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256 shades of grey

Philip Smith
20 March 2014
Blog team: 
Monochrome photography can take your photography to places you have only dreamed of.
Sherwood by Dianna Jazwinski

The ‘monochrome photo project’ category in the IGPOTY competition remains one of the most popular. It’s different and slightly weird. Flowers and plants – in black and white? Are we serious?

But some of the most striking images we have seen in the competition have been in black and white.

Plant Life Matrix by Cynthia Vondran
Plant Life Matrix by Cynthia Vondran

Tone and texture

Without colour to help the viewer ‘read’ the image, we rely on subtle toning, shape and texture. This can free our photographic ‘vision’ and take us into places we maybe didn’t know exist.

Chinese Painting by Minghui Yuan
Chinese Painting by Minghui Yuan. A finalist in last year’s ‘Monochrome category

Black and white tips

So what are the things to think about when shooting black and white? Should we use the camera’s black and white ‘filters’ or settings, or is it best to do the conversion to greyscale on the computer?

Many modern cameras – actually pretty much all of them - offer the option to capture the image in black and white. This can be a really useful feature as you can immediately see the result in your chosen format. Shooting in this way can really ‘educate’ our eyes and mental vision to help us understand what works well in black and white and what doesn’t. It’s a very good sandpit to play around in and learn along the way.

But when it comes to ‘real’ capture it is usually best to shoot in colour and then convert it to black and white in software on the computer.

In this way you give yourself the maximum amount of data to work with when you are doing the conversion – so you can choose how the conversion is made and adjust it to your own particular taste or style.

There are many ways to do this in modern computer software. Conversion to greyscale in Photoshop is a simple menu item – open the image, click ’grayscale’ and – wham! there it is. This gives a perfectly acceptable but somewhat neutral tonal range. It’s like back in the old days getting your black and white film developed at the chemist rather than developing it yourself.

Using ‘channel mixer in Photoshop is a very simple way to adjust the black and white tones – a bit like using filters with black and white film – but after the event.

Using channel mixer

Each pixel is made up of red, green and blue colour (RGB). By default, software takes a certain percentage from these colours to create the greys needed for black and white. By using the channel mixer, you can adjust this percentage to create deeper or lighter tones. In the example below, after using the channel mixer the dark shadow area has more detail in it, and there is more variation in the tones of the foliage – creating more visual richness in the image as whole.

Colour image before treating
Image before processing with channel mixer


Colour image after treating
Image after processing with channel mixer

Controlling tonal range using colour channels in software

A more sophisticated approach is to use adjustment layers for each channel .By creating layers from each red, green or blue channel you can alter the tone as with the channel mixer – but also you can change the opacity of these layers, altering specific areas of the image if you like, giving you a huge amount of control.

Download a useful article on  processing images in Photoshop.

I like to use Duotone to create subtle – usually warm – range of tones. Duotone is a term borrowed from 20th century printing days when an approximation of colour could be created using a blend of black and another colour of ink – this at a time when full colour printing was too expensive for books and magazines.

This is a colour image after treating with Duotone. A subtle example that recalls the ‘feel’ of high quality photographic printing paper.

Colour image after treating with Duotone
Colour image after treating with Duotone

Last year Dianna Jazwinski won the Monochrome category with her garden image. The lack of colour encourages us to see tone and texture: the distant tree in blossom becomes the highlight of the image in a way that would be lost in colour.

Sherwood by Dianna Jazwinski
Sherwood by Dianna Jazwinski

Enter the competition

The Monochrome category deadline for 2014 is 31 March. Go to the IGPOTY website for more details on how to enter the competition.

The International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition is still on in the Nash Conservatory until 30 March and includes all of last year’s Monochrome finalists.

- Philip -

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