You may think the terms ‘monochrome’ and ‘black and white’ are synonymous. After all, it’s quite common for people to use these terms interchangeably. They’re not exactly the same, though—there is a distinction which can be helpful to know. In this article, you will learn the difference between monochrome vs. black and white photography and begin to understand how this relates to your camera settings and post-processing.
What is Monochrome Photography?
Monochrome photos are photos that contain variations of only one colour and nothing else. This could be different shades of blue, green, or grey, for example.
If you were to make a green monochrome photo using only your camera, you would seek out a scene where the only colours in the frame are variants of green, from the darkest shadows of green to the brightest variant before reaching white.
You can also decide to post-process a photo as monochrome, taking an image and limiting it to a single colour range. These days this is most commonly done using Lightroom or Photoshop, although it is not a new practice.
You may have seen vintage sepia or cyanotype photographs. These are perhaps the most common examples of monochrome photography that existed before the digital age or even the advent of colour film.
In such photos, the warm (in sepia photos) and cool (cyanotype photos) tones were the result of specific toning chemicals used in the developing process.
Vintage sepia photograph of newsboys, c. 1909
Vintage cyanotype photograph of schoolgirls doing calisthenics, c. 1899
Capturing a Slice of the Colour Wheel
Take a look at the colour wheel below. You can see that each colour is divided into smaller pieces which show you a rough illustration of variants within a single colour.
Let’s take the example of green and variants of green. On the outside ring, you have the pure colour (sometimes referred to as the ‘hue’), labeled with its name.
Going towards the middle of the colour wheel, we next have the ‘tint’, which refers to the green highlights.
Next up you will find the neutral green variants, which is the same as green midtones.
Closest to the centre of the colour wheel, you will find the ‘shades’ or shadow tones of green.
In-Camera Monochrome Photos
If you want to capture a natural monochrome image in the camera, you will get the best results if you get both the brightest variants and the darkest variants of the colour into the frame. This will create more contrast in the photo.
A close-up photo of leaves or similar would be a good example of a natural green monochromatic photo that you can capture directly in camera.
Another example is the photo of the underside of a mushroom below, which only contains variants of yellow-brown colours.
This close-up photo of a group of mushrooms shot from below only contains variants of yellow-brown colours. It’s a natural monochrome image.
The photo below is not a perfect monochromatic photo, but it’s close. It was captured in camera with a long shutter speed.
Because of the time of day during which it was taken, the colours in the water and the sky matched quite well with the bath house.
This photo appeared on the Google Nik Collections website with the following comment: ‘This image caught our eye with its cool blue hues and simple composure [sic], not to mention that this type of colorful image is a great twist on a monochromatic image.’
If you’d like to learn more about the Google Nik Collection, check out our in-depth tutorial.
Using Lightroom to Post-Process a Photo as Monochrome
As mentioned above, you can also post-process a photo to be monochromatic or monotone for a creative look.
To do this in Lightroom, go to the Develop module (press D), and then locate the Split Tone panel on the right-hand side of the screen.
In the Split Tone panel, you can set different tones for the highlights and the shadows.
To create a monotone photo, you can simply set both the shadow tone and the highlight tone to the same colour value setting.
You can use this technique for creative purposes, but I have rarely found a photo that truly benefits from being made monochromatic in post-processing.
You’ll get the strongest photos and best results by looking for scenes that are naturally monochromatic.
What is Black and White Photography?
Black and white photography contains variants of the colour grey ranging from from absolute black to absolute white.
This means that, by definition, all black and white photos are monochrome photos, but not the other way around.
A more accurate (but decidedly less popular) term for this type of image is ‘grayscale’. This is because the image typically comprises grey tones, not just the colour black and the colour white.
Black and white images as you probably know them are images like the one immediately below. In these images, no colour information has been captured or the colour information has been removed. Note the rich variety of grey tones.
While it’s uncommon, you can also occasionally find scenes that only contain strong black and white colours.
An example of a high-contrast black and white photo containing only tonal values in the dark shadows and the bright highlights.
This photo is a high-contrast black and white photo lacking midtones—gray is barely present, if at all.
While the overall tonal profile of each of these photos differs greatly between the two, both count as black and white photography.
Should You Capture Black and White Images in Camera, or Convert Them in Post?
If you want to set your camera to capture your photos in black and white, be aware that both Canon and Nikon call this Monochrome in the menu navigation on their DSLRs. Confusing, right?
Anyway, I suggest that you always shoot your images in colour and then convert them to black and white in post-processing. If you force your camera to capture black and white, it will do so in JPG format, which doesn’t contain the same amount of data.
But if you capture in RAW format, you will automatically capture a colour photo and get more image data, which is useful for post-processing your photos.
If you still want to capture your images in black and white you can set this on a Nikon DSLR by using the menu: Shooting Menu > Set Picture Control > Monochrome.
However, it is better to learn how to identify what makes a good black and white image (such as tonal contrast and texture) but still capture it in colour, to be converted later.
What Does Grayscale Mean?
Often you’ll hear the term ‘grayscale’ instead of calling a photo black and white. As mentioned above, these two terms are one and the same thing. However, ‘grayscale’ can also have another meaning.
To a photo editing software, grayscale is also a way of storing information about how a photo is presented, just like RGB or CMYK.
In Photoshop these methods of storing information are ‘colour modes’. RGB and CMYK are colour modes which store colour information and display it in a certain way. Grayscale, however, does not store colour information at all.
If you want to discard colour information in a photo in Photoshop, you can opt to convert it to grayscale mode.
However, be aware that this is a destructive way of converting a photo to black and white in Photoshop. This means that once you convert it using grayscale mode, you lose the colour information in the image forever.
Converting photos from colour to black and white in Photoshop is a whole topic in itself since there are a lot of different ways to do it.
Now that you’re clear on the difference between monochrome vs. black and white photography, go and experiment with both. You can try taking some black and white portraits of friends and family or some black and white landscape photography.
With your camera, look for natural monochromatic scenes to capture, or scenes that will look great when converted to black and white. Or see if you can find a real-world place that only contains black and white colours without the grey midtones. Then you can capture your own natural high-contrast black and white photo.
Explore your camera’s settings and photo editing software too. This way you’ll learn the options you have when you want to create and work with black and white images.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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