Nature Photography in black and white

White horses running through water in Camargue

Nature photography using black and white

After last week’s post with all the bright colours of the houses in Bo-kaap, I wanted to show you something completely different: monochrome photography. Nature is often photographed in colour, because that’s how we see it, but sometimes a photo can look even better in black and white. It is not always easy to visualize in advance how a photo might look in monochrome, which makes it a choice that does not come naturally.  It can be very satisfying though.

While probably 95% of my photos are in colour, I do try to process some as a monochrome. I must admit that the photos I convert to monochrome were usually not taken for that purpose. It is often when I’m not satisfied with how it turned out in colour that I try to see if it looks better in black and white.

Taken during an autumn afternoon where the haze covered the valleys below. In black and white the layers of the mountains show perfectly showing the repetitive shape (2 phot panorama 70mm @ ISO 100 – f/13 – 1/400 s)

Why shoot Nature in black and white?

Nature is so colourful, why use monochrome photography? This is a good point of course, but colour can also be a distraction sometimes. Taking the colour out of the photo leaves you with shapes and light and dark. This way your eyes are not confused with information about colour, but you can concentrate on the shapes or the texture of you subject.

dunes with wave texture
Dunes short before sunset showing the beautiful waves pattern in the sand (10-stop ND filter 24 mm @ ISO 100 – f/16 – 30 s)

Black and white photos can be amazing to create mood. Look at the photo below. When we were in Val d’Orcia, Tuscany I wanted the morning mist, but this was getting too much. Short before we left for breakfast I thought to take this photo. In black and white the mist comes out beautiful and creates a stark contrast with the trees.

Mood through black and white photography (200 mm @ ISO 100 – f/16 – 1/320 s)

Black and white photography is also great way to ‘save’ a photo when the light is not good. Often when travelling you can’t wait for sunrise or sunset in each spot. In the photo below we were driving from Walvisbay to Sossusvlei which is a long drive, so there was no chance of waiting for sunset here, or we would never have arrived in Sossusvlei. In colour I love the composistion, but with these colours…no, not really. In black and white it looks great I think.

Quiver trees and a mountain
Quiver trees with a view (140 mm @ ISO 100 – f/13 – 1/125 s)
quiver trees with mountain in monochrome
Quiver trees with a view in monochrome (140 mm @ ISO 100 – f/13 – 1/125 s)

Another reason to use monochrome is to show photos in a series. Monochrome photos easier fit together then colour photos, even if they are of different subjects. Like all the photos in this post, even though they’re all different, monochrome gives them something in common.

How do you take a photo in black and white?

Even though your camera can probably take photos directly in black and white, always take the photo in colour! This sounds counter intuitive, but it’s true. Back in the days when cameras still had films, when using a black and white film, many used coloured filters. A coloured filter will let that colour pass more and therefore that colour will result brighter in the photo. For example, have a look at the following photo. First in colour, then with a blue filter and last with a red filter. You can notice that the sky is a lot lighter with the blue filter.

Colour photo with no editing
Photo transformed in black and white using a blue filter
Trnasformation in black and white using a red filter

When editing a photo, taken in colour, we can use this principle to make certain colours look bright and others look darker. If we take the photo directly in black and white, we lose this freedom to use the colours to our benefit. It gives you extra space to work with when editing the photo, especially when you took the photo in RAW format.

Raw file or Jpeg?

Just a little side note on RAW file format. Many cameras let you choose between Jpeg or Raw file format. If you want to do any editing on your photos, please use the Raw format. While Jpeg is already a compressed formatted, and your camera has done some sharpening and colour settings for you, when shooting in Raw the file remains uncompressed and (almost) untouched. This means that you now have a file with more information and where your camera did not make any elaborate your image. When you open the Raw file in your editor, you will be disappointed, where did all the colour go, they look dull and toned down. This is not an issue because with your editor, I use Adobe’s Lightroom, you can easily bring the colours back, but the way you want it, not how your camera decides how they should look.

In conclusion, if you edit, absolutely shoot in Raw. If you don’t want to edit your photos then Jpeg is fine. Note that in cameras that shoot in Raw there’s an option to write your photo as both Raw and Jpeg, so you can have both options. It will only take more space on your memory card.

From colour to monochrome

We have seen a few examples that Nature can absolutely look beautiful in black and white, but I want to go through the editing of one photo to show how I go about it. Let’s take the photo above with the two cypress trees. As you can already see, the clouds stand out more with the red filter, so that’s where I started. After some general processing, like adding some contrast and brightening up the shadows (which I do in most photos) we go to the B&W filter in Lightroom to brighten and darken only certain colours.

B&W Filter plus some general editing applied and this is the intermediate result

Now the fields are a bit too dark to me, so I want to brighten those a little. To do that I add a brush selection shown in red in the image below..

Selection to brighten the foreground

To create more depth between the hills, I want the furthest field to be a bit darker, so I create a new brush and darken the part just a little.

New brush indicated in red that will be darkened a bit

I have then created a few more selections where I lighten up the road and another to brighten the field on the right. I have applied some sharpening and I’m done…

Editing is done. This is in pure black and white

As a final touch I have applied split toning to change the pure black and white to a kind of seppia, just a touch of yellow/brown. Now this is personal taste, but I like the slightly warmer feel to it. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Final photo. Now I’m really done

I hope you enjoyed this post. If there’s something you would like to know more about, in Lightroom or with taking your photos, remember you can always leave a comment or contact us.

2 thoughts on “Nature Photography in black and white

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