Monochrome Mode: Why Use It? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Monochrome Mode: Why Use It?

by David Peterson 3 comments

Black and white photography is considered to be classic and expressively emotional. After all this time and technology, it remains quite a popular format among all genres. However, unless you've spent time reading your camera's manual or poking around the settings, you might not be aware that there's a "Monochrome" option. This setting lets you both preview and shoot in black and white.

Black and White Benefits

One of the benefits of previewing and shooting in black and white is the practice of eliminating the distraction of color. Doing so forces you to pay closer attention to composition and texture. Themes such as bare trees, winter, fine art, and a lot of street photography, or the above image of Grand Central Station in New York City, are just a few examples of situations where you might prefer to shoot in monochrome.

In the Moment

Setting your camera to monochrome means you don't have to adjust your images later in post-processing software. If you're capturing more than a handful of images, this could save you time in post-processing doing the black and white conversions. That said, you could also create an "action" in Photoshop and let it do it the entire batch for you.

Depending on the camera you have, the monochrome setting will likely be located in the settings menu (Picture Style being one of them). Most of the more advanced cameras allow for enhancing the monochrome mode with color filters, such as yellow, orange, red and green. These filters create different effects. For example, you can use a red filter, which tends to darken certain areas. Also, any colors in the frame that are the same as the filter can be lightened.

Sepia Tone versus Black and White

Besides black and white, sepia tone is usually an option for those desiring an old fashioned look. If you've ever been to one of those tourist places where you dress up in old fashioned or vintage clothes to have your pictures taken, they were likely processed in sepia tone. It's a softer, gentler look that is processed in brownscale rather than grayscale.

Black and white, on the other hand, is often more about the contrast between the extremes while blending in the appropriate grays. It tends to focus more on the highlights and shadows.

The Pros and Cons

With almost every pro there's a universal balancing of cons. In this case, many pro photographers would argue that you can create any black and white and adjust the filters in post-processing software, so why sacrifice the possibility of having a color version of the same image? You can't add color back in via Photoshop or Lightroom. That's the downside. Also, if you shoot in color, you have the option to create multiple different versions of your image in black and white to find the one that works best.

While these are valid points, as mentioned above, shooting in monochrome is more about the exercise of seeing the world through your lens in black and white.

What the Pros Say

© Doug Bailey

Doug Bailey, a former firefighter turned photographer in charge at Light Finder Photography sheds some light on the topic. "There are times when I know I am going monochrome, and that makes a difference in how I frame the shot and look at the light, line, and shadow relationship. So I may switch the display to monochrome to get the feel right. Sometimes I use a red filter on the camera lens to give the monochrome more contrast, but the download will have a red cast in RAW until you convert in Lightroom or Photoshop to black and white, but it sure gives a nice pop. And of course the red filter in jpeg monochrome is invisible, but works really nice to bring down the whites and make for a crisp shot."

Doug shoots with a Canon EOS T3i. In this particular camera, the setting is in Picture Style, along with Portrait, Landscape, Faithful and Auto.

Not All is Black and White

Though there are a few arguments for shooting in monochrome, the consensus says it's a process better done in software after the fact. Using the monochrome or sepia setting means the natural colors in the shot are lost. Whereas, if you shoot in color, especially RAW, you can always convert to black and white later and keep your full colored version as an option.
For fun though, make a day of it and just shoot in monochrome. You be the judge.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Justyn Phillips says:

    @gregp: Bah Humbug

    There's an App for that: Perfect B&W allows you to modify the resulting photo as if you HAD used the various filters we used to carry with us and evan add the grain from 400 or 800 ASA films. Wonderful nostalgia ;-)

  2. gregp says:

    I find b&w pictures depressing. Why use a typewriter, when you can use e-mail? Obsolete technology is that for a reason.

    • Colin Henderson says:

      Why use paint and brush when you can just digitally draw it on a computer?
      Because using these methods increases the impact and feelings brought upon the viewer.
      You say B&W makes you depressed, but maybe that's exactly what the artist intended for it to make you feel.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.