Photography started in black and white—so why, with all of the technology and equipment available today, does it feel so difficult to capture a great black and white landscape photograph with even a fraction of the greatness that Ansel Adams did with film? Great black and white photographs aren’t just the result of great black and white conversions. To really capture a stand-out black and white landscape shot, the photographer needs to see in shades of gray—or imagine how the photo will look in monochrome as it’s being shot. That’s the key, because fancy black and white editing tricks won’t get you there if the shot’s not right in the first place.
Landscapes make great black and white photographs–but only if you shoot them right in the first place. Here’s how to create black and white landscape photography that stands out, because great monochrome shots start well before the Photoshop conversion.
Viewing a color scene and imagining it as a black and white photograph is a difficult task to master, and one that only comes with practice. But, you can grasp the black and white vision a bit earlier by setting your camera style to monochrome, which will allow you to view the photos on the LCD screen in black and white. (Nikon calls this Picture Control, Canon refers to it as Picture Style.) If you have an electronic viewfinder, you can view the scene in black and white as you shoot by setting the style in camera.
One more thing—make sure you are using the RAW file format. While the picture mode will show you how the photo could look in black and white, using RAW will capture the photo in color and give you the most control over converting the image to black and white. So why use picture controls if you get a color photo anyways? It’s a great teaching tool to help learn how to view the scene in black and white. With enough practice, you can view a subject and know right away whether it will make a great black and white or not.
Without color to draw the eye, a lot of black and white photos simply look flat. That’s because great black and white images need a lot of contrast. The kind of contrast created in Photoshop isn’t as great as contrast that already exists in the scene. The easiest way to find great contrast is to look for light. While an overcast day may be great for color shots, sunny days mean more contrast, which is great for black and white. Look for patches of light streaming through the clouds, or areas with both light and shadows.
Of course, contrast can also be created through different colors, but that’s tougher than it seems. Red and green, when converted to black and white, appear very similar. A field of red wildflowers isn’t going to make a great black and white landscape, because the reds and greens of the flower will blend together. Instead of looking at color, look at shades. A mint green will have a lot of contrast next to a hunter green.
Texture looks amazing in black and white. In fact, monochrome brings out textures that aren’t as noticeable in color. Look for objects with a lot of texture as you consider what to include in your photo and what to leave out. Shooting black and white landscapes is a great way to uncover textures in unusual places. A cloudless sky just becomes a gray mass, but cloudy skies instantly add texture to landscapes in black and white. Rocks, tree bark, clouds—the sky is the limit (pun intended).
Along with texture, black and white is a great tool for emphasizing shape and pattern. Without the color to distract, patterns become much more obvious. Something as simple as three trees in a row creates a pattern. Use patterns and shape as a compositional tool for black and white landscape photography, and you’ll find your shots are much more interesting.
Some scenes don’t always lend themselves to great shapes or patterns. Another way to add interest to a black and white landscape photo is to include a foreground element. Adding a prominent object in the front of the image instantly creates a sort of leading line effect, even if that object isn’t actually a line. Rocks and foliage can work well, but there are certainly many more options.
While polarizing filters are traditionally used for enhancing or eliminating reflections, they can also play up the contrast in a black and white landscape shot. Polarizing filters can be used in color photography to play up the blue in the sky—when those color photos are converted to black and white, that extra blue boost in the sky results in a greater contrast. By twisting the front piece of the filter, you can fine-tune the contrast between different colors in the shots for better black and white conversions later on.
While black and white photography plays homage to traditional film, it’s actually trickier to capture, because without color, the image relies heavily on great composition and contrast. Learn how to recognize great black and white photos by shooting in RAW with the image styles set to monochrome, so you capture it in color but see it in black and white as you shoot. Look for light, contrast, texture shapes and patterns to use to your advantage. Foreground elements also work well in black and white. Adding a polarizing filter will also lead to better black and white conversions later by enhancing the contrast in a shot. Capturing stand-out black and white images isn’t an easy task, but when done right, the results are well worth the effort.