Taking Back Visual Astronomy- Filters (An Update on Colour Blindness)

Are serious visual observers becoming colour blind?

Are serious visual observers becoming colour blind?

This work is dedicated to Rutilus

Do not let yourself be tainted with a barren skepticism.

Louis Pasteur (1822-95)

Filters work.

Sunglasses show up details in a bright, washed out image that are nearly invisible in its unfiltered counterpart. Narrow band nebula filters allow you to more easily see faint deep sky objects despite removing vast amounts of other information from the image. Atmospheric haze turns a good achromatic image into a great one. And colour filters, judiciously selected and attached to the eyepiece of a telescope, help you to see planetary details more clearly.

Filters are useful.

But  as I write these words, a new generation of amateur astronomer is running roughshod over tried and trusted traditions of visual observing. The condition is particularly perspicuous amongst those who delight in owning high-end apochromats and premium Newtonian mirrors. In love with aesthetic images, these uber emotive souls are shocked and horrified by the suggestion that adding a filter to the eyepiece might actually enable them to see more than their pretty unfiltered images render. Here are a couple of statements I’ve heard from two supposedly serious planetary observers

“I tried out various colour filters with my 12″ Zambuto mirror, but in the end, figured I was seeing everything without the filters than with them.”


” My TEC 160 image is so good, I wouldn’t dare cheapen it by placing a $5 filter between it and my eye.”

Or, how about this quote oft parroted on tinternet:

“Filters are unnecessary as it has more to do with the observer’s eye being ill-adapted to photopic mode observation.”

Well, try saying that to a bloke wearing polaroids on a bright summer day.

You see, these three statements amount to complete and utter nonsense!

Take a quick look at these three full moon images.



Green filter

Green filter

Red Filter

Red Filter






Are you going to sit there and tell me filters don’t do anything?

Simply put, filters can improve what we see by removing what we don’t want to see from the view. We can all understand that most contemporary observers desire the most aesthetically pleasing image possible from a ‘scope. Adding a colour filter won’t do anything to enhnace that world view but what it will most definitely do is exaggerate differences in brightness between the various features of a planetary or lunar image.

Colour filters have many uses, including;

1. Glare reduction, which almost invariably leads to an increase in perceived image quality.

2. Overcoming to a greater or lesser degree, the image distorting effects of the atmosphere

3. Enabling observers to study different levels of a planetary atmosphere.

4. Increasing contrast between areas of different colour.

5. While not eliminating optical defects, improving image definition even with bad or mediocre optics.

If you are in the slightest way sceptical about any of the claims above then you’ll be helping to topple the photographic industry. The most commonly used Wratten system, for example, was developed by Kodak in 1909 and has been the standard ever since. The Wratten number, usually found around the circumference of the colour filter gives precise information about the properties of that filter.

Colour Filter                   Wratten #                  Light Transmission (%)

Light Yellow                      8                                         83

Yellow-Green                   11                                       78

Yellow                               12                                       74

Deep Yellow                    15                                        67

Orange                             21                                        46

Light Red                         23A                                      25

Red                                   25A                                      14

Dark Blue                         38A                                      17

Violet                                 47                                         3

Light Green                       56                                        53

Green                                58                                        24

Blue                                   80A                                     30

Light Blue                          82A                                     73

As you can see from the table above, filters vary considerably in their ability to transmit visible light. But, get a load of this, they do it without sacrificing resolution (and may in fact increase it). A very important point I should think. In general, filters work better with larger instruments which have more light gathering power. That said, one of the most versatile filters – the light yellow Wratten # 8 – can be used productively with even the smallest apertures.

Most of the attributes of filters highlighted above are well known, with the possible exception of attribute 2. Meteorologists have known for quite some time about the scattering effects of particles in the atmosphere. Known as Rayleigh Scattering, it predicts that for a given sized particle, light is scattered in inverse proportion to the fourth power of wavelength. Thus, it can be shown that violet light (wavelength ~400nm) is scattered some 16 times more effectively than deep red light (800nm). That’s why the sky is blue and sunsets are red.

And, so the theory goes, employing a red filter during turbulent atmospheric episodes might mitigate to some degree the deleterious effects of bad seeing. Although I have not explored this as vigorously as I’d have liked to, I once tried to see Sirius B using a light red Wratten # 23A with my 4″ Televue 102 refractor some years back, and if memory serves me well, the results were encouraging. Weather permitting, I shall attempt resolving the Sirian Pup – always very low even at culmination from my northerly latitude – using a similar strategy early in the new year.

A violet (47A) filter is very useful for observing cloud features on Venus and although its light transmission is painfully low, it can be pressed into service with larger aperture ‘scopes.

Mars is a great planet to learn how good colour filters can be in extracting atmospheric and surface features. A simple light yellow (#8) reduces glare and increases contrast in smaller apertures (5-inches and less). An orange (#21) is great for pentrating haze and cloud in the Martian disk,as well as increasing contrast between the light and darker areas of the planet. A light green # 56 filter darkens both red and blue features, enabling the observer to prize the morphology of the polar cap more easily.

Jupiter and Saturn also benefit from coloured filtration. Blue and green ones are just dandy for bringing out the belts of the planets. A yellow filter can help reveal bluish features( festoons), while a red filter can help bring out the white ovals so cherished by planetary observers. The icy Saturnian ring system too can look majestic using a red filter.

I’d be willing to bet good money that a patient observer, sketching planetary details in red, green and blue light will see more than one observing a ‘luminance’  image. Every dedicated planetary observer should have a set. And while dyed glass filters are perfectly adequate ( and cheap as chips), one might gain some additional benefit from the newer interference colour filters manufactured by companies like Baader Planetarium., Germany.

The study of colour filters on the lunar surface is an unexplored frontier, as far as I’m aware, but think geologically (minerals and that)!

                                          Improving resolving power with colour filters

The resolving power of a telescope (in radians) is approximated by Lamda/D, where lamda is the wavelength and D is telescope aperture. The Dawes limit is closely matched to a wavelength of 562nm. Converting radians to angular degrees, we can easily compute that for a 4-inch instrument (0.1m), the Dawes limit is ~1.15 arc seconds. Yet, as I have shown elsewhere in my work, there are quite a few instances where this value has been exceeded. An overly sceptical person might doubt the veracity of these claims, but if the eye has a peak sensitivity at a lower wavelength, resolution can be improved.

Individuals who have a form of colour blindness called protanopia perceive red hues as essentially dark and have peak spectral sensitivities shifted to shorter wavelengths (typically 520nm) – quite similar to where a normal, trichromatic eye would shift when fully dark adapted (~507nm). Thus, even if these individuals were observing in photopic or mesopic mode, they would have no sensitivity to longer, red wavelengths but with no loss of acuity. A simple calculation shows that such an individual might derive a ‘new,’ lower Dawes limit of 1.0 arc second with the same 10cm ‘scope. What happens as the protanopic eye dark adapts – does the peak sensitivity fall further back as in the trichromatic eye? If that happens, even greater resolution feats are conceivable!

And what of deuteranopia (another fairly common form of dichromatism where the retina lacks green cones)? Under typical night time viewing conditions, wouldn’t their red light sensitivity decrease, inducing them to rely on their blue-sensitive (peak spectral response ~440nm) cones. Could these individuals resolve finer details still?

All this serves to illustrate is that we still know far too little about the human eye (in all its enormous variety) to devise over-restrictive rules that only serve to tell folk what they can and can’t acheive. I for one don’t want to be told what I can and cannot see. Away with the Universal, away with the ‘thought police’!

While all of this sounds like pie in the sky, it can be handidly demonstrated with colour filters. A violet filter working at 390nm will improve the resolution of a telescope by up to 30 percent. A blue filter; less so. Noted CCD imager Damian Peach, produced a cool illustration of this effect on his website. You will note that the binary system is unresolved at red wavelengths, elongated at green wavelengths, and cleanly resolved at blue (lower) wavelengths. See here. Neat huh?

Note addded in proof: While researching the life of the 19th century observer, G.V. Schiaparelli, I came across a curious account of colour blindness in William Sheehan and Steve O’ Meara’s book, Mars; The Lure of the Red Planet(pp 117):

That color blind individuals possess superior vision, at least for certain  types of observations, is attested  by at least one other case known to me. According to Donald Osterbrook, Lick Observatory, astronomer Nick Mayall was colour blind., ” and he believed that it made his eyes more sensitive to faint light so he could find and observe fainter stars, nebulae and galaxies than other astronomers  with normal eyesight. Certainly, when I visited him at the Crossley reflector one night around 1955, he was taking a spectrum of an object  that was too faint  for me to see, though he evidently could see it well and the spectrum  was a good one when he developed it the next day. Several other astronomers have told me that color blind observers can see fainter objects at night than those with normal eyes -WS.

Indeed, knowedge of this sort has helped resolve a few issues I have had with my own telescopes. I only recently discovered that my eyes are particularly red sensitive and I appear to have less sensitivity at shorter (bluer) wavelengths. While using my 5″ Russian achromatic refractor, I can see the faint companion to Eta Geminorum better using a fringe killer than without it ( it blocks off  deep red wavelengths very effectively, as you’ll see below). I find that while I can achieve 1 arc second splits quite easily, 0.9 arc second pairs remain beyond my abilities, possibly because I see too much of the red end of the diffraction pattern. By using a blue filter, I hope to finally smash that 1.0 arc second barrier, if anything, to prove to myself that it is my eyes that are found wanting and not my telescope.

Nosce te ipsum.

                                                            Polarizing Filters

The light that reaches us from the depths of space vibrates in every conceivable plane. Plane polarised light, on the other hand, vibrates in only one plane, greatly reducing scattered light in the eye (irradiance) and increasing contrast. You only need look at the effects of a polarising filter from a medium focal length lens to see how dramatic an improvement to a daylight landscape it can make.

Single polarising filters have been used successfully by double star observers , especially in cases where one component is significantly brighter than the other. The theory is that the glare from the brighter primary is reduced enough to render visible a faint secondary.

Many observers have employed polarising filters to observe deep sky objects during full Moon nights. There is apparently a big contrast gain when the telescope is pointed about 60 degrees away from Luna and amazing results when swung away to 90 degrees. Larger apertures and low powers naturally benefit from this more than smaller instruments.

Neutral density filters are often cross polarising in effect, where two polarisng layers are mounted in such a fashion that one can be rotated relative to the other, empowering the observer with ability to vary the brighness of an object. Moonwatching with a large Dobsonian  can be cool with one of these.

                                                         Minus Violet Filters

Minus Violet or anti-fringing filters have been round for over a decade now. By and large they have a tried and trusted reputation for improving the performance of achromatic refractors. They achieve this through selectively blocking (via destructive interference) selected wavelengths at both the violet (short wavelength end) and deep red (longer wavelength) end of the visible spectrum. Typically it is at these extreme ends of the spectrum that most of the unfocused light(secondary spectrum) arises in achromatic refractors. Because they block specific wavebands of visble light, they usually impart a yellowish tint to the image, which seems to bother some more than others. In addition to blocking off unwanted secondary spectrum they greatly help with focusing the instrument, particularly during turbulent bouts.

The most aggressive minus violet filters have a tendency to dim the image a little too much, especially if you’re in the habit of using smaller instruments, but there is one filter that I have studied at length that is particularly useful; the Baader Fringe Killer. Although more expensive than traditional yellow filters, the fringe killer works more effectively in my opinion. The Baader Contrast Booster is also excellent although it cuts off too much light for productive use in smaller instruments.

I have used the fringe killer quite extensively with my 5″ f/9 achromatic refractor, observing Jupiter at or near opposition as well as in the pursuit of double stars. It deals effectively with the unfocused blue halo round the planet but also greatly increases the contrast between the darker belts and surrounding bright areas of the atmosphere. Focusing the planet is child’s play too. If you’re a student of Jupiter using a moderate aperture achromatic refractor, then this filter is highly recommended.

These filters are also excellent for star testing refracting telescopes. They invariably clean up the spherochromatism that oft attends the intra- or extra-focal images of stars, allowing you to more accurately assess the quality of the optic.

But it’s not only achromatic images that can be improved by this filter, ED scopes seem to respond very well too. This is particularly the case with the new breed of econo-model ED scopes now on the market. One way these manufactuers get round the issue of producing a fairly short focal length ED doublet without introducing spurious blue fringing round bright objects is to over correct at short wavelengths at the expense of more lax correction at deep red wavebands. This reduces blue fringing alright but serves up slightly washed out images of planets like Jupiter. When I examined the image in one of these units, I discovered that it was quite dramatically improved by using the fringe killer. I attribute this to the cleaning up (by blocking off) of the loosely focused deep red colours. It was just easier to see the details in the planet’s belt with the filter in place. The filter transmits enough light that telescopes as small as 80mm can benefit from its effects.

Double stars too benefit from this filter. One of the most effective things the filter does is cut down on glare (irradiance) which can make seeing a faint, close companion more easy to pick off, especially when located right up next to a much more brilliant companion. While evaluating a 6-inch ED instrument, which produces very bright images of systems such as Delta Cygni, I found the fringe killer reduced the glare round the primary quite a bit making the companion easier to keep in view during a vigil.

And on my 5″ f/9 achromatic refractor, I discovered that the fringe killer was a fantastic tool to render tricky systems like the devilish companion to Eta Geminorum (Propus) much easier to see. On most nights I have trouble with this system, whether observing through an apochromat or achromat. Reducing the red glare of the red giant primary with this filter was a real eye-opener to me though.

Some might object that using such a filter reduces the aesthetic appearance of a pair, but that’s not really been my experience at the eyepiece. Famous colour-contrast pairs, such as Albireo and Gamma Andromedae (Almach) are just as beautiful with the filter as without it and the rich colours actually seem more enhanced to my eye compared to the unfiltered view. Only whiter pairs seem to give way to a yellowish cast.

If you’ve been round the block a few times, no doubt you’ve heard the show-stopping mantra of the apophiles whenever the subject of these filters comes up.

“It won’t turn your $300 achromat into a $3,000 apochromat.”

What does that mean exactly?

If they allow you to use optimal magnifications on the moon and planets with your modest achromat isn’t that enough?

These filters will often improve the images of both telescopic genres by teaching your visual system to concentrate on the most important wavebands – where the vast majority of the information from an image is imparted – over yellow green wavelengths.

Filters are tools; pure and simple. Find the time to use them skillfully.

References and Further Reading

Some additional background on filters here



Bakich, Michael E, 2003, The Cambridge Encylopedia of Amateur Astronomy, Cambridge University Press.

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7 thoughts on “Taking Back Visual Astronomy- Filters (An Update on Colour Blindness)

    • Hello Steve,

      Eyepieces for my 80mm f/15? The works! Everything from a 40mm Erfle (2″) down to my short focal length orthoscopics.



      • Thanks for the reply. I got myself lost on your site/sites and it’s taken 2 weeks to spot your reply. I bought a Lyra 80mm f15 from Glen along with a 12mm and 25mm ortho. Its a lovely scope with excellent resolution when viewing the moon. Just wanted to know what to buy for a wide view. I am new to astronomy old to life and bought an achromatic on the strength of your articles. Very pleased I found your site and happy with my decision.
        Regards Steve Bradshaw

  1. I would endorse the advice from Televue which suggests you look at this quite literally from the size of the exit pupil of your scope . They advise using an eyepiece giving a 2mm exit pupil and also 1mm. Obviously a 2x Barlow will provide the 1mm using the same eyepiece. For your F/15 scope this means a 30mm ( or near-say 32mm ) eyepiece providing 40X. When you double this to 80X you will see even more stars . Also, on a personal note- at an exit pupil of 1mm in my 80mm scope I can remove my Astigmatism-correcting specs. From there you will need to find out for yourself what higher powers ( and smaller exit pupils) can provide in the detail you want/hope to see-sky conditions permitting. Wishing you clear and steady skies,rich.

    • Rich.
      What I have written above applies. I am thinking about buying a 55mm Televue plossl. Whats your take on that?

      Steve b

      • Hi Steve B, sorry i can `t offer any thing more . Never heard of an eyepiece with a focal length more than 40mm. Because of my personal problem- Astigmatism- I usually examine everything at 80X or higher. Even stuff which is described as “best seen in binoculars” -for me its only good. Best and really great views for me need an exit pupil of 1mm. However, if TELEVUE make a Plossl eyepiece of 55mm you should just get it. They do know what we want to see. Clear skies, rich.

  2. hi, steve. thanks for your article on filters. shortly i will be one of the first people to have the privilage of owning a long achromat made by mark turner of moonraker refractors, a100mm f13, with, incidently, carton optics. one of the things i most want it to do is enable me to get as close to the moon as possible. i understand that an f13 scope will not suffer much ca generally, but i’m wondering if a baader fringe killer might help me to squeeze a little more magnification out of it. what do you think? also, will such a filter be of general use with such a long focal length scope? regards, from rob.

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