Monochrome: one less distraction

A great way to increase the impact your photographs have on a viewer is to reduce the number distractions in the image. Keep your viewer’s attention on the things that matter. Direct them to the main course. Knock them out with your message. Whatever floats your kayak.

So how about leaving out the colour?

Some images work superbly as colour photos.

In fact, the reason they exist is simply because of the colours. This shop would be just another shop in monochrome.

Birgham Haugh, Berwickshire

How about this scene on the River Tweed at Birgham? A row of muscular beeches overlooking the water on a nice blue sky day. You feel like you could be there.

But what I was really looking at were the trees and their shapes, The colours, nice as they are, simply distract the eye from the tree trunks and the spreading branches.

Birgham Haugh, Berwickshire

In monochrome, your eyes are not seduced by the river and the green grass. Instead, the tree trunks appear much brighter than the grass so you look there first, then you admire the structure of the trees and how they lean over towards the water, obviously wind blown. All of which is much more what I had in mind when I took the photo.

Or how about this image from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

That’s one very yellow jacket. In fact it takes us a little while to look away from her coat and recognise that she must be singing. The lady in the background with the clipboard (one of the Festival minders who keeps High Street slots running to time) actually competes with the singer in this picture. Even though I made sure to blur her our a bit, the red jacket leaps out at you as well.

In the monochrome version, the yellow coat disappears somewhat and you  focus more on the singer’s face, and strangely on the minder in the background – perhaps she’s just looking the wrong way in this shot.

Each of these has their strong and weak points but the lack of colour makes us respond differently to the monochrome picture.

Stallholder, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This picture of the jewellery seller provides the context for the person in the picture. I do feel that the purple jewellery cases pull my eyes away from the subject a little too easily.


Stallholder, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

In the monochrome version, the purple obviously has far less of a pull, and the background generally is less distracting. In addition, I was able to manipulate the skin tones a little more to make the lady stand out a little more from the background and provide a little more glow to her face. Trying this in colour would entail making sure the colour balances stayed under control.

Gable end, St Abbs

Meanwhile, over at St Abbs, my eye was taken by the geometric patterns of the roof and telephone wires at the end of this house. The interest in this picture is in the strong diagonals, making triangles all over the place. The red bricks and blue sea didn’t help one bit, so the colour had to go:

Gable end, St Abbs

The result was a starker image but one in which there was no mistake about what I wanted the viewer to focus on. The bricks are now just a dark area rather than a bright red attention grabber.

Woodland at The Haining, Selkirk

But sometimes, a monochrome version doesn’t have the impact you might expect. Down in the woods, I thought the trunk and branches of this ancient chestnut tree would stand out quite starkly against the bright greens and yellows of the sunlit leaves, and the footpath would lead off enticingly into the distance. Well, sort of.

Colourful woodland at the Haining, Selkirk

But not as well as the original colour version does. This one is altogether brighter, and the vivid greens and yellows provide more of a contrasty background than do their grey equivalents. And you can actually see there is a footpath disappearing into the trees beyond.

As ever it all depends upon what you are aiming to do with your picture. If you’re aiming to show off a subject in its context, and realism is where you’re heading, colour is going to deliver for you.

But if you want to try isolating your subject and need to lose a distracting background, try a monochrome version.


For more articles on the subject of simplifying your images, try these:

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