How to Capture Dramatic Black & White Landscape Photos
Black and white photography can be quite challenging. For one, it’s a lot different than taking colored photos. It can be complicated.
For instance, there is no such thing as golden hour when taking monochrome photos. Photographers need to think of other ways to create beautiful, dramatic scenes. Also, not all photographers have a well-developed eye for black and white photography.
In fact, one of the first things they need to do is understand what it is all about. Moreover, there are a lot of factors to consider, especially if the goal is to create stunning and emotional black and white landscape photos.
Black & White Landscape Photography
Black and white landscape photography is becoming more popular every year. Many look at it as a test of creative skills. Photographing landscapes requires lot of colors to drum up interest and set up a dramatic mood. This is why golden hour is a major factor in landscape photography.
With black and white photography, things become different because there are no colors involved.
So, instead of using colors to compose images, photographers are forced to look at other factors. Examples include shapes, lines, texture, and patterns, among others. Likewise, instead of colors, photographers focus on tones or tonal contrast.
Another important aspect photographers need to keep in mind when shooting landscapes in black and white are the major elements that define landscape photography: the sky, background, and foreground. As such, photographers need to take these three into consideration when shooting monochrome photos.
What to Do to Create Great Black and White Landscape Photos
The following are tips that can help you create black and white landscape photos that stand out. These tips can help you achieved that emotional, dramatic look you want for your images.
First things first: you need learn how to look at things in black and white. Everything that you see around you is in color, so monochromatic scenes are not natural. This means if you want black and white photos, you have to shoot in black and white and not just convert colored ones to B&W.
Instead of thinking about which or what colors to capture, your focus should be on finding the right or ideal lighting, texture, and contrast. There are photographers though who employ some tricks so they can get an idea of how their black and white images will come out. One of these tricks involves shooting RAW photos while your DSLR’s JPEG mode is set to black and white. The image that will appear on your computer will be in color but the LCD preview on your camera will be in black and white.
This is a good way of envisioning your photos in B&W. In case you decide to keep colored copies, you can revert to the colored version and save it on your PC or laptop.
Another way of seeing things in black and white is by understanding how colors are changed to black and white (or at least get an idea of it). It’s also important to note that even the brightest and loudest colors will turn into shades of gray in B&W. Using a colored filter can help differ the tones though – for example, if you want a dramatic effect for your sky, use red filter so that it will come out as a really dark gray. Your blue clouds will then be the lighter shade of gray. Seeing things this way will help you compose your B&W photos well.
Study Your Location and Determine Which Areas are Good in Black and White
Landscape photos, as mentioned earlier, rely a lot on colors. However, this doesn’t mean that they’ll come out flat or lifeless in black and white. There are a lot of scenes that will look more than good in B&W; they’ll give you an emotional, dramatic effect. This is where you need to use your creative eye and determine which areas will give you stunning black and white images.
For example, when shooting mountains, you can find an area or scene that does not only show mountains but also the vast sky and the sun. So, there are two (or three) mountains standing proudly side by side and the sun peeking out from one of them, and the vast sky above. The mountains will come out as the darker gray while the sun and sky provide the lighter monochrome effects. Even better, the mountains come out in silhouette, which gives the whole scene a really quiet, calming, and dramatic effect.
This is what it means to accentuate contrast. Likewise, this is also what tonal contrast is about. It refers to the different levels of image brightness. In the example above, the tonal contrast is seen in the mountains, sun, and the vast sky.
Pay Attention to Shapes, Leading Lines, and Texture
Even if you’re shooting in black and white, it is still important to follow the rules of composition. Thus, you should pay attention to shapes, leading lines, and texture when you frame your landscape photos.
When shooting a hidden waterfall, for example, you should consider the lines and shapes that are in the scene. The tall height of the waterfall represents lines, especially since water drops down to the pool surface. All trees and rocks surrounding the waterfall represent different shapes. For texture in your composition, you can frame your shot so that the focus is on the rough edges of the top of the waterfall.
All these elements add creative, dramatic visuals, and life to your monochrome photos.
Use the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds helps your images achieve a sense of balance – the main focus, point of interest, or most compelling element of your photo is given major focus by placing it off-center in the frame.
This also makes your images more visually and aesthetically appealing.
Determine How You Want to Use Filters
In black and white photography, filters produce different effects. As such, most photographers prefer to use gray filters – or non-graduated filters. These are ideally used for landscape photos with movements.
Some photographers prefer to use polarizers instead of filters.
Pay Attention to Shadows, too!
Shadows can either be almost completely black or just a bit dark. Shadows can also be soft, smooth, or hard-edged. Pay attention to shadows on your photos and use these to your advantage. They can add a lot of emotions to your images. In particular, you should take note of the darkest areas while you are shooting and during post processing. From there, you’ll be able to determine the intensity of your B&W landscape photos.
Experiment and Practice
Before finalizing your shots, take time to experiment and practice. Play with the settings on your camera and try to determine what works best for you – and your black and white photography goals. Try out different apertures (from f4 to f16), shutter speeds, and ISO. The ideal set up, however, is a low ISO and small aperture. The lower the ISO, the better. Also, if you plan to shoot at night, the best set up would be long exposure / slow shutter speed.
You can also try using different lenses. Experiment with a wide-angle lens and then switch to telephoto lens so you can compare results.
While black and white landscape photography is not something you can master overnight, there are things and tips you can do that will help you develop your abilities. It’s not easy but it can be learned and mastered.
Another thing you can do is apply black & white Lightroom presets specifically designed for landscape and travel photography.
Dramatic Black & White Lightroom Presets for Landscape & Travel Photography
Turn your photographs into dramatic black and white images with deep and rich blacks or a classic faded look. This preset pack is designed as a structured workflow and consist of six modules.
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About the Author – Jan Erik Waider
I'm a visual artist and fine art photographer based in Hamburg. My work focuses on atmospheric and abstract landscape photography, capturing the essence of the remote polar regions. – Learn more about me and discover my fine art photo series, prints and books or download my Lightroom Presets or Capture One Styles.
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