Black and white landscape photography remains one of the most popular genres in the medium today, for the complete novice all the way through to the modern masters.
In the hands of geniuses such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, it has produced some of the most memorable images of all time. While colour shows us a place as it is, black and white landscape photographs have a pure and timeless quality that cannot be matched.
If you have yet to try your hand at this exciting form of photography, or would just like some advice on how to get the most out of your time in the wilderness, I’ve come up with a list of some of my favourite tips below.
I hope you enjoy having a read through and you find some inspiration to get out there with your camera and capture some beautiful shots.
Seeing the World in Black and White
There’s nothing better than heading out at the crack of dawn, or even earlier, to photograph your favourite location bathed in the soft glow of the golden hour, that all too brief period at the start and end of the day that was just made for landscape photography.
But while that may be the key to a great colour image, for those of us wanting to create stunning black and white shots, we need to start thinking a little differently.
In black and white landscape photography, the golden hour is no longer the golden rule. That gorgeous orange cast over your scene, once it’s reduced to a series of greys, will have lost all of its dramatic impact and produced a flat, uninspiring monochrome image.
So, if you can’t rely on colour to make your photograph for you, what do you use instead?
The best black and white landscape photographs have a strong range of tones, from almost pure white through to deep, rich black and everything in between. That contrast across the image, when used well, can produce some striking results.
Spotting occasions that will translate successfully to black and white takes some practice.
We are all obviously used to seeing the full spectrum of colours, so it takes a little effort to train our brains to think about a scene in terms of highlights and shadows.
That doesn’t mean disregarding the colours in front of us altogether. With experience, you will see how the hue of certain elements, such as green grass or a blue sky, translate into different brightness of tone in a black and white image.
The world around us is full of texture, both the natural as well as the man-made aspects of it. In black and white landscape photography, we can use the difference in texture between, say, a craggy cliff face and a smooth sea, to create another sort of contrast.
Strong side lighting, or even backlighting, can pick out the texture of an object beautifully.
The rules of composition apply just as much whether you’re shooting a colour or black and white landscape. Leading lines, patterns, natural framing, placing the horizon, and varying your viewpoint are all things to keep in mind when framing your shot.
But when shooting monochrome, it’s also important to always be thinking about how the tones of the scene in front of you will look in the final image.
Each colour will be represented by a different shade, and hitting a pleasing balance across each element will make for a more successful result.
Also, just because you’re shooting landscapes, don’t be afraid to experiment with portrait format. Let the scene dictate what will look best.
The Zone System and Exposure
You’ll no doubt have heard of the zone system, and if you haven’t, I’m sure you’ll recognise the name of the man who invented it.
Ansel Adams was possibly the greatest, and definitely the most famous, landscape photographer of all time.
Equal parts artist and scientist, he developed the zone system in the 1930s as a way to exercise complete control over the tones in the images he was producing.
To do so, he divided each scene up into ten zones, with pure black being zero and pure white being ten. By standardising the process, he was able to create perfectly exposed images in any lighting conditions.
For Adams, shooting on large format negative film, his motto was ‘expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights’.
By identifying the darkest zones in a scene and ensuring that those shadow areas would keep some detail through careful exposure, he was able to manipulate his negative and print developing to make sure the highlights would also retain details.
What Does That Mean for Us?
The zone system is just as relevant today as it was all those decades ago, except with digital photography, it’s the highlights in a scene we need to be more concerned with when we’re shooting.
Just as Adams’s black and white film had a finite dynamic range in the number of different tones it could record, so do the sensors on our digital cameras.
Where he exposed his incredible landscapes to save the shadows and pulled the brightest areas back with filters and darkroom magic, we need to do the opposite. By carefully exposing to keep the brightest parts of your image intact, there is more chance that the shadows can be saved in post production.
We also have a few advantages Ansel Adams couldn’t have even dreamed of.
Most DSLRs have shadow and highlight warnings on the LCD image that blink when a scene is straying outside the boundaries the sensor can cope with.
Even better, the histogram gives you an at-a-glance visual representation of the tonal value of your shot, so you’re able to judge whether or not you need to adjust your exposure.
To get the best tonal range in your black and white landscape photography it can often be necessary to use filters, especially if the scene is a particularly high contrast one.
A bright sky above a dark ground can give a dynamic range outside the latitude your sensor can deal with.
To help balance the two elements and give an image that retains detail in both highlights and shadow, you can fit a graduated neutral density filter over your lens while you’re shooting.
These filters are opaque at the top, fading to clear at the bottom and cut down on the amount of light reaching the sensor from the sky while allowing the exposure for the ground to stay the same.
They are available in a number of different strengths and are a godsend on those bright, sunny days.
Every landscape photographer’s kitbag will also contain a range of non-graduated filters.
These are uniformly grey and reduce the amount of light passing through the whole of the lens. They are used to increase exposure times across the entire scene and are often used when photographing moving elements in a landscape photograph.
Consider the effects of a long shutter speed on, say, the ocean—the water becomes beautifully smooth and gives a wonderful aesthetic quality.
If you’re looking for inspiration from the effect long exposure times combined with neutral density filters can have on landscapes, check out the work of Michael Kenna.
Shooting at night on a film Hasselblad, Kenna used a heavy neutral density filter to give him a shutter speed of up to eight hours! It’s unconventional and requires much patience, but the results are incredible.
Converting to Black and White
Many DSLRs have a monochrome mode, allowing you to shoot in black and white in camera.
While it can be a useful tool when you’re pre-visualising a scene, I would always recommend shooting in RAW wherever possible, and converting that file to black and white in post production.
Having a RAW colour image gives you a lot more options when it comes time to perfect your shot.
In Photoshop, the black and white adjustment gives you a decent amount of control over the tones in your photograph. Playing around with the sliders also helps to show how different colours appear in a monochrome image.
For a greater level of creativity, I’m a big fan of the Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin from Nik. Now owned by Google, you can download their whole suite of tools for free.
You can alter every part of your image quickly and easily, darkening certain elements or changing contrast wherever you like. There are also 20 presets that emulate the effects of some of the most popular black and white films, ranging from Ilford Pan F technical film through to the ultra-grainy Kodak P3200 TMAX pro.
It’s a wonderfully impressive platform and well worth a look.
When Ansel Adams started Group f/64, a collective of famous landscape photographers, along with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke among others, he took the name from the tiny apertures he and his fellows would use to make sure that every part of their images were pin sharp.
Setting a small aperture will help you do the same, and keep your shot in focus from front to back. Of course, there will come times when you may want to blur certain parts of a shot for creative reasons, so play around with different depths of field until you get the look you want.
Beware of diffraction, which is a loss of sharpness that can occur at very small apertures; in general, diffraction starts to come into play around f/22 and smaller. Lenses vary, though, so you should experiment to see how small you can get your aperture before you start to lose image quality with yours.
I would always recommend shooting with as low an ISO as possible to maintain image fidelity, too.
Whereas using a very fast film could give some interesting grainy effects, a high ISO shot on a DSLR will be plagued with a lot of ugly digital noise.
And, as mentioned before, landscape photography allows for longer shutter speeds, and unless you want to freeze action in your shot, you can set a shutter speed that gives you the exposure you want as you’re keeping the ISO low and aperture appropriately small.
Between a low ISO and a small aperture, there won’t be a huge amount of light making its way onto your sensor. That usually adds up to a longer shutter speed, one that prohibits handheld shots, so a sturdy tripod is going to be essential.
Bear in mind that you could well be hiking a fair distance before you reach the ideal spot to shoot from, so try and find a good compromise between strength and weight.
The lightest, strongest tripods around today are made from carbon fibre, but have the drawback of being very much at the more expensive end of the market. Aluminium models from the likes of Manfrotto are a little heavier, but are plenty sturdy enough and won’t break the bank.
Most tripods come with a built-in spirit level to ensure your horizons are straight, but if it doesn’t, it’s well worth investing in one.
[Read through our in-depth guide to choosing tripods for landscape photography for more information and recommendations. —Ed.]
Wide angle lenses are obviously the most popular choice for landscape photographers. On a full frame DSLR, my 16mm-35mm is enough coverage for most situations, and I have a 24mm-70mm when I want to single out a particular element in a scene.
In a perfect world, I’d have a range of fixed prime lenses for the very best image sharpness, but a good quality zoom lens is almost as good.
One of the best things about landscape photography is the relatively small amount of kit you need to haul about with you. While the right accessories will always help, there’s no real need for flashguns, remote triggers or cumbersome telephoto zooms that will just weigh you down.
Everything you need—camera, lenses, cards, filters and a spare battery—will fit nicely in a backpack style camera bag, and probably leave you room for a few snacks!
A small, lightweight tripod can be strapped onto the back and you’re good to go. Make sure you have a decent pair of hiking boots too.
It’s an unwritten rule that the further you have to walk to get your shot, the better it will be!
The earliest photograph ever taken was a black and white landscape. Since then, it has been raised to an art form by some of the world’s finest photographers.
A great black and white landscape has a real elegance about it. The more time you spend practising creating these images yourself, the more thoroughly you’ll understand how tone, contrast, and texture play in making successful images. Do it enough and you’ll soon be making some stunning black and white landscape photos of your own.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
Thank you for reading...
if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.
It's my training video that will walk you how to use your camera's functions in just 10 minutes - for free!
I also offer video courses and ebooks covering the following subjects:
You could be just a few days away from finally understanding how to use your camera to take great photos!
Thanks again for reading our articles!