We are blessed that we were born with the ability to see in color. Seeing the deep blue of a summer’s sky or the intense red of a spring rose is something that we perhaps take for granted. As we see in color so our cameras take pictures in color but sometimes all the colors of the rainbow are too many, sometimes just two colors and all shades between can evoke emotions so far beyond the spectrum of our color spectrum. The name of those two colors: Black and White. Of course, pedants might say that neither black nor white are colors, they are merely the pure light and the absolute absence of light, but I would imagine they would have a hard time explaining that to Ansel Adams. Today we are going to look at five keys to improving your black and white landscapes.
1. Light and Shade
The first key to black and white landscapes is being able to see in light and shade. This can be a difficult thing to do at first, but with a little thought and practice, you will find yourself looking at a scene in a different way. You will look at the sky and determine whether it has interest or definition, you will look at the mid tones of the scene in front of you looking for textures and you will look into the deep shadows looking for details. Any scene can be converted to black and white but only some will look good.
Light and shade are the first things that you need to look for but the next thing is the difference between the light and the shade. Digital sensors are amazing devices but they are still nowhere near as good as our eyes for picking out tonal range. A good black and white shot needs to have contrast, this can be low contrast or high contrast but with the absence of color, it is the contrast that is helping to create our composition.
In high contrast scenes our sensors may struggle, the blacks too black and the whites too white so we must understand the limits of our cameras and expose accordingly. If the scene in front of you has too much contrast then it is time to consider using a graduated filter, to reduce exposure in the sky areas or moving to an HDR shot, shooting several exposures to widen the potential tonal range.
3. The Zone System
Developed by Ansel Adams we know know it more commonly as matrix metering. Our camera’s meter breaks the scene into various zones and averages out the exposure. Except of course average is not alway what we are looking for. To truly zone meter, use your camera’s spot meter or a handheld meter and measure the lightest darkest points in the scene and also several mid-tones in between. Then fixing either your shutter speed or aperture, you need to calculate where the optimum exposure lies, bearing in mind the tonal range of your sensor.
Good composition is important in all photographs, but in black and white it can make the difference between mundane and great. The normal rules work of course – the rule of thirds, leading lines etc but you are also looking to compose using the tones in the image, perhaps placing a darker object one one third or using shadows or textures as leading lines to the main subject. Using the tones in your composition is a great way to start thinking in black and white, it forces you to look for the light, shade and contrast much more than a conventional color photograph ever would.
In the days of film, a black and white photographer’s kit bag would be full of multi-colored filters to enhance and darken skies, hold back foliage even to shoot infrared. These days, whilst grads, ND’s and polarizers are still essential, there is no need for the color filters. The reason? Post production.
Software like Photoshop and Lightroom allow us to peek deep inside the data of our digital images, isolating the red, green and blue channels using the channel mixer. When we convert to black and white, these channels are maintained, allowing us to have accurate control over exactly how we want the image to look. All the effects we once did using color filter can now be achieved simply using a the channel mixer.
Black and white landscape photography can lead to powerful emotive images. Whilst it is possible to trawl through our catalogues looking for images to convert, the best images will come from shots that have been conceived with black and white in mind. Applying this few tips plus others will help you visualize and shoot better black and white landscapes.