5 Reasons Why Black and White Shouldn’t Be Used for Landscape Photography

5 Reasons Why Black and White Shouldn’t Be Used for Landscape Photography

I asked in a Dutch photography community how they feel about black and white photography for landscapes. It seems it's not generally accepted, and many strange reasons are given why black and white shouldn’t be used. I’d like to share a few of those reasons that caught me by surprise.

If you’re shooting in raw file format, every photo you take will carry the color information gathered by the sensor. That’s the big difference from the old way of shooting black and white film. Back then, it was almost always a conscious choice. Now, the decision for black and white can be made at any given moment.

For a lot of landscape photographers, there isn’t any choice whatsoever. A landscape photo has to be in color. If not, we will lose the beautiful colors at sunrise or sunset, and the photo isn't that interesting anymore.

Except when we look at the black and white landscapes shot by Ansel Adams. His photos are famous and a big example for many landscape photographers. If we like those images so much, why don’t we choose to capture landscapes in black and white more often?

The end of the day at the Faroe Islands. You can't see how colorful it was. But is that important?

I asked this question to a lot of readers in that Dutch photography community. I even dared to state that if you believe in the idea that black and white photography is not suitable for landscapes, you surely wouldn’t appreciate the work of someone like Ansel Adams.

It’s a bold statement, I know. But if you disapprove of a black and white landscape photo, it would imply that you also disapprove of the work that has been a big example for many landscape photographers. I got a lot of responses, some of which caught me by surprise. I have gathered a few of the most surprising comments.

1. Black and White Is Depressing

Light and shadow on the mountains of Lofoten. I don't think it's a depressing photo. How do you feel about it?

There was no explanation about why a black and white photo should be depressing. Still, I can understand it a bit, since black and white often has a darker tone or mood to it. But that is a choice of the photographer itself, and I believe it has nothing to do with it being a black and white photo.

A color photo can be equally depressing, especially when it’s presented in a similarly dark tone. In other words, perhaps the idea of depressing photos has nothing to do with black and white, but the atmosphere of the landscape itself.

2. We See in Color So We Should Take Color Photos

The well-known Goðafoss waterfall in Iceland. Does it have to be in color because most people can perceive colors?

Most of us are born with color  vision, so it would be foolish to shoot in black and white. This comment took me with surprise. And to be honest, I don’t know what to think of it.

It seems to me a rather foolish remark since there are people who can’t see colors, some of who are photographers also. Should they be limited to shooting black and white then, because they can’t see colors? I believe black and white is just a way of expressing yourself, no matter if you can see colors or not.

3. Black and White Is a Limitation in Photography

A mountaintop in the clouds, shot in Austria. Is the absence of color limiting in any way? I don't believe it is.

Someone compared shooting in black and white with going 50 years back in time or even more. It was said to be too limiting or even old-fashioned. If you made a choice to shoot in black and white, the person added, you should also use an old camera and film rolls again. After all, we also don’t use black and white televisions anymore.

One person even stated that if color was available from the early ages of photography, black and white would never have existed, and it wouldn’t be an option in a modern camera or photo-editing software. How about that?

4. Black and White Is Less Impressing

A road through Iceland. Is it less impressive without color? You be the judge of that.

There is something to say about this statement. If you shoot a sunset or sunrise with amazing colors in the sky, it can be less impressive when converted into black and white. 

But you have to ask yourself: if the photo in black and white isn’t impressive anymore, what is it that makes the color photo so attractive in the first place? Probably only the colors.

A good landscape photo is more than colors alone. It’s about an interesting subject, composition, and all the things that make it worth looking at. So, if you end up with a less impressive black and white photo, it’s probably because it relies too much on the colors.

5. Black and White Is for Repairing Bad Photos

A nearby park in the Netherlands with amazing light. If this was a photo that didn't work with colors, removing those colors wouldn't change that.

I have saved this one for last, because it's quite obvious why this statement was given. It’s because too many photographers try to rescue a boring photo by turning it into black and white. This so-called solution doesn’t work, of course. Making something black and white has nothing to do with being artistic.

Removing colors won’t repair a bad photo, and the result is often just as bad as the original color version, or worse. Because this is done so often, I can imagine how someone gets this idea about black and white.

Remember, you cannot make something out of nothing. A good black and white landscape photo isn’t a rescue attempt, but a carefully processed image. And since there is no color to distract you, it’s probably even more difficult.

It’s A Choice, Not an Excuse

This photo was captured while taking the dog outside for their daily walk. When I saw this scenery, I knew it had to be in black and white. I love the result.

Presenting a landscape photo in black and white or color is a choice. Some photos will work without color, others work better with color. But no matter what you choose, it’s a personal preference. If you don’t like back and white, just don’t use it. Simple as that.

The light was playing on this glacier in Iceland. The only color was blue in different shades. It became a stronger image in black and white. 

What do you think about the comments I received about black and white landscape photography? Do you agree, or do you have another idea why black and white does or doesn’t work for landscape photos? I’d love to read your opinion in the comments below.

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51 Comments
Mike Spivey's picture

I'm not a big fan of making all images B&W. I rarely convert but I will if I think it will enhance the image. A few examples.
Old Time scenes that could have been shot back in the day.
Modern architecture where the form is the subject
Unfortunately, when the color in the image is distracting or just sucks.
Otherwise, color is an important element of most images. You spent a lot of money for a camera that does well with color, use it.
My avatar is B&W. See the first example.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I never bought a camera because it's does well with color. I bought it to capture moments. You're absolutely right about capturing color if it's an important element, but I totally disagree with the opinion that an image sucks when color is distracting.
Thanks for your thoughts on the subject. :)

Jan Steinman's picture

Scans of old film often works for B&W when the colours are too faded to bring back.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

I have some Kodachrome slides from the 50s with color as vibrant as it was 70 years ago, and Fujifilm and Ektachromes from the same era that, as you say, can be saved by converting as the color layers fade at a different rate.

Pedro Pulido's picture

i find that the simplicity of black and white means that sometimes less is more and can make for beautiful landscapes. Not all of them. but definitely some.

S Browne's picture

Point well-made. Stunning B&W landscape examples. B&W simplifies images to their essence -- light and shadow, lines and shapes. That doesn't strip images of emotional impact or beauty.

Ed Sanford's picture

Reading this reveals why so many color landscapes are all contrast with no soul…

Mark Petersen's picture

that's way I have a B/W only camera

Nando Harmsen's picture

Analog camera or a Hasselblad monochrome?

Jan Steinman's picture

Looks like IR, rather than B&W, no?

Ruud van der Nat's picture

I love b&w landscape photos. I love playing with the colour channels to bring out detail and contrast in the images. I enjoyed the article.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Thanks Ruud

Alex Santos's picture

Nando Harmsen, I just went to your Instagram hoping to see more of your beautiful BW photos, but there are none there! Do you post them somewhere else?

Nando Harmsen's picture

A good question. I haven't placed a lot of black and white work online yet. It's a good idea to use my Instagram account for this.

Matthew Wood's picture

If you post them on Instagram no one will see them with the way Meta has given away IG to young video content creators. Make the move like a lot of photographers have Vero. it has been around for a minute but it is making a come back with no algorithms and you make all your own choices.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Indeed. It seems to become a mess on IG. I don't know about Vero. I expect that platform will be limited to photographers. IG still has a bigger reach, I think

Nando Harmsen's picture

Hi Alex,
I have placed a collection of my black and white work online, in case you want to have a look
https://www.flickr.com/photos/nandoonline/albums/72177720302039519

David Medeiros's picture

Wow, a lot of really bad takes on BW landscape photography! Fits in hand with a discussion I had with a YT pro a while back who claimed BW should only be used when it was an enhancement to the original color image. The implication being most color landscape images are objectively greater then a BW version and the only reason to make a BW is when it would be better than the color version. It treats BW as an effect rather than an alternate way of seeing/communicating. Extremely narrow POV on photography IMO.

Elizabeth Krigsvold's picture

Anyone who says black and white photography doesn't show emotion etc, essentially THIS article, is deaf, dumb and blind. The BEST photos I've seen and taken have been in black and white. It allows emotion and feeling to come thru to the viewer in an honest and true way. PERIOD

Graham Moore's picture

Ansel Adams must have been a horrible photographer with all of those monochrome landscapes. /s

Justin Sharp's picture

I only use black and white film and, since my darkroom isn't equipped with the chemicals to develop color, I only have the option of shooting black and white. Even if I shot with a digital camera, I don't think i would choose color. When I take a photograph, I am just as concerned with light and value as i am with subject matter. Black and white photographs show light and value in such a unique and beautiful way.
At the risk of being hyperbolic, the reasons you received for avoiding black and white photography are disturbing. They show a complete lack of understanding of the role of black and white photography in the history of photography as well as an understanding of the potential of black and white photography as a tool for expression.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Although it played a big role in the history of photography, it never played a role in my black and white. I think i shouldn't be a reason to choose black and white. I believe you just have to like it a lot.

Mike Rubin's picture

I ask myself if Color adds anything to the image. If it doesn't, I shoot the scene in B&W. I find that I now shoot more in B&W than I ever did before.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I often follow the same method, and discover again and again how many times color isn't that important at all.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

"If you’re shooting in raw file format, every photo you take will carry the color information gathered by the sensor."
Only if you shoot with sensor which has a CFA baked on top of the sensels. Although it is quite common to have such sensor, some people do shoot digital black and white as Leica produces their Monochrome line and Phase One the Achromatic backs.

I agree with your argument against all statements in your article, btw. :)

Nando Harmsen's picture

I knew this line would come back to me. ;)
I know about the Bayer and X-trans sensors, but I tried to keep it simple and not dive into the details. Basically, every raw image does carry the color informatie, no mattere how its gathered. Except those monochrome cameras (which I find a fascinating concept)
:)

Glenn Schultes's picture

I take Black and White photos when it suits the subject. If it’s about form,texture and the gradations of light, I prefer to remove the colours which are often competing with the subject itself.

Jim Doughty's picture

One might as well say that because paint exists, no one should draw in pencil or charcoal anymore.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Ansel Adams is famous for the prints he made. I think a large print in black and white is something special. In this time with a lot of images edited in photoshop to some kind of parallel reality, and not a representation of the current world we live in, B&W have an edge.

I guess by now I have seen to many glossy images photoshopped and colour graded and I don’t know all. It does little but making me feel that somehow I am being decived.

I like B@W photography. It gives freedom to create something different, but not fake.

Some nice work by the way.

Nando Harmsen's picture

THanks

Ed C's picture

Yea Ansel Adams and Clyde Butcher are total hacks. Rolling my eyes and shaking my head.

B&W landscapes work for true craftsmen and it is also generally not for the lazy or the saturation champs of social media. It takes great skill to envision it and to execute it.

Your examples are great BTW.

Nando Harmsen's picture

THanks

Tom Steemson's picture

I have to complete disagree with pretty much every point made in this piece.

The idea that any subject matter should be exclusive to colour, or black and white photography is ludicrous.

Adams is used as one photographer who's images show this argument to be complete fallacy, but he's not alone. Just Google black and white landscape photography and you'll immediately be rewarded with a plethora of superb monochromatic landscape images.

I've never heard of Nando Harmsen, but I'll take it on faith that he's a photographer of some merit, or he wouldn't be writing for fstoppers. The conclusions offered are so ridiculous, however, that I can only assume that its a piece designed to be a goad. Something to insight a reaction and thereby reinforce the stupidity of the argument. If that was the goal, then mission accomplished. Hats off for a job well executed, because I'm erked enough to comment.

If Nando is offering this argument as a serious concept to be taken on board, I. E. he genuinely believes that you should never undertake to capture a landscape image in anything other than a full colour rendition, then he's a dolt.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I'm missing the point of this comment.
I think you've also missed the point of this article.

Rodney Johnson's picture

I agree, this is the worst kind of clickbait. It reads like a commercial graphics designer (i.e. "blogger") disparaging fine-art photography because he's tried all the short-cuts and was found wanting.

Rodney Johnson's picture

I could also make the argument that if you haven't shot 10,000 frames of B&W film using at least 50 different film/developer/paper combinations you really can't be considered a fine-art photographer. ...and I would be closer to the truth of the matter. Digital "conversions" can't really be considered B&W photography, as the the image wasn't really preconceived and composed in B&W. B&W isn't just another slider in a digital editing program.

My only advice to "them": stick to weddings and studio work, or a heaping helping of: "don't knock it 'till you (actually) try it".

Casper Maarly's picture

B&W is for repairing bad photos?
Nope, if it is a "bad photo" you put something Red in it. If that does not improve it - you put the print in a red frame...

Nando Harmsen's picture

You're making me laugh :)

Hanna Brown's picture

Very strange reasons indeed and I disagree with all of them. If someone makes such strong statements, clearly, they do not get what photography is about.
Why don't you ask the same Dutch photography community what their opinion is on BLACK&WHITE portrait, street photography, abstract, documentary... Still depressing, limiting, missing vibrant colours and so on? 😅

Nando Harmsen's picture

Thanks.
That's an excellent idea

Douglas Liebig's picture

L O L

Jeff Drew's picture

Photos can support or tell a story or convey a message. Black & White vs Color can be different interpretations or perceptions. I’ve always slowed down and studied b&w images for some reason. Colors I judge quicker? Hmmm…ponderous!

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Black and white reduces the image to pure form. To be successful in that medium you must cope with that reality. My eye sees color from the subject as well as on the ground glass, but that is visualized as a monochrome image, possibly with the use of contrast filters. The film vs digital argument is about gear, not creativity. Monochrome images need not suffer the post production drama these images display. Subtlety can be powerful too.

Sasidhar Pamganamamula's picture

I am not sure I believe the author that he actually 'heard' these opinions.

These takes are so egregiously bad that I have a hard time believing any serious photographer (much less a group of photographers) would hold such positions.

It feels like the author made up these terrible takes for the sole purpose of countering them by displaying his own work.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Your feelings misguide you. I did actually read these comments when I posted an article on a Dutch photography blog. It's because of these comments and opinions I decided to write this article.
But if you don't want to believe my honesty, that's okay. I don't mind.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Who are you to judge someone else feelings! Did you notice that most of the reaction to your article seem to be negative (no pun intended, ok maybe a little)? Maybe you see which way the wind is blowing...

Nando Harmsen's picture

I was just giving a reaction to the disbelieve. As if I was making things up.

Rodney Johnson's picture

I have to agree, it certainly reads like click-bait. And somewhat incompetent click-bait at that.

Stephen McNally's picture

I am a Black and White Landscape photographer not every image works in bw the same as not every colour image is a excellent shot .To be a bw landscape photographer and just shoot solely in bw you need to be able see the landscape in bw and what will work as a composition and create a image that works .As we see in colour to take a colour photo is pleasing to the eye and most people would enjoy the shot .To make a bw image work you have work a little harder to tell the story of the location you are shooting .Photography covers a lot of subjects I. chose to just shoot bw landscapes as I liked the excellent bw images I came across on the internet , books or magazines in my journey as I learned photography. I do see lots of BW images that don't work because a bad image is a bad image be in colour or BW .I have won competitions with bw landscapes against colour images if the composition ,light, leading lines all come together that BW image is as good as a colour image even thou I have only used 12 tones of BW from Black to White with various shades of grey in the picture .

Rodney Johnson's picture

Indeed, Adams called it "previsualization" where you visualize the final print while at the scene and making adjustments keeping in mind the entire process. It is a larger part of the composition. Quite a bit different, and much more creative, than today's spray-and-pray, fix-it-in-post sort of attitudes. Or in this article's case: "let's get rid of the color and see if I like what it looks like".

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