Monochrome: more than black and white

Fine art photographer Chris Ward explains how seeing colour differently helps him to craft images that focus on the finer details.
A black and white image of trees forming a canopy over a path, sunlight dappling the ground.

Colour perception is intensely tied up with emotion. There are psychological theories about how different colours affect us. It varies between cultures, but green or blue are often thought to be calming, while red or orange stimulate and, apparently, even make us feel hungry! These ideas feed into what we choose to wear, how we decorate our homes and, when it comes to photography, the images we take.

But not everybody perceives colours in the same way. UK-based fine art photographer Chris Ward was born with a condition called deuteranopia, which means he has difficulty seeing shades of green. He's found his vision is far more attuned to recognising fine detail, subtle contrast and varied texture than other people's, though – which serves him well as a specialist in monochrome imagery.

The meaning of monochrome

A monochrome image of a lone tree in a field, the ground and sky light in stark contrast to the dark outline of the hedge and the tree's branches.

Fine art photographer Chris Ward often returns to the same scene – such as this tree, just south of Lincoln, England – to capture the impact the sky conditions and the crop planted in the field can have on the image. "Here, there was a cloudless, hazy sky, and stubble from a recent harvest," he says. Chris overexposed the sky and field to get a cleaner  composition. "The negative space helps isolate the tree, and the hedge gives a strong horizon line to separate the sky and the field." Taken on a  Canon EOS R6 with a  Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 105mm, 1/330 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Chris Ward

Often mistakenly used interchangeably with black and white, monochrome describes an image where everything in the frame appears as shades of a single colour. That could be any colour, but most commonly is grey or sepia. "What we think of as black and white is usually greyscale," Chris explains, as it incorporates a whole range of colour depths within grey. There are certain scenes that lend themselves especially well to monochrome – exactly those to which Chris's eye is naturally drawn. They might have textures or shadows that produce an interesting tonal range – dappled light in a forest, the rough patterns that appear in rocks or the rippling water of a river.

But pared-back, almost graphic shots can work just as well. "I think actually monochrome is less limited than colour, because it's already quite abstract so you can take an image further without it looking odd," says Chris. "If I were to heavily overexpose a colour image, it would look awful." In monochrome, though, overexposure can create a striking, minimalist style.

A monochrome photoshoot

A black and white, close-up image of a ferris wheel against a light, featureless sky.

"The featureless sky in Bridlington on this day was perfect for shooting through the ferris wheel without distractions from clouds," Chris recalls. "The wheel wasn't moving, so I could get away with quite a slow shutter speed. I was drawn to the spokes of the wheel against the sky. Increasing the contrast in Picture Styles helped separate the wheel from the sky behind." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 54mm, 1/50 sec, f/22 and ISO300. © Chris Ward

A sepia-tinted image of a row of warehouses alongside a river, their many windows reflected in the still water.

These warehouses alongside the river in Boston, England have now been converted into flats. Their nostalgic, industrial look makes them well suited to monochrome photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 50mm, 1/60 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Chris Ward

Chris was working with the Canon EOS R6, paired with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens, to offer maximum flexibility when framing his shots. Lens choice for monochrome photography is much the same as for colour, what differs is how you compose your shot. "Instead of using colour to direct the viewer's eye, you use highlight and contrast. In the Picture Styles menu, you can select a style called 'monochrome' and within that, you'll find another menu where you can adjust everything from the sharpness to contrast," Chris advises. "You can also add an in-camera filter that changes the way the camera reacts to different colours, so it makes everything red, green, blue, yellow or orange appear darker." Chris himself tends to use the red filter for the way it darkens skies and foliage in landscapes, removing unwanted distractions.

If you're using a Canon EOS R System body with EF or EF-S lenses, the Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R also enables you to use drop-in neutral density (ND) or polarising filters to bring your landscapes to life.

The images you shoot on the Canon EOS R6 using Picture Styles will be saved as compressed JPEG files. If you're shooting RAW, however, the files will preserve the full range of data captured by the camera. "The advantage of working with RAW files is that it gives me more information when editing," says Chris.

Day to day, Chris often shoots in colour. "I've spoken to various photographers and it seems that those who aren't colour-blind find it easier to shoot monochrome if they set the camera display to monochrome, whereas colour-blind photographers prefer to shoot in colour," he observes.

Editing monochrome photography

A row of groynes emerges above water in a diagonal line, dark against a light background in this monochrome image.

"It was quite a misty day in Bridlington and it was close to high tide so the groynes were mostly submerged," Chris recalls taking this minimalist shot using the Canon EOS R6's Picture Styles. "Shutter speed was critical because I wanted it to be slow enough to blur any larger waves but still quick enough to give the impression of water in the reflections without an ND filter. I was aiming for a minimalist result, so I could blow out the exposure on the sea and just needed to get the groynes right. In reality, the wood is very dark, so that gave me a bit more room to overexpose and bring out more detail. I still ended up pushing the aperture all the way. This is probably the only shot I've ever taken at f/40." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 94mm, 0.6 sec, f/40 and ISO100. © Chris Ward

"A good bit of advice I was given early on about editing black and white was to always push it too far initially," says Chris. "When you move a slider along in your post-production software, there's going to be a window where the image looks good. If you go beyond that it looks bad; go below that and it's not enough," he continues. "But if you start from having done too much and bring it back, then the end result is pretty much the most you can get away with."

Surprisingly, colour can be a really important tool in editing monochrome. "When you convert to black and white in your editing software, it will give you access to colour channel sliders," he explains. "Because colour can be a tool to create contrast, when you're editing, you can identify where colour is playing that role and instead create contrast tonally."

There are usually six colour sliders, depending on your software, each affecting the luminance of a different colour channel. In a landscape shot, for example, you can change the tone of the sky by adjusting the blue and aqua sliders, and the tone of vegetation with the yellow and green sliders. The red slider can be useful if there's brick buildings, while the orange slider can help to improve skin tones in portraits.

"The most difficult scenario to work with is probably rocks next to grass," explains Chris. "When you convert that to monochrome, it can appear as a mid-tone mush where neither one stands out against the other. If you go into your editing software and change the brightness of the green and yellow channel, the rock stays the same but the grass becomes brighter. With flowers you can use the channels to separate tones in different parts of the plant."

Monochrome printing tips

A full-colour image of a white bridge illuminated at the centre of dark tree foliage.

Hartsholme Country Park in Lincoln is the grounds of a stately home demolished in the 1950s and a place where Chris often goes. This scene posed some challenges. "There is a huge dynamic range between the lighting in the trees and the light hitting the bright bridge," says Chris. "I always expose for the bridge and let the trees fall into shadow, with the trees closest to the river still nicely backlit. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 70mm, 1/40 sec, f/11 and ISO320. © Chris Ward

A monochrome image of the same bridge illuminated at the centre of dark tree foliage with an in-camera purple tint applied.

Chris converted the image to monochrome using the EOS R6's in-camera Picture Styles and then added a purple tint, which is one of the options. "It's all tones of the same colour, so it's still monochrome," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 70mm, 1/40 sec, f/11 and ISO320. © Chris Ward

On the occasions when Chris has shot a purely black and white image, he will set his printer to 'greyscale', but more often than not he prints in colour.

"I tend to put subtle tints on my images in post-production and then I will usually print it in colour," he says. "I'll increase the exposure level by about half a stop. Just because when you look at it on screen, it always looks brighter than when it comes out as a print."

Chris likes to use a split tone effect, applying a different colour to the highlights and shadows. "The highlights I will tend to make a little warmer and the shadows cooler. That really helps lift the image."

A compact A3 printer such as the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 would be ideal for delivering high-quality monochrome prints.

Camera at the ready

A full-colour image of a bunch of pink roses positioned on a black paper background.

Since he started out, Chris has taken hundreds of pictures of flowers. "Most of which nobody but me sees," he admits, because they're practice shots. This was shot with natural light, indoors, against a black paper background, and, unusually for me, using a tripod, which allowed me to use quite a small aperture." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 57mm, 30 sec, f/25 and ISO100. © Chris Ward

A monochrome image of the same bunch of roses with the red colour channels adjusted and a faint red tint applied so they appear to be a very pale purple.

"Any adjustments to the colour channels affect the image first, before it converts to black and white," Chris explains. "So if the red colour channel is reduced, when the image is converted to black and white, the reds will appear as a darker shade of grey. I've also applied a faint red tint to this image to capture the delicate tones and textures of the roses, and make everything appear natural." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 57mm, 30 sec, f/25 and ISO100. © Chris Ward

So, if the sound of experimenting with monochrome photography appeals to you, where's the best place to start? "Practice on flowers," Chris suggests. "There are a lot of subtle textures and different colours that you can play around with. If you can get flowers looking natural in monochrome – when very often, the colour is what defines a flower – then you can apply the same things that you've learned to everything else."

Many of history's most iconic photographs are in black and white – dramatic landscapes by Ansel Adams, empathetic portraiture by Dorothea Lange or vivid street scenes by Henri Cartier-Bresson. These image-makers weren't colour-blind, they were working with the tools available before colour photography caught on, but they saw the world differently, appreciating the patterns, the intricacies, the shades of grey.

Today, the monochrome options in your digital camera enable you to do the same thing – view your surroundings from an alternative perspective and interpret what you see in new ways.

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

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