Monochrome (and Duotone) Magic

Spider Lily (Hymenocallis x festalis) duotone
Spider Lily (Hymenocallis x festalis) – duotone created in Photoshop

Sometimes I prefer the look of a photograph that has been converted to black and white, rather than the original colour version. And it can be even better if it has had some ‘toning’ added in Photoshop.

So why should that be? For some photographs, it may simply be that the original colours don’t work well together – as with the ‘Spider Lily’ above. The flower was growing in front of our house, which is painted ‘Suffolk Pink’. I didn’t like the pink wall as a background because it distracted from the flower too much.

Converting the picture to plain black and white got rid of the distraction but the result wasn’t terribly exciting, so the colour tones were added to create a bit of extra interest. This has given a look very like a cyanotype print which has been toned in tea. (Does that sound odd? Ordinary tea makes a great toner for cyanotype prints – takes the harshness out of the blue and turns the white paper a soft cream/brown shade.)

Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)
Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)

Other photographs may benefit from simplification. With the ‘Crown Imperials’ above, I was attracted by the lines of the veins on the petals, and to a lesser extent, by the way the curve of one of the leaves at the top echoes the curve of the petals below it. But in the original, the orange of the flower and the green leaves that contrasted with it competed too much for attention. Here, with the image as a monochrome, your eye can more easily follow the lines along the petals.

Both of the photographs below worked well in colour but the blue and brown duotone of the agapanthus and the warm pinky-brown monochrome of the astrantia give the images a new life. They have become something entirely different from the photographs I started with. (You can see the original colour photograph of the astrantia here. )

Left: Agapanthus Right: Astrantia
Left: Agapanthus Right: Astrantia

I think that the toned versions of the photographs work because their subjects no longer look as they do in nature. Without their normal colouring, the flowers are somehow unfamiliar.  Because of this, they are able to be seen in a different way. Now there is a possibility that you may notice new details or simply react with feelings that the original colour versions wouldn’t have inspired.

It’s very satisfying to experiment with photographs in this way. There can be a restfulness, even an elegance, to the restricted colours in the final image.

If you fancy trying this on your own photographs, you’ll find that it’s not hard to do if you have an image-editing program. Photoshop, for instance, allows you to convert the photograph to black and white. You can then alter the colour in any way you like, using the ‘Colour Balance’ adjustment on the shadows, midtones and highlights or you can try the more complex controls available in the ‘Curves’ commands. (I should think that there are other possibilities with newer versions of Photoshop than mine.) And, of course, there are many other monochrome effects out there that you can try. You could have hours of fun with these!

Tulipa orphanidea
Tulipa orphanidea