Nearly every survey I’ve seen published in a photography magazine that asks readers their favourite subject has the same winner – landscapes. Why is this? I suspect it’s because landscape photography is seen as a relatively easy subject. Most people live within, or relatively close to, a landscape of some sort, and I’m sure that most photographers enjoy capturing the natural beauty around them.
Today we’ll be exploring the idea of landscape photography in a new direction – fine art, black and white images. Along with explaining the reason and thinking behind this technique, I’ll offer a few tips to get started.
What is Fine Art?
The irony is that landscape photography is extremely difficult to do well. You’re relying not only on finding beautiful landscapes to photograph, but being there at the same time the weather and light are working together to create the conditions that you can use to photograph the landscape in a way that fulfills your creative vision. It takes a dedication that most of us don’t have.
Some of these landscape photographers are working in the field of fine art. What is fine art? A good working definition is that fine art photography is imagery whose final destination is designed to be the wall of someone’s house or office. Fine art photographers, freed up from the commercial restraints of stock and editorial photography, have tremendous creative freedom. They can pursue their personal vision, and many choose to do it in black and white.
This article is about how you too can take some fine art black and white landscape photos. It’s an article about ideas rather than technique (but we also have articles on technique on this site, there are links at the bottom of the article). It’s also about inspiration, and there are links to some of our favourite fine art black and white landscape photographers at the end.
Why Black and White?
When we’re in a landscape, we see it in colour. Black and white photography strips away the colour, leaving the bare bones. The features of the landscap, such as rocks, trees and mountains, become compositional elements made up of light, texture and tonal contrast. Black and white is beautiful. The photo becomes an interpretation, rather than a literal representation, of the landscape. We’re seeing the artist’s personal vision, and emotional response to the landscape, as well as the place itself.
It’s a harsh fact that most of us aren’t fortunate enough to live in the world’s most beautiful landscapes. The upside is that we get to travel to these places on our holidays and, once there, we have the advantage of seeing the location through fresh eyes.
I’ll never forget my first trip to the Andes, travelling through remote towns and villages and mountain valleys. It was so spectacular and creatively stimulating, that I took hundreds of photos. The memories of this experience will remain with me forever. This is one of the landscapes that I took on that journey:
2. Stay at Home
On the other hand, staying at home or getting to know a landscape that’s a relatively short distance from where you live, means you can get to know a place intimately. It means you can go deep and find the hidden corners that the typical visitor never finds. You’ll get to know (and photograph) the landscape through all the seasons.
Does this contradict the first point? A little. There’s room for both approaches. Travelling in the few spare weeks that most of us have every year, and getting to know our local areas the rest of the time. This photo was taken in late spring, my favourite time of year, just a few hundred meters from my home at the time:
3. Light, Subject and Composition
I think of a photograph as a triangle. One side represents subject, another lighting and the third composition. A great photo has great lighting, great composition and a great subject. Each element is as important as the other. Take one away, and the photo is lessened. A photo of a boring subject beautifully composed and lit can never be as good as a photo with an interesting subject that is also beautifully composed and lit.
What does this mean for the black and white landscape photographer? You need to seek out the most interesting landscapes. They can be interesting in a dramatic way (like the Andes) or in a quiet way (like local woodland) but they must be interesting.
You then need to find the best composition and lighting to fulfill your personal vision of that landscape. What emotions does the landscape make you feel? What lighting conditions and composition will convey that emotion to the viewer? If you can solve this puzzle, you’re on the way to becoming a great fine art landscape photographer.
4. People in the Landscape
Most landscapes are not pure wilderness. People live and work in them. Good photography tells stories and explores themes. The story of the people that live in the landscape is a great theme to explore. For me, this seems much easier when I’m travelling than when I’m at home, probably because everything I’m seeing is so new and exciting.
The man in this photo is working to extract salt from the Salinas Grandes, a large salt pan in north-west Argentina. The photo shows the relationship between the man and the otherworldly landscape that he works in.
Another approach is to place someone in the landscape. A fashion photographer would do this (fashion photographers create art sometimes too!) as would a fine art nude photographer. The nude in the landscape is a common theme. The photographer can contrast the soft curves and pale skin of the female form, for example, with the hard shapes of rocks and other elements of the landscape.
This photo contrasts the girl against the black volcanic sand and seascape. The tonal contrast between the girl’s skin and the black sand is an important visual element of the photo.
5. Historical Landscapes
Man has left his mark on the landscape. Not everywhere, thankfully, but there are many places where the buildings, walls and roads constructed by people are as much a part of the landscape as the trees and rivers. This is very picturesque when the man made elements are old and seem to have become a natural part of the environment.
This photo of an old village in the Argentine Andes shows the relationship between the old buildings and the landscape.
6. Man in the Landscape
There’s also potential for exploring the relationship between man and the landscape in places where people have only just arrived, or where the influence of man has been destructive. Perhaps you’ve seen Sebastiao Salgado’s photos of Brazilian gold miners. These hellish scenes were created by a world class photojournalist pursuing a personal vision. Their story, and message, is strong.
This photo of an old car was taken in Ketchikan, Alaska. As well as showing the impact of man on the environment, it’s another example of tonal contrast – the white car against the dark background.
7. Get Close-Up
Landscape photography isn’t just about sweeping vistas and dramatic views. Sometimes, a detail can express just as much as a wide view. Details are a great way of exploring your personal vision. The grand view is easily captured by other photographers, and it can be very difficult to get an original photo in these places. That said, details are very personal, and if you can create an image that expresses how you feel about a place by capturing a detail, you can make a unique image. That’s what I did with this photo of stones taken on a beach in Alaska.
8. Creative Techniques
Fine art is an interpretation. It doesn’t have to be literal. There are in-camera techniques that you can use to alter the reality that the camera sees. A good example would be the use of a Lens Baby to take photos with creative blur. Another technique that I’ve been using recently is to move the camera as I take a photo, deliberately introducing blur into the image. I got the idea after seeing the work of landscape photographer Chris Friel, and I like the results:
There are many approaches to composition, and one that I like is minimalism. A minimalist composition has as few elements possible in the photo that are required to tell the story. It goes beyond the principle of excluding anything from the composition that doesn’t contribute to the photo, and tries to capture the spirit of a place with as little as possible. Black and white photography itself is minimalist in a way – because the photographer is subtracting colour from the photo. A minimalist composition takes the concept even further.
I took the minimalist approach with this photo taken in Avebury Stone Circle, England. I wanted to show the shape of one of the stones against the sky.
10. More Black and White Techniques
Here are links to some more black and white tutorials that will help you understand the Photoshop techniques behind the photos in this article:
- Mastering the Art of Black and White Photography
- 7 Black and White Photoshop Conversion Techniques
- Mastering the Art of Black and White Toning
These are some my favourite fine art black and white landscape photographers. Their work is amazing and a constant source of inspiration: