It is often found that black and white landscape photography is an alternative option when things do not go to plan. This maybe down to the weather conditions being overcast or that elusive sunrise not painting the sky with its pink, orange and magenta hues. This option mainly comes into consideration in the post processing stage with the mindset of trying a black and white edit before being discarded to the bin. Occasionally it works but what if we set out with the premise of purely shooting black and white?
Black and white landscape photography deserves its place in any good portfolio and it also warrants more respect than an after thought. I am guilty of this but I have also produced some good work with images where it was not my intention for the end result to be in mono. Success rates in black and white photography however would no doubt increase if we set our camera profile to monochromatic when shooting a colourless landscape.
Subjects are so important like they are when shooting in colour but in mono, we need to think of the contrast between the light and the dark areas. Subjects need to stand out whether that be light against a dark surround or vice versa. The subject has to be strong and play an important, dominant part of the composition. In this example below, from a recent session in the Lake District, Hardknott pass is the dominant subject. I painted in increased exposure of the pass and darkened the surrounding grassland to allow it to pop;
The path takes the eye on to the valley beyond and the surrounding fells. There is a good tonal range which is important in black and white photography. If I was to criticise the image, I would have preferred the path starting from the lower part rather than the right of the frame as this would have created a more pleasing leading line.
From an early part of the day, I set my intentions to shoot the landscape in black and white and I had processed the above image in my head, knowing exactly what I had in mind. High contrast subjects were important. Subjects that could be brought to life in post processing. During the day, I chose water, mountains against sky and meandering roads. The conditions that day were challenging to say the least in terms of the high winds but with very little direct light, I knew that a strong and dominant subject against a contrasting sky was important.
Another image from that day where I use the strong shapes of the landscape against the sky and a stream and pool of water against the grassland. As with the majority of my edits, I decrease the overall exposure using the tone curve and then apply local adjustments to the key elements of the image;
Hardknott Pass is Englands steepest road and offers some very rewarding compositions I found if taken by foot. If driven then focus is more towards avoiding the car from falling off the face of the earth. This was my thoughts during my nerve racking first attempt a few years ago. I approached the pass from the Western side and to be honest on foot, it was only until I reached the highest point where the steepness and very acute angled hair pins came to life.
A good proportion of the main subject is also important. This maybe small with a large percentage of negative space or alternatively a larger proportion of the main subject with smaller elements in the frame. In this image, again the dominant feature was the pass with its meandering leading line which leads you up to the wonderful rocky crags of Border End. The image was helped with the atmospheric low cloud on the peaks;
Editing black and white images is such an enjoyable process. It feels to me more liberating, free to push the sliders that bit more. The black and white landscape is a mysterious and timeless place and comes to life through a subtle application of dodging and burning, a good S curve, local adjustments and the occasional vignette. A good range of tones is paramount from the blacks, through to the greys and the whites, avoiding clipping.
Black and white landscape photography is often described as fine art, something that is recognisable but is separate from reality. An art piece rather than a record shot. I will continue to experiment, explore and enjoy this genre that no doubt will never lose its appeal to me. Visit my project work where I display a collection of black and white images set against a brief or a set of basic rules to follow for each shot.
You can also watch the video below of my challenging adventure;