Black & White for Landscape Photography
It’s easy to see why so many landscape photographers work in color – it’s powerful and evocative and helps you capture mood and atmosphere.
So why do some photographers work almost exclusively in monochrome?
The answer is partly that black and white is beautiful – a semi-abstract, expressive and timeless way of capturing the landscape.
Working in black and white can also improve your seeing and compositional skills, and ultimately make you a better landscape photographer.
Let’s explore some of these ideas in more depth.
1. Black and white shakes up your approach to photography
Creatives often benefit from being placed outside their comfort zone. If you’re nervous about black and white because you haven’t tried it before, or you simply feel more comfortable with what you already know, then maybe it’s time to embrace the unknown and learn a new skill.
Working in black and white gives you a different way of seeing the world. Instead of looking at the color of the scene and the color of the light, you’re looking at texture, shape, line and the interplay between light and shadow.
It requires a different mindset and a different way of seeing. Even if you don’t intend to use black and white often, doing so every now and again helps sharpen your photography skills.
Let me give you an example. What do you see in the above photo? At first glance, it’s just a photo of a waterfall. But look closely and you can see the contrast between the white water and the dark rocks.
This is tonal contrast – an essential component of good black and white images. This is what I mean by a different way of seeing. Black and white makes you look at the scene in terms of tones, rather than color.
2. Black and white helps you get better at composition
The danger of working in color – and this applies to all genres of photography, not just the landscape – is that you may end up relying on the strength of color to carry the image. In this way color can become a bit of a crutch, supporting images that are not as strong as they would be if they were built on firmer foundations.
You can’t do that in black and white. Strong black and white images rely on the basic building blocks of composition, like texture, line, shape, pattern, form, placement and negative space (my book Mastering Composition goes into all these concepts in more detail).
Learning to base your composition on these elements, not just color, helps you create stronger images.
Many years ago I read an interview with American landscape photographer David Muench. He works in color, but in the interview described his style as working in black and white with a layer of color on top. It made perfect sense. His color images are beautiful. But the strength of the composition means they would work just as well in black and white.
Did you notice the textures in the above photo? The concrete in the foreground and the jetty in the distance are strongly textured. The water and sky are very smooth. The contrast between textured and smooth areas is a fundamental part of the composition. Once you become aware of things like this you can start to work them into your color landscapes.
3. Black and white lets you shoot in light that isn’t ideal for color photography
Color and light go together. The best color landscape photos are usually taken when the light is most beautiful. That usually means working in the golden hour, or during dusk.
Working in black and white extends the hours in which you can shoot. The emphasis is on the composition rather than the quality of light. Light is still important, but if you find the right subject you can often shoot in harder light than you can with color.
Working in black and white extends the number of usable hours in the day for landscape photography.
This photo was taken on a dull, cloudy afternoon in between rain showers. Converting the photo to black and white helped convey some of the drama of the scene. This approach works for black and white, but to get a good color photo of the scene you would need to return when the light is more beautiful.
4. Black and white is perfect for long exposure photography
Black and white long exposure photography has become a genre in its own right. Part of the reason is the growth in the supply of 10-stop neutral density filters. It is also much easier to do with digital cameras as there is no reciprocity failure to take into account.
An advantage of long exposure photography (and this is related to the previous point) is that you can do it on cloudy days that probably wouldn’t yield great results if you were working in color. It’s another way to take advantage of light that is not ideal for the color landscape.
Earlier this year I spent some time in northern Spain. This region has some spectacular coastal scenery, but there were a lot of cloudy days during my stay. Working in black and white and using long exposures took the emphasis away from the drab light and back onto the texture and structure of the landscape.
5. Black and white lets you give infrared photography a try
Let’s face it, color infrared photography is a bit of a gimmick. The colors are too unnatural to create any meaningful body of work.
But in black and white it’s different. Leaves, plants, and grass go white. Blue skies go dark and dramatic. The tones have shifted, giving you something that looks very different to a conventional black and white photo.
There are two ways to try infrared photography. One is to buy an infrared filter and use it with your camera. These filters block a lot of light (usually well over ten stops), so you need to use a tripod and long exposures.
The other is to have a camera converted to infrared. This isn’t terribly expensive and is a good way to find a new use for an older digital camera that you don’t use anymore.
This photo was taken with a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 camera converted to infrared.
6. To improve your post-processing skills
Regardless of which software you prefer to use to process your landscape photos, working in black and white requires learning new skills, and maybe also learning how to use a plug-in like Silver Efex Pro 2 or Tonality Pro. Any new post-processing skills are a beneficial addition to your skill set.
The next time you have a few spare hours on your hands try going back over old photos that you initially processed in color and looking at them with a new eye. Pick the ones that would work well in black and white, and convert them to monochrome. It’s an interesting rainy day or winter night exercise that encourages you to look at old work in a new way.
This is a landscape photo that I originally processed in color, and reprocessed in black and white a few weeks afterward.
I hope the ideas in this article encourage you to work a little in black and white, especially if you have never tried it before. There’s something magical about good black and white landscape photography. Ansel Adams, of course, is famous for his black and white work. But even in our modern, colorful world, there are many well-known landscape photographers who work almost exclusively in monochrome.
Editors Note: If you’d like to learn more about black & white for landscape photography, then please check out Andrew’s ebook bundle The Black & White Landscape and The Black & White Landscape Companion.