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Is there a difference between Monochrome and Black & White Photography? A beginners guide...

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

The simplest way I can explain this is:

All Black and White images are Monochrome. Not all Monochrome images are Black and White.


What is Monochrome Photography?

A Long exposure under Teignmouth Pier in Black and White

The dictionary lists Monochrome as follows:

monochrome

/ˈmɒnə(ʊ)krəʊm,ˌmɒnə(ʊ)ˈkrəʊm/

noun a photograph or picture developed or

executed in black and white

or in varying tones of only one colour.


With this in mind, 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 grey, but includes no other colours.

Cyanotype image of fungus on a log

In monochrome photography, tones of a single colour are used to represent all the different colours within an image. This stands in stark contrast to contemporary colour photography in which the actual colours 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 colours with different shades of the same colour.

Generally speaking, monochrome photography is most often used for artistic and aesthetic purposes.



What Is the Benefit of Monochrome Photography?

Sepia image of a Deer in the forest

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 colours to different shades of the same colour, monochrome can allow background images to appear less prominent than the centralized subject of the photo.

Additionally, since it was the favoured photographic medium until the advent of colour-supporting film, monochrome photography, particularly black and white and sepia 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.



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:

Black & White image of the standing stones at Loch Buie, Isle of Mull
  • 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.

  • Tonal range. Ensure that monochrome photography doesn’t just show one shade of colour by using it to capture scenes with a wide variety of tones.

  • 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 analogue camera.

  • Textures, lines, and angles play out dramatically in monochrome photography.

  • Shapes and patterns are also beautifully captured by monochrome, and do well situated behind prominent subjects.


Black & White long exposure image of water cascading over the spillway at Fernworthy Reservoir