52 Project

Week 10 Module: Monochrome Madness

monochrome using iPhone 4s copyright Aloha Lavina

They evoke the romance of earlier years in photography.

They remind us of iconic photographs by some of photography’s greats—Dorothea Lange, Cartier-Bresson, and of course, Ansel Adams. We’re talking about black and white photographs, of course.

When some of these iconic photographs were made, the photographer had to capture a world of color and see in monochrome.

How can we share in this great photography tradition and participate in some monochrome madness? In this week’s module, let’s find out.

What should you consider when making a monochrome image?

Design elements

Composition in monochrome images is not any different from composing color images. But since there is no color information, the elements of shape, pattern, contrast and lighting are so much more important.

monochrome using iPhone 4s copyright Aloha Lavina
A monochrome I shot using the iPhone 4s and converted using an app called Snapseed.

Shapes and patterns

Shapes and patterns are important in black and white because they are much more prominent without the color to distract from attention to them. Take a look at these samples and see what I mean.

Composing a monochrome photo challenges the photographer to visualize how shapes and patterns would affect the composition more than any thing else in it.

Here is Ansel Adam’s philosophy of capturing something visualized.



Contrast is important in monochrome because it helps us to delineate the edges of the subject and other elements in the image. Making the edges between the blacks and whites clear helps the image gain a clear composition. There are many ways to achieve contrast in making black and white images.

One is by dodging and burning. Dodging and burning is a technique from the film days that involves changing the brightness of bright parts and darkness of dark parts in the photograph. Dodging makes the bright parts brighter, and burning makes the dark parts darker. You can dodge and burn using Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop, but this destroys pixels. So it’s better to use a non-destructive technique such as in this tutorial.

Here is another way to create a high contrast image in black and white.


Lighting is always important in photography, so it goes without saying that it is also important in monochromatic photography. Dramatic light is something that helps a monochrome image a lot. The contrast between the lights and the darks in the photo happens when there is a full range of tones in the photo, and this full range is achieved when the light is ‘just right.’

To control the light that makes the photograph, pay attention to the exposure. You need to make good decisions about the exposure made by the three settings of aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Too fast of an exposure, and you risk having no details in the shadows, or dark parts. Too slow, and you may risk blowing out the highlights.

Post processing work

Most dSLRs have a Monochrome shooting mode these days. This means the black and white conversion is done in camera. This might be all right, but you will find that camera conversions into monochrome are quite bland and do not have the high contrast drama that you might appreciate in a photo. So the tendency for a shooter to underexpose the image is quite possible. (I know I tend to underexpose a LOT when shooting in monochrome mode.)

Probably a good way to make monochrome images is to shoot in color first, then convert the image to a monochrome. There are several ways to do this. One is the method done in RAW in the video by House of Photoshop, above.

Another, easier way is to use Channels to make the black and white conversion.

Here is yet another way to convert a color photo to black and white, by Joey L.


Pick a way that works for you, a way that seems more intuitive. This frees you up to make more artistic decisions about the conversion you are making.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! We have photography modules weekly with our Imagine That Photography Tribe. Simply Like us on Facebook, and get weekly updates with photography tips and tricks. Talk photography with some cool folks, and enjoy being featured in a weekly Editors Picks and a chance for your photos to star in a seasonal publication for Tribe members.

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You might also like:
Confessions of a Photoshop User
Are You Paying Attention?
Finding Good Photos where they Hide
Why You Should Shoot Like Johnny Depp
Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos



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