Is it Black & White or is it Monochrome?

The use of the term monochrome more correctly describes photographs that use one color or shades of one color, while images using only shades of grey are called grayscale or black-and-white. One of the reasons some  purists sometimes refer to black and white prints as “monochrome” is that it’s a more precise term that also covers images made using sepia and other tones.

But there’s more to black and white photography than an absence of color. Maybe we wouldn’t feel this way if the first photographs had been made in color but that didn’t happen and I grew up admiring the works of W. Eugene Smith and Ansel Adams and others who photographed the world in glorious black and white.


Using black and white for landscape photography simplifies the image allowing you to place the viewer’s focus where you want. In color, this tree could be lost in the cacophony of color from the canyon in the background. You can shoot this image using your camera’s built-in monochrome mode, which captures these images as an RGB file. It’s a color file without any color! Tip: I suggest shooting in RAW+JPEG so you end up with two files: one black and white and one color, in case you change your mind later.

In traditional film photography, toning is a chemical process carried out in the wet darkroom. Some digital cameras have monochrome modes with toning options or you can do it from an original color image using software, such as Macphun’s Tonality, no smelly chemicals required.


Blue is a cool color so it’s a good choice for an image of a one-room schoolhouse photographed in the snow but darker blues can be used, with underexposure to create the kind of ‘day-for-night’ effect that originated in the movies.


In the 1880s, brown-toned photographs were produced by adding a pigment, called sepia, made from the Sepia officinalis cuttlefish found in the English channel. Today you can shoot it directly in-camera or use software to add what most people think of a vintage effect, as was with these old cars.


As a creative medium, traditionalists may still call it “monochrome” and digital imagers may prefer “grayscale,” but, to paraphrase Billy Joel, “it’s still black and white to me.”

Author: Joe Farace

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