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What is it called when a picture is black and white with one color?

What is it called when a picture is black and white with one color?

A picture that is black and white with one color is called a monochromatic photo. This style of photography emerged in the early 20th century and remains popular today for its dramatic and bold aesthetic. The term “monochromatic” means having only one color. So in monochromatic photos, the world is framed in black and white, with just one tone popping vividly. This creates photographs rich with nostalgia, mood, and visual interest. In this article, we’ll explore what monochromatic photography is, its history, how it works, why it’s effective, and tips for taking excellent monochromatic photos yourself.

What is Monochromatic Photography?

Monochromatic photography is a style where a black and white image has one additional color featured. That color is used selectively throughout the photo. For example, a photographer might choose to make red the featured color. So in their monochromatic photo, everything will be in black and white except elements of red, which draw the eye.

Some key characteristics of monochromatic photos include:

  • Black and white photography forming the background.
  • One vibrant color used to highlight part of the image.
  • A bold, high contrast look.
  • Nostalgic mood and retro aesthetic.
  • Color used sparingly for dramatic effect.

While black and white photos remove the distraction of color, monochromatic photos use color strategically. The color conveys meaning, enhances focus, and delivers visual impact. Many photographers opt to make red the featured color for its boldness. Other popular color choices are blue, yellow, green, and orange. The color selection helps convey the message and mood of the image.

History of Monochromatic Photography

Monochromatic photography has roots in the early 20th century art world. In 1907, Pablo Picasso created a series of paintings of women that experimented with planes and colors. One of these paintings, titled “Portrait of Madame Canals”, depicted his muse exclusively in shades of green.

Around the same time, visual artists were beginning to explore ideas of Cubism and abstraction. Limiting a work to one color helped focus on form, line, and composition in new ways.

In 1916, Italian Futurists Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero created a series of experimental monochromatic collaged paintings using a bold blue palette.

However, it was in photography that the monochromatic style was most quickly adopted. Photographers could emulate the high contrast and vivid use of color that modern painters were exploring.

Some key early pioneers of monochromatic photography include:

  • Alfred Stieglitz – Created celebrated high contrast black and white architectural photos with pops of sky and clouds in the 1920s-30s.
  • Paul Outerbridge – Used single hues and high contrast in his nudes and still lifes in the 1930s.
  • Ansel Adams – Best known for dramatic black and white landscape photography with selective use of contrasting skies.
  • Saul Leiter – Photographed ethereal street scenes in the 1950s, with splashes of red and yellow.

Through the mid-late 20th century, monochromatic style was adopted by fine art photographers and those interested in abstraction and unconventional techniques.

It remains a popular artistic choice today, with contemporary photographers using digital methods to create their vision. The style also frequently appears in fashion editorials, marketing materials, and photojournalism.

How Monochromatic Photography Works

There are several techniques photographers can use to achieve the dramatic monochromatic look:

Converting Color to Black and White

Most digital cameras capture images in full color. But their photos can be converted to black and white using photo editing software. This removes all color information, leaving behind a grayscale image.

Leaving Part of the Image in Color

After desaturating the photo to black and white, the photographer isolates part of the image. Using photo editing tools, they apply the featured color back to just to those portions of the photo. This might be a person’s clothing, a lamp, signage, or other key details that will draw attention.

Using Color Filters

Specialized camera filters allow black and white film photographers to selectively feature a color tonally within the scene. A red filter makes red hues appear lighter in tone, isolating and highlighting them. Other color filters do the same for their respective colors.

Tinting the Entire Image

Some monochromatic photos tint the whole black and white image in the chosen color subtly. This can create interesting duotone effects. Often, a photographer will tint only part of the image for accent, leaving the rest black and white.

Capturing Color Selectively In-Camera

Digital cameras allow photographers to choose shooting modes like selective color isolation. This configures the camera to capture mostly in black and white natively, with only targeted color coming through vividly.

Why Monochromatic Photography is Effective

There are several reasons this approach resonates with viewers and succeeds as an artistic technique:

Dramatic Contrast

The heavy contrast between the black and white background and vivid color is bold and eye-catching. Light and shadows are amplified without the distraction of hue.

Focus and Emphasis

Because color is used minimally, it naturally draws the eye and creates focus exactly where the photographer intends. The selected color becomes almost like a highlighter over the black and white composition.

Mood and Emotion

Black and white evokes certain emotions like melancholy, nostalgia, and somberness. A selective color can heighten this, or offer contrasting energy and vibrancy. This combination has potent expressive power.

Retro Feel

Monochromatic style queues nostalgia for early color photograph. It retains a classic atmosphere even as technology progresses.

Artistic Freedom

Monochromatic style is inherently interpretive, abstract, and experimental. The photographer imposes their vision of color and tone to create stylized imagery.

Strong Composition

With color simplified, the viewer focuses on the formal arrangement of elements in the frame, appreciating shapes, patterns, textures, lines, and negative space.

Tips for Stunning Monochromatic Photos

To master monochromatic style yourself, incorporate these tips into your process:

Choose a Color Thoughtfully

Carefully select a color that will complement your location or subject. Red conveys excitement, yellow sparkles, blue is tranquil, and green balances natural hues.

Search for Color Accents

At your chosen setting, look for visual interest in your key color. Seek clothing, signs, decor, building facades, foliage, toys. Anything can become your color focal point.

Focus On Contrast

Identify areas with bold contrast between light and dark tones. Position key subjects there to make them stand out when color is added later.

Use Leading Lines

Compose lines that direct the eye where you want attention focused. Power lines, fences, roads, painted lines all lead to color accents.

Frame With Shapes

Arrange environmental shapes like doorways and arches to spotlight your color highlights. Create a visual vignette.

Play with Lighting

Backlighting creates bold silhouettes. Side lighting casts strong shadows. Geometric sunbeams streaming through trees spotlight color.

Pick a Prime Lens

Use a lens like 50mm or 35mm for crystal clear detail and gorgeous bokeh. Zoom lenses can distort monochromatic emphasis.

Add Some Grain

In post-processing, experiment with subtle grain for an authentic film look. But don’t overdo it.

Focus On Texture

Attention to textures like weathered paint, foliage, clouds or rough stonework enhances the black and white portion. Provide visual balance.

Try Duotones

In addition to color pops, tint the whole image subtly in your chosen hue for a duotone effect. Works great for artificial lighting scenes.

Famous Examples of Monochromatic Photography

Many iconic images exemplify this creative style at its best. Let’s spotlight several:

Marilyn by Andy Warhol, 1967

Warhol’s silkscreen painting isolates Marilyn Monroe’s face and hair in black and white, with her lips accentuated in red. Highly influential.

Girl With Balloon by Banksy, 2002

Banksy’s street art stencil depicts a monochromatic black and white girl staring wistfully up at a heart-shaped red balloon. An anti-war message.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Diane Arbus photographed twin sisters in black and white, with their vibrant patterned dresses setting them apart.

Feeling My Way by Joel Meyerowitz, 1967

In this black and white street scene, only the stoplight glows crimson red, contrasting the blurred figures crossing beneath it.

David Bowie by Andy Warhol, 1971

Warhol’s stylized screenprint renders Bowie in muted grayscale, his face emerging from blocks of red and blue tones.

Nebraska State Capitol by Christopher Walling, 2021

This grand building is stripped of color, while its opulent interior decor pops in gold under a sunlight shaft. Dramatic architecture.

How Monochromatic Style Translates to Other Media

Photography originated this dynamic look, but monochromatic style now appears in many areas:

Print Design

Magazine layouts, posters, brochures, and advertisements integrate mostly black and white with a signature color to capture attention.

TV and Film

Movies like Schindler’s List and Sin City have iconic monochromatic scenes. Commercials also utilize the style for bold impact.


On runways and photospreads, models are adorned in black and white while makeup or accessories provide pops of color.

Interior Design

Home interiors balance neutrals with one colorful piece like a red sofa or vibrant wall decor for a minimalist look.

Product Design

Electronics, appliances, and consumer goods use black and white palettes with a single color highlight. This unifies a brand identity.

Painting and Drawing

Illustrators, graphic designers, and fine artists render compelling monochromatic works across all mediums.

Wherever high contrast and selective color are used for dramatic effect in a largely black and white setting, the monochromatic principles are at play. This timeless aesthetic continues inspiring creatives across all disciplines.

How to Take Your Monochromatic Photography to the Next Level

Ready to push your monochromatic images to even greater heights? Implement these advanced techniques:

Incorporate Texture and Shape

Move closer to the details. Capture weathered surfaces in cracks, peeling paint, and rust textures. Photograph interesting shadows playing across shapes.

Use Mixed Lighting

Mix strobe light, continuously lit practicals, and available light like sunbeams together in one scene. Lighting contrast accentuates monochromatic style.

Try Double Exposure

Superimpose two different scenes together. For example, a cityscape over a figure. This adds depth and abstract style.

Layer Colors

In addition to one bold color, bring in other hues more subtly as accents. For example, add a muted blue and green too.

Obscure the Photo

Partially conceal or distort portions of the image for added mystery. Shoot through translucent surfaces, a grid, or water droplets.

Incorporate Motion Blur

Capture movement with long exposures and panning techniques. This dynamism energizes monochrome.

Alter Perspectives

Shoot from unconventional angles low to the ground or high overhead to disorient. Canted or Dutch angles also amplify the off-kilter vibe.

Add Mixed Media

Incorporate physical materials into the presentation like paint, collage, textured abrasions. Continue altering after printing too.

Pushing boundaries creates standout contemporary monochromatic images. Continue to explore and experiment fearlessly!


Monochromatic photography employs a bold minimalist style that spotlights only one color against high contrast black and white. It emerged from fine art traditions in the early 20th century seeking abstraction. By eliminating distracting hues, the image achieves dramatic focus where the photographer intends.

The human eye is naturally drawn to color. Used selectively in a black and white setting, that color immediately captures attention. Monochromatic style aligns perfectly with our visual perception for this reason. It simplifies the frame while adding mood, nostalgia, and visual impact.

Photographers create monochromatic images using post-processing conversions, in-camera settings, lens filters, and mixed lighting. With a strategic approach, stunning results are attainable by anyone. Look for strong compositional elements like leading lines, shapes, and compelling textures.

Over a century later, this artistic technique endures, reinvigorated by new generations of photographers. Monochromatic style also continues to influence other visual media, from movies to design, fashion to advertising. Its focused minimalism will no doubt remain compelling well into the future whenever striking color contrast is desired.