Monochrome Landscapes

The art, craft and vision of making successful black-and-white landscape photographs

My love for monochrome images started in 1989, when I joined the newspaper staff at my local high school. I had only been taking pictures for two years, and this was the first time I was able to shoot, develop and print my own images, all in black-and-white. I spent all the time I could shooting and in the darkroom. I won’t lie—my grades in other classes may have suffered a bit due to my new love of processing and printing images.

Monochrome photograph “Haystack Winds.”

“Haystack Winds.” Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM at 17mm. Exposure: 3.2 secs., ƒ/18, ISO 50.

I read about Ansel Adams and how his mastery of dodging and burning was used to create his iconic images. Adams’ photographs were not straight out of the camera; his darkroom work was just as precise as his shooting techniques. His ability to control light in the capture and the print were groundbreaking at the time.

I’ve now been shooting for over 30 years, and while my love for black-and-white hasn’t changed, the process has. I’ve switched out film and chemicals for digital media and a computer. A few years ago, I found a darkroom up in Boulder, Colorado, and thought I would give it another try. The love of being in a darkroom and watching the prints come to life returned to me in an instant. I did this for about six months before realizing that time was more precious than anything else and made a heavy decision to say goodbye to film simply based on the amount of time it took to go from taking the image to printing the image.

Today, I shoot, develop and print images digitally. While the process is different, what I see in front of the camera when I shoot and decide to convert to black-and-white is the same. When my goal is a monochrome image, my objective is to focus more on the mood or the main subject rather than the photograph as a whole. Monochrome eliminates the distractions of color and allows the viewer to focus on the subject more easily. Here, I will share my approach to black-and-white photography and the experience and creative thinking behind a selection of images.

Art, Craft & Vision Of Monochrome Landscapes

My approach to photography is based on three concepts: art, craft and vision. For me, the “art” of photography is learning how to control elements of an image with your camera settings. Each photograph will be different in how you set up your camera based on the scene in front of you. For my image “Morning Rain at the Bells,” I used a short shutter speed to make sure I captured the rain rings in the lake. I could have used a much longer shutter speed, and they would have disappeared, but that wasn’t my intention. I felt for that image, the rain rings were an important part of telling the story.

By the “craft” of photography, I refer to how you process your images through developing and printing. To hone your craft is to work on it over a long period of time. It’s always evolving. I am still learning new things even after having worked with both digital and film and shooting for over 30 years. I never want to stop learning. Once you’re able to capture the technical elements in your image with your camera settings, you can then bring them to life in your own way through processing.

“Vision,” or pre-visualization, is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of being a photographer. When you can walk up to a scene knowing how you’re going to shoot and how the finished image will look, you’re much more likely to get the photograph you want. This helps me to focus my technical decisions. I will admit that pre-visualization is more easily possible with familiar places—the first time you visit a location can be the hardest. I like to imagine the final photograph hanging on the wall and what it may look like. I go through a checklist in my mind when I am setting up the shot to make sure I have all my bases covered.

Haystack Winds

(Above) This photograph came to be purely by accident or by mistake—call it what you will. I arrived in Cannon Beach very early before anyone else was on the shore. I looked at what the water was doing and how much foam was being left as the water receded. I set up my camera and took a couple quick test shots to make sure my exposure was correct and then waited for the water to get up high enough to create a leading line of foam in the frame. After focusing and metering, I set my focus to manual and waited. It took about five minutes before the water got up high enough, and by that time, the ocean mist had covered my lens, creating the foggy look you see in the image. I took several shots as the water came and went, all with the ocean mist on the lens. By the time I realized what had happened, the tide had receded too far, and the composition was lost. Instead of getting upset, I decided to just go with it. With its dreamy effect and movement of the water, this is art created with a vision and a mistake.

Morning Rain At The Bells

Monochrome landscape photo “Morning Rain at the Bells.”

“Morning Rain at the Bells.” Nikon D810, Sigma 24-105mm F4 DG OS HSM | Art at 24mm. Exposure: 1/6 sec., ƒ/10, ISO 64.

This is a super-iconic location, for good reason. The view of the mountains and reflection in the lake make it one of the most-visited places in the United States. The morning I shot this image, there was a glorious sunrise. I was on the trail hiking up to another lake, and as soon as I got to Maroon Lake, it started to rain. The perfect mirror reflection was quickly taken over by rings of raindrops. The sun rising behind me lit up the mountains in amazing shades of reds and oranges while the sky and clouds were a very soft grayish red color—everything a landscape photographer could ask for. After looking at the color version, I knew that I would create a low-contrast monochrome image that focuses on the natural elements in the scene and not just the colors. I wanted the viewer to feel the rain as they were standing there. I wanted them to see the various shades of light hitting the mountain. The small amount of rain didn’t show up in the image, but the raindrop rings on the lake tell the viewer what is happening.

Metlako Falls

Monochrome landscape “Metlako Falls.”

“Metlako Falls.” Nikon D300, AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED at 70mm. Exposure: 0.5 secs., ƒ/4.5, ISO 100.

Arriving in the early morning, often before the sun came up, you could catch this low-hanging cloud of mist above the falls. With the falls and the mist both very light in comparison to the bright green leaves surrounding it, I recognized this would be a great candidate for a monochrome image. Before I ever took the shot, I already had this final image in my mind. I knew I would make the leaves almost black, so that the darkness framed the light. Even though this image was shot 13 years ago, and I was very early to digital processing, it came to me easily because I already had the image in my head. Over the years, I photographed this scene many times and never with the exact same conditions. Using a slower shutter speed allowed me to capture some detail in the fast-moving water as well as the splash in the pool below, like something from a magical land as water pours from the side of a lush cliff into the shallow canyon below.

As they say, all good things come to an end. Such is the case with this amazing view. A few years ago, this viewpoint was victim to a massive landslide. Now I cherish the images I made of this gorgeous waterfall.

Keyhole Arch

Monochrome landscape “Keyhole Arch.”

“Keyhole Arch.” Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM at 20mm. Exposure: 13 secs., ƒ/22, ISO 50.

This photograph was created with the vision of using natural elements of land and water in contrast with each other. The arch (not to be confused with the famous Keyhole Arch at Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach in California) no longer exists. It fell a few weeks after I shot this image.

It was mid-morning when I arrived to an outgoing tide. The water was coming up far enough to fill the frame, but it wasn’t rough enough to scare me away. I found a big rock to stand on and was able to get my tripod situated as I waited patiently for the water to fill the spaces between the rocks. The overcast day made the light very subtle and even. I tested various shutter speeds to make sure I was getting the water how I had it pictured in my mind. I wanted to create an image where it looked like the rocks were floating in the water or that fog had settled down low around the rocks. Either way, I was more interested in creating soft water against the hard rocks. Using a small aperture, long shutter speed and low ISO, I was able to create the image I had in my mind when I arrived.

The sides of the rock walls are quite orange and red. I felt that black-and-white would remove the distraction of those colors and allow the viewer to focus on and enjoy the water and rocks framed by the arch.

Cold White Diamonds

Monochrome landscape “Cold White Diamonds."

“Cold White Diamonds.” Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM at 40mm. Exposure: 13 secs., ƒ/22, ISO 50.

This is one of my personal favorite images. The gray rocks and grayish-blue water didn’t work very well when I took my test shots in color. Everything seemed to be muddled together without any real emphasis on where the viewer was supposed to look. I decided to take some longer exposures to really let the water go flat so that the highlights of the image were the ice fringes around the rocks. Most people aren’t sure what they are looking at when they view this image, and I kind of like that.

I set my camera up directly over the icy rocks as the water flowed under them, so that the water would create a flat black backdrop to the frozen highlights of the ice. When metering, I decided to meter on the ice to make sure that I kept the highlights and details there without blowing out anything important. I really wanted the viewer to follow the ice fringe around the rocks from top to bottom or vice versa. The gradient light on the top rock keeps the image in balance, providing a little more light, but not too bright to take away from the ice.

Killer Cape Kiwanda

Monochrome landscape “Killer Cape Kiwanda.”

“Killer Cape Kiwanda.” Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM at 21mm. Exposure: 0.6 secs., ƒ/8, ISO 50.

Having grown up on the Oregon Coast, I learned at an early age to respect the ocean. The ocean doesn’t care who you are; if you don’t respect it, it can easily kill you. Once as a child and again as a young adult, I almost lost my life to the ocean and its unforgiving forces.

Now when I am at the beach, I will stand back, watch closely and look for patterns in the waves. There is a lot of different information out there about wave sets and cycles, but in my own personal experience, I have found that along the North Oregon coast, larger wave sets usually come in about 10- to 12-minute cycles. There are a lot of other factors to consider, one being if a wave is going to hit a physical object (rocks) or just wash up on shore.

The location for this image is nothing less than thrilling, to say the least. The same night I took this image, I got nailed by a huge wave. As careful as anyone can be, you simply can’t tell what direction the splash is going to happen. After getting wet and drying my gear off, I took a step back. I watched closely as the waves came in and what the clouds were doing. I knew I wanted to capture the power of the waves hitting the rock as well as the curve of the cloud in relation to the curve of the rock in the foreground. As I watched this gorgeous sunset, I knew I would keep a color image as well as a black-and-white. I felt the black-and-white really draws the viewer in closer to experience the power of the wave and then up to Haystack Rock, which is framed nicely by the clouds and rocks. Using a shorter shutter speed allowed me to capture the water at its peak before crashing down on the rocks.

Ice Falls

Monochrome landscape “Ice Falls.”

“Ice Falls.” Nikon D810, Sigma 24-105mm F4 DG OS HSM | Art at 32mm. Exposure: 3 secs., ƒ/22, ISO 31.

I’ll conclude with this image, as I feel it ties all the elements of art, craft and vision together. If you look very closely, you can see graffiti on the walls to the right of the falls. Other than that, the scene was beautiful. It’s a small waterfall tucked away in rocky, towering walls. A very cold morning provided just the right amount of ice: not too much to cover all the water but enough to add incredible details in the foreground.

As I approached the scene, I was looking for something to help guide the viewer’s eyes. I noticed the two chunks of ice that looked to me like turtles talking to each other with the water flowing through them and decided to make that area the bottom of my frame. This created three sections in the image—the foreground where the ice is, the pool of water with an ice bridge across it, and the waterfall coming out of the rocks. A true monochrome image that captures lots of detail and tones.

What I appreciate most about monochrome is its ability to focus attention on the composition’s subject and forms, removing the distractions of color. Monochrome allows the mood to come through in a more powerful way. While I do shoot a lot of color images, I love the simplicity that monochrome offers.


See more of Darren White’s work at darrenwhitephotography.com.