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Creating Bold Black and White Landscape Photographs: Part I

One of my favorite things about black and white landscape photography is the ability to push the boundaries of reality in a way that can be difficult with color photography. From my perspective, color photography is most powerful when it is grounded in what the photographer actually saw and experienced when creating a photograph. Since viewers know that a black and white scene is by its very nature a departure from reality, the medium offers more latitude for interpreting a scene - a creative freedom that I find exhilarating. With black and white photography, the photographer can emphasize or aggressively introduce drama, boldness, and contrast while still achieving an aesthetically pleasing result – things that are much harder to do when working in color.

Canyon Strike, Utah Canyonlands.

Below, I share four lessons for creating bold and dramatic black and white landscape photographs, focusing on steps that you can take while working in the field. In the second part of this article, I will share my basic approach to processing black and white photos along with some lessons on how to emphasize boldness and drama in the digital darkroom.

Flooded Polygons, California.

Look for Scenes with Natural Tonal Contrast

Some scenes in nature have a lot of natural tonal contrast and such scenes will often give you a head start in creating bold and dramatic photographs in black and white. Tonal contrast simply means that a scene has a mix of brighter tones and darker tones, each of which can be later emphasized or exaggerated. In the photo above, you can see that the bright white lines of salt stand out against the darker pools around them, that the mountains are quite dark, and that the clouds include both dark and light tones. This is an example of a scene that has a lot of natural contrast, in this case emphasized by side lighting on the salt ridges (the sun was to my right and still fairly high in the sky, providing direct light on the foreground while the mountains remained shaded in the background).

Studying your histogram is an easy way to assess a scene’s natural contrasts. First, think of bright white clouds over a darker landscape. If you create a photo of this scene and convert it to black and white, you can instantly see potential because of the inherent tonal contrasts (the dark land is represented in the tones on the left side of a histogram, with the bright clouds on the right side, which indicates a wide range of tonal contrast in a scene). Now, think of a scene without a lot of tonal contrast – like an expanse of green trees. This scene has all of the tones concentrated in the middle of the histogram – a low contrast scene that would not be as naturally suited to presentation in black and white, especially if your goal is boldness and drama.

Edge of Light, California.

Let the Light Help You Out

“Avoid harsh light” is an early lesson offered to new landscape photographers – and is advice to immediately get out of your head if you are interested in black and white photography. As demonstrated in many of the photos in this article, direct and even harsh light offers benefits for rendering scenes in black and white. Direct light can be especially helpful when it hits only parts of a landscape, primarily because the mix of brighter light (brighter tones of gray) and shadows (darker tones of gray) creates contrast and that contrast can help impart a feeling of boldness and drama once a photo is processed.

Morning Light, California Badlands.

In the example above, direct light is hitting the ridges of the badlands. The valleys below are still in shadow, which creates strong tonal contrast across the scene. I took this photo right as the first light of the day landed on the badlands as the sun crested the mountains behind me. In the example below, the direct light fell over the massive desert monolith during the middle of the day, with sunlight shining through fast moving clouds. By looking for dynamic and mixed lighting, nature can help by offering you a strong starting point for creating dramatic black and white photographs.

Desert Temple, Utah Desert.

Photograph Outside of the Golden Hour

Another piece of advice nature photographers often receive early in their education: photograph during the “golden hour” for the best results. The golden hour is the period right before and right after sunrise and sunset. During this time, a landscape can be blanketed with soft, warm light. While this advice is helpful for color photography, it is poor advice if you are interested in seeking out scenes that can translate well to black and white photography.

Golden hour light can work for black and white photography (see the photo below) but limiting yourself to this short period of time each day will mean missing a lot of opportunities to make compelling photographs. Instead, be open to photographing throughout the day, especially if you see dynamic weather forming, a storm clearing, or mixed light developing. This orientation will help significantly expand your opportunities to create black and white photographs.

When I am out photographing, I always arrive quite early, stay quite late, and sometimes go out in the middle of the day because this gives me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of light – mixed light, strong direct light and deep shadows, softer side-lighting that happens in the morning after sunrise and afternoon before sunset on clear days, during changing conditions that can produce dappled light and sun beams, and during storms with dramatic clouds. While landscapes can often look dull in terms of color during these times, they often still have the elements necessary for creating bold black and white photographs, including strong lines, aggressive compositional elements, tonal contrast, dramatic features like clouds, and dynamic lighting.

Rooster’s Cove, Hawaii.

Be Patient and Wait for the Best Moment

When working with a dynamic element, like moving clouds, changing light, clearing mist, or flowing water, it can be beneficial to spend some time watching the scene develop and taking photos as the conditions evolve. When you get back to your computer and are ready to select a file to process, you can compare individual moments to see which one conveys the scene in the most compelling way. Often, one or two exposures jump out from the rest as being clearly better, more dynamic, or most interesting. While this lesson works for all kinds of landscape photography, I find it especially important for black and white. Since eye-catching colors aren’t available to grab a viewer’s attention, dynamic light or compositional elements are important for elevating the result.

In the “Desert Temple” example above, the light shining on only the front edge of the butte and the ground in front did the best job of conveying the contrast between the thin slice of light and the extensive deep shadows. By photographing as the light tracked across the scene, I could later choose the most interesting exposure to process. In the example directly above, the waves fully filled this small cove in a sweeping curve only for this specific exposure. Of the more than 100 exposures of wave motion from this evening, this one most clearly worked with the shape of the cove. In the final example below, I waited to see if the clouds would open up on both sides of the mountain. They eventually did and having the brightness throughout the sky helped balance the composition. If boldness and drama are goals for your photography, these short-lived decisive moments can help significantly elevate your results.

Next time you are out with your camera, consider these lessons to help expand your opportunities for creating bold, dramatic landscape photographs in black and white. By learning to assess how a scene might work in black and white, getting out beyond the golden hour, seeking interesting light, and waiting for the best moment, your opportunities to create compelling black and white photographs will markedly increase. If you have some additional lessons from your experience, please share them below. And stay tuned for the second post in this series which focuses on working with black and white photos in the digital darkroom.

Wild Weather, Montana.

About the author: Sarah Marino is a nature photographer, photography educator, and writer. In addition to photographing grand landscapes, Sarah is best known for her photographs of a diverse range of smaller subjects including intimate landscapes, abstract renditions of natural subjects, and creative portraits of plants and trees. Sarah is the author or co-author of many well-regarded educational resources for nature photographers. Along with her husband, fellow landscape photographer Ron Coscorrosa, Sarah splits her time between a home base in rural southwestern Colorado and living a nomadic life in an Airstream trailer. This mix allows for extensive travel, exploration, and extended stays in some of North America’s most inspiring wild and natural places. Website:

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Sarah, I really enjoyed reading your article on creating bold and dramatic B & W images. Using the histogram as a tool to assess contrast for B & W photo potential is a great idea. To me, your inclusion of storm clouds (in most of the examples) are what take these images to a whole other level of drama and interest . Thank you!

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