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15 Tips for Monochrome Photography

Introduction

Monochrome photography always had a major role in the photographic history; many people think it’s a trend typical of the last decades, but the truth is that it’s always been practiced since photography was born. I could easily name black and white photography as the monochrome photography “par excellence”, but even without considering black and white photographs think about the “sepia effect” or cyanotype photos: these are just two examples of monochrome photography techniques used since the early ages of photography.
The aim of this article is to give you an overview about what is monochrome photography, how does it compare to black and white photography and last but not least to give you an handful of tips about how to master this technique/genre and to take superb monochrome photos starting from right now!

portovenere during a stormy day landscape pictures
Seceda at night in our summer adventure photo workshop in the Dolomites

What is Monochromatic Photography?

To truly understand the meaning of “monochromatic photography” we need to go back to the ancient Greece and its language: the word “μονό” (“mono”) means “single, one” and the word “χρωμος” (“chromos”) means “color”, so monochromatic photography literally means photos that only have one color in it (well, variations of that colors are included too, of course!).
Now, it’s not that rare to capture monochromatic photos in our everyday life - you may as well have already taken dozens of them without even knowing it! Take as an example the photo here of the majestic Seceda, in the Dolomites: it was a really dark summer night, with no moon and no lights to light up the landscape, so my choice, both when I was shooting in the field and later in post-production, has been to go for this blue-ish monochromatic look. Your first thought may have been “Hey, that’s not monochromatic, there are colors in that shot!”, but then, if you look closely, you’ll notice that all the colors are just different shades of blue, from the lightest ones for the highlights to the darkest ones for the shadows.
I mentioned this example just to make you understand that monochrome photos can be found everywhere, and they are not necessarily some made-up effects created with complex techniques (in the field or in postproduction).

1. Study the Shot First

byrons cave during a sea storm in cinque terre

Even before going out to actually shoot you’ll have to do some planning, if you want to capture some great monochrome photos.
Truth is that many photographers see monochrome versions of their photos as the “back-up” version in case the sunset/sunrise isn’t great, or the sky is not interesting. These pictures are obviously not created to be converted in some monochrome photo, and most of the time you’ll find them not interesting.
So, what’s the solution? Well, it’s quite easy: like when you plan a golden hour shooting you want to know where the sun is going to set, what will be in light and what in the shadow, where to place your subject, etc, here you’ll need to think about how your imagined photo would look in monochrome, rather than in colors, from the beginning. Does the composition works without the colors? Is the photo getting more messy or cleaner? Are there any strong leading lines to capture the attention of the viewer? These are just a bunch of questions you should ask yourself, along with many others, before shooting a monochrome shot.
Remember that an amazing colorful photo could turn into a boring monochrome shot (and viceversa)!

2. Look for Scenes that Fit

This will require a lot of practice and lots of failures, but the tip here is to always look for scenes that work better in monochrome than in colors; since we are used to see in colors, it won’t be easy, but with time and experience you’ll get some outstanding results for sure!
Some photos will be easy to spot since, as I showed you earlier, they are almost natural monochromes; other photos instead will be good in monochrome for their contrasts or their strong leading lines.
There’s not a general rule to follow unfortunately, the only way is to get out there and exercise!

podere belvedere photo tour in tuscany

3. Shoot RAW

This is more of a practical tip, and extendable not only for shooting monochromatic photos but all kinds of them! By using the RAW format you’ll be able to work more on the file later in post-production without creating artifacts and keeping an excellent image quality.
The RAW format stores a lot more details and informations than the JPEG, which is an already processed file format.

4. Experiment with Long Exposures

Long exposures can give a lot more atmosphere to the shot by adding movement and dynamicity; since you aim to create a great monochrome photo, try to play with the exposure times to create an image with more visual impact than just some pretty colors, and use whatever is moving in your photo to your advantage (water, clouds, people, vegetation, etc).

Hey! Stop for a sec!

The harsh contrasts of Tuscany in summer makes it a great location to produce some beautiful monochrome photos. Check out this three-nights tour!

5. Use Filters

This tip is the natural consequence of the previous one: to allow you to play with the shutter speed you may need to use some GND/ND filters. My recommendation is to have a kit of neutral density filters always in your bag (generally ND8, ND64 and ND1000), so that you have a wider choice when you must select the exposure time.

6. Focus on Lines, Textures and Patterns

While in a “normal” photo you have the help of colors to make it pop more and capture the attention, on a monochrome shot all you can do is focus on composition and intriguing patterns such as strong leading lines, textures, etc.

7. Use the B&W Camera Preview Mode

Pretty much all the camera models on the market nowadays give you the chance to set the JPEG view mode on B&W, so that you can immediately see your shot as it is meant to be: in monochrome! Remember always, when using this preview mode, to set “RAW + JPEG” so that the camera will also save a RAW file and not just the JPEG one; you just need the JPEG to get an idea of what the final shot will look like, but then you should do all the work to create your monochrome photo in post-production with the RAW file.

8. Enhance the Contrasts

My tip here is to stretch the histogram as much as you possibly can, sometimes even by clipping a bit of the highlights or keeping the shadows really dark; I know it may sound not conventional, but with the monochromatic look it is recommended to give a lot of contrast to the image, generally to give more importance to the lines and the shapes of the subject.

9. Use Adobe Lightroom's "Split Toning" and "HSL" Features

When it comes to transform a color shot into a monochrome one, the first things you should think about are the Split Toning and the HSL; with these two windows you can select what color tone to give to the image, the saturation and the hue of it, and the thousands possible combinations of them. You can spend hours to find the best possible monochrome look for your photo: there is not a general rule, the only thing that can stop you is your imagination!

10. Look for Silhouettes

This tip is strictly only applying to monochrome photography: for color photos I’d recommend to go for HDR or multiple exposures to keep the scene well balance and all the details visible. When we are talking about monochrome though, I love to shoot silhouettes: all you need is a strong source of light and an interesting subject, with recognizable lines or shapes. By keeping the subject completely dark, you’ll enhance those lines with the help of the backlight.

tuscany fog picture at sunrise
A Suggestion for You

Venice is the perfect place to capture some surreal atmospheres, specially in winter when it’s easier to get moody weather. Come with us in our magical three-nights Venice photo workshop!

11. Give the Right Importance to Your Subject

tuscany autumn photo tour in black and white

If you generally shoot in colors, you might be used to think that your subject naturally stands out because of its color: obviously in monochrome this is not possible, so you have to make sure that the subject of your photo is given the right importance and everybody can easily understand which one it is. You can try to isolate it, to put it closer/further or to give it a different color shades than the rest of the image, for example.

12. One Color, Endless Shades

Even if you are shooting monochrome photos, it doesn’t mean that everything should be of the same exact color. Let me explain myself a little bit better: every color has thousands of possible different shades, from the darkest ones to the brightest. The whole scene should rotate around one single color, but with many different shades of it all around the frame.

13. Take Out the Colors to Convey Emotions

It may seem obvious, but colors take a lot of attention; by taking them out, you give the viewer the opportunity to focus more on the message and the emotions rather than the aesthetics beauty of the photo.
My recommendation is to go for a monochromatic photo when you want to arouse some particular emotion into the spectator.

14. Not Confident with the Adobe Suite? Try Nik Silver Efex Pro

If you don’t use the Adobe Suite to post-produce your photos, this software from the Nik Collection by DxO might be your solution; it comes along with all the other softwares from the Nik Collection Suite, but this is made just for monochrome conversions. You don’t need to spend ages to learn how to make it work, since the whole conversion process is really easy and user-friendly, but at the same time it gives you plenty of options to choose from!

Venice in black and white during spring

15. Practice!

I know, this might sound more as a general suggestion rather than a specific tip, but this is also probably the wiser thing you’ll read in the whole article!
Making enchanting monochromatic photos is not an easy thing, so you can’t expect to go out there and get that perfect shot that you were desiring at your first try. You’ll need to practice a lot to nail the technique and finally become a great monochrome photographer!

One more?

You can’t miss this article about the best editing softwares and apps in 2020.

Conclusion

Monochrome photography is one of the most interesting techniques to look at when it’s done well, so your interest is totally understandable. The chance to convey more emotions, play with lights and shadows and the endless shades of a single color is intriguing to say the least; I seriously hope that you learned something by reading this article and/or at least I convinced you to get out of your desk, take your camera and go wherever your heart is taking you to start trying to capture some incredible monochromatic shots, because in the end that’s the only thing that matters!

Leonardo Papèra

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