If you’re new to photography, you’ve probably heard the terms “black and white”, “monochrome” and “grayscale” thrown around while wondering what they all meant. Is there actually a difference? If so, does it matter?
This page will run through each term and clear up any confusion you might have about grayscale images, black and white images and everything in between. We’ll also discuss setting up the perfect black and white shot.
The difference between grayscale vs black and white
When photography was a new, exclusively film-based technology, color wasn’t an option yet for images. As the artform progressed, color photography emerged and the term “black and white” was coined, referring to images that didn’t use color.
These days, “black and white” is a catch-all phrase used to describe colorless images. If we’re getting technical, though, black and white images aren’t black and white at all: they’re grayscale.
What Does Grayscale Mean?
The color spectrum for black and white images is composed of varying shades of gray.
Take this image, for example. While it’s perfectly true that this is a black and white image, what we’re really looking at here is an image made up of different shades of gray, hence – “grayscale”.
Practically speaking, there’s no real-world difference when it comes to black and white or grayscale images if you’re a layperson. It’s just that “grayscale” as a term more accurately describes the spectrum of color these images use.
Now you know what’s being discussed when you read “grayscale photography”. Understanding terms like this is the first step in taking a stunning black and white image.
What About Monochromatic?
A black and white, or grayscale, image is also monochromatic. A mono (one) chromatic (color) image is composed exclusively of shades of one color. As a grayscale image uses only shades of gray, it can also be described as monochromatic.
It’s worth noting, though, that monochromatic images aren’t exclusively black and white.
Take this image, for example. The bear and landscape above are all different shades of pink, but the image is still monochromatic.
How to Shoot Black and White Photos
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably fairly interested in photography. Understanding how to take stunning monochrome or black and white images is a hallmark of a good photographer. It’s important to get to grips with the fact that there’s more than one way to produce great grayscale photography.
Black and White Image Method – Post Editing
Taking a high-resolution image in color and saving it in a RAW format is a great way of producing a gorgeous grayscale photo. The reason for this is that it gives you more flexibility when editing later.
Retaining things like color data, lighting, contrast and resolution make it much easier to produce the effect you want later on. Using apps like Lightroom can really up your game and take your images to the next level. This is only made easier by a higher quality initial image.
Grayscale Images – In-Camera Method
Most modern digital cameras include options to shoot an image “directly” in black and white. The specific functionality varies wildly from camera to camera, but in general this in-camera method involves the following:
- The camera captures a color photo
- The camera’s onboard processor does its best to remove unwanted color from the photo
- The image is compressed down into a low-resolution format like JPEG
While this method can work very well if you need a black and white photo now, it sacrifices a fair bit of flexibility for post processing.
Monochrome and Shooting in RAW
If you have a camera that allows you to shoot monochrome images in a RAW format, this is probably the best way to go. The RAW format retains a ton of information, including color data.
The image you shoot will look black and white on your camera’s LCD, but you’ll have the flexibility to edit colors and tweak the black and white image to your heart’s content. In short, monochrome settings that allow users to save in RAW provide the best of both worlds.
Black and White Subject Ideas
So you’ve been dazzled by images with a million shades of grey, but you’re not sure where to start for yourself. This section will outline some subjects that work really well for grayscale images.
A black and white image piles emphasis on dark, formidable shapes. Nature in general is packed full of unique patterns, lines and shapes. Trees embody these elements perfectly. Experiment with shooting one tree like this, and then try wider shots that contain a whole forest.
Grayscale photography works excellently with long, unique shadows. Look for interesting shadows that come through the trees for a stunning end result.
While it can be useful to fight against the form, it’s important to remember the symbolism that black and white photography brings with it. Grayscale images have become synonymous with emotional, heavy or dramatic subjects.
Extreme weather, crashing waves and desolate scenes all lend themselves very well to this genre of digital photography.
Embrace Your Subject’s Color Palette
If the dominant colors in your chosen scene are black and white anyway, why not embrace the situation and shoot in single color grayscale? Zebras, pianos, Dalmatians, soccer balls, the list goes on. Good photography is about clearing any unnecessary distractions from your scene.
Sometimes, these distractions are color. This same approach also works for other kinds of monochrome photography. Photos dominated by varying shades of one color can make a lasting impression when done correctly.
More photography guides
The transition from film photography into the world of color left overlapping terms that continue to confuse new photographers to this day. We hope this page has helped to clear things up.
To conclude, “black and white” photography produces images that exclusively use shades of gray. “Grayscale photography” is a more accurate term that refers to this same process.
Monochrome (one color) images consist of varying shades of any one color. This includes grayscale images but refers to any other colors on the spectrum too.
For more photography insights, check out the other posts on this page.