Tips and Techniques for Black & White Landscape Photography
Jack Curran is a fine art black and white landscape photographer with truly outstanding work that has won numerous international awards. He started over 30 years ago with just an introduction to a black-and-white photography course which he combined with his passion for the great outdoors. For Jack Curran, landscape photography is all about the “lure of light”. Whether chasing the extreme light of a mountain storm or weathering the chill of a winter storm event, it’s all about chasing the light.
Here are a few tips and techniques from Jack Curran that will help you get started with black & white landscape photography:
Any DSLR or mirrorless camera will work when you are first getting started with black & white landscape photography. Here is a list of equipment that I use to capture photos like these:
- Camera and lenses: Canon 5DsR’s, wide angle lens: 16-35mm; standard zoom lens: 24-105mm; telephoto zoom lens: 100-400mm
- Filters: I use the Haida M10 filter system with 1 Stop, 3 Stop, 6 Stop, 10 Stop, ND filters and a polarizer
- Special equipment: I do own and use a Tiffen BW viewing filter for previews and handheld black frame.
Almost all of my landscape photos are shot in color using RAW format. These photos then get converted to black and white using Adobe Lightroom Classic.
I think pre-visualization can be helpful. Even though I’m old school and I’m a faster with my analog method of the handheld mono viewer and black frame. Using the camera and live-view can sometimes lock you into a particular view, focal length, and perspective.
Putting the camera in B/W can be an excellent way to learn. You must make sure you don’t get too locked-in. If you were to carry it around with a zoom lens and work different composition ideas from a lot of angles, trying to pre-visualize the outcome, that might work well.
Also, when doing this, I want folks to think about the following: How do you intend (with purposeful intent) to use your post-production tools to finalize the image? Many people lock into what they see on screen and then have a predisposed set of expectations. But the truth for me is that it is just the beginning. I combine pre-visualization in field with my vision for how it will evolve when I’m thinking about the post and the final print.
One clear benefit of pre-visualization is during low light conditions. I’ve used it well before sunrise with moonlit nights. I crank the ISO which allows me to see what was barely visible.
I shoot in color because I can then do my conversions and, if needed, use the black & white post processing sliders the same way I previously put filters over the lens when I shot large format. I see and think in black & white using the flow of light, range of brightness and contrast, and more. However, I also carry and small Tiffen monochromatic viewer and a black cut-out frame to pre-visualize the landscape that I am photographing. This approach allows me to slow down and really hunt and explore for the range of light and composition. This brings me to part of your question.
I generally underexpose and open the shadows in post. I feel like I need to preserve and protect the highlight detail. I’ve learned to deal with potential noise and selectively clean it up. Lastly, I always lay my backpack down and walk around a scene with my mono viewer and black viewing frame. I compose, visualize, and try to realize the final image in my mind’s eye before I even get a camera out. It helps the creative process.
Printing Black and White Photos
Printing black & white photos can be complicated. Having printed in the silver darkroom for 30 years, my expectation for my landscape photography prints is exceptionally high. I print all my work, mat and mount, sign in pencil, have editions with holographic stickers on the back as well a certificate of authenticity.
I use an Epson P800 and 44″ Epson 9900 and print all my work on Baryta fibre-based paper (mostly Hahnemuhle using Photo Rag or Fine Art Rag). These work best with my black & white landscape photography and have a tremendous dynamic range from deep black to bright white. A few years ago, I started using the Epson Advance BW settings with great success. I have used both ICC profiles and built my own profiles and saved them per each image. But, I have to be honest, each black and white image demands testing and refinement.
Correct Balance Between Whites and Blacks in a Photo
There is nothing wrong with a lot of white space in a black & white photo. It’s all about balance and what visual story you are trying to communicate.
When appropriately used as negative space, white can help define a focal point, isolate a subject, and accentuate visual balance. If your subject matter is not very interesting to the viewer, white just overpowers the image and yes, it will fall apart. Above are a couple of pictures that help illustrate how a fair amount of white space helps the image.
Workflow for Black & White Landscape Photography
Beyond a good photography composition, there are certain things that I recommend to photographers who want to create more dynamic black & white photos. I like to call these the Presence Elements: Range of Light, Contrast, Flow of Light, Transitions, Mood/Drama, Tension, and Luminosity. When looking at a scene, I generally teach students to look for at least three or four of these elements.
Additionally, it is essential to consider your post-production skills especially concerning your ability to enhance these elements. I’ve taken many of my original photos on overcast, flat light days, and I work very hard to bring out these elements in post. Once you begin to master the tools and techniques, you will start to see better and visualize the potential outcome before you take the photo.
To learn more about Jack and his work, check out his inspirational website below.