Design, Photography, & Fashion

Photography 101: What is Monochrome Photography? Learn The Difference Between Monochrome and Black and White Photography, Plus 5 Tips for Shooting in Monochrome

Written by MasterClass

Aug 5, 2019 • 4 min read

Monochrome photography is any photography that utilizes differing amounts of light instead of different colors to capture and represent images. Whereas standard color photography (known as polychrome) displays colors from across the spectrum, monochrome photography takes only one single color and uses a range of tones of that color.

This is the case in black and white photography, which uses varying shades of neutral gray instead of the actual colors of the objects photographed. Monochrome is not exclusively black and white, however. It can be achieved using varying shades of other colors like sepia or cyan.


What is Monochrome Photography?

The definition of monochrome is an image displaying a single colour or different shades of a single color. Monochrome photography is photography in which the entire image is recorded and represented by differing amounts of light instead of different hues. Black and white photography is the most prominent example of monochrome photography, as it represents subjects in varying shades of neutral gray, but includes no other colors. In monochrome photography, tones of a single color are used to represent all the different colors within an image.

This stands in stark contrast to contemporary color photography in which the actual colors present in the subject are captured and represented in the photograph.

Because of this distinction, monochrome images are not true renditions of the world, but rather abstractions that represent different colors with different shades of the same color. Because of this, monochrome photography is most often used for artistic and aesthetic purposes.

What Is the Benefit of Monochrome Photography?

Monochrome photography lends itself to particular types of photos, offering drama, distinction, and contrast while also making imagery feel fluid and bound together. By reducing all colors to different shades of the same color, monochrome can allow background images to appear less prominent than the centralized subject of the photo.

Also, since it was the favored photographic medium until the advent of color-supporting film, monochrome photography, particularly black and white images, also lend a classic patina, making images appear historic or even timeless. When images are represented in the same monochrome format prevalent from the invention of photography all the way through the mid-twentieth-century, they take on a classic, historical air.

What Is the Difference Between Monochrome and Black and White Photography?

Though black and white is the most popular example of monochrome photography, monochrome photography can also be made up of variations of other single hues, such as sepia or cyan, for example.

A good rule of thumb is this: all black and white photography is monochrome photography, but not all monochrome photography is black and white.

Though it may seem like black and white are entirely unrelated to each other, black and white are actually the extreme ends of the neutral gray color spectrum, and since gray is the only color present in black and white photography, it is monochrome.

What Is the Difference Between Monochrome Film Photography and Monochrome Digital Photography?

Monochrome photography can be captured with both traditional film-based cameras as well as dedicated digital cameras and smartphone cameras capturing digital images.

While both have their advantages, it is generally understood that digital photography provides more flexibility, particularly in post-processing, when it comes to monochrome photography. This is because of editing software like Photoshop and other popular programs that allow photographers to manipulate the image as much after it has been captured as in framing before the picture is taken.

  • Digital photography allows far more flexibility with monochrome as it allows for images to be converted to and from monochrome at will
  • Digital photography also allows for different monochromatic colors to be substituted in. This means you can go from gray to sepia to cyan until you find the perfect monotone hue.
  • There is room for manipulation within traditional film photography but it does not allow the same editing possibilities as digital photography.
  • Monochrome photos are best captured and manipulated through digital photography.

That said, there are many proponents of traditional film-based photography for monochrome. It is also important to note that, beyond monochrome pictures, examples of monochrome also come from other mediums: there are also monochrome paintings, monochrome prints, and monochrome films, like Schindler’s List.

5 Tips for Shooting in Monochrome

When shooting in monochrome, there are several important things to consider in order to make the most of the photographic medium.

  1. Subject matter. Generally monochrome works best with a strong primary element in the image, one that captures and holds attention. A strong subject matter can anchor monochrome photography, taking advantage of its ability to emphasize the foreground.
  2. Tonal range. Ensure that monochrome photography doesn’t just show one shade of color by using it to capture scenes with a wide variety of tones.
  3. Lighting and shadows are also important when shooting monochrome as they will provide the contrast on which monochrome thieves. Ensure contrast is set appropriately on your digital or analog camera.
  4. Textures, lines, and angles play out dramatically in monochrome photography.
  5. Shapes and patterns are also beautifully captured by monochrome, and do well situated behind prominent subjects.

How Do You Turn a Color Image Into Monochrome?

Turning a color image into monochrome is quite easily accomplished using modern technology, particularly photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop.

In Photoshop, as in most photo editing programs, you can move a photo from polychrome to monochrome (and back again), and within monochrome choose literally any color in the color wheel to serve as the monochromatic base color.

To accomplish this, polychrome photos must first be converted to grayscale. From a grayscale image, you then can select duotone or monotone; within the monotone options, you will find the entire color wheel. Any color family from the color wheel can be the monochromatic hue in the image.

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