A Dozen Reasons to Make it Monochrome

In Photo Basics by Rick Ohnsman8 Comments

The Bruneau Sand Dunes in Idaho are the tallest freestanding dunes in North America, the tallest standing at 470 feet. Monochrome is a great choice to emphasize the play of light, shadow, shape, tone, and texture. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

The earliest photographers made monochrome images.  That was their only option.  Today, the general public expects photos to be in color and monochrome is seen as the infrequent option.  So why would you make a “black and white” photo when the world is in color and color photography is so easy?  Here are a dozen reasons you may want to Make it Monochrome.

Our modern digital cameras are invariably set up to make color photos.  To make a monochrome photo we either have to use special camera settings or convert an already captured color image into monochrome with editing tools.  The point of this article is not to discuss techniques for doing those things, there are already many good articles discussing tools and techniques for that.  Instead, I’d like to talk about why you might want to make a monochrome image instead of a color one.

This shot is about the shapes, tones, and textures. Simulating a red filter turns the blue sky very dark. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

1 – Shape, Form, and Tone

Without the color in a photograph, we are left with images represented by their shape, form, and tone.  This gives much greater emphasis to the essential ingredients of an image, taking away distractions and helping keep the viewer's attention on what the photographer wants to communicate with the image.  Sometimes architectural photography can make good use of this concept where the message of the photo is all about shapes and lines.

Reduced to minimal shapes and tones, this image of sand through an hourglass still communicates the photographer's vision. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

A simple subject, rather abstract, well served by a monochrome treatment. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

2. Simplification

An extension of the idea concept above, monochrome lends itself well to photos where the maker wants to greatly simplify the subject.  Minimalistic images and often abstracts are often well represented in monochrome.

3. Composition

A simple composition with lines, curves, tone and texture benefits from the use of monochrome. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

A good way to help determine whether a photo is well-composed is to temporarily reduce it to a monochrome, even when your final intent for the image may be color.  With fewer distractions, it can be easier to see where the concepts of subject placement, balance, positive and negative space, leading lines, curves, perspective, and other compositional concepts work.  You may also find that a strongly composed image is better rendered without the color so that the compositional elements stand out more strongly without the distraction of color.

A pattern of light and shadow falling on aluminum bleachers creates this monochrome abstract. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

4. Seeing the Light

George Eastman, (the Kodak guy) put it well –

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

Seek the light. The light, shadows, and starburst effects of specular highlights work together in this monochrome shot. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

Working in monochrome, you will find it probably is easier to “see the light,” to see properties such as highlights, shadows, intensity, direction, degree of hardness or softness, how it falls off over distance, reflections, refractions, diffusion, and so forth.  Yes, one property of light is color and it’s important photographers understand that as well, but removing that attribute can often help you better see the interaction of light on your subject .

5. Emphasizing texture

Roots extend through the cracks in the rock. Monochrome accentuates the texture. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

Without the addition of color, a photographer will sometimes find a monochrome an excellent way to emphasize the texture of an object.  This could be with subjects with rough textures, such as old weathered wood, or very smooth and almost non-textured features.  The play of light and tone in a monochrome image is often an excellent way to communicate the texture of a subject.

A fun shot with my photo buddies when we made a trip to the historic Bodie, California ghost town. To make it look like a period image, monochrome with a sepia tone was a must!

6. Historic, retro, nostalgic qualities

To make this shot of a historic plane and hanger look like it was taken during that period, monochrome with a sepia tone was the answer. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

Because we know that monochrome images were what was made in the past, most people equate monochrome with concepts of history, nostalgia, retro or “oldness” of subjects.  For example, we could certainly take a photo of a historic steam train in color and while that might make a compelling shot, making it monochrome and perhaps even giving it a sepia tone would help communicate to the viewer that this is an old subject and even perhaps that the photo was taken in the past.  Many “old” subjects translate well in monochrome.

The historic Union Pacific 844 steam train came through our area this past summer and while I have some nice color shots of it, this monochrome seems to suit it best. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

7. Classic Quality / Fine Art

You may have heard the term “Fine Art Photography,” but do you have a good definition for it?  I have searched to find one and have not found anything absolutely definitive.  The closest I have come speaks to the intent of the photographer and the purposefulness in making the photograph.  The idea is that rather than simply capturing a realistic rendition of the subject the photographer seeks a more personal, evocative, or atmospheric impression.  Fine art photos are those where the intention of the photographer is primarily Aesthetic rather than Scientific, Commercial (i.e. product photos) or Journalistic, (photos with news or illustrative value.)

Does this shot meet the definition of “Fine Art Photography?” I think so, but because there seems no clear definition of the term, that may be subjective. What do you think? Photo by Rick Ohnsman

So what’s that have to do with monochrome?  I would say that because in this day where color is the norm, photographers who make monochrome images may be more intentional in their work and are purposely choosing that style to create an aesthetic photograph.  That is not to say there are no color Fine Art photos, but only that monochrome often communicates the qualities of Fine Art.

Seeking to create the look of the old 1940's film noir detective dramas, monochrome was the obvious choice.  Monochrome photographers should explore the concepts of “Chiaroscuro” lighting. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

I’m sure we also are influenced by motion picture and early television monochrome.  Study the lighting in old black and white movies or old TV shows and you often will see that without color to work with, lighting and film directors were masters in the use of monochrome.  Because our visual familiarity with those works as well as the photography of early icons like Ansel Adams and his famous photography contemporaries, we tend to equate monochrome photography with the “classics.”

A flat light day? Monochrome might save the shoot. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

8. Dealing with flat light, low color

In the studio, we can create the lighting to suit our needs and capture our vision for a subject.  Landscape photographers don’t have that option.  It would be nice to always go shoot when the light is great, but say the day and time you are at a location and ready to shoot the light is flat, gray, and boring.  You could opt to pack up and quit or…you could explore monochrome!   One of the great qualities of a monochrome subject is it can better explore the contrast, be it high or low, of a subject.  A shot that might be blah in color can be rendered and worked to become a great monochrome, which takes us to the next point…

This shot would likely look overprocessed when trying to draw the drama out of the clouds this much, but in monochrome I think it works. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

9. Crank up the drama

Monochrome images can often be taken further in editing for more dramatic looks.  Dodge and burn, make local adjustments, try some HDR, make an image extremely contrasty or give it a very low-contrast high-key look and you’ll get away with it.  Trying those same techniques on a color image might make it garish, surreal, or “overcooked.”  Monochrome lends itself well to creating “mood” in an image.

The color was ok in this shot but the fences in the background were yellow and screamed for attention. Monochrome eliminated that problem and also gave a classy look to this equine portrait. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

10. Problem color

I once had to edit some images taken by someone else in an indoor setting where at least three different light sources were being used, all with different color temperatures.  To make it worse, they were posed people shots and the skin tones were just awful.  The topper was they’d been shot as .jpgs and so there was no readjusting the white balance in edit.  Try as I might, the color was just plain ugly.  Arghhh!  The only solution?  Make ‘em monochrome.  You may not be dealing with something like that, but sometimes the best solution to fighting color that just isn’t helping your shot is to forget about it and go monochrome.  Mixed light sources, reflected light of a color unflattering to the subject, (think green foliage light on a person’s face), or other color “gotchas” are sometimes a no-win battle.  Don’t fight, switch, to monochrome and you may find you still have a great shot with no color at all.

The house was yellow and pulled the attention from the rockers. By going to monochrome, bringing down the luminance of the yellow and bringing up the whites I put the attention where I wanted it. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

11. Concentrate the viewers’ attention

A good photograph causes the viewer to look at what the photographer wants them to look at.  Things that distract from that are well… distractions.  Say you’ve taken a great shot of a person but in the background is a screaming red object, the color just crying “look at me!”  Yes, you could work to tone down the brightness and saturation of the distracting object, but maybe the solution is to eliminate the distraction by eliminating the color.  Then use other means to put the focus on your intended subject.

The opposite of that concept is what we sometimes see in photos where the photographer uses a spot color treatment.  Think about those shots you’ve seen where the entire photo is monochrome, but there are a few spots of color where the photographer wants you to look.  Now, you won’t have to look hard to find many articles like “Why You Should Never Use Spot Color,” or “Things Photographers Hate” in reference to spot color calling it a cliché.  Maybe, but then while I’ve never met anyone who really likes anchovies on their pizza, I know places still offer them for those that do.  You’re the photographer, do what pleases you and your clients.

More than a few photographers frown on “spot color” and consider it cliche and amateurish. Perhaps, but you're the photographer and if you like it and feel it communicates your vision, go for it! Photo by Rick Ohnsman

12. It’s different!

A great reason to do monochrome photography is it’s different, something that perhaps you’ve never done or rarely do.  Because it will get you out of your box and force you to look at the world differently may be the best reason to do it.  I have heard photographers who regularly shoot for monochrome say they now have the ability to “see in monochrome.”  They have trained themselves to mentally eliminate the color from a scene in their minds and have a good idea when they look at a subject how it will look as a monochrome.  Now, if you’ve not yet learned that technique, here’s a way to help –

  • Set your camera to shoot Raw. (You’re already doing that, right?  If not, you best learn How / Why to shoot Raw)
  • Set your Picture Style (Canon) or Picture Control (Nikon) to Monochrome.
  • Now, when you take a shot though it will be saved as a Raw image with the color still present, the playback on the LCD screen will show you the embedded .jpg image as a monochrome. Instant feedback!
  • You might also try this using Live View. With the camera set as above, you will see the Live View Image as a Monochrome while when you take the shot it will be saved as a color Raw file.

Some people will go to additional steps saving both the color Raw and a monochrome .jpg file as well (Raw + .jpg).  This saves having to edit the Raw file into a monochrome if you decide to go that way.  If you really want to emulate the days of shooting monochrome film, set your picture style to Monochrome, shoot Large/Fine .jpg only and cover your LCD screen. (There was no “chimping” in film photography!).  You'll only know what you got when you get the images in your computer and there will be no going back, monochrome will be all you have.  As for me, I prefer working with the Raw even if I do want a monochrome because of the flexibility and control that offers, but that’s another lesson for another day and another article!

Whatever your reason for doing so, I hope you’ll start thinking about making more mono images!

Photo by Rick Ohnsman


About the Author

Rick Ohnsman

It's not just a hobby... It's an Adventure! That's how I feel about photography. My camera takes me to new places, shows me new sights and most of all, allows me to express my personal vision of the world. From high school in the 70's with a Hanimex Practica Nova 1B and a darkroom in the garage, college work with 4x5 view cameras, through Kodachrome slides and then on to the digital age I've pursued photography for over 45 years. I am an enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club where I enjoy pursuing our common passion and also teaching new members.Check out some of my favorite shots on my 500px site!

Comments

  1. Thanks Rick for a really good article. As always, I continue to enjoy learning from you.

  2. I love that shot of the bridge in Idaho. That has always been one of my favorite bridges and I can’t believe I don’t have a good image of it. Last time I made the drive I timed it so I could try and shoot the milky way above it, but it didn’t work out.

  3. I think people who shoot colour all the time lose sight of what you’re saying. But often, their shots would be vastly better for the inclusion of your ideas. Maybe they should all shoot B&W once a month – or convert a set percentage of their shots to B&W on screen (costs nothing !!), just to see what the shots are like in B&W terms, and where they fall flat, for lack of any serious study of form, texture, tonal range or whatever.

  4. This is a great articulation of the reasons why I enjoy monochrome so much, but have had a hard time expressing. You continue to be, not just an extraordinary photographer, but a masterful teacher as well. Thanks for the great learnings, Rick.

  5. I learn something new form every article you write. A lot of great stuff here. One tip that really stands out for me is in number 12. When I am thinking monochrome for a shot I will shoot in raw but set my picture control (Nikon) to monochrome for instant feedback in mono yet have the full gamut of the color channels in the raw file to work with later as needed.

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