Every landscape photographer’s kitbag will also contain a range of non-graduated filters.
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.
Strong side lighting, or even backlighting, can pick out the texture of an object beautifully.
It doesn’t feature the arches the beach is famous for, but it’s more personal to me and was more satisfying to make.
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.
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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.
Bear in mind that you could well be hiking a fair distance before you reach the ideal spot to shoot from, so try and find a good compromise between strength and weight.
If you’re looking for inspiration for the effect long exposure times combined with neutral density filters can have on landscapes, check out the work of Michael Kenna.
For example, this photo works well in black and white because of the contrast between the twin waterfalls and the dark rocks.
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.
Just as Adams’s black and white film had a finite dynamic range in the number of different tones it could record, so do the sensors on our digital cameras.
It’s an unwritten rule that the further you have to walk to get your shot, the better it will be!
But while that may be the key to a great colour image, for those of us wanting to create stunning black and white shots, we need to start thinking a little differently.
To get the best tonal range in your black and white landscape photography it can often be necessary to use filters, especially if the scene is a particularly high contrast one.
That doesn’t mean disregarding the colours in front of us altogether. With experience, you will see how the hue of certain elements, such as green grass or a blue sky, translate into different brightness of tone in a black and white image.
You’ll no doubt have heard of the zone system. If you haven’t, I’m sure you’ll recognise the name of the man who invented it.
[Read through our in-depth guide to choosing tripods for landscape photography for more information and recommendations. —Ed.]
A great black and white landscape has a real elegance about it. The more time you spend practising creating these images yourself, the more thoroughly you’ll understand how tone, contrast, and texture play in making successful images. Do it enough and you’ll soon be making some stunning black and white landscape photos of your own.
We also have a few advantages Ansel Adams couldn’t have even dreamed of.
When Ansel Adams started Group f/64, a collective of famous landscape photographers, along with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke among others, he took the name from the tiny apertures he and his fellows would use to make sure that every part of their images were pin sharp.
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.
Colour shows us a place as it is. Black and white landscape photographs have a pure and timeless quality that cannot be matched.
The lightest, strongest tripods around today are made from carbon fibre, but have the drawback of being very much at the more expensive end of the market. Aluminium models from the likes of Manfrotto are a little heavier, but are plenty sturdy enough and won’t break the bank.
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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.
By identifying the darkest zones in a scene and ensuring that those shadow areas would keep some detail through careful exposure, he was able to manipulate his negative and print developing to make sure the highlights would also retain details.
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.
The world around us is full of texture, both the natural as well as the man-made aspects of it. In black and white landscape photography, we can use the difference in texture between, say, a craggy cliff face and a smooth sea, to create another sort of contrast.
To do so, he divided each scene up into ten zones, with pure black being zero and pure white being ten. By standardising the process, he was able to create perfectly exposed images in any lighting conditions.
In a perfect world, I’d have a range of fixed prime lenses for the very best image sharpness, but a good quality zoom lens is almost as good.
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.
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.
In the hands of geniuses such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, it has produced some of the most memorable images of all time.
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.
It’s a wonderfully impressive platform and well worth a look.
But when shooting monochrome, it’s also important to always be thinking about how the tones of the scene in front of you will look in the final image.
Neutral density filters give you control over shutter speed, which you can then use creatively to create more interesting black and white landscapes.
Setting a small aperture will help you do the same, and keep your shot in focus from front to back. Of course, there will come times when you may want to blur certain parts of a shot for creative reasons, so play around with different depths of field until you get the look you want.
So, if you can’t rely on colour to make your photograph for you, what do you use instead?
Wide angle lenses are obviously the most popular choice for landscape photographers. On a full frame DSLR, my 16mm-35mm is enough coverage for most situations, and I have a 24mm-70mm when I want to single out a particular element in a scene.
And, as mentioned before, landscape photography allows for longer shutter speeds, and unless you want to freeze action in your shot, you can set a shutter speed that gives you the exposure you want as you’re keeping the ISO low and aperture appropriately small.
Most tripods come with a built-in spirit level to ensure your horizons are straight, but if it doesn’t, it’s well worth investing in one.
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Black and white landscape photography remains one of the most popular genres in the medium today. From the complete novice all the way through to the modern masters.
A bright sky above a dark ground can give a dynamic range outside the latitude your sensor can deal with.
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.
Ansel Adams was possibly the greatest, and definitely the most famous, landscape photographer of all time.
Most DSLRs have shadow and highlight warnings on the LCD image that blink when a scene is straying outside the boundaries the sensor can cope with.
1. Learn how to view scenes in shades of gray by setting the image styles to monochrome
Without travel, I would never have experienced and photographed places like this (photo taken in Bolivia).
Everything you need—camera, lenses, cards, filters and a spare battery—will fit nicely in a backpack style camera bag, and probably leave you room for a few snacks!
Consider the effects of a long shutter speed on, say, the ocean—the water becomes beautifully smooth and gives a wonderful aesthetic quality.
These are uniformly grey and reduce the amount of light passing through the whole of the lens. They are used to increase exposure times across the entire scene and are often used when photographing moving elements in a landscape photograph.
If you have yet to try your hand at this exciting form of photography, or would just like some advice on how to get the most out of your time in the wilderness, I’ve come up with a list of some of my favourite tips below.
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.
There’s nothing better than heading out at the crack of dawn, or even earlier, to photograph your favourite location bathed in the soft glow of the golden hour, that all too brief period at the start and end of the day that was just made for landscape 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.
Shooting at night on a film Hasselblad, Kenna used a heavy neutral density filter to give him a shutter speed of up to eight hours! It’s unconventional and requires much patience, but the results are incredible.
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.
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.
Where he exposed his incredible landscapes to save the shadows and pulled the brightest areas back with filters and darkroom magic, we need to do the opposite. By carefully exposing to keep the brightest parts of your image intact, there is more chance that the shadows can be saved in post production.
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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.
The rules of composition apply just as much whether you’re shooting a colour or black and white landscape. Leading lines, patterns, natural framing, placing the horizon, and varying your viewpoint are all things to keep in mind when framing your shot.
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.
A small, lightweight tripod can be strapped onto the back and you’re good to go. Make sure you have a decent pair of hiking boots too.
Equal parts artist and scientist, he developed the zone system in the 1930s as a way to exercise complete control over the tones in the images he was producing.
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.
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I touched on this in the previous tip, but I want to emphasize them here because they are so important.
For Adams, shooting on large format negative film, his motto was ‘expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights’.
Between a low ISO and a small aperture, there won’t be a huge amount of light making its way onto your sensor. That usually adds up to a longer shutter speed, one that prohibits handheld shots, so a sturdy tripod is going to be essential.
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.
In black and white landscape photography, the golden hour is no longer the golden rule. That gorgeous orange cast over your scene, once it’s reduced to a series of greys, will have lost all of its dramatic impact and produced a flat, uninspiring monochrome image.
6 Tips to Help You Make Better Black and White Landscape Photos
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.
5 Black and White Landscape Photography Tips for Better Photos July 13, 2018
For a greater level of creativity, I’m a big fan of the Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin from Nik. Now owned by Google, you can download their whole suite of tools for free.
Many DSLRs have a monochrome mode, allowing you to shoot in black and white in camera.
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.
I hope you enjoy having a read through and you find some inspiration to get out there with your camera and capture some beautiful shots.
Beware of diffraction, which is a loss of sharpness that can occur at very small apertures. In general, diffraction starts to come into play around f/22 and smaller. Lenses vary, though, so you should experiment to see how small you can get your aperture before you start to lose image quality with yours.
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.
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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.
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.
We are all obviously used to seeing the full spectrum of colours, so it takes a little effort to train our brains to think about a scene in terms of highlights and shadows.
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.
These filters are opaque at the top, fading to clear at the bottom. They cut down on the amount of light reaching the sensor from the sky while allowing the exposure for the ground to stay the same.
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.
While it can be a useful tool when you’re pre-visualising a scene, I would always recommend shooting in RAW wherever possible, and converting that file to black and white in post production.
One of the best things about landscape photography is the relatively small amount of kit you need to haul about with you. While the right accessories will always help, there’s no real need for flashguns, remote triggers or cumbersome telephoto zooms that will just weigh you down.
The earliest photograph ever taken was a black and white landscape. Since then, the world’s finest photographers have turned this photography niche into an art form.
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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.
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.
Also, just because you’re shooting landscapes, don’t be afraid to experiment with portrait format. Let the scene dictate what will look best.
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.
In Photoshop, the black and white adjustment gives you a decent amount of control over the tones in your photograph. Playing around with the sliders also helps to show how different colours appear in a monochrome image.
Having a RAW colour image gives you a lot more options when it comes time to perfect your shot.
Spotting occasions that will translate successfully to black and white takes some practice.
The best black and white landscape photographs have a strong range of tones, from almost pure white through to deep, rich black and everything in between. That contrast across the image, when used well, can produce some striking results.
To help balance the two elements and give an image that retains detail in both highlights and shadow, you can fit a graduated neutral density filter over your lens while you’re shooting.
They are available in a number of different strengths and are a godsend on those bright, sunny days.
Even better, the histogram gives you an at-a-glance visual representation of the tonal value of your shot, so you’re able to judge whether or not you need to adjust your exposure.
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.
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The zone system is just as relevant today as it was all those decades ago, except with digital photography, it’s the highlights in a scene we need to be more concerned with when we’re shooting.
I would always recommend shooting with as low an ISO as possible to maintain image fidelity, too.
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.
Whereas using a very fast film could give some interesting grainy effects, a high ISO shot on a DSLR will be plagued with a lot of ugly digital noise.
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.
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.
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.
Each colour will be represented by a different shade, and hitting a pleasing balance across each element will make for a more successful result.
You can alter every part of your image quickly and easily, darkening certain elements or changing contrast wherever you like. There are also 20 presets that emulate the effects of some of the most popular black and white films, ranging from Ilford Pan F technical film through to the ultra-grainy Kodak P3200 TMAX pro.