After sharing selected photos from my black and white portfolios in my last three blog posts (landscapes, nature's small scenes, and plants), I am going to turn to discussing tips for how nature photographers can create more compelling, interesting, and dynamic black and white photographs. While it is hard to distill years of reading, trial and error, and experimentation into a few bullet points, I consider the following ten items to be the most important things I have learned along the way in creating my photographs.
As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I generally feel more restrained when presenting a photograph in color. While I do not hold others to the same principles, I personally think that my color photographs need to be mostly grounded in the reality of the moment I experienced in the field. While working within this constraint is my choice, it does highly influence my work in a way that applies boundaries. With my color work, I often seek to portray simplicity, quietness, elegance, and contemplation. Many of my color photos are light and bright, or soft and quiet. With my black and white work, I often choose to portray drama, grandeur, and darkness in a way that just does not work for me when working in color.
With black and white photography, the constraints of conveying “reality” do not come into play since there is no reality conveyed in shades of gray. Thus, I can take an image file and create something that reflects my interests, visual preferences, and emotions about a scene or place in a much different way than I can with a color photograph. By shedding the expectations that come along with color photography, I have the opportunity to share my photographic concepts with greater latitude. For me, black and white photography feels like a more expansive pursuit than color photography because of the opportunities and creative freedoms I discuss below.
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Tip #1: Black and White = A Deliberate Creative Choice
For film photographers working in black and white and using traditional methods, creating a photograph requires a lot of deliberate choices. This includes the selection of film, careful use of filters in the field, and making a series of technical and artistic choices in the darkroom.
For digital photographers, the choice to create a black and white photograph is often seen as easy – just click a preset and the photo is complete. Or, if a color photograph didn’t quite work out, black and white processing is seen as a fallback rather than a deliberate artistic decision. While this latter process can sometimes produce good results, I think digital photographers can learn a lot from the deliberate, intentional processes practiced by our colleagues working with film.
Generally, having an artistic motivation to create a black and white photograph produces far more compelling results than viewing this pursuit as an occasional last ditch effort for saving a poor color photograph. This often means seeking out black and white photographs while in the field and visualizing the final result in black and white before even clicking the shutter.
Tip #2: Be Willing to Depart From “Reality”
One of my favorite things about black and white photography is the fact that it is, by its very nature, a departure from reality. Since we do not experience scenes in monochrome, black and white photographs do not have the same emotional tethers and expectations as color photographs might.
For my photography, this allows me the freedom to take a lot of liberties during the processing phase. While I never add or delete major elements from a scene, I do regularly take stormy light and accentuate the drama and darkness in a way that would look overdone in a color photograph. I also exaggerate contrast, enhance a photo’s mood, or emphasize lighting to help reach my creative goals.
By departing from a more literal interpretation of the scene above (stormy but non-descript), I was able to create a photo that better conveys the dark and difficult weather that many experience when spending time in Iceland, which was my goal when I took this photograph in the field.
Tip #3: Learn to Visualize Scenes in Black & White
Learn to visualize scenes in terms of how they will translate to black and white, as this knowledge will help you identify opportunities while in the field (note: my ebook on black and white nature photography includes multiple exercises on building this important skill).
If you are new to black and white photography, it can be a challenge to learn how a scene will translate from color to black and white. Your digital camera can be a big help in this regard since many cameras have a monochrome preview mode. By switching to this mode, you will see a monochrome preview on your LCD. Since processing can make a big difference for your final result, this kind of preview is just a place to start but can be a very helpful learning tool. Just be sure that you are only previewing in monochrome and that your camera is still set to record high-quality files in color (why? retaining color information is important to processing digital files in black and white – more on that later).
Looking for scenes with natural tonal contrast can also be helpful. For example, think of a beach with dark rocks and white waves (like the photo above). The dark sand and light waves create natural tonal contrast (the difference between the darkest and lightest tones in a photo). Such scenes are easier to process in black and white, and thus provide a good place to start for anyone who is new to black and white photography.
Another example is the photo above Tip #1 (Flooding at Badwater Basin). Although the light is pretty harsh, I knew when I took this photo that the bright parts of the salt would contrast well with the shadows, an ingredient that can help create a successful black and white photograph. The clouds were an unappealing combination of yellow and grey but still had a nice shape and interesting texture. Thus, being able to see past the less appealing parts of the color scene, I could see an opportunity for creating a black and white photograph.
Tip #4: Mood Matters
Infusing a photograph with emotion and feeling is essential in storytelling, personal expression, and connecting with your viewers. For example, you can look through the portfolio of photos included with this article and see a number of photos that convey a sense of drama, darkness, and foreboding – all qualities I often seek to express with my black and white photographs. Dark processing choices, stormy weather, and rugged features of a landscape help convey these qualities and define the mood of a photo.
On the other hand, photographs that have a light and bright mood will tell an entirely different story. Choices including your subject, composition, lighting, weather, and processing can all make a big difference in the mood conveyed through your photographs, so seek out the type of conditions and processing choices that will help tell the stories you want to tell through your photographs.
Tip #5: All Types of Light Can Work for Black & White Photography
Many landscape photographers limit themselves to the golden hour at the beginning and end of the day. While this practice can work for color photography, it can be quite limiting for black and white photography. Since a black and white photograph can often benefit from strong contrast, mixed lighting, and midday weather, all times of day and all kinds of lighting situations can work quite well.
I took the photo above under a bright blue sky in the middle of the day. In finishing the photo in black and white, I could play up the contrasts in the sky and foreground. The bright white clouds and geothermal steam stand out against the darker sky. Also, the brighter light of midday helped add contrast to the rocks in the foreground, which blend together under the lighting conditions at sunrise and sunset. So, if you want to create photos in black and white, be open to opportunities throughout the day.
Tip #6: Without Color, Composition is Essential
Some color photos can succeed due to the sheer overwhelming power of dramatic, colorful light even with a less then compelling composition. With black and white photography, the emotional reaction associated with strong color is gone. This means that composition plays an elevated role in creating compelling black and white photographs. Thus, learning to integrate strong graphic elements and abstractions into your compositions can help elevate a black and white portfolio.
In the simplest terms, composition is the arrangement and flow of elements within a photo. As the photographer, you are able to make the choices about what to include or leave of out of your photograph and how to arrange fixed elements within the frame. In creating black and white photographs of natural scenes, I believe that the most important element in developing stronger compositional skills is learning to see beyond the literal qualities of your subject matter.
When looking at a group of trees, for example, start training your eye to identify elements like the lines created by the trunks and repeating patterns in the leaves or needles, or when viewing sand dunes, learn to recognize sensual curves, textures of the sand, repeating patterns, and lines. In these cases, you are looking beyond the literal subjects - trees and sand - to see the abstract qualities that you can use to craft your photographs.
Tip #7a: Don’t Be Afraid of Strong Contrast
Deep blacks, bright whites, and a range of tones in between are often necessary to elevate an initial grayscale conversion to a work of creative black and white photography.
In working with photographers who are new to black and white photography, one of the early challenges I often see is viewing the grayscale conversion as the end point for photo processing. Thus, do not be afraid to go far beyond an initial grayscale conversion as strong contrast can often help bring a black and white photograph to life.
Tip #7b: On The Other Hand, Low Contrast Can Work Too
Black and white photographs can also work without maximum tonal contrast. Some photos work well when they contain only darker tones or only lighter tones. The two photos of redwood trees above help demonstrate this concept. The first photo has a full range of tonal contrast, from deep blacks to bright whites. The second photo only has tones of gray and a few bright highlights. Although both photos are of the same subject, the different amounts of contrast, along with the overall mood and composition, helps tell two very different stories.
When I think about contrast choices in my own photography, I always try to be deliberate in matching up my processing choices with my goals for the photo. The initial grayscale conversion is the place to start and then I can increase or decrease the tonal range depending on my goals.
Tip #8: Understand the Role of Color
When a color photograph is converted to black and white, the color tones are mapped to their equivalent tones in gray, from deep black to bright white with many shades of gray in between. Let’s take the example of a photo that has a lot of color contrast, with a lot of midtone greens and reds (think of green leaves with red berries). Converted to tones of gray, the greens and reds might be very similar and thus lose the contrast the same scene had in color.
Let’s say the scene has light reds/pinks and deep greens (like the color version of the photo above). This scene, when converted to black and white, would have more tonal contrast than the example above because the light reds/pinks would render as lighter grays and the deep greens would render as darker grays.
This basic concept is important to learn for two primary reasons. First, learning to see colors as their tonal equivalent can help identify scenes with natural tonal contrast while in the field. This helps create opportunities for black and white photography. Second, colors can be adjusted in processing software to add or reduce tonal contrast in a scene. For example, using the black and white mix adjustment panel in Lightroom or the black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop, a photographer can brighten or darken individual colors within a scene. These changes can increase or decrease contrast within a photo. Although it seems unintuitive, adjusting colors can be an essential step in a black and white photo processing workflow.
Tip #9: Do Not Rely on Presets for Processing
If personal expression is one of your goals for your photography, learn to make your own processing decisions. By relying on presets, you are allowing an algorithm or another photographer to decide what your photo should look like. Also, presets often convert a photo to grayscale and add some contrast but often not enough and in some of the wrong places. While presets can be a great learning tool and offer a good place to start in processing some photos, learning how to make manual adjustments in your favorite processing software can help you finish your photos in a way that is true to your vision.
The most common question I get about my black and white photos: "do you use Nik Silver Efex Pro for processing?" No, I do not. While some photographers get good results from this software and it can be a good place to start learning about processing black and white photos, I much prefer the more manual controls of Lightroom and Photoshop.
My workflow for black and white photo processing can be distilled into the following general steps (all of which are discussed in much more detail, with many examples, in my ebook + video course on black and white nature photography):
- I start with initial technical adjustments in Lightroom. This often includes cropping, noise reduction, balancing the exposure, and other initial steps for processing RAW files. (Note: I could process many of the photos in this post using only Lightroom. While it is possible to do many of the same tasks in both Lightroom and Photoshop, I prefer the ease and fine-tuned control of the tools in Photoshop.)
- Next, I take the photo into Photoshop and convert it to black and white using the black and white adjustment layer. I sometimes use the color sliders to make initial adjustments to contrast in the photo, which I fine-tune later with other tools. For example, by darkening or lightening a blue tone (like a sky), I can darken or lighten the equivalent grey tone in the black and white conversion. Repeating this step for each color present in the photo can help adjust the contrast in a scene.
- After the file has been converted to black and white, I move on to global adjustments, which are adjustments that apply to the full photograph. This step typically includes adjustments to overall exposure and contrast using tools like levels and curves adjustments.
- Next, I use layers and masks to make more targeted local adjustments. Here, I typically use levels, curves, and luminosity masks to make changes to luminosity (brightness/darkness) and contrast within specific areas of a photo. I also use various dodging and burning techniques to adjust the lighting, contrast, and mood within specific parts of the scene.
- My final step is typically cleaning up dust spots and adding other finishing touches (Orton Effect, selective sharpening, adjusting the texture of clouds, etc).
Depending on the photo, this workflow might take 10 minutes and include 2 to 3 layers in Photoshop (example: the photo below). For other photos, like the two at the top of this post, this workflow might involve more complex techniques like exposure blending or double-processing a RAW file plus a lot of time and many layers in Photoshop to fine-tune specific areas of the scene. The humble levels adjustment is my favorite tool, followed by luminosity masks and dodging and burning. Each photo is different and this process is always iterative - I take a few steps forward, assess my progress, and then possibly reverse a decision or two, eventually moving forward in the right direction until I have a finished draft or final version to share.
If you want to see a simple version of this workflow in action, I share the steps that went into taking the Medicine Lake photo above in a free video tutorial for our subscribers. You can download the 32-minute video through this Dropbox link (be sure to download the video to be able to watch the full tutorial). Or, if you want to dive into more details and see start-to-finish examples, you can learn more about my black and white photography ebook + video course here.
Tip #10: Explore Your Creativity & Follow Your Own Path
Of all the tips in this post, this is the most important one. This article is based on the idea that nature photography is a creative pursuit and that a person’s photography can serve as a means of personal expression and storytelling. All of the ideas I have shared here work for me and help me tell the stories I want to tell about the places I visit and photograph. You will likely find ways to adapt these ideas for your own photography since you will likely have different goals for your work than I have for mine.
Through your choices of subject matter, composition, mood, and processing, you share a part of yourself - your vision. I encourage you to pursue photography as an expression of yourself and your interests - from your time in the field through processing and presenting your photographs. Experiment a lot, try new things, take risks, embrace failure as a means of learning and most importantly of all – enjoy the creative process.
Do you have any tips To Share?
If you have any additional tips on creating stronger black and white photographs, please share them in the comments below. Thank you for reading!