Understanding monochromatic photography

After doing a photography project last week, which focused of perfecting my portrait techniques, I found that out of the dozens of good images I had captured, interestingly the consensus was that the top 5 (voted for by my nearest and dearest) where all black and white.

And this got me thinking…

What is it about monochromatic photographythat resonates with us more than your standard colorized image?  

What is monochromatic photography?

Monochromatic photography is a type of photography that uses different amounts of light instead of colors to capture an image. Whereas polychromatic photography utilises colors from across the spectrum, monochromatic photography takes one singular colour and use its range of tones to create an image. It is often used to give a more artistic, thought-provoking, or timeless effect, where distractions are erased, and the photo’s subjects are the focus.

Black and white (B&W) is most commonly seen and used in monochromatic photography. If, like me, you are a frequent social media user you will have most likely heard the popular saying amongst influencers; ‘Black and white makes it art’. This phrase has been used across millions of Instagram quotes and captions and has trended across many different platforms. Whilst I like to stay away from the over used sayings that flood our timelines repeatedly, with this quote, I cannot help but agree.

What exactly does B&W photography symbolize?

By using a monochrome setting on your camera, or adding a black and white filter, you can give your image an artistic appeal that will catch the attention of many. I have spent the day doing some research on the subject of black and white photography, to answer my own questions hoping that somewhere down the line they can help another amateur photographer like myself.

Black and white photography can evoke many a mood. From nostalgia, to sadness, to yearning; black and white pictures somehow convey emotion in a way that colour images simply cannot and, depending on the mood you are trying to capture, using black and white photography can often help you to reach your end goal.

There is something enchanting about the vast range of grey tones, deep blacks and rich contrasts that plays with us psychologically, lighting little fires of curiosity and contemplation in the eyes of our ourselves and our viewers.

Why does B&W photography seem timeless?

Another reason photographers will use black and white photography is because it gives the image a sense of timelessness, and this is because of how photography and cinema started. Nowadays, we will often use colorised images as dateable references. Subconsciously seeking out colour schemes, clothing, make up, buildings and cars to put a time and date stamp on the image presented to us. However, by using black and white, we can warp the viewers sense of reality making these features much harder to place. Igniting that curiosity even further.

Can using black and white give you more creative freedom?

Put simply, yes it can.

Using colour within our photographs is a fantastic way to capture the world as it really is at that moment in time, and if your purpose is to do so, I would avoid using black and white in your photos.

When we take away colour, there is a greater focus on the contrast, lighting and composition but you are free to explore different genres and concepts and it’s a great way to open your images up for interpretation, it’s a great tool to use when you are trying to tell a story with your images.

Can I use black and white for all types of photography?

Whilst contemplating this question, I concluded that although it is a magnificent tool, it cannot be used for everything. In some cases, we need that pop of colour. For example, weddings all have a very specific colour theme incorporated through them. These colours may hold significance to the couple marrying and documenting this in black and white won’t necessarily be the right choice.

With that being said, you can incorporate black and white photography in most genres, kind of like a poetic license if you will, but there will be times where its only colour that cuts it. It wouldn’t be ideal when trying to capture the array of color’s we may see across a bird’s feathers or an animal’s fur.

How do I work with monochromatic photography?

Now, it can seem quite daunting at first once we have taken away the full spectrum of colors that we are used to working with. I still use the golden rule of following the light; identify the sources of light around you and allow them to become a part of your image. Use them to portray all the different shades that you can capture. This can be anything from the sun, the moon, a streetlamp, a headlight etc. anything that is going to act like a spotlight in your photograph. Use this as your first steppingstone when attempting to create imagery in the monochromatic style. Once you have determined your focus, take a few practice shots to get the correct contrast, it is that which will make your image pop!

Your background should be lighter that your subject to help create a stronger contrast of the subject of your image. Usually, modern-day cameras will allow you to customize contrasts; for this style of photography, you want that higher than usual. Using textures and angular lines will also help achieve the desired contrast for your image.

You also want your photographs to be sharp. As we have stripped our image of any distractions that colour creates, you want to keep your aperture small with a low IOS; you may have to play around with some of your settings until you find a customisation that fits this style. If you are without a camera that allows for shooting in black and white, or another monochromatic colour scheme, then sometimes the results can be achieved in post-production using photoshop. 

It is important to bear in mind, however, that not all photographs taken in colour with translate well in to black and white, and vice versa. So, it is a good idea to implement a monochromatic early in the shoot, as it is a tool that is better when used with purpose. 

So, there we have it, monochromatic photography for beginners. 

Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope you have gained some inspiration from doing so.

I am going to spend some this week photographing in only black and white and see what cool images I can create.

I would love to hear your feedback or any tips on the subject you may like to share.

Happy ClickASnapping,

Sarah-Jane flutter

Amateur photographer.

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