Are you looking to take your black and white landscape photography to the next level?
You’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we share six easy-to-follow tips that’ll improve your black and white landscapes; we also share plenty of examples, so you can understand exactly what goes into a good black and white photo.
Specifically, you’ll discover:
- The best camera settings for black and white photography
- How to enhance your b&w 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. Learn what scenes work well in black and white
When shooting in color, you can rely on the strength of hues to create drama and interest. Often, 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.
Black and white landscape photography is very, very different. Without color, you have to work to create strong compositions. You can’t rely on color contrast and golden light; instead, you need to learn to look for the building blocks of photographic composition, such as leading lines, shapes, patterns, tonal contrast, and texture. In other words, you must learn to see in black and white.
For example, this photo works well in black and white because of the contrast between the twin waterfalls and the dark rocks:
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 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 their work, ask yourself: What makes their black and white landscape photos 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 and will help you understand which elements and scenes lend themselves to black and white and which are best avoided.
2. Look for tonal contrast and texture
I touched on this in the previous tip, but I want to emphasize it here because it’s so important.
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 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 – tends to look very mushy and flat. Tones don’t separate out, key elements fade into one another, and the composition loses impact. Remember: You can’t rely on changes in color to differentiate key elements, so it becomes all about the tones.
Texture (and contrast between textures) is super helpful, as well. If you think about the elements that appear in landscape photos – cliffs, rocks, grass, trees, mountains, 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 textures, 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!
3. Shoot in black and white mode
Did you know that your digital camera can teach you to see in black and white?
All you have to do is set it to its black and white (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, it’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 helps you see how black and white scenes are rendered. This, in turn, makes it easier to see how a photo will turn out in black and white. And it’s also just far easier to compose black and white shots in black and white because 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 shoot in RAW. RAW files contain all the information captured by your camera’s sensor, including color – so if you decide you don’t like an image in black and white, you can always convert it to color and process it that way instead.
4. Learn to use neutral density filters
Neutral density filters are the secret weapon of the black and white landscape photographer. 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 too much light from hitting your camera sensor. In other words, ND filters block out the light.
Now, 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).
But what if you want to increase your shutter speed for creative effect? By lengthening your shutter speed, you can blur water, stretch clouds, and create all sorts of other cool effects that look amazing (especially in black and white).
Unfortunately, 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 keeps your camera from overexposing the scene even when you’re dealing with lots of light. That way, you can get the stretchy clouds and blurry water that you’re after.
For an example, check out the photos below. The first was taken at dusk with a shutter speed of 1/5s; slow enough to introduce some blur into the water, but not slow enough to really flatten out the water while making the clouds turn into interesting streaks:
Then I added a neutral density filter and made the next photo using a shutter speed of 180 seconds. The water is completely blurred, and the clouds have moved across the sky for a streaking effect:
Neutral density filters give you control over your shutter speed, which you can then use to enhance your black and white landscapes.
5. 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. The theory is that it enables him to see the landscape through his own eyes without being influenced by other people’s photos.
I’ve never taken this idea to its extreme; I believe it’s important to research an area before you go to find its most photogenic parts. But the problem 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 – which then end up looking like everybody else’s.
Resist this urge. Instead, take some black and white 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 those arches. They’re the reason the spot is famous, after all. But this can be a hindrance when it causes you to miss other possibilities.
So after getting my rock arch photos (such as the shot displayed above), I really started looking. I saw some rocks in the sea that made an interesting minimalistic composition. I made the following photo:
It doesn’t feature the arches the beach is famous for. But it’s more personal to me and was more satisfying to make.
6. Travel when you can
All the photos that I have shown you so far 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, you will need to travel to 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, and 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? Share them in the comments below!