What is Monochrome Photography?
When you randomly take a picture on the go or a cloudy sky and think about how to make the most of it what do you do? Most people are not willing to spend a lot of time editing or processing the picture. Our guess is you simply go with a black and white filter. Thanks to Instagram, a hand full of monochrome and black and white filter options are just a few taps away.
But is monochrome photography that simple? Is this the great art of monochrome photography all about? All the master photographers who prefer monochrome photos and take all the breathtaking black and white photographs surely make us think that there must be something much greater to this art form.
So, let’s take a deeper look through the lens into the world of monochrome photography.
Monochrome photography is highly misinterpreted by many. People think that only black and white photos can be considered monochrome photography.
To clarify first, we need to know what monochrome means. Dividing the word into two gives us the meaning of it. “Mono” meaning one or single and, “chrome” simply meaning color.
So, monochrome photography refers to portraying/using a single color and other shades of it.
But a single color like black and white or sepia are just basic aspects of this vast subject. Monochrome also has a lot to do with light. By utilizing the variance of light on different objects in a photograph, we can represent monochrome. It’s different from colorized photographs where there is a spectrum of unique colors.
Now let’s talk about the colors then.
Colors in Monochrome
If we look at the colors generally used in monochrome photography, we see black, white, grey, sepia, and sometimes cyan. But it does not mean that there cannot be other colors. Not only black and white images but Any color can be used and it will still be considered as a monochrome image. It just has to be one color with different shades of it.
As mentioned earlier, light plays a vital role in bringing out the different inherent shades of these colors and provides a character for monochrome photos. Monochrome photography often focuses on the bold expression coming from the subject.
The background is often kept dark and even completely black to focus on the subject which is in white, grey, or some sort of opposing color to the background. All of these depend on the amount of light allowed in a photograph.
All this is done to separate the subject from the rest of the area in a picture. This brings us to our next discussion, contrast, and texture.
Using Your Eyes
Of course, our world is not monochromatic. We don’t only see in black and white You cannot naturally visualize monochrome photography But someone who is shooting with monochrome in his mind must be imaginative.
To fully express a scenario in this form, the photographer must observe the surroundings closely and think of how a colorful scenario would look like converted into a monochrome photograph considerably, grey, black and white, or sepia.
Once this is understood they will be able to comprehend the outlines and shapes of the entire scene.
Use of Contrast
Contrast helps to separate the subject of a photograph from the rest of the objects. It is the key to vivid and compelling expressions. This might make you think about how you can deal with all of these in post-production to achieve a brilliant feat of monochrome photography. Here’s how!
From Clicking to the Dark Room
You may want to use filters while clicking and it might as well serve your purpose. But it limits you from exploring editing options that can help the photo achieve its fullest potential. Whereas if you shoot the photo in RAW, you will have endless possibilities.
This is because no matter how good you are with natural light; you need to be attentive towards post processing. Especially while shooting in monochrome.
The first step we recommend is to use the non-destructive method of turning a colored photograph to black and white. This will lead you to manually editing your photo exactly how you want it to. Surely this method will take more time than the destructive method which is a rather ‘automatic’ solution. But the time and effort you put in will allow you to work on each photo according to its merit.
This may seem difficult to you as an amateur but you must practice this if you aspire to be a professional.
But in case you didn’t shoot in RAW, then what? With the great technology available, you can still achieve great quality in your works of monochrome photography. The adjustment options in software like Photoshop and Lightroom come in handy. These options will give you tools similar to what you get for a RAW image.
But just to clear out any negative impressions about presets, they often come in handy if they are suited for the photograph.
You need to be aware of the black and white sections in your work. We will talk about keeping the grey area. But first, you need to understand where to keep the pure forms of the blacks and whites and also understand the key essence behind these colors.
This distinction helps to bring out the little details which may be important for the required expression. You can do this by adjusting the highlights, contrast, brightness, and exposure, definitely, to the merit of the piece.
The color grey is considered by many to be the origin of black and white photography. This is because if you shed a little light on the pure black you will get the darker shades of grey and vice versa, shadow on the color white to get the lighter shade of grey. Grey is like a canvas for black and white to play on. It uplifts them by providing depth and visual distance.
There are 253 discovered shades of black and white. So, choose your required shade(s) of grey, black and white according to the merit of the photograph.
Film photography is still fascinating to us. Recreating vintage tones, shades, and colors through modern means has always been a major field of work. In a world of ultra-HD pictures, we are often amazed by the blurry and noisy monochromatic photographs.
This is because of the warm, almost painting-like nature of those pictures. And the best way to achieve this is by using noise. Noise used in the right place can really prove to be extraordinary. For this, you need to have a proper understanding of how you should adjust the grain as you increase or decrease noise. This includes grain amount as well as grain size and roughness.
Especially in black and white photography, noise can be just as important as a contrast. The texture provided even contributes to the compositional aspects of a photo.
Portrait and Landscapes
Techniques of monochromatic photography vary from portraits to landscapes. For portraits, Black and white or single color images tend to have a long-lasting impression in the minds of people than the one’s images shot in color.
Stripping colors away from a person’s face leaves nothing for the audience but their bare expressions and emotion in monochrome. As the distraction of color is removed, the focus on the other aspects increases.
Portraits in monochrome are mostly taken in closeup. Every detail of the human face and body is revealed because the combination of the background and the subjects compels the viewer to do so.
As for landscapes, most of the aforementioned tips about contrast, light, texture, and shapes are applicable. In addition to that, black and white landscape photographs require a foreground. This is done by adding a significant object in front of the landscape which creates a foreground in black and white images.
The Philosophical Approach
There is something quite mysterious about monochrome photography.
In a world full of colors where we are used to seeing our familiar objects in a certain way, the monochrome photography approach means liberty. Liberty of thoughts, imaginations, and visions. This is a powerful approach that assigns new meanings to the world around us.
Great camera artists have redefined reality with their mastery of monochrome by making us realize how alien our world can look in a different stream of thought.
Like we said at the beginning, it is more than just maintaining your Instagram feed with black and white, isn’t it? Here are some more elaborate insights.
Single color or black and white images leaves behind the core objects in a photograph that has a sense of mysticism to it. It allows you to go beyond reality giving you space for artistic expressions. An example should clarify this.
Paintings and Photography
Imagine Pablo Picasso being willing to portray the horrors of war and destruction through a painting. Would we be amazed the same way if he just copied a landscape of war? Will it strike us the way “Guernica” does? The answer is no. The way Picasso expressed it through his style of cubism is what makes “Guernica” incredible. The abstraction achieved is a stroke of genius!
And this abstraction can be fully achieved by portraying something through monochrome photography.
These were all the techniques and philosophical aspects of monochrome photography. But another important aspect is knowledge about the proper set of gears. Because you may have all the imaginative ideas in the world but if you don’t have the right gears to portray them then those ideas are no good.
So, let’s get right to it.
Gears and Tools Needed
Photographers who prefer monochrome pictures as their style often go old school. They shoot with film cameras. Because the vintage texture is best produced with those cameras and even in this digital era such natural texture and detailing is difficult to replicate. Especially in the case of black and white photos.
Also, if you are an amateur photographer who is still trying to gain control over minor focus and exposure issues, a film camera can be forgiving to some extent.
But of course, there are a good number of reasons why film cameras have become obsolete. The cost and the limited number of clicks are two major ones. This is where digital photography comes in. Although monochrome-only digital cameras have already become a thing of the past, they can still be widely found.
The main difference between a regular digital camera and the monochromatic camera is that they don’t have a red, green, and blue light color filter. They can only detect the amount of light and perceive the objects just as a negative does. In black and white.
But an ongoing debate is that with a monochrome-only camera you don’t get the option to convert to a colored photo. But if your camera is able to shoot in both formats then you can always choose when needed.
And as per editing and post processing is concerned, it seemingly gives you more control over the black and white section if the conversion is done in post-processing. This is important because you might want to select the colors and shades which might not be available in the picture naturally.
Let’s jump into another important piece of equipment!
Like any other style of photography, lens selection requires a few aspects to be covered.
Before buying lenses, first, you need to find out and understand the crop factor of the camera with which you will use the lens. This needs to be done in order to measure the most effective focal length.
A good example is that if a 50mm lens has a focal length of 75mm along with a camera with a 1.5x crop factor, you are expected to get an optimum result.
Leica MM and Leitz Rigid Summicron 50 mm f/2, Leica MM and Nikkor 10.5 cm f/2.5 LTM and, Leica MM, and Canon 85 mm f/1.8 LTM are the top three suggested lenses for top quality photographic expressions in monochrome. You can always shoot in monochrome with any lens but these three have been chosen because of the certain features they have.
But of course, your choice of lenses will vary according to your level of expertise, need, and type of photograph. Another thing to consider in this case is the portability of the lens you use. To give an example, you definitely will not carry a telephoto lens for street photography purposes. It is not essentially necessary and also difficult to carry.
These are preferable because they provide an amazing variety and adjustability in terms of black and white photography. If you are shooting in the streets and working with mid-tones, these lenses will provide great abilities to you and enhance your overall photographic quality.
That being said, let’s look into other gears that are necessary!
Although these gears for shooting in monochrome are not something exceptional, they can bring drastic changes to the quality of your photographs. They contribute to minimizing your mistakes and give you better control over your shots.
We can take color filters for example. Yellow filters are good for shooting natural sights with tress while red filters add to the vividness of the skies. If you are having trouble with haze and fog then we can go for the orange filter.
The most commonly used filter is the blue filter. They are known for increasingly darkening the dark and whitening the white sections. But these will not serve your purpose well if you are shooting in a foggy area.
Tripods can be very effective when you are shooting with smaller-bodied cameras and shorter lenses. Monopods can be handy if you are working with heavier camera bodies and longer, heavier lenses. Photographers use it to make the camera stand up without having to hold it in their hands.
If you decide to also do some videography then a gimbal is a must. It will stabilize the camera and smoothen the camera movement for low-effort cinematic movements.
Other than this you should keep proper cleaning kits to do the cleanings regularly. Also, if you keep your camera in a humid place then an air-tight box is a must. Because unless you properly clean your camera as well as lenses, there is a good chance that they will be affected with fungus.
Also, keep your camera away from dust and dirt as much as possible when you work outdoors. This is difficult in most cases but tries to keep a cleaning cloth to get rid of the dirt from time to time.
Understand this, like all art, photography and monochrome photography are subjective.
What matters the most is your artistic expression. Whatever gear and technique you use should allow you to take the shots you desire. Monochrome photography can be unforgiving at times and generous at some.
This is because every great monochrome photograph is stripped down to the bare minimum and focuses on the slightest lines and figures present in the scene. You can also turn an average photograph into a great piece of art by performing a sensible monochromatic edit over it.
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