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Photography / Tips and Solutions

Black-and-White Landscape Photography

Though I was raised and grazed on film I have no qualms admitting I haven’t shot a roll of the stuff since August 2001 (with a Nikon N90 and Fujifilm Astia in case you’re curious). I appreciate film, respect film and certainly miss the disciplined aspects of shooting film, but at the end of the day I’m perfectly happy with digital imaging, warts and all.  If I did have a gripe of sorts concerning digital imaging, it would have to be the way monochrome imaging—though available on almost every digital camera—has taken a back seat to color. And that’s rather unfortunate because in my mind, shooting monochrome requires additional levels of thought, sensitivity to detail and composition, and foresight in order to capture an image that will have greater visual impact on the viewer.

Original color image and black-and-white version, electronically 
converted to monotone with red filter emulation

Unlike color imaging, in which a bright spot of red in a field of more muted colors and tones can be viewed in some critics' eyes as being a manipulative, gimmicky ploy to snag the viewer's attention, monochrome imaging is purely about form, texture, tone and contrast. Can these attributes be equally gimmicky? Sure, but this is a subject for another time so let’s park this aspect of the discussion for the time being. Regardless, in the right hands (and through the right eyes) monochrome landscape photography can be very powerful in deed. This holds true for film and digital imaging alike.

Filters for Black-and-White Landscape Photography

For adding an extra measure of drama to your landscapes you should consider packing red, orange and yellow filters into your gadget bag along with a Polarizing filter. When photographing landscapes, red, yellow and orange filters darken blue skies, bring out cloud details and translate the green, yellow, orange and red tones of foliage in a way that plays well off the contrasting tonal qualities of the sky and clouds. For maximum impact and drama, use the red filter, for less dramatic results the orange filter, and the yellow filter for moderate levels of impact and drama.  

Polarizing filters are similarly useful for landscape photography in that Polarizers increase the contrast levels between blue skies and clouds (if they happen to be floating by), and by increasing or decreasing the level of Polarization—by rotating the filter by varying degrees—you can approximate the tonal differences between red, yellow and orange filtration. But Polarizers go a step further by allowing you to control reflections on water as well as extraneous glare from the surfaces of leaves, flowers and other reflective and semi-reflective surfaces, which is something you cannot do with other types of filters.

Full Color Red Filter
Yellow Filter Green Filter

Toning and Split-Toning

When thinking "black and white," it’s important to keep in mind that not everything is… black and white. Toning, formally varieties of chemical processes that give a warm or cool tone to black-and-white (aka "gray scale," in the current jargon) prints since the early days of photography, are alive and well in the digital world. In addition to a neutral black-and-white mode, many digital cameras also offer warm-tone or sepia modes as shooting options, as do many photo editing software applications. Neutral tones can also be shifted warm or cool by adjusting the Curves or tint levels in Photoshop or alternate photo editing programs.

Depending on which photo-editing software (or Photoshop plug-ins) you are using, it’s also possible to create split-tone imagery, in which you can tint highlight areas one way and shadows another. As an example, you can have warm highlight areas and cool or neutral shadows, which is not dissimilar to the manner in which shadows in real life are usually cooler in tone than midtones and highlight areas.

Converting Color to Black and White in your Printer

One of the cooler aspects of shooting digital is that even if you initially shoot in color, which in the case of virtually every digital camera is the default recording space, it’s easy to convert the image into gray scale well after the fact, in Photoshop or similar photo editing software applications. Some of these applications go as far as electronically applying the look of red, yellow or orange filters to your pre-existing imagery.

It’s also worth mentioning that many printers, such as Epson’s Stylus Photo series printers, have an Advanced Black-and-White mode, which takes your color image files and outputs them as extremely impressive black-and-white prints in a choice of neutral, warm, sepia or cool tones.

Image Composition

The subject of image composition for black-and-white landscape photography is, for the most part, one and the same as it is for color. The key difference is that unlike color photography, in which you can use contrasting colors to grab the viewer’s eye, with black and white the tonal values of red and green can often be extremely close if not the same, which means you have to be that much more attuned to the compositional aspects of the photograph.

As such, you have to pay closer attention to make sure there is at least one dominant shape (or subject) in the foreground (or depending on the particulars of the image, the background) that plays off the other elements within the frame. The classic rule of thirds, whereby you divide the composition into three segments, and rule of the S-curve in which symmetry is prominent, are also equally important for color and monotone imaging alike.

 All photos © Allan Weitz, 2011. May not be reproduced without permission.