The Black & White Image

As a landscape photographer my use of black and white as a medium is often applied in situations where colour is not the priority, but rather where light, composition, shape, texture, motion and secondary elements such as shadows and silhouettes become my primary focus.

I am especially drawn to soft colour and light as a starting point for most of my compositions but the opportunity for a strong black and white photograph often presents itself, at least in landscape photography, during less than ideal lighting conditions, often where harsh or mottled light is present. Nevertheless, this is where a "plan B" approach will provide the opportunity to capture and convey strong contrasts and tones, offering a different and perhaps more challenging, but equally as satisfying perspective for the viewer. Removing colour from the equation draws the viewer's focus into these other important compositional elements.

 raven's rock

raven's rock

In an age of colour accurate digital sensors there is still something perennial about black and white photography. The digital age also makes black and white photography more accessible than ever and the ability to pre-visualise the scene in black and white will help you attain the best possible results at the time of conversion. Switching the digital camera's LCD (or in some cases even the viewfinder) creative effect mode to a black and white aids the process of better understanding whether the scene suits a black and white final image. However, I highly recommend to always shoot in RAW to retain as much detail and creative control in post processing.

Situations that provide excellent alternatives to colour landscape photography are the availability of side or back lighting, misty/foggy conditions, long exposures and minimalist compositions.

A strong defined side light helps to draw the viewer's attention to detail as it will help lift shapes and textures. Strong side lighting creates side shadows and powerful contrasts that work particularly well for portraiture and architectural photography by pulling the viewer's eyes through the darker shadow areas and along to the lighter subject details lifted by this kind of light. It's the strong contrasts between light and shadow areas that create definition of shape and texture within the frame.

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Using a strong source of back-lighting in black and white photography is a powerful way of defining shape and contours. It's a bold technique and special care needs to be taken in positioning the light source to ensure that the desired level of definition is achieved. Some photographs may require striking, bold silhouettes of the subject where no detail other than the strong outline is the desired effect. In other cases, a softer, more diffused backlight allows some light to wrap around the subject providing softer, more defined subjects in silhouette.

Banks of rolling fog or mist provide an excellent subject for black and white landscape photography. As fog and mist are often perceived as colourless, their natural ability to diffuse light into subdued, almost colourless tones, often does half the job for you. The resulting diffusion naturally subdues the light into complex layers of muted tones, creating abundant atmosphere and helping define any protruding elements, such as tree tops and mountain peaks. Early morning and early evening are ideal times to capture the best of this type of ambient light.

Long exposure photography techniques provide us with the ability to capture and convey motion. Very long shutter speeds soften the effect and often help create dreamlike, surreal qualities within the frame. Shorter shutter speeds help to create a greater sense of frenetic motion. Long exposures are often used to convey motion and softness in water and the natural contrast created between the white surf crashing onto darker rocks, beach or headland are ideal subjects for black and white photography. Equally, an active sky full of clouds moved by blustering winds create the sense of motion that are often defined better in black and white. A minimalist composition provides a perfect candidate for a long exposure and a monochrome conversion. The term “less is more” suitably exemplifies this style of composition, often working with small details framed within large areas of negative space and exuding tranquillity, the monochrome treatment is ideal in delivering the necessary tones and contrasts to truly highlight the dreamlike effect.