What is Monochrome Photography?

It’s not necessarily black and white

A monochrome image of a photographer at work.
PhotoGraphyKM/Getty Images

You’ll often hear the terms black and white photography and monochrome
photography
used interchangeably, they aren’t strictly the same. Monochrome photography is accomplished when a single color is placed on a neutral background. That color can be gray, which is why monochrome and black & white are often used to mean the same thing, but the color could also be brown or reddish-brown, or cyan. In fact, any image that uses only one color in varying tones is technically a monochrome image.

By comparison, black and white photography uses only 255 variations of gray as well as black and white (which aren’t strictly considered colors, but that’s a story for another time). So, you can see why it’s easy to confuse monochrome photography with black and white.

Monochrome Means ‘One Color’

The easiest way to remember what monochrome means is to break the word down into two parts: mono and chrome. Mono means one, and chrome refers to color. One color. And that’s precisely the point of monochrome photography. To use a single color and all the tones of that color to capture an image that expresses or elicits a desired emotion.

A yellow monochrome image of a group of friends sitting in the woods together.
Romilly Lockyer/Getty Images 

Black & white is the only style of monochrome photography that even contains true blacks and true whites. Other styles of monochrome photography will contain a wide range of tonal variation that are sometimes very dark or very light, but they will all be based on a single color.

Types of Monochrome Pictures

Aside from black & white, you probably are already familiar with couple of common types of monochrome photography, even if you didn't know they are monochrome. Take sepia photographs, for example. Sepia is a reddish-brown color (derived from the ink of a Sepia cuttlefish) that was commonly used during the development process during the late 1800s. As photography has advanced, sepia has become a warm monochrome technique for making images look aged.

Monochrome photos with cool, blue colors are called cyanotypes (cyan meaning 'blue'). Cyanotypes were first used as a means of reproducing notes and diagrams, but were later used by Anna Atkins, who is considered be the female photographer, to capture silhouette images of plant. A mixture of chemicals created the variations of blue tones captured in images. Today, most cyanotypes are created using post-processing filters.

Capturing Monochrome Photographs

Translating what monochrome photography is into practice is a little on the tricky side. Most photographers will immediately assume that monochrome photos must be produced in post-processing. They can be, but that’s not the only way to capture a monochrome image.

A monochrome image of brown mushrooms on a wooden surface.
Getty Images 

If you want to shoot monochrome pictures with your camera, you must find monochrome scenes. For example, a lush green forest, a closeup of a yellow flower, the pale purple mist rising off deep purple mountains just before the sun rises in the morning, or brown mushrooms laying on a wooden table as shown above.

Creativity is the key to capturing great monochrome photos. Think past the limitations and find ways to use a single color to convey the message you want to share.

Creating Monochrome Images

A monochrome image of an Australian Shepherd on the beach.

Alternatively, you can use a program like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to create a monochrome image from a full color image. It’s a two-part adjustment. First, you must remove the color from the image by converting it to gray scale (this is your neutral) and then you convert the image to duo-tone and choose the color that you would like to use. The end result is an image, like the one shown above, that is monochromatic and contains only variations of the color you’ve selected.

This technique is great for creating monochromatic images you can use for a variety of purposes like creative marketing ads, home photography displays, or for a variety of craft projects.