8 Tips for Stunning Black and White Travel Photography

by John Stapel

tips for black and white travel photography

When we travel to new places, our soul is stirred. We have feelings that don’t normally arise – and black and white travel photography can be used to express these emotions.

However, creating compelling BW travel images is about a lot more than reducing the Saturation slider. In this article, I share some tips on how to approach black and white shooting so you can make impactful photos that’ll stun your friends and family.

1. Think in black and white

Thanks to the power of digital photography, it’s easy to create a black and white image: Just open a file in your favorite post-processing program, then drop the Saturation slider to zero.

Unfortunately, while that method is simple, it’ll rarely give you great results. Instead, you must learn to imagine scenes in black and white before you ever push the shutter button; that way, when you finally take your image into post-processing software, the results look seamless and natural.

So spend time looking at scenes while ignoring the color. See the tonal values instead. The light and contrast in a scene affect how the image will render in monochrome.

Look at how light reflects off surfaces. See the contrast between two objects. Think about lines and shapes and how they fit into your compositions. 

If you can learn to think in black and white, you’ll start to notice great scenes for black and white travel photos. And as you begin to think in black and white more regularly, you’ll notice a huge improvement in your files!

2. Commit to making black and white travel photos in advance

When photographing a new destination, it’s easy to shoot constantly in color – after all, color is natural and obvious.

But if you want to become great at black and white travel images, you need to make the extra effort to work in black and white.

My recommendation? Before you take a single shot, have a plan in mind. Promise yourself that you’ll take a certain number of photos in black and white. Alternatively, aim for a certain percentage of BW photos.

And when you take your black and white photos, don’t shoot halfheartedly. Practice thinking in black and white, and photograph people, landscapes, architecture, and anything else that lends itself to monochrome.

That way, when you return home, you’ll have at least a handful of BW photos you’re proud of!

3. Use black and white to express yourself

Black and white is a highly emotive, expressive genre of photography.

So if you want to create stunning BW shots, why not use your photos to express your feelings about each location?

Whenever you bring out your camera, ask yourself: How do I feel? And how can I communicate this feeling to anyone who might look at my photos? Share the emotions you experience when you are at a temple, in the airport, or see a child begging in the streets.

Pro tip: Look for people who reflect the way you feel at the time, and include them in your compositions. You might find a busker belting out a happy song and another singing the blues. Which one fits with your emotions?

ancient ruins black and white travel photography Nikon D700 | 20mm | f/8 | 1/160s | ISO 200

4. Include people in your travel photos

In the previous tip, I mentioned how you can enhance your black and white travel shots by capturing people who mirror your mood.

But don’t stop there! Whenever you see an interesting person, photograph them.

In fact, people look different when photographed in black and white. People also make a place. Including people, even if they’re other tourists, will offer a real-life perspective on the places you visit.

close up of a shoeshine man in Turkey Nikon D700 | 35mm | f/5 | 1/320s | ISO 400

You can shoot wider landscapes that include people – but sometimes a travel portrait, in which you isolate your subject, makes for a great image. I love to look for brightly lit subjects and dark backgrounds; that way, I can create a dramatic effect:

portrait of a market vendor with fish Nikon D800 | 50mm | f/2 | 1/250s | ISO 100

5. Photograph iconic locations with a unique perspective

We’ve all seen the cliché travel photos – the shots that everyone takes at the most famous locations. Go ahead and take a snapshot, too. Make sure you include those photos in your collection. But don’t stop there.

Start by thinking in black and white. Shooting iconic travel locations in black and white will render them differently, and by planning to take BW images, you’ll already be ahead of the curve.

Then, before you capture any photos, take time to look at the shapes, lines, light, and contrast in a scene. Consider how you can use the light, camera angle, and composition to create something new. You’ll be surprised by how often you can take one-of-a-kind photos at the most popular travel spots!

Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/8 | 1/320s | ISO 200

6. Confidently adjust your camera settings

Before you press the shutter button, imagine the image you want to create. Then adjust your settings accordingly.

In some places, you’ll want to isolate a subject with a shallow depth of field, so you’ll need to dial in a wide aperture setting. In other areas, you’ll want to keep the entire scene in focus, so a narrow aperture will be key.

If you’re after long-exposure blur effects, you’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod and slow your shutter way down. And if you’re interested in capturing fast action, you’ll need to boost your shutter speed to ensure you get plenty of detail.

I’d recommend switching your camera to Manual mode. Then simply experiment with different settings. After a bit of practice, you’ll start to get the hang of manual adjustments. Pretty soon, you’ll be taking well-exposed images like a pro.

Asian long tail boat black and white travel photography Nikon D800 | 85mm | f/13 | 1/1000s | ISO 100

7. Have fun with long-exposure travel shots

Long exposures are beautiful in black and white. Therefore, you should always be on the lookout for situations and scenes that feature moving elements!

For instance, you might notice interesting movement at the seaside, on a riverbank, or on a busy street. You can then place your camera on a tripod or a firm surface, determine your composition, and lower your shutter speed to 1/25s or beyond.

(To prevent camera shake, you’ll need to use your camera’s self-timer or a remote release. And make sure you turn off any camera or lens image stabilization.)

Experiment with a variety of shutter speeds. Sometimes you may want to use a faster shutter speed to keep the moving elements recognizable. Other times, you may want to use an extra-long exposure to completely blur your subject.

beach in black and white with a slow shutter speed Nikon D700 | 35mm | f/22 | 6s | ISO 100

8. Shoot in RAW and do sufficient post-processing

Most cameras let you shoot in both RAW and JPEG – and if you shoot RAW files, you can apply far more powerful edits. (JPEGs contain less information and are therefore less adjustable.)

That’s why I highly recommend you photograph in RAW! Yes, it’ll take work to learn how to process your black and white shots, but at the end of the day, it’ll be worth it.

Then, when you come home after a photography adventure, make sure to spend plenty of time processing your RAW files. You’ll need to convert your shots to black and white, and you should also experiment with different exposure and color adjustments.

Over time, you’ll develop a distinctive editing style – and you’ll have plenty of fun along the way!

temple dragon black and white travel photography Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/7.1 | 1/200s | ISO 200

Black and white travel photography: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to head out and capture some beautiful black and white travel photos!

So remember the tips I’ve shared. Practice thinking in black and white. And enjoy your travels!

What travel photography destination do you plan to photograph next? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Beach scene with two people walking in the distance Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/9 | 1/1600s | ISO 200
8 Tips for Stunning Black and White Travel Photography