In photography, as in other artistic mediums, the artist relies heavily on color to create art. Some of the most breathtaking photographs do not use color at all or may use minimal color. By leveraging varying intensities of light and dark, and shades of gray the photographer can create stunning imagery. 

Historically, all original photography was done in black and white. At one time, that was due to limitations in technology, but today it is an artistic preference that offers specific benefits.

What is a Monochrome Image?

Monochrome is the use of different hues of a single color to represent different images in a print or art piece. All black and white images are monochrome, but not all monochrome is black and white. A monochrome print can be made with any color as long as it is limited to a single color. 

Sepia prints, which have characteristic cocoa-brown shades and are often associated with vintage portraits, are among the most common uses of monochrome in photography. In more artistic ventures, photographers also use monochrome schemes featuring other colors like red or cyan. 

black and white trees

What is a Grayscale Color Image?

Grayscale is a black and white monochrome that uses only different shades of gray. These prints with different shades of gray are commonly called black and whites in the photography industry, while the design industry favors the term grayscale.

Monochrome printing images instead of using grayscale will use more ink. This is because a monochrome image uses colors to produce blacks and whites. By comparison, using grayscale uses only the black ink cartridge to print greys.

Comparing Monochrome vs. Grayscale Photography

If your head is spinning a little bit trying to figure out the difference between monochrome photography and grayscale photography, you are not alone. The differences are small, and the terms are often used interchangeably

How to Create Monochrome and Grayscale Photography Images

The technology of digital photography allows photographers more options than ever before. Once upon a time, photographers could only achieve black and white images in post-editing. Today, many digital cameras have a buffet of choices for different modes that include shooting in black and white. 

But with more options, come more decisions. Is it better to shoot monochrome or grayscale images in black and white or edit them later?

Post-processing Black and White Images

Digital photographers have been using post-editing manipulation to create black and whites from raw shots since the late 1990s. Computer-based photography software puts full creative control in the artist’s fingertips. Removing color to create black and white images in grayscale or monochrome is just one of many options.

Post-processing is good because you can try out any image from your roll to see if it looks better in monochrome vs. grayscale. It is especially suitable for beginners who may not have a handle on the techniques that make an excellent black and white image.

black and white image of horses running

Shooting Images in Black and White

The base of good monochromatic prints is to start with black and white images. How you get there is a topic of debate, but one option is to shoot in black and white mode. It is a little more involved than just pressing a button.

The benefit of shooting in a black and white mode with a digital camera is that you can get real-time feedback on the lightness and tonal variety in your shots. Having this information at the time that the camera is in hand can lead to better black and white photographs. But it also limits you creatively. 

In most cases, you will not be able to recover the raw images that include color in case you decide to go another direction.

The Hybrid Method for Black and White Prints

Most photographers who are after creating black and white prints with high visual impact will use a blend of both methods to get the best shots. While you can turn any photo into black and white in post-editing, it is pretty clear that some turn out a lot better than others.

Three components lend themselves to better black and white images. Photographers should try to capture shots with these elements in mind. Using a hybrid method, the photographer will shoot in the raw with the idea that the result will be black and white. Photographers can use post-editing software to transform raw images into black and whites.

Shooting for Composition

Black and white photography is all about highlighting the details. Removing color from an image, viewers have to rely on other information to interpret the image. In polychromatic photography, colors are the first thing the viewer notices. However, in black and white photography, lines, symmetry, and patterns are the first things that the viewer notices.

The hybrid method is sort of the best of both worlds. Photographers can use their knowledge and skill and capture good raw images that will make good black and whites. But, they retain creative control by maintaining the original files. In post-editing, they can create black and whites in grayscale or monochrome as it fits the image.

Shooting for Contrast

High-contrast images make the best black and whites because contrast highlights the detail in the absence of other colors. Light subjects against dark backgrounds and dark subjects against light backgrounds are the first thing that a photographer should look for if the end goal is a black and white print.

Shooting for Texture

Another key player in adding richness to monochrome or grayscale images is to shoot for texture. That is images with a lot of tonal range like individual blades of grass or woven fibers in a basket. 

With the absence of color, using light to create different textures becomes increasingly important to the quality of a shot. Light in a black and white photo can accentuate contrast and direct the viewer’s eyes to the image’s subject.

Choosing the Best Approach for your Style

The chances are that the best approach depends mainly on your skill level as a photographer. Amateur photographers will favor the flexibility of post-editing images. Well-experienced photographers will appreciate the artistic value of shooting in black and white. 

The good majority of skilled photographers will use the hybrid method of shooting with black and white in mind but making the last changes in post-editing.

black and white vintage photo of woman

The Takeaway on Monochrome Photography

Black and white, grayscale and monochrome are closely related terms that refer to an artistic photography choice to limit or remove the color from an image. Monochrome refers to the use of a single color; it could be a black and white image or a color filter.

Color filters overlay a single color on a black and white image so that the details use different hues of that color to depict features. A monochrome image can be any color that the artist chooses, but the most popular are sepia tones. 

Grayscale refers explicitly to the monochromatic color scheme that uses different shades of gray. If a simple black and white image are what you are after, grayscale is the way to go. However, monochrome can add richness, depth, and detail to a black and white that grayscale cannot offer.