Seeing the Garden in Black and White

Recently a client asked me to photograph his wife’s garden for the purpose of surprising her with a few prints of it. Since this is the direction in which  I would like to head my efforts as I contemplate retiring from landscape design work, I was only too happy to oblige.

The garden (designed by his wife) is lovely, a shady paradise less than a block away from me. But after I processed about a dozen images for possible prints, he asked if I could convert some of them into black and white or sepia. I’d never done this before, and was skeptical. But what I found as I experimented with the images from their garden and others I’ve shot in the last couple of years opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about photographing gardens.

Here are two photos from a recent garden shoot (different garden), first the color and then the black and white version.

epimediums, ferns, plant combinations

Epimediums and ferns in an early spring garden image.

black and white garden images

Rendered in black and white, the image is more about shapes and textures.

Here’s another pair, from the same garden, with more contrast in the tonal range this time.

Euphorbia, plant combinations

Euphorbia and an unidentified broadleaved perennial (cimicifuga?) offer contrast in color, shape and texture.

black and white garden photographs, euphorbia

Greater dark and light variation in this image makes it more dramatic as a black and white photo than the previous example, I think. But somehow I like the ferns and epimedium shot more.

The last set from this garden is probably my favorite.

Asarum, Hydrangea 'Annabelle'

The client had asked for some photos of the variegated ginger, a slow-growing but spectacular groundcover for shade.

Asarum, black and white garden images

The same image converted to black and white.

This project sent me searching back through older images for some I could experiment on. Here’s a shot from last summer’s trip to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, not featured in my post on “The Luminous Lotus.”

Lotus flower, summer

A partially-opened lotus flower shot at Kenilworth Gardens in Washington DC last summer.

Ever so much more appealing, I think, in the black and white version – which surprised me.

Lotus, black and white garden photography

The same image in black and white.

In the second image, the veins on the lotus petals stand out more and the whole flower seems to float against a darker background – and the water drops on the leaf behind the flower really shine.

I’ll close with a hybrid – an image originally taken in color (as all of these were), converted to black and white in Silver Efex Pro, and then the underlying color layer ‘revealed’ through the use of a layer mask.

Magnolia Plantation

A red azalea against a wooden fence and live oak covered with Spanish moss at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston SC

A black and white version of the same image. Without the azalea in color, this would look dull. Trust me.

I vacillate between liking this final image and thinking it looks too gimmicky. But I thought I would include it because it shows something a little different from straight color and straight black and white.

Silver Efex Pro (now available in an upgraded version, which I don’t own) is a versatile program that can be used as a stand-alone or integrated into Lightroom and Photoshop. It offers more variants than you can imagine in terms of different “looks” for black and white images, including sepia, infrared, and a variety of custom effects you can create yourself. For what I do, I don’t envision using it more than occasionally, but I found it easy to use and more flexible than the black and white options available in Lightroom.

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9 Comments on “Seeing the Garden in Black and White”

  1. Alex Says:


  2. sequoiagardens Says:

    Hmmm – it is a lesson I remember learning often and forgetting each time: when evaluating the success of your design, look at it in b&w. I have never done so with my new camera… thanks for the info on processing programs too, Melissa!

    • Melissa Says:

      If you have Lightroom, it has a number of settings that allow you to view the image you’re working on on different black and white or even sepia versions with one click – so that’s an alternative to purchasing an entirely separate program like Silver Efex Pro.

  3. Jean Says:

    Very interesting post, Melissa. I’m in love with the black and white version of the lotus photo.

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, the more I look at all of these photos the more I like that one best too. I think it’s because there’s maximum contrast between the flower and the background.

  4. Olga van Saane Says:

    Nice effort. Though I don’t see the real worth of turning it all into BW, to be honest. It’s all gone very flat and dead, to me, in spite of any enforced contrast. The final result is nice, asa photographic image, but what’s left in it – of freshness of a garden? I don’t see it, with all respect. May be sepia would be a better solution, in a way (Jekyll’s ?) garden looks like in the old pictures. Just a thought. Anyway, gardens are so beautiful, we can enjoy them in any colour, whatever we prefer.

    • Melissa Says:

      Olga, thanks for stopping by and sharing your reaction. Certainly I think some of these are more worth “seeing in black and white” than others. But gardeners are often urged to use black and white photos of their gardens to see if a particular planting combination works in terms of shape and texture contrast, which is why I found this exercise interesting as a designer. A couple of the prints I am doing for the client who asked for this approach are in color, the others in black and white and – as you suggested – sepia.

  5. John Says:

    Melissa, very interesting comparisons. What I found particularly striking is that the whole discussion in introduced by the vibrant full-color coleus image that you are currently using for your header. Personally, I think that just like a pretty woman can wear just about any kind of clothes she chooses, a great image looks good either in color or in black and white.

    • Olga van Saane Says:

      Thank you for attending my comment, Melissa, and yes, I see your point now. yeah, might be a good exercise for a designer, you are right.

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