Learning to master black and white landscape photography will lift your general photographic skills to another level. It is well worth the effort it takes to dig deeper into the genre of black and white photography than merely making a superficial and automatic conversion of color photos into black and white to see if they by chance look good.
Black and white photography is where it all started since, at the beginning of photography, you couldn’t capture the world in colors. Masters of black and white photography like Ansel Adams created amazing black and white landscape photos showing the potential of this genre to the rest of us.
In the presence of colors, our eyes trick our brain into putting less emphasis on other aspects of the image, and sometimes we barely notice them. However, when you remove colors from your images, you will shift attention, mood, and the reality perceived by the viewer, by letting the other elements be the guide of perception.
With a few black and white landscape photography tips, you can also dramatically improve your own black and white landscape photographs in a very short time.
This guide is about removing the layer of reality that we know as color and bringing forth other elements. It focuses on fundamental elements in black and white landscape photography and how you as a landscape photographer can make stronger black and white photos. No matter whether you want to use it in your portfolio or create a black and white fine art print of it.
What is Black and White vs. Monochrome Photography?
When most people think of monochrome photos, most think of “black and white” images made up of gray tones ranging from the darkest black to the brightest white. However, monochrome refers to any range of shades within a single color from the darkest to the lightest tone version of that particular color.
For instance, we might think of a pure blue color (hue). Now mix that with white, and you get what is called a blue tint color on the color wheel.
If you instead mix the blue with gray, you will get a blue tone color.
If you combine the pure blue hue color with black, you will get what is called the shade color of blue.
All these variants of the same color make up the range of tones that we call a blue monochrome color range.
Below, you will find an image that borders what many will consider as a monochrome image. I include it here to let you reflect on what you think counts as a monochromatic image.
Nik Collection when owned by Google featured this image on their website, with this comment:
“This image caught our eye with its cool blue hues and simple composure, not to mention that this type of colorful image is a great twist on a monochromatic image.
Do you ever feel that you are drawn to colors that match your mood? Does it affect your editing?
Like maybe red or orange hues are great if you are feeling energetic and free, but something like these blues may appeal more when you’re feeling calm and content? Something to think about. Thank you +Peter Bredahl Dam, for inspiring us!”
Black and white photography only uses the gray monochromatic scale.
What Makes a Great Black and White Landscape Photo?
Ask Yourself: What Will Replace Colors?
Colors are usually great at drawing our attention. But what happens when we get rid of the colors by converting a photo into black and white? The attention shifts, but to what? You need to have other attention-grabbing elements to guide the viewer to what you want to show in your photo.
You will never have just a black and white photo that is strong because it is black and white. Just like a color image is not great just because it is in color. Any great photo relies on multiple compositional elements. But the need for strong compositional elements becomes a bit more critical when capturing images with black and white in mind.
You can use lines to make your photos stronger in several ways. Often lines are used to enhance the perception of depth, having a convergence point far in the distance. At other times, lines ensure a connection between elements in your photo and create tension, calmness, or add a touch of elegance.
Leading lines are great for guiding the eyes from one part of a photo to another. They allow the viewer to get “pulled” into the scene and create depth in your image.
An implied line, like for instance a series of stones, is often enough to guide the viewer to follow the line until its ending point, but the stronger or more clear the line is, the better. Fences, wires, roads, pavements, walls are generally great leading lines.
When you convert to black and white, all the distracting colors will disappear, which usually enhances the power of lines. However, this also depends on the amount of color contrast and how visible the line is in the grayscale version.
To make your image stronger, make sure that the lines lead towards an interesting subject placed either at the very end of the line or along its pathway.
In some cases, the lines are interesting enough in themselves, and here your job is to make your photo all about the lines, and nothing else, by simplifying the composition and eliminating everything else that could take away the attention from the lines.
If you place your camera near the ground, you will make leading lines stronger. Don’t be afraid to get a little dirt on you, to get the right shot, even though it means lying flat on the ground to get in the right position.
If you can get the leading line to enter the frame from a corner, it will help draw the attention from the edges of the image towards your main subject and add some energy to the composition.
Shape is the two-dimensional contour or silhouette of your subject. Lines connect closely with shapes since the edge of a shape is a line.
By contrasting an interesting subject against a well-lit background, you can let the subject be underexposed, and thereby the shape of your subject becomes prominent. However, for your subject to be interesting as a shape, you have to forget what the subject does and how it functions. Attempt to focus, just on the outer lines and contour of the object. Can it reveal an unusual aspect of your subject?
Think about how you position the subject before you press the trigger. Can you enhance the shape even further by moving the subject or finding another point of view?
An excellent way to capture shapes is to position the subject against a well-lit background and create a silhouette.
Meter and expose for the background using the spot metering feature of your camera. Use your camera’s exposure lock (AE-L) button. By locking the exposure, you can recompose and autofocus on your subject while still getting a proper exposure of the background and letting your subject become underexposed, so it stands out as a silhouette.
If your subject is too dark, you might have to set the focus manually.
When shooting silhouettes be sure to turn off features like Active D-Lighting (Nikon) or Auto Lighting Optimizer (Canon).
Form is the three-dimensional representation of your subject, like what we usually see. However, when you make it into an image with your camera, you present in a two-dimensional way. Add to this the fact that you remove the colors by converting your image to black and white.
This conversion can make some parts of your image merge with each other because of the way colors are displayed in grayscale tone. To counteract this, you should work with separating the elements with the help of changing the point of view, depth of field, and creating depth to bring back the perception of three-dimensional forms in your images.
When you want the whole scene in focus, you can work with enhancing the perception of form and depth in your image by separating elements using different techniques.
You can do this by changing your point of view. With other subjects than landscapes, this might be easier. For instance, it can be easy enough to make sure that a statue is adequately separated from the background for the statue’s form to appear clearer to the viewer. A step to the side might give another colored background to the statue.
However, with black and white landscape photography of mountains, it is not always easy. Instead, leading lines, and a clear separation of the foreground, middle ground, and background is your ally in creating depth. More about that just below.
Let your subject ‘break’ the horizon line by getting down low and shooting upwards towards it. This will give your subject a distinct shape and form of its own. However, it is not always possible in landscape photography
Changing focal length can also be used to improve the perception of depth. Wide-angle lenses stretch the perception of depth while telelenses will give you a more compact composition. This is of course not relevant only in black and white photography but helps in any type of photography.
Separation of Elements
To be successful in black and white landscape photography you need to practice one thing in particular. Separation. By ensuring that each component in your composition is separated you avoid the perception of elements ‘melting’ together.
In landscape photography, separating layers, like sea stacks, from each other helps the viewer’s eye to navigate from one sea stack to the other. Otherwise, everything becomes one big mass, where the sea stacks hide behind each other, and you cannot see where one sea stack ends, and the next begins. This is especially true in black and white photography, where you only have the monochrome color range to work with.
When you are at the location, try to change your point of view to figure out where your subject’s form is most distinct and salient. Moving around gives you immense possibilities to work with enhancing both the perception of form and depth.
If you haven’t been able to do this at the location, attempt to correct it in post-processing. It can be done by dodging and burning to separate two components that have too similar grayscale values in your image.
Separation of colors
Another way to think about separation is to consider the tonal contrast of the elements in the photo. If you have a scene that only consists of bright colors tones, they will all convert into brighter tones of gray, and you will get a photo without tonal contrast.
Instead, you should try to include both dark and bright colors in your composition. This can often be done by just paying attention to including both shadow areas and highlighted areas in the shot.
Light in Black and White Photography
Learning to use natural light to your advantage will also help you create better black and white photos. To get unusual light in your photos, you will have to forget the safe holiday photo tip to have the sun behind you. It will undoubtedly result in flat looking images.
Instead, you can create much more spectacular images by following some basic photography tips. When focusing on getting the best light, a low-angled light from the side or having a backlit subject is particular effective.
Don’t let ‘poor’ lighting stop you. Experiment on how to make use of any light available. Each type of light suits different kinds of photos. However, seeing harsh light’s positive qualities can be very challenging when you have your mind set for shooting in a softer light.
Making the best of the light available at the time you take out your camera will make you grow as a photographer. Strong, harsh shadows can turn out to be great if you use the lines and curves they create in your composition. Check out the work of Junichi Hakoyama for examples of how to use harsh shadows as strong elements in your black and white photography.
The most important thing to remember about light is that larger light sources give softer, more diffused light while more focused sources yield harsh, intense light.
In landscape photography, of course, all of our light comes from a single source: the sun. But a midday sun high in a blue sky is a relatively small focused source of light compared to the same sunlight diffused through a blanket of clouds.
The midday sun will give you washed out colors, harsh contrasts, and deep shadows, whereas the same scene on a slightly overcast day will look rich and warm. Similarly, the light is more diffused and, therefore, softer when the sun is low in the sky – around sunrise and sunset – than during the middle of the day.
Timing is Everything
Since outdoor photographers rely on capturing the best natural light for the effects we want to achieve, timing is crucial. You may have heard about the ‘golden’ and ‘blue’ hours.
The golden hours are the hours right after sunrise and just before sunset when the sun is low in the sky. They offer vibrant colors, interesting shadows, and soft lighting because the sunlight diffuses through the atmosphere. Because the atmosphere filters out much of the green and blue light at this time of day, colors look warm and gentle.
The blue hours occur before sunrise and after sunset when the sun is below the horizon, but residual light still brightens the sky. The light is diffuse and very soft. Because red light passes straight out of the atmosphere at this time of day, blues and purples are the predominant colors.
The golden and blue hours are often considered prime times for outdoor photography, and that also goes for black and white photography because of the gentle softness of the light, which contributes to the perception of depth in your images. However, that’s not to say they’re the only options. For example, there might be times that you want the dark shadows and sharp contrast of a harshly lit day.
Long Exposure Brings Magic to Black and White Photography
Long exposure photos can be a great addition to your black and white photography portfolio. It almost screams of being converted into a black and white photo. Of course, you can find great long exposure photos that look astonishing in color. However, black and white adds a level of elegance that goes very well together with the long exposure genre.
Condensing time as you do with long exposure photography, you already step away from reality and create an ethereal piece of work that seems exceptionally delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world. By converting a long exposure into a black and white photo, you enhance this feeling.
Often in long exposure photography, you will find very simple or almost minimalistic landscape compositions with great leading lines.
Subjects for Amazing Black and White Landscape Photos
Black and white Forest Landscape Photography
Let’s face it. It is very tough to create good black and white photos in a forest setting. It is not impossible, however, the tonal ranges often only vary a tiny bit within the same color range or spectrum. Furthermore, trees and branches can be hard to separate as different subjects, which makes it difficult to create depth in the image.
Minimalist Black and White Landscape Photography
Avoid including too many elements in your composition for elegant minimalist photography style landscape photos. Keeping a clean composition and combine it with i.e. long exposure photography allows you to create very powerful black and white landscape photos.
Black and White Panoramic Landscape Photography
Panorama landscape photos with their wide vistas make beautiful black and white fine art wall hangers if you manage to create a perception of depth in the image, and maintain a good color contrast. Black and white mountain photos are a well-known wall hanger that works well with a panoramic orientation.
Want to learn more?
Improving your skills in creating amazing black and white photography doesn’t need to be hard. With this extensive guide on which elements you can use in your black and white photos to make your images stronger, you should be well on your way to compose and capture monochromatic photos on a new level.
Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape, nature and macro photography.
I hope you enjoy the site 🙂