B&W Landscape Photography- ultimate beginners' guide

B&W Landscape Photography: ultimate beginners' guide

Are you serious in taking your landscape photos to the next level? Well, you can get some pretty dramatic shots by moving to black and white landscape photography.

That’s right, black and white adds a unique dynamic and can create striking images with enhanced highlights and shadows, contrast and texture.

Let's be clear since the beginning. Black and White photography is not only about removing colours. There is much more than that​

While colour images may first spring to mind when you think of spectacular landscape photography, there are many impressive examples of stunning landscapes captured entirely in black and white.

Artists like Ansel Adams and Joel Tjintjelaar have mastered the art of black and white landscape photography – and you can, too.

Shooting landscapes in black and white may not be as easy as it seems to explore, and you may be discouraged by your first attempts into this challenging field.

However, by keeping in mind some simple tips, you’ll be able to quickly learn everything you need to know to capture dynamic monochromatic landscapes.

In this post, you’ll learn why you should be capturing landscapes using your camera’s RAW mode.

You’ll be able to understand how to see in black and white, and find tips for composing black and white landscape scenes.

We’ll also go over how the zone system works, the benefits of using a polarizing filter, and how you can effectively use post-processing software to enhance your images.

Infographic

Black White Photography Infographic

Shooting in RAW

For years, photographers have been debating the value of shooting in RAW.

While shooting in this format will result in considerably larger files, the high-quality details captured in a RAW image are essential for creating stunning black and white landscape photos.

The reason these files are so much bigger than a regular JPEG is because they retain all the information captured by your camera.

This information is vital during post-processing, when you need all the detail you can get to make your black and white landscapes pop, without losing any image quality.

RAW will also allow you to access a greater dynamic range in your captures.

This means that any bright spots in your landscapes won’t be completely blown out, and even the darker, shadowy parts will still have plenty of detail without all the noise you might find in a JPEG.

As a result, your landscape captures will be much cleaner and easier to process when you convert them to black and white.

RAW gives you the flexibility to use all of the information contained within the file to ensure the best final image possible.

black and white landscape

Sunrise in forest in black and white

Learning to See in Black and White

This is one of the main challenges you’ll face as a new photographer entering the world of black and white landscapes.

When you’re shooting in colour, the vibrant hues that make up a landscape are eye-catching all on their own. By removing that colour, viewers are forced to see the world a little bit different.

The lack of colour brings out the most abstract elements of your landscape composition, things that viewers might not have noticed if they’d been presented the same image in full colour.

With black and white landscapes, you have the power to take something relatively ordinary and turn it into something spectacular, in the simplicity of monochrome.

However, for you to compose landscapes that will make strong black and white images, you’ll need to learn to see past the colours of the scene.

There are some key elements you can look for that will help you create stunning black and white landscape photo before you even press your shutter.

Contrast

Lighting looks extremely different in black and white than it does in colour.

Soft lighting might work for a landscape left in full colour, but for an effective monochromatic landscape capture, you’ll need to find some contrast.

Look around for bright spots and dark spots, and try to include both in your frame to make your image pop.

You can use post-processing software to enhance the contrast digitally, but this won’t be nearly as effective as taking a more compelling shot straight out of the camera.

Try shooting at a different time of day or composing your shot from a different angle to achieve greater contrast.

Textures

Once you remove the colour from a photograph, the shapes, patterns, and textures become much more noticeable.

As you’re shooting, start looking for these elements in your landscapes and try to compose your images around them.

Dynamic angles, unique forms, and repetitive structures will all be even more interesting in black and white.

But texture is one of the key elements to look for when composing a black and white landscape.

Check out this video to understand more the importance of texture.​

Thanks to the unique way monochromatic processing enhances contrast, a good texture will almost seem to jump out of the frame.

Keep your eyes open for rough bark, cracked concrete, or peeling paint.

If you can include them as key subjects in your landscape, you’ll end up with a much more successful black and white shot.

Highlights and shadows

When you’re shooting in black and white, you’ll need to look for highlights and shadows.

Think about the way the light hits the subject of your frame, and examine the resulting shapes the shadows will make.

Compose your image in a way that enhances these unique patterns and uses them to move the viewer’s eye through the frame.

By ensuring that your capture has sufficient areas of brightness and darkness, you’ll be able to keep your black and white landscape from looking muddy and grey.

Instead, the bold, dynamic shapes created by the bright and dark areas will work to keep your viewers engaged.

black and white landscape

Creating Dynamic Compositions

Most of the rules of composition are the same for black and white landscapes as they are for any other landscape shot.

However, you’ll need to put a little more focus on those key elements you should be looking for as you learn to see in monochrome.

Once you’ve found a landscape that features interesting textures and patterns, strong highlights and shadows, and bold contrast, you need to frame it effectively.

There are some things to look for as you set up your shot to ensure that your capture will be just as dynamic when you remove the colour.

More on this video about visualization when composing a black and white shot.

Use shadows to create interest

When the sun is near the horizon, you’ll be able to capture some pretty spectacular shadows.

Try to compose your shot in a way that uses the shadows to lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.

A good black and white landscape shot will effectively guide your viewer around each element within the composition, and shadows are a great way to achieve that.

However, you need to be careful that your image isn’t too shadowy.

Keep enough light to make the details pop; texture is essential for a strong black and white landscape.

Your final frame should have a good balance of shadows and highlights.

Frame the shot with elements of contrast

Bold contrast is another great way to pull your viewer into the image.

Fill your frame with stark shadows and highlights to enhance the lighting of your black and white landscape scene.

Without colour, viewers will be able to explore the scene in a unique and interesting way – so provide them with some shapes and patterns to lead them through.

These elements of contrast will help make your images more eye-catching and dynamic.

Challenge yourself to compose your photos in a way that includes a variety of contrast, through lighting, textures, shapes, and patterns.

Follow the golden rule

As with any other subject matter, look for ways to compose your black and white landscape photos according to the rule of thirds.

This classic technique enhances the sense of movement within your image, and gives viewers the opportunity to be led deeper into your photograph by following the objects placed closer to the edge of the frame.

Of course, rules are made to be broken, and there are ways to achieve a successful, captivating composition without using the rule of thirds as a guideline.

However, when you’re just starting to understand the technique behind black and white landscape shots, it’s good to have this old stand-by to fall back on.

Build depth with leading lines

When you’re composing a landscape image, keep in mind that viewers will experience the scene in two dimensions, not three.

If you don’t incorporate some visual effects to provide a sense of depth, your image likely won’t make the impact you’re hoping for.

Leading lines that pull the viewer into your capture are a valuable compositional element that you should try to include in every landscape.

This is even more important for monochromatic images, though, since you won’t have the benefit of colour to make the scene feel realistic.

black and white landscape

Using the Zone System

This is a technique developed in the 1930s by Fred Archer and Ansel Adams, who is famous for his stunning black and white landscape photographs.

Using this system can help you learn to evaluate the tones within the scene you’re shooting to ensure you’re always capturing the correct exposure.

There are some software packages that will allow you to use this system in your post-processing, including Silver Efex Pro, which will be discussed later on.

Having a base knowledge of what this system entails can not only help you when you’re shooting landscapes, but also when you’re digitally manipulating them, as well.

The Theory

Your camera’s light meter can be easily tricked by difficult lighting situations, like back lighting, extreme contrast, and more.

The Zone System provides a standardised method to assess the tonal “zones” found within the scene.

From there, you’ll be able to meter your camera in a way that will make the most of the lighting conditions you’re faced with.

The Practice

The tonal range is divided into ten zones, each representing a one-stop difference along the scale.

Once you determine where a particular tone falls on this scale, you’ll be able to adjust your camera accordingly to render these shades correctly, either over-exposing or under-exposing from the average shade, depending on the conditions.

Using a Polarizing Filter

One of the most valuable tools a landscape photographer can use is a polarizing filter.

This little piece of glass can be attached to the front of your lens and rotated to reduce reflected light. With a turn of your wrist, you’ll be able to increase or decrease the polarizing effect.

For black and white landscape photos, contrast is essential.

Reflected light, without the use of a polarizing filter, can cause a scene to look flat and muddy.

You’ll also be able to add clarity to your images, especially when you’re shooting landscapes with distant elements like mountains, thanks to this tool.

A high-quality polarizing filter can be a bit pricey and may require some practice.

However, for a photographer who plans to capture plenty of black and white landscapes, it is an essential tool to have in your camera bag.

black and white landscape

Sunset in black and white

Post-Processing Techniques

While your goal should always be to capture an image that needs very little post-processing, there are some things you’ll be able to do with your software to enhance your black and white landscape photos.

Tweaking the contrast will help give your captures some added drama, and highlighting the bright and dark areas can generate more movement through the frame.

These ideas for post-processing will give you some inspiration to get started and become more familiar with your editing software.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what kinds of techniques will best to help you achieve the mood you’re looking for.

We strongly suggest to make your adjustments on a separate layer or on a duplicated file, and if you don’t like the result, delete and start over. Most of the photo editing software allow to work with layers.

Dodge and Burn

If you’re not satisfied with the way the light is hitting the main subjects within your landscape shot, this tool can help.

The “dodge” option will lighten the area you paint over, and the “burn” option will darken it.

You can adjust the opacity and soften the edges of the brush to build up your light and shadows slowly, to ensure a natural effect.

Keep in mind that while this tool is great to help enhance your image, it’s not a substitute for shooting in ideal lighting conditions.

If you’re not happy with the highlights and shadows captured in your image, consider going back and trying the shoot again.

However, for minor lighting adjustments, this tool can work wonders.

Levels and Curves

The “levels” tool will bring up a histogram that looks somewhat like a mountain range, and will show you the range of tones contained within your image.

On the left side, the hills and valleys of this mountain range represent the darker shades, and on the right, the lighter tones.

By moving the sliders along the bottom of the histogram, you’ll be able to adjust each group of tones separately.

While this is a great way to increase the contrast of your image and avoid a muddy monochromatic product, take care that you don’t lose detail in the brightest and darkest parts of your capture.

Using “curves” provides basically the same result, only through a different process. This tool will show a line running from the bottom left to the top right, with points that you can grab and slide around the box.

The top will add brightness, and the bottom will darken shadowy areas.

You can create some very extreme results using this tool, so use it sparingly.

While you want your black and white landscapes to be bold and dynamic, you don’t want them to look too unrealistic and over-processed.

Filters

This is another processing technique that can easily be overdone. However, applied properly, filters can really make your black and white landscapes pop.

The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re experimenting with filters is to add them as a separate layer, so you’re not changing the original pixels of your image file.

Filters can do all kinds of things to enhance your capture, including add blur, reduce noise, and sharpen edges.

Beyond that, there are plenty of additional filters that can provide artistic effects. The more you use these filters, the more you will understand how they work.

You can also install pre-made filters and plug-ins that can encompass a broad range of effects and styles.

There are filters that can imitate the look of specific types of film or vintage processing techniques.

While these can add interest to your black and white landscape photos, you don’t want to do too much. Let your composition be the focus, not the processing.

black and white landscape

Post-Processing Software

Adobe Lightroom

Lightroom will allow you to easily navigate through the image editing process with a focus on efficient workflow.

The interface is quite user-friendly and because Lightroom creates a copy of the RAW file with your changes, you’ll always be able to refer back to your original image if necessary.

Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom Develop Module

This program is also very affordable, but does lack some of the fine-tuning kinds of adjustments that are possible in more in-depth programs like Adobe Photoshop. However, for black and white landscape shots, Lightroom will be more than enough.

Adobe Photoshop Camera RAW

The Camera RAW software is a step along the way to editing a photo in Photoshop.

The Photoshop image editor doesn’t work with RAW photos, so you’ll need to run them through this editor before bringing them into the main program for more thorough processing.

Photoshop is significantly more expensive than most other editing software, and is a bit more challenging to learn.

However, you can produce subtler, more detailed images thanks to the program’s ability to fine-tune each process along the way.

Silver Efex Pro

If you’re still learning the art of post-processing, Silver Efex Pro can help guide you along the way.

Even for experienced professionals, processing with Silver Efex Pro can take a solid, well-captured shot and turn it into a stunning piece of dynamic monochromatic art.

Silver Efex Pro

Silver Efex Pro

This software features more than 30 different presets to start from, ranging from vintage looks to more contemporary processing styles.

You can also choose from a number of film emulation plug-ins, which will enhance your image with the grain structure and tones found in different types of black and white films.

Tonality Protection sliders can be adjusted to prevent your highlights from getting blown out, or to bring back detail to areas with dark shadows.

You can also use the Control Points system to make specific edits to smaller sections of the image, without impacting the rest of the capture.

Using the Zone System is incredibly easy with this software, as Silver Efex Pro will show you exactly where the tones of your image fall within the system.

You’ll have a better idea of which areas need a bit more work to ensure the details are maintained even after your image goes to print.

black and white landscape

Some Final Tips

Before you head out into the landscape to find the perfect scenery for a black and white capture, practice some of these techniques in your own backyard.

Explore your neighbourhood looking for textures, patterns, contrast, and unique compositions.

Then, import them into the processing software of your choice and see how the tools and filters work to enhance your images.

Try layering different filters and effects to create unique results, and get familiar with how each new process affects your photo.

Soon, you’ll be able to see past colour and take the black and white landscape photos you’ve always dreamed of.

Your images may not rival the captures of some of the greats like Ansel Adams at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to creating stunning, eye-catching black and white landscapes.

Did you like this article? Why not drop us a line below and let us know what you thought. And, be sure to tell us your favourite black and white photography tips!

B&W Landscape Photography- ultimate beginners' guide

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About the Author Luca

Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.

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