Black and white landscape photography is beautiful, timeless, and – when done well – incredibly moving. But how can you capture stunning B&W landscapes? How can you find the right compositions, choose the right camera settings, and do the right post-processing so that you end up with images that are truly breathtaking?
That’s where we come in.
In this article, we share nine easy-to-follow tips that’ll improve your black and white scenics; we also share plenty of examples so you can understand exactly what goes into a good black and white landscape image.
Specifically, you’ll discover:
- The best camera settings for B&W landscape photography
- How to enhance your landscapes with filters
- What to look for in a landscape scene
- Much, much more!
So if you’re ready to capture black and white shots like the pros, then let’s get started!
1. Make sure you understand composition
When shooting in color, you can rely on the strength of bright greens, stunning yellows, and smoldering reds to create drama and interest. In fact, to capture good color landscape photos, you often need to just find a dramatic scene and photograph it in beautiful light. (That’s why so many color landscape shots are taken during the golden hour or just after sunset.)
But black and white landscape photography is very, very different. Without color, you can’t rely on pure color and light; you have to captivate the viewer by creating strong compositions. Yes, light matters, but composition matters, too. And unless you can really master this technical skill, you’ll struggle to produce compelling images.
In other words, instead of just chasing great light, you need to learn to look for the building blocks of photographic composition: leading lines, shapes, patterns, tonal contrast, and texture. When you approach a scene, try to ignore interesting colors. Do what you can to see in black and white so that you quickly recognize eye-catching geometry, impressive textures, and more.
For example, this photo works well in black and white because of the tonal contrast between the twin waterfalls and the dark rocks, not to mention the balanced geometry (two twin rectangles of light on an all-black background):
Yet the average viewer (or average color photographer) probably wouldn’t notice these features at first glance. Instead, they’d focus on the hues of the pool or the rich green leaves just outside the frame. And until you learn to see in black and white, you probably would, too!
2. Look at black and white landscape masters
We don’t naturally see the world in black and white. Therefore, learning to work in monochrome takes some practice. It’s almost like learning a new language; you have to spend time really recognizing what works in B&W photos and what doesn’t (which is often very different from what works in color landscapes).
Now, you can figure out how to make a great black and white landscape through a lot of trial and error, but why reinvent the wheel? Instead, deepen your understanding of B&W landscape images by looking at the work of masters – the folks who already spent dozens of years perfecting their compositions, lighting, settings, and techniques.
I recommend starting with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who shot predominantly in black and white and whose work is closely aligned with contemporary landscape aesthetics. You might also check out Harry Callahan (if you’re interested in more intimate landscape shots) as well as Wynn Bullock (who captured wonderfully atmospheric photos).
Also, look at what modern-day photographers are doing on Instagram and 500px. Some names to search for include Cole Thompson, Rob Dweck, Arnaud Bertrande, Thibault Roland, Joel Tjintjelaar, and Nathan Wirth.
When you look at the work of B&W landscape shooters, ask yourself: What makes their black and white landscape photos so powerful? What light do they use? What photographic techniques (e.g., long exposure) do they employ? How do they approach composition?
The answers will teach you a lot about black and white photography and will help you understand which elements and scenes really lend themselves to a monochrome treatment.
3. Look for tonal contrast and texture
Tonal contrast describes variations in brightness between different parts of the image. Take the photo below as an example; the jetties are dark and the sky is much lighter. That is tonal contrast. And it looks amazing in black and white.
The alternative – low tonal contrast scenes, where the entire shot is covered with, say, midtones – tends to look very mushy and flat. Tones don’t separate out, key elements fade into one another, and the composition loses impact. While color photographers may pursue scenes without tonal contrast, they can rely on changes in color to differentiate key elements. In black and white, however, that’s not an option, and it becomes all about the tones.
Texture (and contrast between textures) looks great, too. If you think about the elements that often appear in B&W landscape photos – cliffs, rocks, grass, trees, mountains, and oceans, along with human-made objects like piers, jetties, and old barns – you’ll notice that they all have distinct textures. Some feature rough, heavy surfaces, while others are intensely smooth.
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 of the rocks and the smoothness of the sea and the sky. And thanks to that textural contrast, the photo is much more impactful!
4. Shoot in Monochrome mode
Did you know that your digital camera can help you see in black and white?
It’s true. All you have to do is set it to its Monochrome mode. Your camera’s rear LCD will show you a black and white Live View feed – and if your camera includes an electronic viewfinder, that’ll turn black and white, too (you can literally look at the world in black and white – how cool is that?).
As you can imagine, constantly looking at the world through a black and white LCD or viewfinder is the perfect way to see how tones are rendered in monochrome. This makes it easier to imagine how scenes will turn out in black and white if you’re not shooting in monochrome mode (or if you don’t have your camera to your eye).
Personally, I think that black and white electronic viewfinders are an absolute game-changer. If you’re serious about B&W landscape photography, it’s probably worth switching to a mirrorless camera for that feature alone! After all, it’s far easier to compose in black and white when you can see how tonal contrast, texture, lines, shapes, patterns, and light will affect the landscape.
One note, though: Don’t forget to set your camera to RAW. RAW files contain all the information captured by your camera’s sensor – so if you decide you don’t like the image in black and white, you can always convert it to color. If you don’t shoot in RAW, however, you’ll lose the ability to switch back and forth between color and black and white, and images shot in Monochrome mode will be stuck in monochrome forever.
5. Learn to use neutral density filters
Neutral density filters are a B&W landscape photographer’s secret weapon. Grab one (or more) of these accessories, and you’ll be able to capture jaw-dropping images beyond your wildest dreams.
(Am I exaggerating? Honestly, I don’t think so. Neutral density filters are a huge deal.)
But what makes ND filters so special?
ND filters are basically dark pieces of glass that go in front of your lens and prevent light from hitting your camera sensor. In other words, ND filters block out the light, which lets you lengthen your shutter speed while retaining a balanced exposure.
You see, as a landscape photographer without an ND filter, you’ll often be using a shutter speed between 1/2s and 1/125s (assuming you’re shooting with a relatively narrow aperture of f/13 or so, which is generally a good idea).
At times, you may want to lengthen your shutter speed for creative effect – so that you can blur water, stretch clouds, and create a beautiful ethereal look in your photos. But in most situations, dropping the shutter speed beyond 1/2s or so just can’t be done. The light is too strong; if you try it, you’ll end up with an overexposed image.
Unless you have an item that can block out the light – such as a neutral density filter! The ND filter will keep your camera from overexposing the scene even when you’re dealing with lots of light. That way, you can push out your shutter speed to 5s, 10s, and more, and you can get the stretchy clouds and blurry water that you’re after.
Check out the photos below. The first was taken at dusk with a shutter speed of 1/5s. This exposure time was slow enough to introduce some blur into the water (look at the foreground wave), but it wasn’t slow enough to really flatten out the water while making the clouds turn into interesting streaks.
But I added a neutral density filter and made the next photo using a shutter speed of 180 seconds. That way, the water turned out completely blurred and the clouds moved across the sky for a streaking effect:
Neutral density filters are amazing. They give you control over your shutter speed, which you can then use to enhance your black and white landscapes.
6. Don’t just take photos like everyone else
Black and white landscape photographer Cole Thompson has an interesting idea. He practices what he calls “photographic abstinence,” where he doesn’t look at the work of other photographers before heading to a new location. The idea is that it enables him to see the landscape through his own eyes without being influenced by other people’s photos of the same elements.
I’ve never taken this idea to its extreme. I believe it’s important to research an area before you go; that way, you can find its most photogenic parts and avoid boring areas. But this does lead to a problem: The most powerful images you see tend to stick in your mind. The natural tendency is to want to create similar images – so if you spend time researching locations, you’ll often end up capturing photos that look like everybody else’s.
I encourage you to push back against this tendency! Recognize that certain subjects are photographed in particular ways. Use that knowledge to capture images that are different – images that are truly you.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I visited the Playa de las Catedrales (Cathedral Beach) in northern Spain. Search for it on Google or 500px, and most photos will look something like this, showing the cathedral-like arches for which the beach is named:
Anybody who visits the beach will naturally want to take photos of the arches. They’re the reason the spot is famous, after all. But if you only focus on the arches, you’ll miss other (equally compelling!) possibilities.
So after traveling to Cathedral Beach and getting my rock arch photos, I really started looking. I saw some rocks in the sea that made an interesting minimalistic composition, and I captured the following photo:
It doesn’t feature famous arches. But the shot feels more personal and was more satisfying to take.
7. Try to simplify your compositions
As I mentioned above, black and white photos can get kind of mushy. The files don’t include any color information, which means that images can become pretty confusing. Various subjects blend into one another, and the viewer may struggle to understand the scene.
Now, one way to deal with this tendency is to include plenty of tonal contrast. It’s a good technique, and I highly recommend it. But if you want to really elevate your B&W photos, you should also aim to cut down on extraneous elements in your compositions. That way, the viewer will know exactly where to focus – and they’ll be able to instantly interpret the shot.
So before capturing a new image, ask yourself: Does the frame include any elements that might distract the viewer? Is the viewer able to clearly identify the main subject? Make sure that every part of the scene contributes to the composition.
If you come upon a scene that seems a bit cluttered, don’t walk away. Instead, take steps to simplify. Get in closer, use a longer lens, or adjust your angle so that you highlight certain objects and block out others. Make sense?
8. Don’t forget about the light
Throughout this article, I’ve emphasized the importance of composition in black and white landscape photography. And it’s true: Composition makes a huge difference.
But make sure you don’t fixate so heavily on composition that you forget about other key photographic elements – such as lighting.
Color landscape photographers love shooting during the golden hours, and this soft-yet-direct light also looks great in black and white. The low sun will create long shadows, which you can use as powerful composition elements (e.g., leading lines).
But as a black and white shooter, you can head out at other times and capture equally compelling images. For instance, overcast days produce soft, intimate light that reveals detail in forest and mountain scenes. And even harsh midday sun – which is hated by most color landscape photographers – can make for interesting black and white shots. The trick is to use the contrasty light to your advantage; let it create shadow geometry, then incorporate the shadows into your compositions.
Blue hour is another great time to shoot black and white landscapes. The light is wonderfully soft, and if you can find a moving subject (e.g., ocean waves), you’ll be able to capture ethereal long exposures that look outstanding.
9. Travel when you can
All the photos I shared in this article were taken while traveling – and unless you are lucky enough to live in a breathtaking area, it’s likely that, like me, you need to travel to find inspiring landscapes to photograph.
Even if you do live somewhere with spectacular landscapes, traveling will expand your experiences and add depth to your portfolio. All my favorite landscape photos were taken while traveling, and the two activities really do go together very well – travel is more interesting and exciting when there’s a purpose behind it. Landscape photography can give you that purpose.
Without travel, I would never have experienced and photographed places like this (taken in Bolivia):
At the same time, I recognize that traveling is costly and time-consuming. So even if you can’t travel, try to cultivate a traveling mindset – where you see the world around you with fresh, new eyes. Tackle more familiar scenes with this newfound excitement (and you’ll be amazed by what you start to see!).
Black and white landscape photography: final words
Hopefully, this article has given you plenty of helpful tips and tricks for black and white landscape photography.
So get outside. Give black and white shooting a try! It’s a new way of seeing the world – and one that can be a lot of fun.
Now over to you:
Do you have any tips for black and white landscape photography? Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!