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Monochrome Photography

monochrome photography

Monochrome Photography – Introduction

Monochrome photography is another form of achieving a brilliant result for a photograph.  It has been around long before the colour film started hitting the shops around the world.  Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was the first person to create a photo in 1825, and, without having to guess, it was in monochrome.  Since it’s early development, this style has gone on to capture many iconic images throughout the world & eras.  It has helped to create great photographers such as Ansel Adams, Robert Capa or even Margaret Bourke-White.  From landscapes to documenting war, monochrome photography has given the world some fantastic results.

In this article, some examples will be shown to explain how anyone can use photography in monochrome form.  From how best to use the camera to using various scenes that can give pleasing results.


So which is the best file format for shooting in black & white?  In my opinion, it does not matter as I usually leave the image that has been processed by the camera, but almost all of the time I use JPEG format although RAW is still active (JPEG+RAW mode).  You may be asking why.  When shooting the majority of my mono images, they can usually be of a balanced exposure.  The scene is mainly cloudy with no sun, so there is no risk of having an overexposed area.  There will be the odd occasion to shoot in raw such as taking bracketed shots or using the extra megabytes that the RAW file holds to rescue a darkened area.

Rather than using RAW to rescue an image I use JPEG and leave the dark areas as they naturally are.  I find it helps to give extra feel in a photograph.  To help understand how exposure affects an image, read the short guide on understanding histograms.  Histograms are typically included in modern cameras these days that can help you to gauge the exposure of a photograph.

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A high contrast monochrome scene shot locally in Pembrokeshire. The lights & darks give a sweet mixture in the view. I shot this in jpeg, letting the camera do the processing, with no editing using any software.

When is it Best to use Monochrome in Photography?

Black & white photography can be used anytime regardless of the weather or time of day.  It can be used on a dull cloudy day, or at sunset.  Night photography & long exposures also make great mono images.  Just like colour, it’s also used in a multitude of creative ways to get a pleasing result along with various scenes & situations.  Another advantage to using monochrome rather than colour is when strong mixed tones overpower a view.

A sunset scene in monochrome. Like the image above, it’s shot in high contrast.

Contrast for Monochrome Photography

One of the main features in black + white photography is looking for subjects or objects that have high contrast.  It’s usually best to switch your camera to black + white mode to help find a delicate balance between lights & darks, like the image above or below.  Going back to the above photograph,  you can see the sun is setting in the distance, giving nice dark contrasts to the building & landscape area.  The reflections from the setting sun are beaming onto the sea.  This is where monochrome photography gets more interesting, as many images shot in colour can have a similar effect.  However, finding scenes with only two colours with an exciting composition can sometimes be difficult.

contrasts,monochrome photography
An example using contrasts. Only the features that are lit up are noticeable while everything else is pretty much in the dark.

Using Shapes for Monochrome Photography

Another critical feature of a successful black + white photo is having an excellent composition made up of a shape or a series of aspects that blend well using only two tones.  It can vary in the type of appearance or line, but as long as it will produce an exciting feature in your image along with possessing a composition, then it should work well.  More popular choices would be shapes from buildings such as cathedrals or a series of high rise buildings in a congested city.  The possibilities are endless & you can use any lens with varying focal lengths.

monochrome photography,shapes
Using simple shapes such as this sign can have an improved effect when shot in two-tone rather than colour.

Using Long Exposures for Monochrome Photography

Long exposures are also a useful tool for getting an interesting photograph.  Long Exposures are achieved day or night.  The advantage of night photography is; generally, there are no filters required to reduce shutter time.  In the day, bright lights will give trouble, so fitting a series of nd filters or one big filter will solve that problem.  Just like using shapes, night photography can produce pleasing results with a delicate balance of lights and darkness.

monochrome photography,long exposures
A long exposure night shot taken at a local town in Pembrokeshire. A blend of lights & dark’s mix well in this shot including a moonlight night sky.
long exposure,monochrome photography
Extended exposure sunset scene with a rough incoming tide. The tones accentuate the flow & the clouds.

Editing Monochrome Images

A lot of images are altered nowadays using editing software.  It is very rare you see photographs from a developed film, however, it still exists, but it is more in the minority.  Editing an image is a great way to put an individual stamp on a picture.  There are also so many various editors that can give a pleasing result.  To list them all here would be too much but I will mention the usual suspects such as Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One Pro & Affinity to name a few.  There are also plugins that also give a wow factor which also come at a price.  The best thing for anyone starting out is just experiment and build it from there.

The rest is now up to you.  The best advice to give is to keep practising monochrome photography.  It can be a fun and rewarding part of photography which can produce truly breathtaking shots.  I also have more images to view if you have an interest in taking up monochrome photography.

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