View Full Version : Tiffen soft contrast filters

Philippe Gauthier
15-Oct-2005, 11:34
Tiffen soft contrast filters are nothing new, but there seems to be nothing about them written from dependable sources... Weird. These filters promise to "darken highlights and to lighten shadows, without need for exposure compensation" - in theory, for example, you could manage to catch a high contrast scene like patches of sun on a forest ground and neither the shadows would be blocked, or the highlight would be burned.

I know that this would normally be used more in miniature format than in LF, but as I can't find info anywhere, I'll take the chance to ask here. Do these filters really work? What are their limits? Any drawbacks? Do some people actually use them on a regular basis to solve excessive contrast issues? Or should I rather work on my stand development skills?

Sounds too good to be true!

15-Oct-2005, 12:22
Tiffien ultra/super contrast filters, yes, I use them mainly for digital video (Canon XL-1 blows highlights easily), but have used them for MF a couple times. If I can find the image I'm about to describe, I will post a URL. It was 1pm, mid-summer, clear sky, a boy looking down. You know, the usual dramatic contrast difference. Exposed and developed for N-1 on Tri-x. Shadow and highlight detail printed on #3. Detail in focused are was just fine.

But you really need to try it yourself with your favorite lens. They aren't expensive.

Philippe Gauthier
15-Oct-2005, 12:30
Sounds interesting. A typical problem I have is shooting in the woods on a sunny day. No matter how you compose, there will always be blown and distracting sunny patches on the ground. If the filter could somehow make these few small patches less distracting, I'd find it very useful. Do you think the filter could be effective in such a context?

John Cook
15-Oct-2005, 16:52
Gosh, I do hate to always be the one to tell folks that there really is no Santa Claus. It just breaks my heart. ;0)

But the cold hard fact is that we are recording light, which has character. Poor quality light will always make a poor quality photograph.

If you are shooting a child whose face is hidden from your key light, or if you are photographing deep shadow punctuated with tiny polka-dot spots of intense raw sunlight, you need to correct that crummy light before proceeding.

This is why movie crews show up with diesel generator trucks, two trailer trucks loaded with reflectors, butterflies and spot lights together with a crew of fifty bodybuilders and ex-Marines to move them around.

This is why commercial still photographers leave the studio with their assistants and fully-loaded location van at 4:00AM, to be set up to expose film at first light.

This is why Ansel used to sit down on a rock and share a sandwich with his pack mule until the cloud moved.

These filters, like the N.O. flood shelters, represent an emergency, last-resort lousy fix to an impossible situation. They mush-up the image, create flair, and generally create a distracting special effect look to the photograph.

I know I rile up the Zone System practitioners when I say this, but there really is no substitute for tasteful lighting. And heroic lab-work (nor special filtration) is not a solution.

An old photographer long ago told me that from the time you first reach for your camera until you mount the finished print, the photographic process requires a fixed amount of time. If you cut corners on your lighting or metering or film developing, you will more than pay that time back in the printing stage.

I have found out (the hard way) that a quick and sloppy job of cleaning film holders increases spotting time, resulting in a net increase in production time. I don’t save a thing.

It would be so nice if we all could just happily wander around on our little nature walks without a care. Then, when a subject pops up unexpectedly and presents itself we could, like Quick-Draw McCaw, just whip out the 8x10 and blap off a perfect snap of it.

But it just ain’t that simple...

15-Oct-2005, 17:39
John Cook Gosh, I do hate to always be the one to tell folks that there really is no Santa Claus. It just breaks my heart. ;0)
But the cold hard fact is that we are recording light, which has character. Poor quality light will always make a poor quality photograph.

If you are shooting a child whose face is hidden from your key light, or if you are photographing deep shadow punctuated with tiny polka-dot spots of intense raw sunlight, you need to correct that crummy light before proceeding.

Hey, sometimes photgraphy takes place in the Real World. Pry your aged ass out of the recliner and see for yourself.

John Cook
16-Oct-2005, 08:32
The only “real world” situation in which ignoring the main component of your photo-graph (light-picture) is acceptable is in the midst of a frantic fire fight in a war zone with a 35mm motor-drive.

LF photography is not intended to document fast action adventures. It is meant for controlled precision work.

During my forty years of advertising illustration, my professional colleagues and I spent 95% or more of our time arranging the lighting to make a beautiful, photographable scene. Less than 5% was devoted, at the very end of the day, to capturing a quick “photo-copy” of that scene we had so laboriously created onto film. Often, this mundane task was left to the assistant to perform.

Karsh's b&w portraits were not about his lab technique. They were about his dramatic placement of the lights.

Anyone who doesn’t own a basic reflector assortment, is ignorant of basic synchro-sunlight flash technique, or is too lazy, impatient or cavalier to wait for the sun to get into proper position, will always produce unfortunate pictures except when blessed with dumb luck. Heroic filters or special developers are no substitute for careful planning.

Rude personal attacks and insults hurled at me and at other members of this Forum will not change this basic photographic fact.

Philippe Gauthier
16-Oct-2005, 10:27
I'll certainly agree with John that there is no substitute for good light. But as I don't work in a studio and don't enjoy the benefit of a lighting crew, sometimes there are trade offs to be made. I often work with models. When I want to shoot in a forest, I will usually arrange the appointment for a cloudy day, but sometimes the weatherman is wrong, the day is sunny and there I am with my model.

What are my options? Yes, I will try to use the gorgeous late day sun when it arrives, but meanwhile I'm pretty restricted. This is when darkroom or filter tricks will prove useful. Sure I won't get the best possible picture, but I'd rather have a very good one than none at all. If indeed it IS possible to get a "very good" picture with a given trick, which is precisely the issue here.

Now that we agree that there is no Santa Claus and that there are drawbacks to gimmicky tricks, could you tell me more about the limits of soft contrast filters? "They mush-up the image, create flair, and generally create a distracting special effect look to the photograph", you say. Can you elaborate on this? Is the effect worse than the result of stand processing, for example?

The trouble is that there seems to be no factual information about them anywhere.

16-Oct-2005, 11:30
Cook Rude personal attacks and insults hurled at me and at other members of this Forum will not change this basic photographic fact.

I was speaking to you and not 'the others', so your attempt to magnify the claim did not work.

JC, you are the one who always introduces the age thing, the slackened retirement pose. And I doubt you are older than I am, and you are likely 15 years younger than our oldest two members. So when I made my remark, it was simply identifying your own penchant for posing as a geezer. Seems you will play that card whenever you want attention. Well, you got it.

Now back to the post: I used a MF camera for the picture in question. It was a documentary effort. If I could have predicted ahead of time that the infinite number of factors in reality would have converged to the particuar moment in question, I could have burried a light under the soil where he was working in order to fill-light properly. It doesn't work that way. We ain't talking the Hollywood Reality you are so fond of.

Are we clear, young man? (where's the smiles here?)

16-Oct-2005, 11:49
Philippe Gauthier asks for specifics.

I looked and looked and I have no home computer images of the image I mentioned, except a terribly diminished JPEG used on a web page. Perhaps I have the original on a machine at work and will check next week.

In the meantime, let me assure you that even their #3 doesn't terribly "mush up" the image, nor cause flare. JC might be thinking of the specific soft filters used in cinephotography, or the same when used for purposeful soft effects. JC will remind us that Hollywood doesn't make images by accident, so if something is mushy, it's what they want.

If you were to shoot military rez targets with the filter, you would see a difference, of course. They are intended to reduce contrast, which accounts, in part, for perceived 'sharpness'. You can get much the same effect by shooting at a wide aperture with most long lenses. I suspect the filter causes no degredation that many, many photographers consider ordinary through modestly negligent technique.

That said, I owe you some examples and will put the filters in the bag for future work. I would do something for you today, but we are taking advantage of this warm day to do last minute preparations for winter. With that, I'm off to do some heavy labor. Later.

John Cook
16-Oct-2005, 12:43
Philippe, let me answer you, point by point.

What are your options? A small hand-held reflector card and a flashgun.

You don’t enjoy the benefit of a lighting crew? Neither did I as an art school student. Adapt. If a 4' x 4' x 3/4" plywood Matthews reflector board is too heavy, get one of those round silver metallic fabric jobs with the spring steel hoop that they use on the swimsuit annual edition.

There is no factual information anywhere? Yes there is, like here:


For several thousand dollars they will teach you all there is to know about tastefully photographing people by yourself outdoors.

I am perfectly happy and willing to share for free what my several thousand dollars in tuition bought. But I’m definitely not going to endure personal abuse from socially inept people in order to force it upon others.

Perhaps the late Dr. Leo Buscaglia had a point when he advanced his theory about giving advice: “Smart people don’t need it and stupid people won’t take it, so you might as well just keep your mouth shut!”

16-Oct-2005, 16:23
May I suggest that Mr. Cook is describing a case where one has the opportunity to 'make' (pose) the picture rather than one who has to 'take' the picture. There is a difference. An extreme contrast would be wedding and combat photography. A less extreme would be weddings, studio shots and some photojournalism and newspaper photography. It should be clear, John, that one is not always controlling the circumstances, Hollywood be damned.

I suppose for photographs in the deep wild, a person could start a fire for light-fill... oops, someone already did that. Never mind.

Mike Cockerham
17-Oct-2005, 06:23
Looking at Tiffens website "SOFT CONTRAST filters diminish highlights while retaining the darker look of the shadows, hence a reduction in contrast. Although the Soft Contrast filter is a neutral gray, do not compensate for exposure." Comparing the examples it looks as if it is no more tha a ND filter, it brings down the highlights but also the shadows. The low contrast filter will open up the shadows by introducing flare into the image.

JJ I agree that if you are shooting on the run, news, action, documentary you cannot always control what is infront of you,but Philippe is talking LF shooting with a model on a preplanned outing. In this case I think John is corrrect your better off knowing how to control the light if by fill flash, reflector, schrims whatever you can use. This applies not only to forest situations but bright sun also.


17-Oct-2005, 07:20
John makes a very good point. In my studio you will find old mole-richardson fresnels from 250 watts to 2000 watts. There is no flash, just scrims, flags and reflectors. I schedule outdoor shoots according to time of day when I feel that the lighting will best fit my needs. And here again I only use scrims flags and reflectors. If I need soft boxes I'll punch a fresnel through a scrim but I do have a couple of mole soft lights that I use on occasion. I think younger photographers who don't know terms such as rembrandt, butterfly, and how to use directional lighting and simple modifiers are not truly understanding the meaning of painting with light. Of course hot lights can have their drawbacks but it is so much easier to teach someone about lighting when they can actually see what is taking place on the ground glass. If I need filters then I didn't do my homework. But if it's photojounalistic results you seek then by all means buy all the little gadgets your heart desires. But keep in mind no matter the gadget it will never take the place of knowledgable lighting techniques.

Mark Woods
17-Oct-2005, 09:38
Be careful with the soft cons. The effect on the image changes with the amount of ambiant lisht striking them. That is, in a bright environment, the soft con will affect the image more than if the lens is shaded or in a matt box. As a side note, the soft con is used in the Arri Varicon, which is a powered variable contrast tool placed in front of the lens. Is has a light source at the top that can be gelled and dimmed for effect.

Kind Regards,


17-Oct-2005, 09:54
Thanks for the nudge back to center, Mike. I was speaking of my experience with the filters, not to the original post. My error. FWIW, I sometimes use open bulb (flashbulb) off the camera outdoors. Beautiful, soft fill light. Down to a case or so of big bulbs :( Boo.

Philippe Gauthier
17-Oct-2005, 11:26
John Cook says a number of things that are absolutely right in many instances, but I think that he misses my point entirely. So let's give an example.

So suppose I am shooting a model in a forest on a bright sunny day. The forest ground is about 90-95% shadows, about 6-7 stops below full sun value. The remaining 5-10% are bright patches that get direct sun.

Now, if I sit my model in the shadows and expose for them, I'll get a good exposure on the model and 95% of the background forest, but there will be 5% worth of blown and distracting white patches, that I find annoying and that I'd like to avoid as much as possible.

If I use artificial or reflected light on the model, as John suggests, there are two possibilities. If I get enough light to bring the model to full sun values, 95% of my background forest will be in deep, zone minus something shadows and the few bright spots will be normally exposed. Il I add 3-4 stops of light on the model instead, I'll get a mix of very deep shadows showing minimal detail with a few highlights that will perhaps still show some detail - but I don't think this is a visually attractive balance.

The Hollywood solution would be to add light to the model and to light the entire background area as well, but as I am no Hollywood, with no money and no crew, we'll forget about this. Sorry John, but on this account I admit being lazy and lax.

Now, if we go back to my first case where I sit my model in the forest shadow and expose for this value, with 5% of my background being in full sun, how can I best minimize the visual impact of the bright patches, supposing that they're too dispersed to be manually burned under the enlarger? Is it better to use some special processing or is it better to use a soft contrast filter, if indeed this thing really works?

I am fully aware that the best option is "wait until the weather is cloudy and the light is more even", but this is not the issue here.

17-Oct-2005, 11:32
scrim the background light

Eric Wagner
17-Oct-2005, 11:41
I've been intending to get one of these filters and give it a try. I read about them in an article about metering titled "Artistically Weighted Averaging for Optimal Results" by Mark Dubovoy in the January/February 2004 issue of "PHOTO Techniques."

Working with a 4x5 camera Dubovoy wrote: "I realized the contrast range was going to be huge. I added a Tiffen #3 Ultracontrast filter and checked focus once more. This is an excellent filter that essentially brings the shadows up and the highlights down, compressing the brightness range by about 3 f-stops. It allows much better capture on film of the highlights and shadows, and is used extensively in the movie industry. Amazingly, it seems to add no flare and has no detectable effect on sharpness."

17-Oct-2005, 11:55
You can scrim the hot spots in the background and then use reflectors to fill in the dark areas. You can also use a reflector to add more light to your subject if needed. Try it both ways. One day when you're feeling energetic find you some old white bed sheets (scrims) and some white foam core(reflectors) and play with it. Trust me you'll see more scrims and reflectors on a professional shoot than you will see lighting production trucks. Then buy a soft contrast filter and shoot with it, I think you'll find that there is no magic bullet or in this case magic filter that will achieve what you want. You'll find seldom does lax and lazy fit in with the making of good photographs and if you ever enter into the world of ULF you'll find just setting up the camera requires work. Good luck

Mike Cockerham
17-Oct-2005, 12:03
Take a look at Tiffen Site http://www.tiffen.com/contrast_filters.htm. It sounds like the Ultra Contrast 5 is what you want to try. I qustion how much effect you will get in small bright areas. Sometimes you just have to say not today and reschedule.


John Cook
17-Oct-2005, 12:36
Philippe, I think our disconnect problem is that you and I are talking about two entirely different ways of working.

The first week of art school, I met a real cute uninhibited blonde hippie who would eagerly model anything I needed for class in order to feed herself.

One day I found myself wandering around the (unfamiliar) streets and back allies of Hollywood with this girl, shooting essentially reportage, hoping she would spontaneously do something photogenic to accidentally give me a shot for my school assignment.

At some point, I realized that my main motivation was the immense enjoyment of spending the day with a very pretty young girl, and her only motivation was to run up the model fee as high as possible. Neither of us had a clue what the picture was, which we were there to make.

Very soon, in order to stay in school, stay married, not waste so much film, and work more efficiently, I began pre-planning the pictures I would make. No more leaving things to dumb luck.

Once, I needed to photograph a 1960's kaftan thingie for a fashion class. Lots of drama was required. I spent the day wandering around meadows in Calabassas. With a compass I located a steep hillside, covered in large rocks and dead branches which sloped upward to the west. I marked the spot for the tripod with large pile of stones.

Next day, I drove out there with a professional model from Nina Blanchard Agency, dressed in the large robe. I set up the 4x5 with a 90mm lens and attached an old Honeywell potato-masher to the top of the front standard. Film was Ektachrome E3.

Setting the exposure with the f-stop for normal with the flash and 2 stops under for the daylight with the shutter. I waited for the sun to begin to set.

The resulting shot showed the model posed standing full-length, properly spot-lit within the flash, and a small pool of white light around her feet.

The sky and hillside were dark because of the underexposure for the daylight. The large rocks on the hillside, and a big dead tree, behind the model were all edged in bright red light from the setting sun behind the hill. It added the drama I needed and popped them away from the deep blue sky.

The technique worked to well, I later used it on a brunette with black Spanish lace around her head, wearing a floor-length white satin designer coat with black embroidery, black patent leather shoes with stiletto heels..

This time, in b&w, I shot on the flat roof of a commercial building, placing the 4x5 camera at ground level, looking up at the full-length figure. I carefully placed the sun directly behind the model’s head, creating a halo. I had been there, alone, the day before with a compass and newspaper sunset table. I knew exactly when and where the sun would be, and where to place the camera and model.

Same underexposure for the daylight, throwing the rooftop into black silhouette. The coat was lit normally with the Honeywell.

Neither of these shots amounted to artistic rocket science. And yet, their magic greatly benefitted from a little pre-visualization and planning. Necessary as a poor college student, working alone with zero budget.

I never leave the studio now without a pre-planned firm shot list. Like working in my woodshop, I begin with a blueprint, rather than randomly nailing boards together, hoping something nice comes out.

As long as you spend the day wandering around the woods with a model, hoping something photogenic will happen, your session will be a delightfully enjoyable crapshoot, and you will require all the magic filters you can muster. I know. Been there. Done that. It was 1967.