Taking Color Photos with Black and White Film

Photographer Jacob Carlson has put together a photography tutorial you don’t expect to see in the year 2020. In his latest video, he’ll show you how to use the 160-year-old three color process to capture color photos using black & white film.

In case you’re not familiar, the three color process represents the origin of color photography. First mentioned in an 1855 paper by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, he suggested that you could create a color image by combining black & white photographs taken through a red, green, and blue color filter. This is still the basis behind how we capture color today, and why the sensor in your digital camera has some sort of RGB color filter over top of the pixels.

But you don’t need a digital sensor or chemicals to do this today. As Carlson shows, you can take any red, green, and blue filters you have lying around, capture three frames per image using black and white film, and then combine the results in Photoshop to produce color images like these:

Red Filter
Green Filter
Blue Filter
All together now

If you want to try this for yourself, Carlson shares a few helpful tips that he discovered while trying this age-old technique for the first time.

In addition to recommending a very sturdy tripod, a subject that can stand very still, and the highest-quality color filters you can find (his were pretty low-end), he also points you that you’ll get better results with a high-contrast, low dynamic range B&W film, and suggests using a film camera with an auto-advance so that you can touch the camera as little as possible.

For his purposes, he used two combinations—a medium format Zenza Bronica ETRSi with Kodak Tri-X 400, and a 35mm Pentax K1000 with CineStill BWXX—but if he were to do it all over, he’d use his Canon Rebel G2 and the punchiest film he could find.

Still, he was able to capture a variety of images, which you can see for yourself below:

If you have some filters and are interested in giving this a shot, check out the video up top for a “crash course” on using the three color process in the age of Photoshop. There are some good tips in there, and a great step-by-step guide on how to merge the images properly in post.

And if you have any further tips you’d like to share in addition to the info Carlson already covered, feel free to drop them in the comments!

Image credits: All photos by Jacob Carlson and used with permission.

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