Monochrome Photography Vs. Black And White Photography: What’s the Difference?

photographer using DSLR camera in monochrome mode

​Image Source: Pixabay

Monochrome photography produces striking artistic photographs. Because monochrome photography eliminates all but one color, it allows for focus to be directed toward composition, emotion, and the quality of light in ways that full-color photography does not. The dramatic images that result are able to capture and highlight visual aspects otherwise easily overlooked.

Monochrome photography can be a rewarding hobby, and it is one that can be started with minimal investment. In fact, if you have a mobile phone camera, you can start experimenting as soon as you are ready. While more specialized equipment will produce high-quality results, you can produce stunning monochrome photographs without it.

What Is Monochrome Photography

Chees game in monochrome effect

​Image Source: Pixabay

Monochrome photography produces final images that are comprised entirely of variations of a single color. Without color variation to draw the eye, monochromatic photography highlights composition, textures, shapes, and the quality of light.

The unique effects offered by the absence of multiple colors significantly contributes to the popularity of monochrome photography as an artistic medium. Additionally, most monochromatic photography is not an image of the world as it is, offering instead a view of the world in a single color. For this reason, most monochromatic photographs are more artistic renditions than direct renditions of their subject.

Producing a Monochromatic Photograph

Monochrome photography can be accomplished by taking monochrome photographs or by editing photographs in post-processing.

Finding naturally-occurring, entirely monochromatic subjects is one way to produce monochromatic photographs; however, locating these naturally-occurring monochromatic subjects can be difficult.

Many digital cameras have the option to take pictures using monochrome mode, which will produce monochromatic photographs without the need to remove color in post-processing stages. In monochrome mode, you can take advantage of options to alter contrast or apply filters in order to enhance the image. Be aware, however, that shooting in monochrome mode will capture images with less data than a color image.

Monochromatic photographs are often initially taken as full-color images and then edited to produce a monochromatic image. When manipulating digital images, this task is typically accomplished through the use of photo editing software like Lightroom or Photoshop. Taking full-color images produces images files with more data than monochrome images, which allows for more post-processing options.

The earliest monochrome photographs were taken on black and white film. During the development process, altering the chemicals used to develop the film could produce photographs in colors other than just black and white. Silver sulfide in place of silver produces sepia photographs, which are a warm brown. Silver selenide in place of silver produces images that are blue-black or purple. Using iron salts in place of silver salts produces cyanotype photographs, which are blue and white.

The Difference between Monochrome Photography vs. Black and White

Many people immediately think of black and white photographs when discussing monochromatic photography, but the terms do not describe identical types of images. Black and white photographs are comprised entirely of variations of the color grey, from black at the darkest to white at the lightest.

This colorization means that all black and white photographs are also monochromatic photographs. However, because monochromatic photographs can use variations of any single color, not all monochromatic photographs are black and white photographs.

Monochrome Photography Tips

monochrome photography of a crop hand holding a dslr camera

​Image Source: Unsplash

Monochrome photography is a fantastic artistic pursuit. If you're interested in trying your hand at it, you'll need a camera and access to photo editing software. Many photographers use high-end cameras and programs like Lightroom or Photoshop to edit their photographs, but if you're just interested in trying out monochrome photography as a hobby you can start with a mobile phone camera.

Scene and Subject Selection for Monochrome Photography

Light Can Be Everything

Light is one of the most important elements of a monochromatic photograph. If you're using natural light, avoid taking photographs when the sun is at its brightest. On sunny days, take photographs in the early morning or late afternoon.

Light coming from the side can add visual interest.

Contrast Makes for Dramatic Images

​For the best contrast, try to take a photograph that includes both pure black and pure white. For the most depth, be certain to include a wide range of shades.

Texture Adds Heightened Visual Interest

​With the absence of colors, the impact of textures is highlighted in monochromatic photographs. Choose a subject with texture that is not front-lit for the best effect.

Be on the Lookout for Fascinating Shapes and Patterns

​Without colors to distract from them, shapes and patterns will draw more attention in monochrome photography. Take advantage of that increased attention to highlight unique shapes and patterns or to draw attention to those shapes and patterns which might be overlooked in a full-color image.

More Colors Can Make Better Monochromatic Photographs

Though it may seem counterintuitive, choosing to shoot an image rich in color can produce a more striking final product than an image that is naturally monochromatic. Rendering a low color image, like a close-up of a black and white dog, in monochrome photography often fails to produce a compelling image.

Unless you've chosen to do your monochrome photography by shooting naturally monochromatic images, try to choose scenes and subjects with at least four colors.

Naturally Occurring Monochromatic Images: Rare But Striking

​While finding an excellent monochromatic subject to photograph may not be a frequent occurrence, taking advantage of these opportunities can provide visually stunning and unique images.

Begin with Landscapes or Portraits

Trying to visualize how a scene you see in color will look as a monochromatic photograph can be difficult. Landscapes and portraits tend to be compelling as monochromatic images, so consider those as potential starting points.

If you're planning to produce a black and white or sepia image, you might consider photographing landscapes that include old barns or fences. Black and white and sepia photographs often have a nostalgic charm, so the sense of age and increased texture of weathered wood can help make for a great image.

Taking Photographs for Monochrome Photography

Shoot in RAW Rather Than JPEG

​Though shooting in full-color might seem an odd choice for monochromatic photography, RAW files contain more data than JPEG files, so RAW files will provide you with more options during post-processing.

Minimize the Effect of Reflected Sunlight

​Reflected sunlight often detracts from the quality of a monochrome photograph. If you're taking photographs near a reflective surface like a lake, try using a polarizer.

Shoot Some Long Exposure Landscapes

​Long exposure landscape photographs often look incredible as monochrome photographs. If you have the ability, try experimenting with exposure length for unique and impactful monochrome photographs.

Editing Monochrome Photographs

Remove Color with HSL Sliders

​Removing colors through the use of HSL sliders to decrease color saturation will allow you more flexibility than changing the image to greyscale, which completely removes color information.

Increasing the Quality of Monochrome Photography

​Though there are considerations specific to monochromatic photography, some of the best tricks and techniques for improving the quality of your monochromatic photographs are the same as for increasing the quality of any photograph.

Don't Neglect Photography Basics

​A monochrome photograph is, if anything, more reliant on composition than a full-color photograph. Don't focus so hard on monochrome-specific tips and tricks that you neglect general photography principles.

Take the Time to View Great Art

If you're interested in taking great photographs, study the work of great photographers. Some notable monochrome photographers include Ansel Adams, Vivian Maier, Paolo Roversi, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

You can also watch a black and white movie to see how directors conveyed emotional tone and captured visual interest without color.

Practice Every Day

​Consistent practice is the best way to improve your monochrome photography. Try to take and edit a handful of photographs daily. Even if you set an editing time of five minutes per photograph and come back to do more work with only a few photographs from each week, you'll see definite progress as you continue to gain experience.


Open water infront of a mountain

​Image Source: Pixabay

Monochrome photography is a stunning art form that makes use of a single color to present an image. Black and white photography, which renders an image in shades of gray, is one type of monochromatic photography, but any single color can be used.

Historically, monochrome photography made use of black and white film to capture photographs. During the development process, alterations to the chemicals used to develop the film could produce photographs in warmer and cooler tones. Many people are familiar with the colors of vintage sepia and cyanotype photographs.

Today, monochrome photography is most often a digital process. Photographs are frequently shot in full-color and the image is later converted into a monochrome image using photo editing software. Some people choose instead to take photographs in monochrome mode.

If you're curious about monochrome photography and want to try it, you can get started with just a mobile phone camera. High-end cameras and photo editing software may produce more professional results, but hobbyists are still able to get dramatic results without special equipment which makes this an easily approachable artistic venture.

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