Black and White Landscape Photography

Switching to black and white can help you to create stunning landscape photographs. This easy to follow, practical advice will help you to improve your black and white landscape photography.

The summit of Sheffield Pike high above Ullswater in the eastern Lake District

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.

Disclaimer

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.

Lockdown

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.

Black and white images need contrast
Contrast is the first thing that I look for in a black and white image. Here the eye is drawn to the road because it is brighter than the surrounding countryside.

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.

The best way to get good black and white images is to shoot with intention
Good black and white images do not happen by accident, you have to go looking for them!

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!

Switch from colour to black and white once the best of the light has finished
I will often switch from colour to black and white once the best of the light has finished. On this occasion the black and white shot was my favourite of the morning.

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.

The Canon EOS M50
Shooting with a mirrorless camera such as the Canon EOS M50 has revolutionised my black and white photography. Setting the picture style to monochrome allows me to see exactly how a scene looks 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.

A tree and a wall
This image captured during lockdown expressed how I was feeling far better than I ever could do myself.

Post Processing

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.

How the image looks immediately after the conversion to black and white
I convert my images to black and white in Lightroom. This example shows the image after the conversion but before the editing process has begun.

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.

The finished image in all of its glory!
The finished image – most of my post processing workflow for black and white images is designed to boost the contrast in order to exaggerate shapes, textures and patterns.

Summary

Converting to black and white can help to capture stunning landscape photographs. Use these simple tips to improve your black and white landscape photography.

  1. Look for contrast
  2. Shoot with intention
  3. Make use of ‘bad’ light
  4. Use your camera’s monochrome picture style
  5. Focus on mood

Check out the video that accompanies this article.

 

6 thoughts on “Black and White Landscape Photography”

  1. Terrific presentation on the process of thinking in Black and White. I believe the last image above the “Summary” is a great illustration of how you can make a muddy, non-descript image a real keeper by understanding what you can enhance in post-processing. In the days of 35mm B&W film it could take several attempts with dodging and burning to achieve what you now can accomplish with the understanding of software on your computer.

  2. Chris, a great article for people wanting to get started with black and white. I’m all for people looking to make something positive out of this crisis and you’ve set a great example to show this.

    I definitely agree that trying to rescue an image using black and white is a bad idea. I’ve always enjoyed mirrorless cameras, but another technique for those without one is to look through past images and view in black and white (applying the colour channels technique you describe) to see and learn how it changes an image, what works and what doesn’t. It’s worth pointing out that the other area b&w can sometimes stand a lot more of is noise, in fact it can enhance the image. I should caveat I’m no expert either.

    Re emotion, there are so many examples of artists producing their best work during some of the darker times in their lives, I think a lot is to do with it providing the mechanism for them to release those emotions.

    Maybe in a future vlog you can set yourself a challenge to capture a black and white image with uplifting emotions!

  3. I’ve been playing with B&W a bit the last two years but I haven’t really done any systematic work. I really like B&W when walking around in town and snapping photos but I find it a bit challenging out in nature. My main problem is the “messiness” (if that’s even a word) of forests, at least the forests I walk around in.

    A few examples, B&W works well for me in these situations https://www.flickr.com/photos/186109312@N07/50378640597/ , https://www.flickr.com/photos/186109312@N07/50375260457/ but completely fails for this https://www.flickr.com/photos/186109312@N07/50374504631/ and this https://www.flickr.com/photos/186109312@N07/50378452311/. The last two is typical of my surrounding and I find it difficult to use B&W at places like that.

    It’s of course the subject matter that determines if B&W (or color) work but I do have some problems “seeing in B&W”. Mostly the only way I can up with a photo is to use color to build/separate the shapes but I’m probably missing a lot of good B&W photos. Thanks for reminding me of using the B&W scene option when taking the photos, it should make it a bit easier to see if something works in B&W.

    BTW I really like these last few videos.

  4. Hey Chris, great advice – thanks for the tips. I’m finding that I’m increasingly turning to black and white when there’s no sky interest in a shot – something that happens a lot here in Southern California – as we are ‘cursed’ with blue skies for much of the year.

    I agree with you that thanks to having a monochrome picture style (and aspect ratio options) built into the camera it does make ‘seeing’ in B&W so much easier.

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