How to Take Black and White Landscape Photos

June 16, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

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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