What happens when you take all the color out of a photograph except white and black? You devoid it of its vibrancy, but you also add something to it. Depending on the subject and the treatment that element can be mystery, subtle story-telling, romance or anything else that can you think of. Having said that, from a photographer’s perspective, black and white photos are harder to shoot and perfect, and harder still to post-process.
Black and white photographs of landscapes are immediately absorbing and they provoke a kind of reaction that color photos can never hope to achieve. Just look at some of Ansel Adam’s photos of the American landscapes especially that of Yosemite and you will realize this. However, in order to deserve such adulation on needs to master the rules of exposure and then some of the vital post processing techniques required to give the photos their final look. Here is a great course that will help you to master the digital darkroom.
Black and white landscape photography is not an easy thing to master. The problem that most photographers do at the beginning is that they don’t use the basic tone separation techniques. This is important because unlike in color photographs where the tonal difference is apparent, black and white photos don’t have that luxury. So, until and unless there is a difference in the tonal range, all the elements of the photo gets mixed up. Someone looking at a photo will find it impossible to differentiate between one element and the other.
Here are a few tips that will help you to get you started on the right foot.
Shoot in RAW
If you are shooting with a DSLR try and shoot in RAW. RAW is a loss-less format and retains all of the image data for you to manipulate during post-processing. During post processing you need to convert each color according to its tone and make sure that they appear contrasting when the final photo is ready. Let’s say you shot a photo of an undulating grassland. The sky is blue with patches of cloud. When converting to monochrome you should target to convert the sky to a darker tone of black. The grassland which is green should be converted to a lighter tone of black so that they stand out in the final photo. The remaining elements in the photo should be given separate tonality to ensure that all the elements are visible and easily understandable.
Avoid Shooting in Monochrome Mode In-camera
This is because the camera can get the tonality wrong and that will create the problem of elements in your photo getting mixed up, all in a similar shade of black or gray. If your camera cannot shoot in RAW then simply shoot the photo in color to be later processed into monochrome. Some photographers prefer not to shoot in RAW because they hate the prospect of losing out large chunks of memory to large RAW files. The choice is entirely up to you. However, if you choose to shoot in monochrome try using a blue, orange or yellow filter to change the tonality in the photos. This method of using filters was widely practiced during the film days when photographers realized that it is impossible to tell between different colors tones in the final photo shot in the traditional way. When you use a filter of a specific color that color shows up brighter in the final photo compared to the other colors and thus a tonal difference is created. Like in the above example (described under Shoot in RAW) if you use a green filter, the sky and the green grasslands will all have tonal variations. Additionally, if there is a yellow tinge anywhere it will appear near white.
Select Subjects of Interest That Stands Out
Sometimes, even though the elements captured in the image have very similar color tones (and thus almost the same tone when converted to monochrome) what stands out is the quality of those elements. In other words picking interesting subjects can save your day even though you originally thought of color when composing and not black and white. Silhouette of a natural icon is one such example. Even if you shot in color to later discover that the photos don’t look that good, you can convert them to black and white later.
Shooting on an Overcast Day
If you pick a bright sunny day to shoot black and white landscape photos you would have trouble getting good snaps. The reason is bright sunny days produce harsh light and that creates strong shadows and destroys details and textures. If there are no tonal variances, converting to monochrome would be a problem. Comparatively, overcast days are perfect for capturing black and white landscapes. Overcast days are referred to as nature’s softbox and they are the ideal for portrait, flower and black and white photographs. Soft light increases the tonal range and ensures that there are a lot of midtones in the photos.
Pick a Low ISO
Every digital image contains noise. It is unavoidable and is entirely composed of signals that are incomprehensible. Digital noise show up as small specs in the photo, when shot even in good light to really big specks, when the photo is taken at low light and at high ISO. When you use a high ISO number to shoot a scene the noise is amplified and appears larger than they would normally do. This is the reason why most pros shoot at lower ISO. Nowadays, however, smarter digital sensors with advanced image processing systems have hit the market. With these cameras it is possible to shoot at ISO 3200 or higher and still get away with usable photos. While these may be okay for color photos, black and white photos exaggerate the problem of noise. As such, a lower ISO is desirable.
Working With an Image Editing Software
Know how to work with photo editing software so that you can increase the contrasts and the tonality of the colors. Adobe Lightroom 5 has a curve tool that allow you to change both the tone and the contrast. When working with an editing software take care to add contrast to the midtones. Midtone contrasts make the real ‘texture’ in photos and breathe life into them.
In the old film days dodging and burning were techniques that were extensively used for the purposes of perfecting landscape scenes and for that matter any photographs. It used a delicate method of controlling the amount of light that falls on the photography paper, through the negative, during the process of developing.
Dodging meant covering the light coming through the negative, during the developing process. This resulted in certain areas of the photo receiving less light and resultantly turning out lighter than its immediate surroundings. On the other hand burning meant that a scene received more light than its surrounding during the development process, resulting in a darker area. Very simply, during the development process more light = darker exposures.
One of the greatest proponents of dodging and burning technique was the legend Ansel Adams. He fine-tuned this technique to create some of the best photos ever captured on monochrome. Obviously, the zone system of metering that he and Fred Archer developed, helped him to create perfect exposures in the first place.
Nowadays, however, to practice dodging and burning one need to spend hours and hours inside a darkroom. Digital photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom comes with options to mimic the same effects. With some practice, soon you will be creating black and white photos and the use of S and inverse S curves.
For more information on how to create stunning black and white compositions (and not necessarily landscapes) check this great tutorial.