Friday Foto Talk: Color vs. Black and White in Your Landscape Photos   18 comments

Rainy weather descends on Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

Rainy weather descends on Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

I thought I’d briefly discuss this question that landscape photographers always face.  Digital is very nice in that it allows us to just shoot pictures and decide later what we want to convert to black and white.  Of course you need to be shooting in RAW to have that option.  But having that option can lead to a sort of laziness out in the field.  You still need to evaluate compositions for their value as a black and white.  Some images work well in both schemes.  But your vision for the image, its feel; that will be very different depending on which way you go.

I won’t go into a lot of detail on how to convert to black and white during post-processing.  But I will say that programs like Lightroom and Aperture make it quite easy to convert.  Start by using their B&W presets.  You just click one thing then do some tweaking to get the exact look you want.  It really is no different in practice than processing an image for color.  In fact its simpler since you really don’t worry much about color, more about tones.  If you’re really into black and white I recommend purchasing Nik’s Silver Effex 2.

A beautiful lake on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington, Lake Crescent is calm here under cloudy skies.

A beautiful lake on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington, Lake Crescent is calm here under cloudy skies.

So let’s get right on to some examples.  Below are two images and each are shown in color and black and white.  I’ll go into the thought process I had during capture then how I chose a look during post-processing, a look that matched my feel for the mood of the scene.

I love going into the mountains right after a dump of snow, as much for the skiing as for the photo opportunities.  The trees look great weighed down with snow. The photo below was taken about an hour and a half before sunset, so the light was pretty blue and things were contrasty.  The color version of this has a pretty cold color scheme.  The shadows help to increase depth in the image, and the snow-basted tree at left is an important foreground element.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington is basted with a heavy snow from a recent storm. 28 mm., 1/250 sec. @f/11, ISO 200.

I developed this shot with a warming tone using Topaz B&W plugin.  Now I would probably use Nik, but there would be little difference.

I developed this shot with a warming tone using Topaz B&W plugin. Now I would probably use Nik, but there would be little difference.

But while shooting I thought I might like it in black and white.  That’s because any time I’m shooting snowy scenes in bright light, I think of black and white.  From experience I know that often these types of shots will work better in black and white than color.  In this case, I think it works fairly well in color but better in black and white.  This is because there was a subtle golden quality to the light hitting the mountain, something that does not really show in the color rendering.  I could have warmed up the white balance but then I would have lost the deep blue of the sky.  I could have used a mask to only warm the snow and leave the sky cool-toned.  That may have worked, but it also may have looked unnatural.

So I converted the image to black and white.  I added a moderate warming tone, sort of a cross between sepia and pure warming.  I darkened the blue sky too, so that the face of the mountain would take center stage in terms of brightness.  This image definitely looks different than what I saw, but I think it better matches the feel I had for the scene at the time.  The color version is fine as a documentary portrait of this mountain in winter.  Which one do prefer?  Do you like black and white in general?

The second image was captured in Capital Reef National Park.  This is a famous barn in the park, part of the old Gifford homestead that predated creation of the park.  I hiked up a trail that ascends the slope opposite the barn in order to get a composition that included Capital Reef, the cliff that gives the park its name.  The color version really highlights the orange of the rocks and the rich tones of the barn.  The rest of the scene in my opinion is not helped by color, but the rock and barn probably make up for that.

It was an obvious vertical composition.   I did make a mistake here in not setting up my tripod, which made me use a higher ISO.  But it’s not so high that it degrades the image, and I used a fast-enough shutter speed to get good focus throughout.  So all is good.

A bit of the old west survives at the old Gifford homestead, now inside Capitol Reef National Park.  42 mm., 1/125 sec. @f/14, ISO 320.

A bit of the old west survives at the old Gifford homestead, now inside Capitol Reef National Park. 42 mm., 1/125 sec. @f/14, ISO 320.

I love this in color, but I thought briefly while shooting that it might be good in B&W too.  Just before this I had been shooting closer to the barn and I knew black and white might be best.  So my mind was already on black and white.  When I sat down at the computer right away I thought of giving it an old-time feel.

This look involves a lot of little things during post-processing, so I made the process quicker by going with a high contrast preset in Nik Silver Effex 2.  I then tweaked the brightness and contrast a bit to lessen the effect.  I also gave it a sepia tone and a vignette, both modest.  I like the look, but I wasn’t necessarily in an old-time type mood at the time.  So this is a case of changing the mood after the fact, something I don’t often do.  What do you think of it?

Processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

Mild sepia tone processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

I also processed it with a more standard black and white treatment.  This time I did not use a sepia tone; I simply upped contrast and clarity.  Which of the three do you like better: the color, sepia or straight B&W version?

Processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

Processed with Nik Silver Effex 2.

Definitely try to think about scenes that might look good in black and white while you’re out there.  One thing NOT to do is use B&W as a sort of default go-to when the light is harsh.  That’s not a good plan.  Instead, separate quality of light from B&W in your thinking.  If you think about black and white during capture, you’ll be able to better determine the type of feel you want when it comes time to develop the image on the computer.

Note that all of these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  If you’re interested in purchase options (prints, downloads, etc.) simply click on the image and you’ll go to the high-res. version.  These here on the blog are not suitable for printing.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for your interest and happy weekend!


18 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Color vs. Black and White in Your Landscape Photos

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  1. Sorry about that. I got the info from the Smithsonian web…

  2. Fantastic images. On the homestead photo I prefer the black and white with a touch of sepia.

    Emilio Pasquale
  3. All good. My vote goes to the sepia …

  4. I spot this site the other day: It’d cool to see your photos there 🙂

  5. I much prefer b&w for almost everything and I am not even sure it is always to do with tone and texture, there might be some nostalgic conditioning in there too – colour processing/printing was not common place when I was growing up so all the family photos and therefore my ‘memories’ are in black & white. Fabulous set and thanks for getting me thinking 🙂

  6. This scape does not need color.


  7. If the main features of an image are tone and texture, and/or the colour is monotonous or distracting, then I would generally prefer B&W for landscapes. I think it is important to visualise how you want the image to look and then process it appropriately.

    • I would agree except for the fact that tone and texture are often more than complimented by color. If you notice the tone and texture of a scene then for sure try B&W, but it does not in itself argue for B&W being better than color. Color is how we see the world, so that’s what I always start with. Thanks for your comment and visit!

  8. Helpful information here. I think I’d pick the Sepia toned image for its richness of tone, though my favorite in this series is your Columbia river gorge image at the top. Nothing screams B&W like threatening stratocumulus clouds!

  9. Wow! Jaw-dropping images. My friend John Zande gave me the link to your site, I’m pleased he did.
    Have a great weekend!

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