres/ 15 feet.

Cameras like this can be very quick to use – pick the type of picture you are making, set the symbol for focus and go. Providing the aperture is around f8, you are likely to have enough depth of field to not have to worry.

Scale focusing is like using the symbols, but without the symbols. This is where the lens is marked with real distances, but you have to guess or measure the distance of your subject and adjust the lens accordingly. The lens on the camera above has both a distance scale and symbols. It sounds dreadful – how will you ever be able to estimate the distance acccurately? Use some basic rules:

  • A head and shoulders is around 5 feet, or a bit less.
  • An adult, shot vertical on 35mm with a 50mm lens, just about fills the frame at 10 feet (3m).
  • A group will be around 15 feet, or 5m.

Then use a reasonably small aperture like f8 and it will mostly work. If you are picky or nervous, make yourself a card rangefinder. It will easily fit in the camera case or your wallet.

You can even use a ‘proper’ camera with scale focusing. The street photographers do this for speed. You need to have a lens that has depth of field marking on it.


If I set this lens to f8, then everything between 2.5 and about 5m will be sharp. If that’s the most likely distance for stuff I want to take pictures of, I can set the lens and aperture and use the camera like a point and shoot. It would let me do slightly wide head and shoulders shots through to slightly tight groups without having to adjust a thing. This is what news photographers used to do, to give them the reaction time they might need to get the decisive moment (as legend would have it).

Then we come to the secret weapon of landscape photographers: the hyperfocal distance. Given a particular aperture, the hyperfocal distance is the point you focus the lens at that gives a depth of field spanning from half that distance out to infinity. It sounds like magic, and the actual point you need to focus on varies with the film or sensor size, the lens and the aperture. You don’t have enough fingers and toes to do the maths. So you either use an online resource or an app to calculate it for you, or use the depth of field markings that the lens maker gave you.

Say I’m using the lens in the above photo and I want both a group of people and the mountains in the background to be sharp. So I want a depth of field from say 4m out to infinity. I twist the lens to find a pair of aperture markings that put infinity on one side and my closest distance at the other. Then set the aperture to match the marks – the point of focus is already set correctly. Job done.


In this case I need f11 and my closest sharp distance is perhaps 3.5m. The actual point of focus of the lens is 6m, but I don’t care.

This also works well if you are taking pictures of things that occur a bit further away, but variable. Some sports or activities, for example. Set the depth of field to cover the area of the action and concentrate on taking pictures.

So there you are – sharpness made simples, and a way to make use of the cheap end of the camera market.