Black and White Photography

Monochrome or Black and White Digital Photography

Monochrome (Black and White) digital photography is an option that many photographers, from amateur to professional, are engaging with.

Why would you wish to dive into digital monochrome? There are a number of reasons, some of them are:

  • Continuing reduced availability of black and white films, papers and chemicals is making darkroom black and white harder
  • There is something special about Black and White images
  • Monochrome images ‘can’ be more archival
  • Monochrome images suit some decors better than color

So, how do we do digital monochrome?

Well, there are three aspects to any photography, digital or not. These are:

  • Capture
  • Processing
  • Output or printing


Many digital cameras will allow you a special effect of making an image monochrome. However, when you let the camera do this you have absolutely no control over how the camera does the conversion. In fact, with many cameras, the image will still be stored as a color image file, just with the same values in the red, green and blue channels, so the image file won’t even be smaller. So a better option is to capture in color and convert to monochrome later. This gives you much finer control.


Processing can range from the initial conversion to monochrome through to adjustments later and special treatments like handcoloring and infrared photography.

Monochrome, black and white or grayscale images are sometimes far more effective than color ones. Ansel Adams’ work is a good example, as is a Hitchcock movie. However, since most film shot is color and all digital cameras capture full color images, there is usually a requirement to convert the images from color to monochrome using your favorite image-editing program. As we shall see in this article some ways of doing this are better than others.

Your monochrome images don’t have to remain colorless. Adding selective color back into an image gives you total control of the crafting of your image, something photographers crave. This allows you to introduce exactly the color(s) you want. This article shows you how to do this.

As in many things in Photoshop (and similar programs, there are many ways to add color back into a monochrome image.

Split toning is a wonderful darkroom technique and you can produce a similar effect but with even more control by doing it digitally.

Digital hand coloring is a different process, though similar. Here we have two options. The first involves a direct digital analogue of traditional hand coloring, where we use the paintbrushes to apply color to an image using a blending mode that allows the underlying tonal values to show through. The second involves the full use of PhotoShop’s selection and masking abilities to isolate parts of the image for color application.

Infra-red film has been (and still is) quite widely used both in scientific photography and in more creative forms of photography, where both areas make use of the very different tonalities (and colours) produced. What is not widely known is that most, if not all, digital cameras are also sensitive to IR and can be used to produce monochrome IR shots.


When it comes to printing your monochrome images there are a number of choices:

  • Use the black ink of your printer only
  • Use all the colors of your printer to produce a ‘richer’ image
  • Use a dedicated ink set that offers more than one black

Using the black ink of your printer is an easy option and does ensure that there are no issues of color shift or false color. The concern about this approach is that the result will not produce a print with as deep a black, a concept photographers know as the Dmax (maximum density) of a print.

One way to increase the Dmax is to use the color inks as well in a way that still creates a neutral tone but which builds up density (effectively). The trick is to maintain a neutral color across the whole tonal range.

The third option is a dedicated ink set. Some of the newer printers have multiple blacks in their standard set, but there are also dedicated inks made by third party manufacturers for some of the more popular printers. These can offer wonderful Dmax results, comparable to the best traditional photographic processes.

A good book for this area is Mastering Digital Printing. This book is, at the present time, the definitive book on digital printing. In around 400 pages the author manages to pack in a huge amount of information that can guide people through purchasing decisions, outsourcing decisions and help with getting the best out of either doing it yourself or dealing with print professionals.

Other Aspects

“I note the passing recently of Yousuf Karsh in a Boston hospital, which only goes to reinforce a theory I have held for some years now, that photography is injurious to your health….. nay not only injurious, but in fact it will kill you. Examine the facts. Ansell Adams – dead. Horst P Horst – dead. Robert Mappelthorpe – dead. Diane Arbus – no longer with us. Julia Margaret Cameron – deceased. … the list just goes on and on. It used to worry me, but now I just go with the flow. We’ve all gotta go somehow, so why not with a camera to your eye or a hand in a tray of fixer? Incidentally….Karsh was only 93 when the dark spectre of photography caught up with him.”. So says Jeff Moorfoot, in a recent Free Radical newsletter.

Whilst the above quote is meant in a humorous light, it does raise the interesting question, is photography, and digital image making, a health hazard for us and/or the environment? In this article, we’ll look at this and discover that it is becoming a far more complex question to answer than it once was.

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