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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.
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.
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.
For example, this photo works well in black and white because of the contrast between the twin waterfalls and the dark rocks.
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.
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.
I touched on this in the previous tip, but I want to emphasize them here because they are 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
It doesn’t feature the arches the beach is famous for, but it’s more personal to me and was more satisfying to make.
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.
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.
Without travel, I would never have experienced and photographed places like this (photo taken in Bolivia).
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.