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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Franci Lamb's picture

All I see, in photography, is in B/W. For me, color is a "might as well" option. Everything, of course, has exceptions where I could/should choose color first; however, Ansel Adams was my first noted photographer--and I fell in love with the shadows, the composition and the light. Color doesn't necessarily let me see all those beautiful things hidden behind the color, from my perspective.