Design, Photography, & Fashion

7 Tips for Stunning Black and White Landscape Photography

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 6, 2019 • 6 min read

Some of the world’s finest photography falls into a category known as landscape photography. From a national park in Utah to a rocky beach in Maine to a glistening lake in upstate New York, the United States is filled with grand landscapes that make excellent photographic subjects. Black and white landscape photography is a subset of the genre that produces some of the most emotionally arresting shots in the photographic canon.

Save

Share


Jimmy Chin Teaches Adventure PhotographyJimmy Chin Teaches Adventure Photography

National Geographic photographer teaches his techniques for planning, capturing, and editing breathtaking photos.

Learn More

What is Landscape Photography?

Landscape photography is photography that occurs in the great outdoors. It is separate from what we know as nature photography, which is a broader category that encompasses all portraiture of the natural world. Usually, landscape photography captures an impressive natural scene—an imposing mountain range, a serene, sprawling field, a river roaring by—untouched by human presence (besides the photographer’s, of course).

What’s the Best Camera for Black and White Landscape Photography?

While it is possible to take photographs with any camera—even a smartphone—professional landscape photographers favor a mirrorless digital camera or DSLR for landscape photography. Black and white film is still available for purchase (mostly online), but given the strides made in digital photography over the years, you’re better off shooting on a DSLR.

  • Mirrorless and DSLR cameras provide maximum control over camera settings, which means not only is the baseline quality of the image automatically superior, the possibilities of creating professional-looking pictures are endless.
  • A mirrorless and DSLR digital camera also allow the photographer to swap lenses.
  • For sweeping landscape images, like canyons and caverns, go with a wide-angle lens such as Nikon’s 14-24mm.
  • For more detailed and close-up images, don’t be afraid to use a zoom lens or telephoto lens, like Canon’s 70-200mm.
  • Experiment with different focal lengths (the distance in millimeters between the lens and the camera’s sensor) to see how the same vista can render in different ways.
Jimmy Chin Teaches Adventure Photography
Frank Gehry Teaches Design and Architecture
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

What Subjects Are Best Suited for Black and White Landscape Photography?

Black and white landscape photography removes a key tool from an artist’s palette: color. To compensate for this, the best black and white landscape photography (also known as monochrome landscape photography) seeks out particular subjects that can be every bit as compelling without color.

  • Look for landscapes that provide high contrast. Think of a bright sky against dark hills, or a deep inky ravine beneath a well-lit landscape. Such subject matter offers notable contrast between light and dark, and those contrasts will shine through in a black and white photograph.
  • Use texture as another way to express contrast. The craggy bark of a tree trunk offers a continual ribbon of shadow and light. Or use two objects to show textural contrast. Think of a smooth rock face with fuzzy lichen growing out of it. Or perhaps feathery birds atop a glassy lake surface.
  • The best black and white landscapes are often the same ones that might be featured in color landscapes. If you spot a piercing blue sky over verdant green mountains, try a black and white image alongside a color shot. The mountains will provide deep blacks while the sky will offer an array of textured light.

MasterClass

Suggested for You

Online classes taught by the world’s greatest minds. Extend your knowledge in these categories.

Jimmy Chin

Teaches Adventure Photography

Learn More
Frank Gehry

Teaches Design And Architecture

Learn More
Marc Jacobs

Teaches Fashion Design

Learn More
Annie Leibovitz

Teaches Photography

Learn More

The Ansel Adams Method for Taking Black and White Landscape Photographs

Think Like a Pro

National Geographic photographer teaches his techniques for planning, capturing, and editing breathtaking photos.

View Class

America’s most famous landscape photographer is Ansel Adams, and nearly 100 years after his first fine art exhibitions, he remains the gold standard for black and white landscape photography, emulated by everyone from modern masters to amateurs experimenting in their backyards.

Adams pioneered a method known as the zone system. When photographing a scene, he would divide it into ten zones, numbered by the amount of light they reflected. In Adams’ zone system, pure black is notated as zero and pure white is notated as ten, with a gradual gradient of zones one through nine comprising the other hues.

Adams calibrated his camera settings around the darkest zones in a scene. By anchoring around those dark zones, Adams ensured that shadowy areas would maintain their detail through careful exposure—something that came through in the final black and white print.

What Adams did manually can now be achieved digitally through digital camera technology. Most of today’s DSLR cameras offer shadow and highlight warnings that appear on their LCD viewfinders before you snap a photo. These will alert you if your landscape scene features light extremes that are too great for your camera’s sensor to handle.

After you take the shot, your digital camera can display a histogram, which is a graphical representation of the tonal value of your shot. The histogram of a well-composed photograph will indicate that the majority of pixels are away from the shot’s most extreme blacks and extreme whites. If your shot mostly contains extremes, you will need to adjust your exposure, lest you lose tremendous amounts of detail in your final black and white image.

7 Tips for Taking Better Black and White Landscape Photos

Editors Pick

As with all photography, executing better black and white landscape images is a function of not only skill but also extensive experience. In some ways there is no substitute for practice. However, consider these photography tips as they pertain to black and white photography, landscape photography, and the photographic arts in general.

  1. Neutral density filters are a black and white photographer’s best friend. In fact any outdoor photographer, from nature photographers to fine art still life portraitists, often have to battle the whims of the sun. A graduated neutral density filter can mute sunlight and provide the tonal range and shades of gray that are required for both commercial and fine art photography.
  2. When possible, use a small aperture and as low an ISO as possible. Black and white photographs tend to succeed when they have sharp, consistent focus and minimal digital noise; these settings will help achieve those goals. You may have to mix and match your settings with different lenses. A wide angle lens may not respond to the same camera settings as a telephoto lens with a shallow depth of field.
  3. When shooting at night, use a long exposure with a slow shutter speed to allow for the necessary light to reach the camera sensor. But even when sunlight is available—such as during the golden hour—long exposures can produce riveting images.
  4. Remember that the basic rules of composition apply to black and white landscape photography. Choose subject matter that provides natural framing, notable patterns, and leading lines. As the photographer, you are also responsible for placing the horizon and varying your viewpoint. These rules apply to color photography, but they also can be used to produce good black and white images.
  5. Whether you’re shooting black and white or color images, follow the rule of thirds, a popular trick for composing perfectly balanced and aesthetically-pleasing photographs. The rule of thirds creates a grid of three horizontal lines and three vertical lines, which you can set up through your viewfinder or on the back screen of your camera. The points where the lines meet are the points of interest, so place the most dynamic or compelling parts of the main subject there, off-center in either the left-third or right-third of the frame. Learn more about the rule of thirds here.
  6. Leave negative space around your point of interest, or a large area of the photo that’s mostly “empty” to balance the photo. Shoot an evergreen tree next to a snow-covered field or a lighthouse next to a bright blue ocean. These contrasts can be quite striking when converted to black and white.
  7. Remember that even if you spend a day shooting color landscape photographs, any digital image can easily be represented in black and white—either via computer software like Adobe Lightroom or on your digital camera itself.

Want to Learn More About Photography?

Become a better photographer with the MasterClass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by photography masters, including Jimmy Chin, Annie Leibovitz, and more.

Save

Share