5 Black and White Landscape Photography Tips for Better Photos July 13, 2018
Tonal contrast is the term used to describe variations in brightness between different parts of the image. Take the photo below as an example. The jetties, silhouetted against the evening sky, are dark. The sky is much lighter. This is tonal contrast. The sea is mid-grey – darker than the sky, brighter than the jetties.
If you think about the sort of things that appear in landscape photos – cliffs, rocks, grass, trees, mountains, sea and man-made objects like piers and jetties – they all have distinct textures.
Photographer Cole Thompson has an interesting idea. He practices what he calls photographic abstinence, and doesn’t look at the work of other photographers. The theory is that it enables him to see the landscape through his own eyes, without being influenced by other people’s photos.
I touched on this in the previous tip, but I want to emphasize them here because they are so important.
One more thing—make sure you are using RAW format. While the picture mode will show you how the photo could look in black and white, using RAW format file will capture color images and give you the most control over converting the image to black and white. So why use picture controls if you get a color photo anyways? It’s a great teaching tool to help learn how to view the scene in black and white. With enough practice, you can view a subject and know right away whether it will make a great black and white shot or not.
While polarizing filters are traditionally used for enhancing or eliminating reflections, they can also play up the contrast in a black and white landscape shot. Polarizing filters can be used in color photography to play up a blue sky—when those color photos are converted to black and white, that extra blue boost in the sky results in a greater contrast. By twisting the front piece of the filter, you can fine-tune the contrast between different colors in the shots for better black and white conversions later on.
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Even if you do live somewhere with spectacular landscapes, you will need to travel to expand your experience and add depth to your portfolio. All my favorite landscape photos were taken while traveling. The two activities go together very well. Travel is more interesting and exciting when there’s a purpose behind it. Landscape photography is one of the things that can give you that sense of purpose.
You can educate yourself about black and white landscape photography by looking at the work of masters like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston who worked predominantly in black and white. Also look at what modern day photographers are doing by browsing 500px. Some names to search for include Cole Thompson, Rob Dweck, Arnaud Bertrande, Thibault Roland, Joel Tjintjelaar and Nathan Wirth.
Let me give you an example. Earlier this year I visited the Playa de las Catedrales (Cathedral Beach) in northern Spain. Search for it on 500px and most photos will look something like this, showing the cathedral-like arches for which the beach is named.
With those variables set, the shutter speed depends on the ambient light level. In bright sunlight, it might be around 1/125 second. In low light, it could be as low as 1/2 a second. But what if you’d like to use a slower shutter speed for creative effect? If ISO and aperture are fixed, the only way you get longer shutter speeds is by using neutral density filters.
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Texture looks amazing in black and white photography. In fact, monochrome brings out textures that aren’t as noticeable in color. Look for objects with a lot of texture as you consider what to include in your photo and what to leave out. Shooting black and white landscapes is a great way to uncover textures in unusual places. A cloudless sky just becomes a gray mass, but cloudy skies instantly add texture to landscapes in black and white. Rocks, tree bark, clouds—the sky is the limit (pun intended). This can also be applied to other forms of photography such as portrait photography.
Don’t forget to set your camera to shoot in Raw format. Raw files contain all the information captured by your camera’s sensor, and give you the freedom to process the images in color if you want, even if you initially shoot in black and white mode.
It doesn’t feature the arches the beach is famous for, but it’s more personal to me and was more satisfying to make.
One of the benefits of working with digital cameras is that they can help you learn to see in black and white. All you have to do is set your camera to its black and white (monochrome) mode. It then shows you the scene in black and white in Live View, and if your camera has one, in the electronic viewfinder as well.
Here’s an example. This photo was taken at dusk with an aperture of f/11 at ISO 200, and a shutter speed of 1/5th of a second. This was slow enough to introduce some blur into the water, which you can see in the foreground.
Then I added a neutral density filter and made this photo (below) with a shutter speed of 180 seconds (3 minutes). The water is completely blurred, and the clouds have moved across the sky, creating a streaked effect.
Neutral density filters give you control over shutter speed, which you can then use creatively to create more interesting black and white landscapes.
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For example, this photo works well in black and white because of the contrast between the twin waterfalls and the dark rocks.
Without travel, I would never have experienced and photographed places like this (photo taken in Bolivia).
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6 Tips to Help You Make Better Black and White Landscape Photos
Photography started in black and white—so why, with digital cameras and the general advancement of equipment, does it feel so difficult to capture a great black and white landscape photographs with even a fraction of the greatness that Ansel Adams or other great black and white photographers achieved with film? Great black and white photographs aren’t just the results of great black and white conversions. To really capture stand-out black and white photography landscape shots, the photographer needs to see in shades of gray—or imagine how the photo will look in monochrome. That’s the key because fancy black and white editing tricks won’t get you there if the shot’s not right in the first place. That’s the art form of black and white photography.
Without color to draw the eye, a lot of black and white photos simply look flat. That’s because great black and white images need a lot of contrast. The kind of contrast created in Photoshop isn’t as great as contrast that already exists in the scene. The easiest way to find great contrast is to look for light. While an overcast day may be great for color shots, sunny days and a blue sky mean more contrast, which is great for black and white. Look for patches of light streaming through the clouds, or areas with both light and shadows. Interesting lighting plays make for the best black and white photos.
In the photo below, the arch, the cliffs in the distance, and the rocks in the foreground are all heavily textured. The sea and the sky are much smoother. There is a strong contrast between the roughness and tactility of the rocks, and the smoothness of the sea and the sky.
I’ve never taken this idea to its extreme because I believe it’s important to research an area before you go to find its most photogenic parts. But the problem with this is that the most powerful images you see during your research tend to stick in your mind. The natural tendency is to want to create similar images. The problem is that you then end up with photos that look like everybody else’s.
To understand why they are so useful let’s think about the typical settings used for a landscape photo. First of all, you set your ISO as low as possible for the best image quality (ISO 100 or 200 on most cameras). Next, you set an aperture that ensures everything in the scene is in sharp focus while avoiding the smallest apertures on your camera because of diffraction related softening. Most landscape photos are taken at f/11 or f/16.
Of course, contrast can also be created through different colors, but that’s tougher than it seems. Red and green, when converted to black and white, appear very similar. A field of red wildflowers isn’t going to make a great black and white landscape, because the reds and greens of the flower will blend together. Instead of looking at color, look at shades. A mint green will have a lot of contrast next to a hunter green.
Anybody who visits this beach will naturally want to take photos of those arches. They are why the spot is famous. But this can be a hindrance when it closes your eyes to other possibilities. After getting my rock arch photos, I really started looking. I saw some rocks in the sea that made an interesting minimalist composition. So I made the following photo.
When you look at their work, ask yourself why their black and white landscape photos are so dramatic and powerful? What light are they shooting in? What photographic techniques are they using? How do they approach composition? The answers will teach you a lot about black and white photography.
Neutral density filters are the secret weapon of the landscape photographer. They are made of glass that blocks light so that less reaches the camera’s sensor.
Black and white photography is as popular as ever, and landscape is a genre in which many photographers have chosen to work in monochrome. But working in black and white is different to working in color. It takes time, and practice, to develop your eye for black and white. These tips will help you make better black and white landscape photos.
1. Learn how to view scenes in shades of gray by setting the image styles to monochrome
While black and white photography plays homage to traditional black and white film, it’s actually trickier to capture, because without color, the image relies heavily on great composition and contrast. Learn how to recognize great black and white photos by shooting in RAW with the image styles set to monochrome, so you capture it in color but see it in black and white as you shoot. Look for light, contrast, texture shapes and patterns to use to your advantage. Foreground elements also work well in black and white. Adding a polarizing filter will also lead to better black and white conversions later by enhancing the contrast in a shot. Capturing the best black and white images isn’t an easy task, but when done right, the results are well worth the effort.
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Along with texture, black and white photography is an excellent example of a way to emphasize shape and pattern. Without the color to distract, patterns become much more obvious. Something as simple as three trees in a row creates a pattern. Use patterns and shape as a compositional tool for black and white landscape photography, and you’ll find your black & white photography shots are much more interesting.
Black and white is different. Without color, you have to work harder to create strong compositions. You need to learn to look for the building blocks of photographic composition, such as leading lines, shapes, patterns, tonal contrast and texture. Really, what you are learning to do is see in black and white.
Viewing a color scene and imagining it as a black and white photograph is a difficult task to master and one that only comes with practice. But, you can grasp the black and white vision a bit earlier by setting your camera style to monochrome, which will allow you to view the photos on the LCD screen in black and white. (Nikon calls this Picture Control, Canon refers to it as Picture Style.) If you have an electronic viewfinder, you can view the scene in black and white as you shoot by setting the style in camera.
This helps you see in black and white, without being distracted by color. It’s useful because it makes it easier to see tonal contrast, texture, lines, shapes, patterns, and light.
Hopefully, this article has given you an insight into why I love black and white landscape photography so much and that it inspires you to give it a go yourself. Do you have any tips for black and white landscape photography? Please share in the comments below.
Landscapes make great black and white photographs–but only if you shoot them right in the first place. Here’s are some black and white photography tips because great monochrome shots are a fine art that start well before the Photoshop conversion or any other post-processing.
With color landscape photos, you can rely on the strength of the color to create drama and interest. The key to good color landscape photography is to find a dramatic scene and photograph it in the most beautiful light possible. That’s why so many color landscape photos are taken during the golden hour or just after sunset.
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Some scenes don’t always lend themselves to great shapes or patterns. Another way to add interest to a black and white landscape photo is to include a foreground element. Adding a prominent object in the front of the image instantly creates a sort of leading line effect, even if that object isn’t actually a line. Rocks and foliage can work well, but there are certainly many more options. The best photographers (think National Geographic) often use the foreground as an opportunity for creating something special.
All the photos that I have shown you so far were taken in northern Spain. Unless you are lucky enough to live in an area like this, it is likely that, like me, you need to travel to find similar inspiring landscapes to photograph.