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15 Tips for Awestriking Black and White Landscape Photography

Tips for black and white landscape photography

This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from Andrew S Gibson, Darlene Hildebrandt, and David Shaw.

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 truly breathtaking images?

That’s where we come in.

In this article, we share 15 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. Use the right gear

Black and white landscape photography

Black and white landscape photography may not seem gear-specific, and in many ways, it’s not – but certain equipment can enhance your experience and the quality of your images.

First, your choice of camera matters. Full-frame models often offer superior image quality, but APS-C or Micro Four Thirds models can be great, too. If you’re hiking to different locations, a more compact, mirrorless camera might be a good fit. It’s lighter, and the electronic viewfinder allows you to “see” in black and white, providing a preview of the final result.

Note that most cameras that work well for standard landscape photography also work great for B&W images, so if you already shoot landscapes in color, you probably don’t need to buy another camera!

Your choice of lens is equally important. You want landscape photography lenses that cover a range of focal lengths, such as wide-angle for sweeping scenics and telephoto for capturing tighter details. A sturdy landscape tripod is another essential piece of equipment, especially if you’re shooting long exposures or in low-light conditions where stability is key.

Finally, investing in a good neutral density filter (see Tip #8!) can also come in handy. It lets you control the amount of light entering the lens, providing creative control over exposure times.

By putting together this gear, you’ll be able to craft beautiful black and white landscape images with the tools that help you realize your vision. Remember, it’s not about having the most expensive equipment but understanding how to use what you have to its fullest potential.

2. Pick the perfect black and white landscape settings

Black and white landscape photography

When you’re getting ready to take a black and white landscape shot, adjusting your camera settings is key. The first thing you want to do is switch your camera to Manual mode. It gives you full control over every aspect of the image. Don’t worry; it’s easier than it sounds!

A narrow aperture, like f/8 or beyond, ensures that everything from the foreground to the background remains sharp. This is vital if you want to capture all the details in your scene.

Keeping the ISO as low as possible is also crucial. Higher ISO levels can cause noise in your images. With a low ISO, your shots will retain plenty of detail and appear crisp and clear.

Your shutter speed is another important setting to consider. This can vary depending on the effect you want to achieve. If you wish to create an ultra-long exposure effect (like a silky water effect in a river or waterfall), you may need to add a neutral density filter. This filter allows you to extend the shutter speed without overexposing the image.

Focusing manually might sound intimidating, but it can offer more precision. Autofocus might not always pick the exact spot you want to be sharp. By setting the focus point yourself – generally at the hyperfocal distance, around a third of the way into the scene – you can ensure that the entire shot is crisp.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. Play with different settings to see what works best for your specific scene. Every landscape is unique, and the more you practice, the more intuitive these settings will become.

3. Work with the weather

Black and white landscape photography

Weather plays a vital role in black and white landscape photography. Unlike color photography, where sunlight might offer golden hues, black and white photography is more about contrast, texture, and form.

Clouds, for instance, can be a photographer’s best friend. Textured clouds swirling in the sky can make a dramatic background for landscapes. They provide a natural contrast that enhances the richness of the scene.

Pure white skies, on the other hand, offer a different kind of opportunity. These conditions are better for shots that include a lot of negative space. A clear sky might seem empty and dull in color photography, but in black and white, it can create a powerful, minimalistic image. An overcast sky can provide a soft and even light that reduces harsh shadows, giving you a different aesthetic to play with.

But how do you know what the weather will be like? Planning is key. Utilize weather-tracking apps or websites that provide forecasts tailored for photographers. This information can help you decide on the best times and places to shoot, aligning with the mood or atmosphere you want to create.

And don’t be afraid to experiment with different weather conditions; rain, fog, and storms can add an unexpected touch of magic to your black and white landscapes.

4. Make sure you understand composition

Black and white landscape photography

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):

black and white landscape waterfall

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!

5. Study the work of famous black and white landscape photographers

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.

6. 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.

lighthouses out at sea 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!

long exposure rock at sea

7. 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.

camera with black and white LCD

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.

8. Learn to use neutral density filters

Black and white landscape photography

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.

relatively short seaside rock exposure

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:

long exposure black and white seaside landscape photo

Bottom line:

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.

9. 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:

arches in black and white

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:

long exposure rocks in water

It doesn’t feature famous arches. But the shot feels more personal and was more satisfying to take.

10. Try to simplify your compositions

Black and white landscape photography

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?

11. Don’t forget about the light

Black and white landscape photography

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.

12. Don’t be afraid of harsh lighting

In the previous tip, I mentioned that harsh lighting can work well for B&W landscape photos. But because shooting landscape at midday is so frowned-upon, I wanted to share a personal example to show you what I mean.

A number of years ago, I was shooting in the altiplano of Bolivia. I arrived at mid-day at the spectacular and weird Laguna Colorado. It was savagely bright; cloudless skies, high elevation, middle of the day, and within a few degrees of the equator. Lighting conditions couldn’t have been worse.

While the landscape was uniformly drenched in harsh, ugly light, there was contrast in the colors of the desert. A polarizer darkened the sky and removed the worst of the glare. The resulting black-and-white conversion, was if not perfect, at least the best of a very bad situation.

14 - Black and White in the Outdoors
Image by David Shaw
15 - Black and White in the Outdoors

Frequently traveling landscape photographers find themselves in beautiful locations at bad times, and we don’t always have the freedom to return when the light is better. In such situations, consider black and white. It’s not a cure-all, by any means, but nasty light will often translate better into monochrome than full color.

The situation I described above was not unique to my trip through Bolivia. The sweet light of morning and evening lasted only minutes in the high desert, quickly replaced by glaring light. And yet contrasts in the landscape salvaged many a scene for me.

16 - Black and White in the Outdoors
Image by David Shaw

13. Capture intimate landscape shots

Black and white landscape photography

Landscape photography doesn’t always mean capturing grand, sweeping vistas. Sometimes, the beauty lies in the details, textures, or geometry found within the scene. These intimate landscape shots can tell a different, more personal story.

Switching from a wide-angle lens to a telephoto lens can transform your perspective. It allows you to zoom in on specific elements, such as a lone tree, a winding path, or the intricate pattern of leaves and rocks. The compression effect of a telephoto lens can also create a unique visual relationship between the foreground and background.

Intimate shots are all about observation and imagination. Look for textures, shapes, and patterns that draw your eye. Experiment with different angles and framing to find the perfect landscape composition. Sometimes, the most compelling images come from the most ordinary subjects, like delicate lines in the sand or the graceful curve of a branch.

Don’t be afraid to get close and personal with nature. Part of the beauty of black and white photography lies in its ability to reveal the hidden artistry of the landscape.

14. 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):

Black and white landscape photography

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!).

15. Edit your black and white landscape images

Black and white landscape photography

If you want to create stunning black and white images, post-processing is crucial. Photographing in RAW is a wise choice, as it gives you more control and flexibility when editing. Don’t just press the “Convert to Black and White” button; explore various conversion options to see what best fits your vision.

When converting to black and white, try adjusting individual color channels. This allows you to emphasize or de-emphasize different parts of the image, helping you create a visually engaging photograph. Play with the highlights and shadows, add contrast, tweak clarity, and even apply a vignette to guide the viewer’s eye toward your main subject.

Editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop offers several good black and white conversion methods. Don’t hesitate to experiment and find what works best for your particular shot. Spend time on this. The conversion from color to black and white isn’t just a technical step; it’s an artistic one. This is where your creativity shines, and it’s how you can transform a good photo into a masterpiece.

Additional resources for capturing beautiful B&W landscapes

Shooting for black and white requires you to see a scene and think a little differently. You’re looking for a contrast of tones, not color, and it can be hard to “see” in black and white if you’re new to shooting in monochrome.

Here is a short video with some practical tips you can apply to create more dramatic black-and-white landscape photos.

Black and white landscape photography: final words

Black and white landscape photography

Black and white landscape photography is an exciting and rewarding pursuit. Whether it’s the drama of textured clouds or the intimacy of a detailed close-up shot, the world of monochrome offers endless creative possibilities.

Remember to plan around the weather, take time to edit your shots carefully, and invest in the right gear. Practice capturing different scenes and subjects, and don’t hesitate to experiment with your settings.

It’s all about capturing the essence of the landscape and making it your own. Embrace the challenge and enjoy the journey into the timeless world of black and white. Whether you’re a beginner or have some experience, there’s always something new to learn and discover.

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!

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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