Black and White Landscape Photography: Take Better Monochrome Images
Removing the distraction of colour from an image can help to exaggerate shapes, textures and patterns. It can also help to better express feelings and emotions.
Switching to black and white can help you to create stunning landscape photographs.
Before I start I should point out that I am not an expert in black and white photography. Far from it.
At the time of writing I have only been shooting regularly in black and white for about 6 months.
In this article I want to share what I have learnt in that time.
At the end of March 2020 the UK government imposed a lockdown in response to the growing coronavirus crisis. We were only allowed outside in order to exercise.
I was determined to turn a negative into a positive and decided I would use the time to improve my black and white photography.
Each day I would head out for a walk in the countryside around the village where I live, taking my camera with me and capturing what I saw.
I shot exclusively in black and white. This is what I learnt.
5 Tips for Better Black and White Photographs
1. Look for Contrast
When looking for a composition that will work well in black and white the first thing that I look for is contrast, the difference between light and dark tones.
When working in black and white contrast helps to exaggerate shape, texture and patterns. This gives an image more depth.
In most cases the eye will be drawn to the brightest part of an image; we can use that to great effect to draw the viewers attention to exactly where you want it.
2. Shoot with Intention
Sometimes it is possible to ‘rescue’ a colour image by converting to black and white. How many times have you heard a photographer say “I will probably convert this to black and white when I get home”?
Converting an image that was originally conceived in colour will rarely result in a great black and white photo.
The best way to produce consistently good black and white images is to go looking for them. They rarely happen by accident.
3. Make Use of ‘Bad’ Light
We landscape photographers like to shoot in ‘good’ light, typically at the start and end of the day when the sun is low in the sky.
As the sun gets higher in the sky the light gets harsher creating darker shadows and brighter highlights. This is perfect for black and white photography.
Conversely when working in flat light we often have to boost the contrast in an image during post processing. This produces unnatural tones in colour photographs but is not a problem for a black and white image.
Most of the time I shoot in the morning. I switch from colour to black and white once the best of the light is over. This keeps me out shooting for longer which can only be a good thing!
4. Use Your Camera’s Monochrome Picture Style
It used to be the case that in order to take good black and white images you needed the ability to visualise a world without colour. To understand how a scene would look with all of the colour removed.
For me this was a real problem. I never learnt to ‘see’ in black and white.
Fortunately with modern technology I don’t have to.
Shooting with a mirrorless camera was a revelation for me. Now I could set the picture style to monochrome and see exactly what a scene looks like in black and white in the EVF.
This is harder with a DSLR. You have to try to use the LCD on the back of the camera.
Failing that our phones often have a camera with a monochrome setting that can helps us to visualise a scene in black and white.
5. Focus on Mood
Any good photograph should evoke some form of emotion in the viewer. It should make us feel something.
To me black and white photography seems to me to better suited to negative emotions such as melancholy, sadness and despair.
Lockdown was a difficult time for me. I found that I was unable to express how I was feeling in words, I just do not have the vocabulary. I found it much easier to share my feelings through my photography.
The result was some of the best black and white photographs I have every taken.
Looking for opportunities to reflect some of our darker emotions can lead to better black and white photographs.
Often success with a black and white photograph depends on how it is post processed. I start by converting to black and white in Lightroom before following these 5 steps.
i. Increase Contrast
The first step in processing a black and white image is to boost the contrast. I do this by applying ‘strong contrast’ preset to the tone curve.
This essentially adds a standard s-curve which darkens the shadows and brightens the highlights.
ii. Adjust Colour Channels
One of the benefits of editing an image that was originally captured in colour (as are all RAW files produced by my Canon cameras) is that they retain the colour information even after converting to black and white.
This means that the luminosity of the various colour channels can be adjusted independently of each other.
I find that treating the warmer and colder colours separately can help to exaggerate the contrast in the image. For example I will often darken the yellow and orange channels and brighten the green and blue channels.
iii. Increase Mid-tone Contrast
Boosting the contrast of the mid-tones in the image can help to exaggerate textures and patterns.
This is done using the clarity slider.
Typically you can more aggressive with clarity in black and white images than you can with colour images.
iv. Tone the Shadows and Highlights
I like to tone my black and white images. I feel that it gives them a certain look that I find pleasing.
To do this I apply split toning to warm the highlights and cool the shadows.
This won’t be to everyone’s taste but I like it, so there!
v. Darken the Edges
The final step is to add a vignette to the image. This darkens the edges of the frame drawing the eye towards the centre.
In my opinion black and white images can handle a darker vignette than colour images.
Converting to black and white can help to capture stunning landscape photographs. Use these simple tips to improve your black and white landscape photography.
- Look for contrast
- Shoot with intention
- Make use of ‘bad’ light
- Use your camera’s monochrome picture style
- Focus on mood
Check out the video that accompanies this article.