How to Take Black and White Landscape Photos

June 16, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 18 Comments | |
How to Take Black and White Landscape Photos Image

Mother Photography's first born were black and white, or perhaps brown is a better way to describe the colour of those pioneering early images made two thirds of the way through the 19th century.

From then on, and especially from the 1960's, black and white has earned a certain reverence and has come to be seen as more 'arty'. Quite what more 'arty' means I am not so sure. However since the advent of colour photography, many of the black and white aficionados still claim (unjustifiably in my view) that monochrome is indeed more of a creative artistic endeavour.

I am often heard to say that 'the absence of colour distils the image to its essential qualities' which indeed it does. I can claim to have spent very many years in the darkroom and the zone system and the whole notion of tonal values have become second nature to me. In latter years however, I have concentrated on my colour photography, yet would never claim that one is superior over the other, nor would I throw away those precious years in the darkroom where I learned the great fundamentals of photography.

How to Take Black and White Landscapes

I am often asked what potential image lends itself to black and white more than colour and what criteria do I use when making a decision as to which medium I should use.

I can't deny that I do favour a strong contrast scene when I work with black and white, yet one with some values in the highlight and shadows, so I would always encourage photographers to look at the depth of a shadow and the value of a highlight before making a decision. Good graphic shapes of course can make excellent subjects and a fine building white cumulous sky is hard to resist treating in black and white.

This comment will be unpopular but I do suggest that the decision to make a black and white image should be a firm and intended one from the beginning of the photographic process and ideally not some post rationalising that 'if it did not work in colour then maybe it will in black and white'; I call this 'image salvaging' but this will engender some controversy I am sure. If the image is to be made in monochrome then that is to be established and comprehended from the start and then one can engage with the appropriate monochrome approach.

I was brought up on the work of Ansel Adams, Bill Bandt and Ralph Gibson and although the latter photographer is known for very high contrast images, these are styles I like. Currently there is some stunning low key black and white gently powerful landscape photography from the hand of a fine landscape photographer called Paul Gallagher ( which I have become very fond of.

How to Take Black and White Landscapes

I would urge those who intend making black and white images be it with digital capture or with film to think carefully about filtration. It is worth remembering the trio of filters that are often used for black and white photography are yellow, orange and red. They all to a greater or lesser extent absorb blue light.

I have seen many a monochrome print where the sky made up of blue and white clouds has been overwhelmingly powerful and yet, there had been no filter in place to pronounce the clouds. Two of these filters bring with them associated problems. The orange and most especially the red wreak havoc with the green values, compressing them into a narrower band of values and in the case of the red plunging almost all greens into a dark featureless expanse.

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photos, landscape, how to, landscapes, photographs, black and white, b&w, charlie waite, waite, charlie

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#1 Mark

I can’t see why you’d need global colour filtration when capturing a scene digitally. The best way to get a B&W image from a digital camera is to take the image in colour, then create the B&W by mixing varying amounts of the R, G & B channels to achieve the contrast you want.

For example, to achieve the effect of the traditional strong red/orange filter to darken the sky, just use a small amount of the blue channel - or none at all.

Your digital sensor with its colour filter array effectively acts like three strips of B&W film, one with a red filter, one with a green and one with a blue.

The only filtration that makes sense to use on digital are polarizers (effect can’t be replicated in post-processing), neutral grads (maximize dynamic range without multiple exposures and HDR tomfoolery) and neutral density filters (allowing greater exposure times).

1:17 pm - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

#2 Jan

Hi, Mark… It is trend for digitaly today, make anything in PC, what is better make before take pictures. Do you mean really, that mathematical proces (any proces in editor with picture file) is same, like when you change with filters or lenses light condition, color spectre and time, what you give light to painting photographic picture? Like change of exposure is not same, like change “exposure” in Lightroom or Photoshop, filters have another feel in picture, than sterility proces in editor with computing pictures files :-)

2:45 pm - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

#3 Mark


Whilst I appreciate the sentiment about the purism of capturing the image as you want it the first time, the use of plain coloured filters in digital photography is an important exception to the rule.

Film needs filters because the colour information is “combined” at the film surface (both for B&W or colour film). In digital cameras, the colour information is recorded separately into R, G and B channels thanks to the colour filter array in front of the sensor.

Adding additional filters to this setup will reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor - causing longer shutter times and increased noise - without actually changing the nature of the image.

You can exactly replicate the effect of plain colour filters simply by varying the mix of the R, G and B channels that make up your final monochrome image.

You accuse this of being a mathematical process rather than a physical one - but the filter is also a mathematical process in its effect. All a red filter will do is attenuate the values recorded by the green and blue channels. The only difference between the filter and the post-processing is that the filter applies the correction in the analogue domain, and the computer does it in the digital domain. The results are exactly equivalent, except that the post-processing retains more information by not underexposing the “unfavoured” channels.

Another danger of filters with digital is an increased risk of channel overexposure. Many cameras meter their exposure and show you histogram information from the luminance channel only. By using a strong colour filter you can seriously overexpose the “favoured” channel without the camera warning you.

Finally, the arguments for using RAW over JPEG also apply here. In post-processing, you can choose what filter to apply at your leisure, and you’re not limited to filters you own, or even filters that are available.

3:25 pm - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

#4 Eric Luden

I recently overheard this comment: “Friends don’t let friends shoot jpeg”.  So we instruct all of our customers to shoot RAW, unfiltered, and do all the work later.  We have been using Nik Silver Efex Pro for all of our own work and for our customers as well.  Use it as a smart filter and you have complete editing control.  We can then print the RGB b&W file on our true B&W silver papers.  It is a match made in heaven.  All the benefits of the digital work flow with the time honored tradition of true b&w gelatin silver prints.
The B&W image has always intrigued me and I appreciate them more than color images.  For me, color is distracting and I prefer he tonal values and shades on monochrome.  It’s not a better or worse issue, it’s just a preference.

5:19 pm - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

#5 Heru Wijayanto


6:37 pm - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

#6 carrol

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2:48 pm - Saturday, June 20, 2009

#7 Gloria Golden

Your photographs are beautiful and make me realize how much I love black and white.  Recently, I have experimented with tinting, but I think it’s those black and whites that really touch me.

7:12 pm - Saturday, June 27, 2009

#8 pamela

Black an white is also awesome.When I was a very small child we have black and white TV Which was so dear to me.But when I reached in college for 640-863 exam coaching classes we purchased color TV.Now I am really missing black and white.

1:29 pm - Monday, July 6, 2009

#9 SB Landscape Photography

Thanks for sharing. I agree with what Mark has said in regards to digital capture/black and white conversions.

11:00 am - Friday, July 17, 2009

#10 Mark Highton Ridley

You make some very useful and helpful points. I’ll check to see if my Rebel XT will let me shoot in BW while capturing as a RAW as that seems like a v.good tip.

I’m going through a phase right now of high-contrast work, whether still/abstract or landscape.

If anyone’s interested in my BW HDR video tutorial, check out my site

11:50 am - Saturday, July 18, 2009

#11 Eric

One general recommendation is to shoot in full color and convert to b&w later.  If you allow the camera to decide how the image will look in B&W (by shooting in a b%w mode) then you’re throwing our valuable information.  Capture in RAW RGB to get all the detail and info.  We have found this to provide the best results when we go to make prints in our lab on true gelatin silver papers.

4:09 pm - Saturday, July 18, 2009

#12 Mia

Thank you so much for posting these stunning photos.

I believe one of the most important factors in creating good black and white images is to start with a subject that lends itself to monochrome in the first instance. In this regard tonal contrasts and beautiful textures are key. It also seems that some of the simplest scenes are sometimes the most effective!

Warm wishes,
Mia Rose

3:17 pm - Thursday, December 10, 2009

#13 peter haken

love your BW work truely amazing, great tips too thanks for sharing

8:49 am - Sunday, December 19, 2010

#14 Adrian Ashworth

Such an interesting read, really enjoyed it, thanks so much for posting, I’ll book mark this for future reference


11:51 am - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#15 canvas prints

what a great post, and some really important tips that will change the way i go about taking this type of photo. all the best

2:57 pm - Tuesday, July 10, 2012

#16 myrtle

Great! Such an interesting post indeed.=D

10:39 am - Friday, January 4, 2013

#17 Godbolt Robert

Such an interesting, really enjoyed it, thanks so much for posting. You make some very useful and helpful points. Also checkout my monochrome photography portfolio here

10:08 am - Thursday, January 10, 2013

#18 hermiliesmith

Nice post and I really like that concept of taking black and white photos really totally fabulous and amazing idea for the photography.

10:55 am - Tuesday, March 18, 2014