12 : Monochrome

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Goodbye color

Color, or the lack of color, carries significant emotional weight in our images. Certain colors promote cultural, personal and historical significance, while black and white imagery is often associated with journalism, authenticity and documentation. This week, we are stripping color out of our images as we shoot. 

Did you know that most DSLR cameras have a setting called “monochrome” which will record your images without color? Depending on your camera, this setting may be found on the top rotating knob, or it may be an option that is navigated to through a screen menu. (Some cameras also offer further controls for contrast and color conversion when shooting in monochrome in these same menus.)


Shooting in monochrome mode is a great temporary exercise in observing tonal contrast, or lights and darks, more clearly. This mode removes distracting color information so the photographer is able to concentrate on composition, light sources, focus points and small details. Its also a chance to practice getting an exposure that retains details in both the highlights and shadows.

Ansel Adams said, “Visualization is the single most important factor in photography”. You can read more about this idea here.

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In monochrome mode, colors are converted to shades of gray, forcing you to look for tonal contrast (strong blacks and whites) to make an interesting image. It will be more important for you to visualize your image in advance. What is normally a vibrant shot, like the image of the tomato on the left, looks pretty lifeless when shot in monochrome, as shown on the right, where the contrast between red and green is completely lost. Colors will not play an important role in your photography this week.



What if your camera does not offer a monochrome setting? That's fine; don't panic. The purpose of this lesson is to practice "seeing" your final images in black and white. If you cannot capture monochrome images using your camera, go ahead and capture them in color and then convert the color image to black and white on your computer. You have probably already tried this and perhaps even have a favorite way to do your conversions. 

Of course the photographer has a lot more control over how colors are converted to gray tones when you do it after-the-fact on a computer. For example, it is possible to make a blue sky look more dramatic by converting the blue tones to a darker range of grays. This is great for crafting a very powerful image, however this week we hope that you stick to a simple conversion in order to test your ability to "pre-visualize" the tones of your shot as it is being captured.

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Creative Prompts

  • Black and white contrast is easiest to achieve where there is strong lighting. Think in advance about where and when you can find the best light this week. Shooting indoors with flat, even light is not recommended.
  • Think about your grandparents old black and white pictures. These were often taken in bright, direct sunlight with the subject facing the sun. Even though it is currently not in vogue to put your subject facing the sun, try it anyway and see if you like the results. 
  • When capturing your family, the shape and brightness of your subjects will be more important than skin tone. The reds that are normally present in all shades of skin tone will be absent. Try capturing your family members against both dark and light backgrounds and observe how this translates to shades of gray. It can be a simple as laying a child down on a light or dark blanket and shooting from above while they look up at you.

Share your images!

As always, we look forward to seeing your images in the Facebook group! If you have never posted a picture, it's fine to start any time. The Facebook group is a positive, no-judgement zone. We also hope that reach out for advice or help if you need it!