Monochrome, Duotone or Black and White?

My previous post of the Auchterlonie monochrome image made me think…I have seen many photographers using different words describing their “black and white” images (or all those images that are not in full color). I did a brief search on the web before I launched my website and decided that “duotone” sounds pretty cool, so I named my portfolio containing these images “Nature in Duotone”.

It looks like I was wrong all along…

“A Kgalagadi Storm” – Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 2011


The WIKIPEDIA says “Duotone is a halftone reproduction of an image using the superimposition of one contrasting color halftone (traditionally black) over another color halftone. This is most often used to bring out middle tones and highlights of an image. The most common colors used are blue, yellow, browns and reds.”
According the Oxford Dictionary duotone is “a half-tone illustration made from a single original with two colours at different screen angles.
In THE LUMINOUS LANDSCAPE the following is stated about duotone (and monochrome):- “A Duotone is a wonderful way to make a monochrome print… A Duotone takes a monochrome grayscale image and allows you to take the tonal range, from lightest tones to darkest, and allocate a different color to specific part of the tonal range. You can for example make the highlights red and the shadows green (though you’re unlikely to want to)… Other combinations that work well are black and medium-blue, or black and cyan, or black and brown… Typically you’ll use black for the shadows and a lighter tone of another colour for the midtones and highlights. Though we won’t be getting into them here, with Tritones and Quadtones you can use a third or fourth colour as well for finer gradations of control. It takes a while to master Duotones so leave Tritones and Quadtones for later when you feel the need for greater flexibility and have mastered Duotones…”
DICTIONARY.COM states that duotone is “… a picture in two tones or colors… Printing: a method of printing an illustration either in a dark and a tinted shade of the same color or in two different colors from two plates of a monochrome original made from negatives at different screen angles.”

The Oxford Dictionary also states that monochrome is “a respresentation or reproduction in black and white or in varying tones of only one colour.
According to a thread ePHOTOzine the following can be said:- “For an image, the term monochrome is usually taken to mean the same as black and white or, more likely, grayscale, but may also be used to refer to other combinations containing only tones of a single color, such as green-and-white or green-and-black. It may also refer to sepia displaying tones from light tan to dark brown or cyanotype (“blueprint”) images, and early photographic methods such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, each of which may be used to produce a monochromatic image. In computing, monochrome has two meanings: it may mean having only one color which is either on or off, allowing shades of that color, although this is more correctly known as grayscale. A monochrome computer display is able to display only a single color, often green, amber, red or white, and often also shades of that color. In film photography, monochrome is typically the use of black-and-white film. Originally, all photography was done in monochrome until the invention of color film plates in the early 20th century.
The aforesaid appears to be echoed by WIKIPEDIA, but it also adds that “In digital photography, monochrome is the capture of only shades of black by the sensor, or by post-processing a color image to present only the perceived brightness by combining the values of multiple channels (usually red, blue, and green). The weighting of individual channels may be selected to achieve a desired artistic effect – if only the red channel is selected by the weighting then the effect will be similar to that of using a red filter on panchromatic film. If the red channel is eliminated and the green and blue combined then the effect will be similar to that of Orthochromatic film or the use of a cyan filter on panchromatic film. The selection of weighting thus allows a wide range of artistic expression in the final monochromatic image.”

WIKIPEDIA also states that “monochrome photography” is “… photography where the image produced has a single hue, rather than recording the colours of the object that was photographed. It includes all forms of black-and-white photography, which produce images containing tones of grey ranging from black to white. Most modern black-and-white films, called panchromatic films, record the entire visible spectrum. Some films are orthochromatic, recording visible light wavelengths shorter than 590 nanometres…” and “… monochrome images are not direct renditions of their subjects, but are abstractions from reality, representing colours in shades of grey…”

(Just a note: DO NOT always believe everything you read in Wikipedia, as anyone who wants to can add something to a post most of the time…!)
An interesting read on monochrome images can also be found in  THE FEDERATION OF SOUTH LONDON PHOTOGRAPHIC SOCIETIES’ HANDBOOK where the following is stated:-
     “The term “monochrome print” describes a print produced in varying densities of a single hue. Conventionally that hue would be a neutral grey, with densities from white to black. However, the neutral grey could be replaced by any single hue. 
Examples of acceptable and unacceptable prints: 
• A “black and white” print, uniformly printed or toned with one tone or hue, would be acceptable 
as a monochrome print. It would not be acceptable as a colour print in the colour print competition. 
• A “black and white” print, partially toned with a single hue in addition to the base hue, is not 
acceptable as “monochrome”, and is regarded as a “colour” print. 
• A print wholly or partially toned with two or more hues is a colour print. 
• A monochrome print which has had another hue added to one element is a colour print, and is not acceptable in a monochrome competition. (e.g. coloured lips on an otherwise black and white 
“High Key Lion” – Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 2011


A monochrome image is usually associated with black and white, but it is an image using one tone. This tone can be black or indeed any other tone and variations of this “one” tone are used. ‘Black and white’ is the use  of black (and variations of black) as the tone. Black and white is monochrome, but monochrome is not always black and white.
Duotone is like black and white, except that you choose the two tones used. In a duotone image the image’s black areas are replaced by the dark color and the white areas are replaced by the light color. Tones in between the extremes are gradually mixed between these two colors. The two colors used can be any two colors, but they are not a variation of only one color.
Unfortunately the terms are being used indiscriminately these days, so I suppose the real difference is more of a technical nature.
After all, it is all in the name, isn’t it? “Mono” equates to “one” or “single”, whereas “duo” equates to “two” or “double”.

To conclude, I think it will be save to say that in nature and wildlife photography we almost always (if not every time) make use of monochrome conversions, as we only add a single hue or tint to the initial black and white image – this single “tint” is applied throughout the entire tonal range of the image. On the other hand, duotone images are not found that often in nature and wildlife photography, as we almost always want the end result to look as “realistic” as possible – We would not want to change the darks with brown and the lights with pink or yellow (yes, I know this is an extreme example, but you know what I mean).Well, I have already changed my portfolio’s description to “Monochrome Nature”… Hope I did the right thing…

“Monochrome Zebra Profile” – Rietvlei Nature Reserve, 2010

You are welcome to leave a comment if you differ from me or if you just wish to add something…