How To Create Great Monochromatic Photos

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This tutorial is written by Emil Pakarklis. Emil is a passionate iPhoneographer and the founder of iPhone Photography School, a website dedicated to helping people take and edit better photos with the iPhone.

In this week’s tutorial we are going to cover one of the most common photo edits – creating monochromatic photos. Many of you might already be familiar with creating B&W photos, but monochromatic photos do not necessary have to be black and white.

The photo above is clearly not in color, but it is also not black and white since the entire photo has a yellowish tint. In other words, this is a monochromatic photo, and in this tutorial I’m going to show you exactly how to create images like this.

We’ll go trough the entire process step-by-step, starting from shooting and cropping and moving into the exact edits that were performed so that you know how to create similar photos on your own.

Step 1: Shooting

This is the original file without any edits. Feel free to download this photo to follow along with the tutorial (tap and hold the image from your iPhone).

The sea was quite rough, which makes the overall scene more dynamic. There were some very beautiful clouds in the background, so I included them in the photos that I took. It was quite late and the sun was already getting low, as you can see at the top left corner.

Of course, a beach photo without interesting subjects will rarely look good, so I looked for other people to include in the shot. Since the sun was low and I was shooting against it, I knew that people would turn into interesting silhouettes.

I found an old man gazing into the sea, and I noticed that another man was walking in his direction from the left side. When the other man got close enough, I shot several photos of the two men. Even though this moment lasted for only a few seconds, I took five shots of this scene.

Note: that I deliberately tried to keep the sun out of the frame as it would turn into a large white area in the middle of the sky. At the same time, I wanted to capture as much of the sky as possible, so the sun is just outside the frame, creating and interesting effect.

Step 2: Straightening And Cropping

The entire post-processing was done using Snapseed, which is my favorite mobile photography app. You can get Snapseed for free on the App Store and on Google Play.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the horizon in not straight in this image. This is actually a common problem for shots that were taken quickly, but fortunately it is really easy to fix it.

To straighten the horizon, select the Straighten module in Snapseed, and drag your finger along the side of the image until you’re happy with the result. Here I found that rotating the image by about +1.3 degrees fixed the issue.

After confirming the adjustments using the bottom-right arrow, I opened the Crop module. I picked 4:3 as the aspect ratio to keep it fixed (use 1:1 for Instagram photos). I then played around with the composition until I stopped at the following.

With this composition my goal was to keep the sky prominent while also bringing attention to the subjects of this photo. I also like that the sun rays are now coming from the corner of the image, which I think looks a lot more harmonious.

Step 3: Ambience

Did you notice that the sky looks really extraordinary, almost surreal in the final version of this photo? That’s because of a little trick I did before converting the image into B&W. I’m talking about Ambience, which you can find in the Tune Image module.

If you’re new to Snapseed, you can go through different adjustments by swiping the screen vertically, and change the values of each adjustment by swiping the screen horizontally. To find Ambience, open Tune Image module and go down the list of adjustments.

Ambience, which is one of the best features of Snapseed, brings out the midtones of the image, which often emphasizes interesting details and makes the images appear more clear. You want to increase Ambiance BEFORE converting images to B&W.

Why did I select +75? It would probably be way too much if I wanted to keep the image in color. However, from experience I know that monochromatic images generally look better with high Ambience values. While +100 would probably be too much, +75 is a good level for an image like this. Now we’re ready to convert the image to B&W!

Step 4: Black And White

Even though monochromatic photos are not necessarily B&W, to create a monochromatic photo you must start by converting it to black and white. This can be done using the Black & White module in Snapseed. Other than converting the image to B&W, this module also allows you to adjust Brightness and Contrast.

By tapping on the star icon at the bottom of the screen, you can check out what various combinations of Brightness and Contrast will look like for your photo. However, I prefer to adjust these settings manually, and I normally like to start with Contrast.

After some experimenting, I decided to keep Contrast at +15 as this level provides a good balance between making the image more dynamic and not making the sky look dull. Next I adjusted the Brightness of the image.

Here I decided to go for -10, thus making the image a little bit darker. This level makes the sky even more surreal while at the same time not loosing too much detail in the shadows.

If we were simply creating a B&W image, we would be done at this point. Just in case I need it later, I saved this version of the photo, which you can see below.

Step 5: White Balance

This is where the monochromatic part of the tutorial finally starts. In order to create a monochromatic image, all you have to do is take a B&W photo and change its White Balance using Snapseed. You can find White Balance in Tune Image module.

To create a sepia effect, change the White Balance to something between +10 and +30. The exact adjustment depends on each photo as well as on your own preference. In this case I decided to go for +20, which is how I created the image at the top of this post.

However, with White Balance you can do so much more than just create sepia images. As you swipe through the entire range of possible values, you’ll discover a variety of different color options for your monochromatic photos. Here are just three more examples.

As you can see above, the White Balance adjustment in Snapseed allows you to get really creative with your monochromatic images. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and you’ll surely find something interesting!

If you’d like to learn more about editing photos in Snapseed, I’ve created a free iPhone photo editing video course in which I cover this amazing app in a lot more detail.

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