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Often called Black and White photography, but can be in any single colour.

Monochrome images are older than photography, made from drawings, or engravings, with a number of shades or between black (or another colour) and white.

They can give more mood than a colour photo.

The image on the right was taken using a Nikon D300 and used the in built camera black and white settings.


All early forms of photography where monochrome images, with not just black and white but a full range of grey tones in between. The photo on the right is from around 1870, showing a breadfruit plant.

Today we can use colour, but you can also get impact from black and white/monotone images, and one recent study showed that of images people remember over a long period, most are made up of monochromes. Although perhaps the images that represent major occurrences historically mostly date from before colour newspapers, so many people will have seen them mainly in monochrome. For younger people perhaps they stand out because they are now different, now we are used to seeing colour. Colour has been around in some forms since the end of the 1800's, and in our Photochrome collection we have colour images covering points through most the UK from around 1900.

Producing images
via negatives

Most monochrome photographs pre digital, started with a negative being produced, this showing the reverse tones so dark items are clear, while white ones are completely black. Photographic paper worked the same way, so when the image from the negative was projected through an

Image from around 1870 - Breadfruit Plant

enlarger the black area in the negatives show no light while the clear areas show light.

The paper areas exposed to the white light, having been put in the development bath, turning black increasingly over time, and the print is then put in a stop wash, then into a fixer that dissolves the remaining surface material that has not gone black and stabilises the images. Partial light, shows as greys in many tones, reversed in the negative and reversed again to produce a positive image in the print.

Most film had a tonal range designed to capture the full range of grey tones, although some more specialist film used in printing, art and for some other uses had a much higher contrast producing just black and white, with no grey tones.

Photographic printing papers had a range of contrasts, allowing you to look at a negative and pick a paper that would work best to show the right contrast and full range of grey tones. Later mass produced black and white photos used a single middle grade of paper, which often lacked the punch, as well as often loosing detail in the highlights and shadows, that was possible to get from a professional darkroom with the ability to better get the print exposure right and use the correct contrast paper.

In the darkroom we could edit the images as they were being printed by dodging and burning, to dodge an image you used an object to black a part of the exposure, often card on a stick or wire. As long as it was only for a part of the exposure and you kept it moving about, there was no resulting shadow, for example you could dodge a wedding grooms dark suit, so the pattern was fully visible. Burning was the opposite, you blocked out most of the light, often with a black card with a hole in it and the light going through the hole burnet in extra detail, for example a brides white dress so all the detail showed. So dodging adds detail to dark or shadow areas while burning puts detail into the highlights.

I have been talking in the past tense, as chemical or wet photography is no longer common place. However film is still made, and photographic enlargers, paper and chemicals are still available. At one time it appeared that none would be, but it has had a reawakening, often with people who did not do it historically enjoying the craft side of making an image. There is a magical sense when you see an image appear in front of you on a piece of paper put into the developer bath, everything you have been seeing reversed put back the right way. Having spent hundreds of hours in the darkroom, and produced thousands of prints this way, I can say that few who have done a lot of this would want to go back from digital into the wet crafts. If you want to have a go yourself then find a local photography club, its likely they will have a darkroom members can use.

Images produced with camera and film, can be enhanced using coloured filters to change the relative contrasts and tones of different colours. See Monochrome effect filters.  


In some situations monochrome has more impact as an image

This is the same photo, the original colour version on the left, and on the right with a black and white conversion, then converted to Sepia in editing.

Producing Digital Monochrome Images

There are two routes each made up of several paths allowing you to produce monochrome images starting with your digital camera.

The in camera route involves using the camera settings to take a monochrome image, while the alternative route is to start with a colour photo and produce a monochrome image in editing.

With either route, as with negative photography, images can be enhanced using coloured filters to change the relative contrasts and tones of different colours. See Monochrome effect filters this could be filters on the camera for images taken with the camera in monochrome setting or using the cameras built in digital filters to give a similar effect. Using the take in colour and convert later route these filter effects can be done within the editing package.

With many of the Nikon cameras you can set the image to take in monochrome, defining the colour and shade, plus add digital filter effects if you wish. If taken as RAW images, these images as well as being monochrome images, can be switched back after to colour images, plus you can change the colour filter values about after the event. You can also take images in colour and later with Capture NX2 produce monochrome effects and apply filters in several ways, giving a range of effects, that can be used on their own or in combination. Many other top range cameras of other makes will have similar capabilities.

The choice to produce it in camera or later, is a great benefit. Any image we have, in editing, we can convert to a monochrome image and apply filter effects, and adjust these. I would suggest that producing it in camera has the benefit of allowing you to see and control the image you are capturing, so the image is made at the point the image is captured, and you can see exactly what effect you are having, capturing your interpretation of the scene, often combining other filters such as a graduated ND.   The down side is it takes longer and requires more skill, plus if you want to use Filters on the lens as opposed to digital filters in the camera, you will need a range of filters, filter holders and to carry more kit.

Monochrome Images in the Studio

Light and shadow plays an important part in all photography, but with monochrome images, the lighting is far more noticeable.
Monochrome from colour

Examples produced with Nikon Capture NX2, but other editing systems will do similar.

Above left, original colour photo.

Above right, black and white conversion.

Left, black and white conversion then converted to Sepia.

See Also:

Creating Vintage Images - Old Look Photos 

Monochrome Effect Filters 




Soft images 



By: Keith Park Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: Monochrome Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 03/2012

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