How to create black and white landscape photography like a pro
I love black and white landscape photography. It started early from the film days when I was developing my own black and white images. The feeling of seeing the images develop from a white sheet of paper is amazing.
Somehow I find good B&W photos being more artistic than color photography. When you take away the colors from a photo, you take away some of the reality as well. A black and white landscape photography forces you to look for other composition elements than an image with a lot of colors.
To me, nothing is more pleasing than a enlarged printed B&W photo. Printing B&W used to be difficult because affordable consumer inkjet printers were not capable of printing B&W without a strong color cast. This has changed now with new technology, and it is possible to print beautiful B&W with your home printer.
Let us go through the different aspects of B&W photography and discuss what makes a good B&W photo. But first, to avoid any confusion, B&W photos are often referred to as grayscale, monochrome or mono photos as well.
Color contrast vs. tonal contrast
Understanding the difference between color contrast in color photography and tonal contrast in black and white landscape photography is important.
Colors have different Hue, Saturation and Luminance (HSL). This is one way you can use color contrast in your images. Another way you can create contrast with colors is by using “warm” and “cold” colors in your composition. Warm and cold colors are found on the opposite side of the Color Wheel.
Tonal contrast in B&W photos is the difference between the lightest and darkest tones in your image. The best example of high tonal contrast is a silhouette. But as you know nothing in the real world is completely black and white. Instead, a color image converted to monochrome contains shades of gray - from black to white.
Which subjects are best for black and white landscape photography?
In traditional black and white landscape photography dedicated B&W films was used. When using B&W film it is not possible to see the image in colors after it is taken. Digital is different as you take all your images in color and convert them to B&W later. This way you have much more control.
Obviously not all color photos will work well in B&W. This fact is one of the most important challenges in black and white landscape photography.
A color image relying on contrasting colors like red and green will not work well as B&W. If the image lacks tonal contrast, it will not convert into a great black and white photo. You will get the best results if you look for scenes with:
- Bright light and strong shadows
- Textures and patterns
- Shapes and forms
Some typical black and white landscape photography ideas you can check out:
- Simple compositions
- Long exposures
- Moving clouds
- High keys and Low keys
- B&W High Dynamic Range (HDR)
How to shoot for B&W
In film days when using B&W film, we used colored filters in front of the lens to emphasize certain colors. Using a yellow filter would typically darken the blues in the sky and make the clouds stand out more.
Using a red filter would further darken the blue in the sky. Nowadays in the digital world you simulate the same effects by using different color filters in your imaging software. It is much easier and faster than in the old darkroom.
- Learn to see in B&W
- Don’t think of colors, think of contrast
- Look for subjects with strong tonal contrast (light and shade)
- Shooting for B&W on a “gray day” can give some nice results
- Use a polarizing filter to emphasize the sky better
Composing B&W photos
Composing for black and white landscape photography is not much different from composing for colors. One important different is while you in color photography often use the colors in your scene to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Converted to B&W some of these colors will have a very similar gray tone and thus not the same effect as in color.
Complimentary colors are strong composition elements in color photography. If you look at the color wheel, you find green and red are complimentary colors. A red barn in a green field will immediately grab the eye’s attention. Converted to B&W red and green are very similar on the gray scale. Therefore, the effect of red and green will not work as a contrasting effect in B&W.
You need to learn to see this difference when you compose your black and white landscape photos. Therefore lines, patterns and shapes are important composition elements in B&W photography.
Camera settings for black and white landscape photography
The camera settings for black and white photography are quite simple. A few settings, however, are very useful to know about when you shoot for black and white.
Set your camera to B&W picture style
Most cameras have this feature. It allows you to see the image in B&W on your LCD screen before you take the picture. This helps you to see which colors and compositions work well in B&W. It is also a great way to learn to see in B&W.
Take a look at your camera Instruction Manual to see if your camera has this option. You should look for something like Picture styles (Canon), Picture control (Nikon), Creative style (Sony) and choose B&W or Monochrome.
If you shoot in RAW, the image file will save all color information even if you have set the Picture Style to B&W.
Shoot in RAW
The RAW file saved to your memory card will contain all color information even if you have set the B&W picture style in the camera menu. RAW files contain more image data and can better handle many of the B&W conversion techniques you will do later. You can simply extract more information from the RAW file.
If your camera does not have RAW or B&W picture style, you can shoot in JPG files in color mode and still do B&W conversions in your image software later. You will have a little less flexibility in the adjustments this way but no worries; you will be fine making B&W conversions from JPG files also.
Set the ISO as low as possible
As high contrast monochrome photos have a lot of black in them, you are at the risk of getting unwanted sensor noise in the black areas as you increase the ISO.
That said some photographers prefer having the old film grain in their black and white conversions. If you like this grainy looking B&W photos, you can get this effect by increasing the ISO.
But in case you change your mind, it is better to simulate film grain using your imaging software.
Watch the histogram
Correct exposure is important for conversions in black and white landscape photography. Always check the histogram and makes sure your scene has a good distribution of tonal contrast.
How to convert to BW
While using filters in front of the lens to create special effects in black and white landscape photography in the days of film, all this is now done using imaging software.
One common mistake when converting photos to black and white is simply to use the Desaturate function in the imaging software. Often the Desaturate function will give you a flat mono image with little contrast.
A much better way is to adjust the contrast and brightness of different colors individually when converting the color photo to B&W. This way you can adjust the tonal contrast between each element in the photo to you taste.
Photoshop and Lightroom from Adobe are two of the most used imaging software packages on the market. For black and white conversions, several plugins are available for Photoshop as well as different B&W presets for Lightroom.
Each of the software packages has many different approaches to black and white conversions. Some of the conversion techniques are easy to do but not so good, while others are very good but a little more difficult to learn.
Conversions of black and white landscape photography using:
Photoshop has many different approaches to converting color images to black and white.
- Grayscale color mode - the simplest way of converting to B&W
- Desaturate color - similar to the above
The two methods are easy to use but are destructive with no control of the conversion. Destructive means if you convert the file to B&W and save it, you have lost the colors - forever. Then you better have a backup version of the color photo, right.
- Hue and Saturation tool - limited control of the conversion and not the most obvious B&W conversion method
- Chanel mixer tool - some control of the conversion as you can adjust the red, green and blue channels separately
- Gradient Map conversion - some control of the conversion but challenging to do well
These three methods have some control of the conversion to B&W, but you will have to experiments a bit to get it right.
- Convert to Black and White tool - gives you the best control. Besides red, green and blue you can individually adjust hue and saturation of the yellow, cyan and magenta colors.
The best tool for manual conversion to B&W in Photoshop as you can convert and control each color separately.
The last four conversion methods are available as Adjustment Layers in Photoshop. With Adjustment Layers, you have even more control of the conversion. When you use Adjustments Layers, you make nondestructive edits to your photos. Nondestructive means you can go back and change the adjustments you have made if you change your mind later in the editing process.
Lightroom is a much easier to use software compared to Photoshop. The tools for converting color photos to B&W in Lightroom are easy to use.
- Basic panel: Using the Saturation slider. Similar to Desaturate in Photoshop and not recommended.
- Black & White panel: By using the Black and White Mix sliders you can control all the colors of the rainbow - red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple and magenta. This method gives you the best adjustment possibilities.
The panel has a very useful color sample tool in the upper left corner. With this tool, you can select the gray tone (converted color) you want to adjust and then drag the mouse up or down for the desired effect.
Lightroom also comes with many B&W presets installed which are great to explore.
Plugins and Presets
- Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
is my preferred way of converting my photos to B&W. You have a ton of control, and there are many presets available. The presets make for a good start for further adjustments. You don’t need plugins to make B&W photos. The plugins are just an easier and faster way to achieve the results.
Other great software options are:
- Topaz B&W Effects
- OneOne perfect B&W
- MacPhun Tonality Pro (Mac only)
Taking monochrome conversions further
- Toning is adding a color tint to the image. Sepia and cyan tones are well known. Both these originate from chemical processes in the analog darkroom
- Split toning is similar to the toning variant above. With split toning, you add one color tint to the highlights of a photo and another tint to the shadows.
- Selective coloring. You can make just a part of a photo in color and the rest in B&W.
The possibilities with black and white landscape photography are endless and fun. Experiment with some of the techniques above with your own images or go out shoot new landscape images intended for black and white conversions. You will soon learn which images works in B&W and which don’t.