Text and photography by Dana Warnquist
“Is that an Ansel Adams photograph,” she asked. “No,” the gallery owner replied with a chuckle. “It’s a local photographer.” Overhearing this exchange, I could feel my face warm as I flushed with both pride and embarrassment. True story.
While my art certainly cannot be compared to that of master photographer Ansel Adams, his photographs and philosophies about protecting our natural environment have inspired and motivated me to capture eye-catching black-and-white images. Not everyone can create iconic landscape images like Adams, but with a few basic steps, from capture to print; stunning black-and-white images can be produced by even the newest DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera owners.
Every shoot requires advance planning, and outdoor photography is no exception. So you are a new camera owner? Step one; learn how your camera works. This means reading the manual; this is the only way you will get to know your camera and be able to use it. I repeat, read and reread the manual, as a former instructor would bark at the class.
Another key aspect of the planning stage for any landscape shoot is to check the weather. Patience at this stage is essential, as you will have to wait for the right conditions and time of day to create the perfect mood for the image. Sometimes the best time of day is to shoot immediately following a passing storm. At that time the clouds are dramatic and will add interest to the sky in the image.
I also recommend using an online tool, the Photographer’s Ephemeris (www.photoephemeris.com). This website, which is also available as an app on mobile devices, assists photographers in seeing how and where light will fall, anywhere on earth, anytime of day. You may only be in this place once. Prepare to make the most of the situation and try to create the best possible image.
So you have your plan, the weather and light are perfect, and now you are ready to venture out into the wild. I don’t need to tell you to take caution to wear appropriate clothing, stay hydrated, and pay attention to your surroundings, but I will; pay attention to your surroundings and the weather as it can change quickly.
Let’s talk equipment. For a landscape shoot, it is best to equip your new camera with a wide-angle lens. My guess is you did the research on this before buying your equipment and learned that not only does a DSLR offer a variety of different lenses–wide angle, macro, telephoto, and others—but each is used for a specific purpose. For our purposes, we’ll stick with the wide-angle lens.
Remember our conversation about your camera manual? So now I’m going to test you. The settings on your camera may vary but here are the basic settings to consider for a landscape shoot. (1) Set your camera to capture the largest image size available. I imagine many of you are starting out with JPEG files but will switch over to RAW files later in your photographic journey. Using the largest size will allow you to make modifications to the image file later without degrading the quality of the file and ultimately the printed image. (2) Use the lowest ISO available. ISO measures the sensitivity of your image sensor; the lower the number the less sensitive your camera is to light. Higher ISO settings are generally used in darker situations. (3) Set the white balance (WB) to auto. White balance is used to remove any colorcasts, so objects appearing white to the eye are rendered white in the photo. (4) Your camera should be equipped with an autofocus mode and a manual focus mode; the latter is preferred. (5) Set the camera’s exposure mode to Aperture Priority (AP). This means the camera will automatically set the shutter speed (the length of time a camera’s shutter—or gate—is open to the light). Aperture is the opening in your camera through which light travels. AP mode can bring both the foreground and background into focus for landscape shots. In order to maximize depth of field (DOF—the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that are sharp), a small aperture should be used, which is usually specified as an f-number, say f/22. Aperture, ISO and shutter speed are the three controls used to properly expose an image. Whew! That should do it.
Interestingly, all images created with a DSLR are created as color images. You can select to desaturate an image in camera, but this is not recommended as the software in camera is not as sophisticated as the software found in one of the post-production programs you will be using, such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. While there are many more functions available on your camera, as you become more proficient in the use of your camera and your art, you can switch some of the functions to manual mode and experiment away.
In addition to your camera, I recommend a tripod to hold the camera steady and avoid camera shake. Tripods can be heavy especially if your planned shoot requires a long hike; they can also be expensive. There are lightweight, compact tripods available but these too can be expensive. Using a rock to rest the camera on, or a tree to lean against for extra stability, are good alternatives. Filters can be used to add different effects to the resulting image, but I do not recommend them—especially the inexpensive ones. You purchased an expensive piece of glass, your lens; don’t put a cheap filter in front of it. This lesson came from the same former instructor; he’s an intense guy.
One final tool to consider is a notebook to write notes that describe how you feel, describe the location, and what you are seeing. Try to use all five senses as you take in the naturally perfect scene before you.
Now a bit on composition or the arrangement of visual elements within the frame. Capturing a black-and-white image differs from capturing a color image. Monochrome provides fewer variables than color, therefore previsualization of the image involves looking at things in a different way, seeing in terms of forms, textures, shapes, and tones and learning not to be distracted by colors. Previsualization is a term Adams used to describe the art of picturing the finished black-and-white print at the time you take the photograph. Remember, art and photography are personal and everyone sees differently.
How you choose your subject is your artistic choice. Think about composition both within and outside of the frame. Keep it simple. You don’t need to include everything; less is more. Also, think about including a foreground, middle ground and background within the frame; using a foreground creates a sense of depth and the illusion of three dimensions in a two-dimension image. An example of this might be boulders in foreground, an aspen grove in the middle ground, and mountains and sky in the background. A note about the sky; only include it if it is dramatic and adds to the image, otherwise reframe your image to minimize it.
When composing your image, change your point of view. Sometimes changing your angle or moving from left to right, or zooming in and out may reveal a more interesting composition. Lastly, make sure your horizon is straight as you look through the lens. A tripod can often help to create a level horizon. Also keep in mind that the best place for your horizon line may not be in the center of the image. Try placing the horizon in the upper or lower third (if you have a dramatic sky) of the frame for a more interesting image. One last basic tidbit on composition; look for a focal point, such as a tree or rock formation.
So you have a beautiful vista before you, you have composed what you believe to be the best possible image, now trip the shutter. Click! You’ve done it, created an eye-catching image that needs a slight tweak in a post-production software program to make the image really stand out. But before your pack up, check your image in the camera’s LCD panel. One of the benefits of a digital camera is the ability to see the image immediately. Does the histogram reveal that the image is properly exposed? You should remember from your manual that the histogram is a graphical representation of the image data, and a tool to be used to avoid overexposure (too light) and underexposure (too dark) of an image. Good? Ok, now pack up.
This brings us to the final stage of our photo journey, but some helpful information before we begin. Photoshop was originally designed for use by graphic artists, and is the preferred choice for perfecting one image at a time. Lightroom, on the other hand, was designed for photographers, and is more effective for working on a collection of images. Either program is effective and which one you decide to work with is a matter of personal choice. A bit of advance learning and practice with the program of your choice will go a long way when you reach the stage we are at—the editing of the image.
Now that you have climbed back down the mountain and uploaded your images to your computer, I suggest a very basic post-production modification of the image. As photography book author Steve Macleod said, “Although digital manipulation allows us to do almost anything with our images, it should only be used for making a good image better, and not as an excuse for a lack of skill or attention at the shooting stage.”
Let’s go ahead using Photoshop for our final stage. Photoshop has many tools and numerous books are available about Photoshop, its tools, and how to use them. For our purposes we are going to keep it simple. Let’s begin by opening the file. It is here that you can desaturate your image and confirm that your image is properly exposed. Some slight adjustments to contrast, sharpening and removing any unwanted spots caused by dust particles, and that’s it! So now you have done it—created a beautiful black-and-white landscape photo that is ready to be printed and shared with your family and friends. Now go off and be famous!
Busselle, Michael. Better Picture Guide to Black & White Photography. Crans-Pres-Celigny: RotoVision SA, 1998.
Macleod, Steve. Basics; Photography 04: Post -Production Black & White. Lausanne: AVA Publishing, 2007.
Präkel, David. Basics; Photography 06 – Working in Black & White. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, 2009.
Drawing her inspiration from the serene beauty of nature, Dana Warnquist is a fine art nature photographer. Through her photographic art she hopes to inspire an appreciation for natural beauty, help increase awareness about environmental protection, and further conservation efforts. Originally from the U.S., Dana now lives in Toronto with her husband and two labs. She studied at the University of Colorado and the Academy of Art University. In 2011 Dana was chosen as a semifinalist in the 47th Annual Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. She uses a Nikon D300 and D610 for her work. Dana’s online gallery can be viewed at www.danemarkphotoart.com. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.