Several years ago, as I was starting out in photography, I asked around, “How do I see in black and white?” The answer was invariably to “shoot a lot” and eventually you just get it. Others may add that you should “focus on the light levels”. That’s all true. I agree fully with the advice. But to be honest, three/four years later, I can still barely see in black and white. I run through a roll of film maybe once every couple of weeks. By the time I develop and scan it, I can hardly remember how it looked to my eye. As a result, there’s never any feedback to help me better understand how to see in monochrome. Shooting with a digital camera helps a little, but I more often carry film cameras so 80% of the time I have no feedback. And besides, chimping is never cool.
I always thought that there should be a filter that can help us see in monochrome, but apparently that does not exist. Then last year, I got an Olympus E-P2 with the electronic viewfinder, and for a time, I relished the chance to see exactly as the camera would, without chimping! Alas, the lure of film is too strong to resist. Furthermore, my lovely Leica M2 just tempts me relentlessly each day.
And then today, reading Ansel Adams’ The Negative I realized that this problem had been solved some 30 years ago. The answer is a deep green/yellow #90 filter. I don’t have one of these filters, but I got a Lee filters sample swatch once, and there was one that fit the requirements. Looking through the filter, the world is basically as a monochrome film sees it! Sure, there’s a green cast over everything, but that is surprisingly not a huge problem. To test it, I looked through the filter and compared it with a digital image from my M8, and lo and behold! The tonal values are essentially identical. Being the meticulous man that he is, Adams wisely advises that one should only use the filter momentarily, since the eye is adept at compensating and will soon introduce color casts into the image you see through the filter. But man, what a revelation!