Shoot vistas full of monochrome majesty
THE GREAT OUTDOORS CAN BE A riot of colour, with a palette that changes through the seasons. It might seem odd, therefore, to choose to present a landscape image in black & white. Of course, probably the most famous landscape specialist in the history of photography – the great Ansel Adams – shot almost exclusively in monochrome, and nobody could accuse him of producing images that lacked impact. Any landscape photographer who sets out to shoot in mono must learn a new way of reading a scene. Colours often render as almost identical tones of grey in a black & white shot and, where a colour image can rely on the different hues for compositional power, mono landscapes are only defined by differences in tone.
It is the separation of light and dark that drives the composition in a black & white landscape, and assessing a scene for a potential mono rendering requires an eye for tonal separation. In the days of film, a handy trick for ‘seeing’ a landscape in black & white was to use an orange or red filter on the lens, which also dramatically darkened the sky. With the colours muted it was possible to pick out differences in tone through the viewfinder. With a digital camera you can go a step further and set up your Live View to display in black & white. But while this is a useful aid when starting out, the serious mono landscape photographer should train themselves to judge the tonal separation in a scene before even setting up a camera.
Take a fresh look at light
The good news for any landscape photographer thinking of shooting some mono images is that some of the lighting conditions that are unsuitable for producing a good colour shot can work wonderfully in black & white. Many landscape artists favour the golden hours just after dawn and just before sunset, when the shadows are long and the sky has a blanket of even luminescence. While these conditions
can work just as well in mono, black & white landscapes can also look fantastic when shot under the harshest of light with the sun at its zenith. In these conditions the strong separation between the blackest shadows and whitest highlights strengthens the inherently graphic nature of the black & white image.
Go long for tonality
Any landscape photographer worth his or her salt is almost guaranteed to have some serious neutral density filters in their kit bag for producing those glorious long exposure shots where the clouds scud across the sky and water is rendered as a dreamy, mist-like layer.
This compelling style of landscape photography works just a well in black & white and actually has some advantages for anyone shooting in mono. Skies are naturally impressive in black & white – especially with some tweaking in the post-edit – and blurry white clouds against a stark black sky look particularly striking, while the ‘blanket’ of tonality that moving water creates in scene works very well in monochrome.
Finally, when looking at a scene and considering a black & white treatment, decide if it contains a good contrast of tonality, look for a separation of light and dark and assess its graphical appeal.
Above Long exposures can boost the tonal separation in monochrome images and add extra impact.