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Monochrome vs Grayscale Photography: Key Differences


If you’re trying to understand the difference between monochrome vs grayscale, you’ve come to the right place.

Some people think monochrome photography and grayscale photography are exactly the same thing… but they’re not!

In this article, you’ll find why they are different and when you should use one over the other.

Keep reading to find out more!

What is a Monochrome Image?

Credit original colour photo: Pixabay

The term monochrome derives from the medieval Latin word monochrōma, from the Ancient Greek monochromos. Mono = one; Chromos= color. Thus, of a single color.

Monochrome photography means that an image can record different luminosity levels but not different hues. This way, the image has only one colour – as opposed to color photography, which is polychrome.

For example, have you ever applied a sepia filter to a photo to make it look vintage? That would be turning your photo into a monochrome.

Black and white images are monochrome, too – this is where it gets tricky though, black and white photographs are also grayscale.

Let me explain a bit further in the following sections.

What is a Grayscale Image?

Credit: Johan Hakkens

A grayscale image is a monochrome that uses the tonal range of gray. This is why a black and white image is grayscale, and that’s also why the terms are interchangeable most of the time.

There is a difference between grayscale and monochrome when you’re printing, though – because they will use different inks. You can check this mode on the printing preferences.

Comparing Monochrome vs Grayscale Photography

Credit: Ali Khalil

Are you confused yet?! Here’s a simple way to think about monochrome photography vs grayscale photography:

The easiest way to understand the difference between monochrome vs grayscale is to remember that all grayscale images are monochrome, but not all monochrome photographs are grayscale.

That’s because grayscale photography is a monochrome image with only shades of gray. However, you can find many monochrome variations from black and white to sepia to cyanotypes.

How to Create Monochrome and Grayscale Photography Images

To get good monochromatic prints, you need to start with good black and white images.

There are two main ways to shoot black and white photography, each with their inherent pros and cons:

1. Shoot Black and White Photography In-Camera

Credit: Kaique Rocha

In the age of analogue photography, you needed to load a different type of film according to what you wanted to shoot.

However, you can change from colour to black and white mode on a digital camera from one picture to the next.

Keep in mind that not all cameras have this function, especially the older ones – but nowadays it’s a common feature to be able to switch to B&W in-camera, so check your user’s manual to see how to activate it.

When you take a black and white photograph, different shades of gray will be representing colours in the final file. This means that you won’t be able to change your mind later, which is why this method isn’t for everyone.

What many photographers recommend instead is to use a hybrid method. You shoot a colour photograph but knowing that you will do a black and white conversion in post-processing.

Keep in mind that this applies to any monochrome image and not just grayscale.

The Hybrid method: Shooting colour for monochrome photography

When you do this, you consider a few aspects that you might have overlooked for a colour photograph – composition, contrast, and pattern/texture.

Our brains gather a lot of information from colour – If you don’t believe it, try asking a colour blind person how that struggle with traffic lights or even playing certain sports.

Anyway, when you intend to make a black and white image, we should consider from the start giving some extra clues to the viewer to compensate for the lack of colour information.

One way to do it is by using composition rules to guide the eye to the most important elements.

When you’re working with only one colour, your best ally is luminosity. Intense contrast helps the viewer differentiate the different areas and elements in the picture.

So, consider capturing scenes and subjects with high contrast if you plan to turn them into a black and white image, even if you’re shooting in colour.

Imagine you photograph a tabletop. If the surface is smooth, when you turn it into a black and white image, you’ll have a picture that looks like a rectangle with only one colour.

Instead, if it’s a rustic wood tabletop or any rugged material, you’ll see many details and a wide tonal range of that colour, even as a black and white photo.

That’s why you should favour texture when shooting for black and white using the hybrid method.

2. Create Black and White Photography in Post-Processing

Credit: Nathan Cowley

The great thing about digital photography is that you can turn your images to black and white in post-processing with practically any photo editing program.

This gives you more choices and creative control over the outcome. On the downside, when you take the photograph, you won’t have a black and white preview to assess your picture’s tonal range and luminosity without the colours.

If you’re a beginner or want to keep your options open – this is the way to go.

FAQ Monochrome vs Grayscale

Does grayscale or monochrome use less ink?

Grayscale uses less black ink, but monochrome uses less (actually none) color ink, so it depends on which ink you want to use. Monochrome only uses black ink, while grayscale uses color ink to create even the darkest hues – so it uses less black but more color ink.

What is the difference between monochrome and grayscale printing?

In monochrome printing, there are only two colors – black and white. The printer will only be printing black and the white will be unprinted. In grayscale printing, the printer will print everything in different shades of gray.

Does high-quality grayscale use color ink?

Yes, any color printer uses color ink even when you’re doing a black and white print.

Is black considered grayscale?

The quick answer is yes. The entire scale of gray runs from full white up until pure black. In the long answer, you should consider that you can print black without printing in grayscale, only using the black ink cartridge.

Final Words

I hope this article helped you clarify the confusion between black and white, grayscale and monochrome images.

If you still have any doubts, feel free to ask in the comments section.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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