How to shoot monochromatic color photographs :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to shoot monochromatic color photographs

by David Peterson 0 comments

When you think of monochromatic photographs, you probably instantly think "black and white.” Black and white is the most obvious type of monochromatic image—the first photographs ever produced were monochromatic black and white photos, and black and white continues to be popular today, because removing the color from an image is a powerful way to encourage the viewer to think about detail and contrast rather than the specific hues within a scene. But black and white is not the only way to shoot a monochromatic image. The word “monochromatic” can also refer to color images, specifically, images that that use only one color in various shades, tints, and tones.

[ Top image Fishing at Lake Beysehir by Flickr user]

Before you can understand how to shoot a compelling monochromatic color image, you first need to understand a little bit about color theory. Each specific color on the color wheel can be categorized into three different color variables: hue, saturation and luminosity. The term “hue” is used to describe a group of colors. For example, grass green, hunter green, and pine green all belong in the “green” hue. That’s the easy part—the differences between saturation and luminosity are a little harder to get your mind around. You can think of saturation as the intensity of a hue from gray (gray has no color saturation) to maximum brightness, or the most vivid version of that color you can imagine. Colors that have high saturation appear bolder and brighter, while colors with low saturation will appear paler, or more pastel. Luminosity is similar, but it has to do with the amount of light emitted by an individual color. Luminosity is measured from black to white, where white is pure light and black is the absence of light.

In some ways, monochromatic color schemes are the easiest to capture because they don't require knowledge of the ways in which colors work harmoniously together. A monochromatic color image is based on a single hue, with variations in the luminosity and saturation of that hue. Those variations can be found in the tints, shades, and tones of one individual color. Now, if you aren't a painter you may not know offhand what tints, shades and tones are, so let me just give you a brief rundown. A tint is a color to which white has been added, a shade is a color to which black has been added, and a tone is a color to which gray has been added. Let's take a look at example so you can see exactly what I mean.

  • Olympus E-P5
  • 200
  • f/0
  • 0.002 sec (1/640)
  • 0 mm

Crocosmia {202/365} by Flickr user chrisotruro

In this image, the shadows are shades of green, the highlights are tints of green, and the midtones are the tones. If you were going to recreate this image with paint, you would choose a single green hue and change it by adding white, black or a combination of white and black to create the variations in color. Creating a monochromatic color image is similar to creating a black and white image, in that you want to make sure you have areas of highlight as well as areas of shadow, with a range of tones (or midtones) in between.

Monochromatic compositions can be somewhat more challenging to create than black and white images because you'll be looking for them in nature, rather than creating them in post-processing (which is what you do with a black and white image). Now, you can create monochromatic images in post-processing but it doesn't tend to look as natural as monochromatic scenes you might find in nature (more on how to do it in post-processing at the end of this article).

Where to find monochromatic scenes

Monochromatic scenes are actually more common in the natural world than you might expect. Green, for example, is the dominant color in many natural landscapes such as forests and grasslands. And at sunrise and sunset you can find monochromatic scenes that are warmer in color, such as the sky on a foggy evening just before the sun sinks below the horizon. You may have an even easier time finding monochromatic scenes in the manmade world—a brick wall may feature only tints, shades and tones of orange or red and you'll also be able to find monochromatic colors in the paint scheme of a car or even a building. Ideally you'll want to find a scene that contains only shades, tints and tones of that primary color, although you can also effectively include small amounts of other colors (your photo will not be truly monochromatic, but it may still be compelling).

    Quarr Abbey cloister by Flickr user Lawrence OP

    Why photograph monochromatic scenes?

    Colors can do a lot to inspire emotion, and monochromatic scenes are no different. While it is true that warm tones tend to be more uplifting and exciting than cooler tones are, both cool and warm colors when presented in a monochromatic composition can be soothing or calming, although this does tend to be truer with cooler tones like green and blue. Monochromatic color schemes also have a cleaner, simpler feeling to them. You probably know this instinctively based on your understanding of black and white photography—when you remove the color, you remove visual distraction, which allows your viewer to focus more on things like form and texture. This is also true for monochromatic color compositions—a scene that includes only a single hue is much less complex than a scene that includes multiple colors—even colors that work well together such as complementary or analogous colors. If your goal is to simplify or to create a quiet mood, choose a monochromatic color scheme.

    • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
    • 100
    • f/8.0
    • 0.005 sec (1/200)
    • 78 mm

    Blue Thrust by Flickr user

    How to create monochromatic color images in post-processing

    Creating a monochromatic image in post-processing is similar to creating a black and white image, but with an additional step. I’m going to outline the process using Adobe Photoshop, but remember that the procedure will vary depending on which software you are using.

    First, open up your image and select "image > mode > grayscale." This step converts the image to a simple black and white photo. You can make adjustments to the levels or color channels to make sure you have both a true black and a true white in your image—without that step you may end up with an image that looks a little flat and dimensionless. Now go to image > mode > duotone. Choose “monotone” from the dropdown menu. Now select the hue from the color swatch. You may want to go back to the levels tool to make minor adjustments to the shadows and highlights, just to be sure you have a nice range of tints, tones and shades.

    • 100
    • f/11.0
    • 100 mm

    Blue Rose Macro - HDR by Flickr user ♡ dare to share beauty


    Monochromatic color schemes can be challenging to find, and you may find that the post-processing “cheat” is a little easier to implement. But I do encourage you to try finding monochromatic compositions in nature before you start to go crazy with doing it in post-processing. Yes it is true that post-processing can help you create some really beautiful monochromatic compositions, but it’s hard not to make them look a little artificial. Plus there is really a lot to be said for the pursuit of these color schemes in the real world—it can encourage you to pay more attention to color, which in turn is going to improve your photography across the spectrum.


    1. Look for tints, shades and tones
      • In the natural world
      • In the manmade world
    2. When to choose monochromatic color schemes
      • To create a calming mood
      • To simplify a composition
    3. Use post-processing to convert an image to a monochromatic color scheme

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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+.