How to Capture Stunning Landscapes on Film

Landscape photographers all over the world are jumping back into film photography for good reason. It provides some effects that aren’t replicated easily on digital. Film has a number of advantages and disadvantages over digital photography.

Some film stocks have greater dynamic range, especially in the highlights, while others have an extended IR sensitivity that can cut through haze and fog to create detailed and compelling images.

But there are also some disadvantages to shooting landscapes on film. It’s difficult and expensive to use computational methods of imagery, like creating HDRs and combining photos for panoramas. By definition, film landscape photographs are also not going to be as sharp as digital photos — unless you’re using a Nikon or Canon film camera with modern lenses. 

But sharpness is far from everything when it comes to landscapes. And film can actually have some pretty big benefits over digital as well. In fact, the main benefit film has over digital is that many film stocks build color contrast into the negatives, depending on the film stock used. As well, the process of creating images is slower, and allows for a lot of person touch that simply cannot be replicated digitally. 

Sometimes, only B&W can give you what you need in a landscape photograph.

Color or Black and White for Landscape Photography

For the most part, landscape photography is done with color film. Even when color film was way worse than B&W in the 30s and 40s, humans still seemed to prefer color just because of how much easier it is to really understand what’s in a scene. Our eyes are attuned to color, and the little bits of contrast between the color wavelengths allow us to better understand what’s in a scene. 

This is one reason why I’m gravitating to color film these days even for my everyday photographs. It’s easier to compose in color since that’s how we see the world. And the sunset skies are so beautiful in color, where they just don’t stand out in B&W. 

The most important question when deciding between color and black and white is if the image is working because of color contrast, or because of interesting light and texture. 

One example is a bush of flowers. Flowers have to contrast with nature so that insects and birds can have an easy time finding them to bring their pollen to other flowers. To do that, they use bright colors and shapes that are not otherwise found in nature. So the flowers stand out beautifully in color photographs. But they will look dull and blend into their surroundings in black and white. To make the flower stand out in B&W, you will have to isolate them. That can mean getting up really close to blur out the background, or removing them from the bush altogether. 

B&W filmsDescription
FP4+A classic fine-grained film perfect for landscape photography. The classic grain structure makes this film extremely flexible and tolerant of over and underexposure.
TMax 100Kodak’s Sharpest and finest grain B&W film. Uses modern T-Grains, which are sharper and capture more light than traditional grains.
Delta 100Ilford’s response to Kodak TMax. Slightly smaller T-Grains make this film have a moderately better tonal range at a slight cost of film speed.
XP2The only Chromogenic (C41) B&W film on the market. Extremely tolerant of over-exposure, and the inky blacks give it a contrast range like no other available film. Shoot this one anywhere from ISO 50 to 400 on a single roll.
SFX 200The perfect B&W film for any photographer needing extended infrared sensitivity. Using this film with a deep red filter will make beautifully contrasty skies, and create stunningly white trees.

Tips for B&W landscape photography

B&W has some additional requirements to create compelling images. The best way to find out how to make a fantastic image in B&W is to take some inspiration from the masters before us. 

B&W landscape photography looks best with long exposures, high contrast light, and simple compositions. Use strong, textured subjects and leading lines along with long exposures to blur water and clouds. The simpler the image, the more dramatic the outcome.

There are plenty of great artists out there who make great examples for this kind of work. My favorite artists right now that continue to inspire my work are Michael Kenna and Hengki Koentjoro. Studying the works of the masters is far and away the best path to learning how to take incredible landscape photographs.

The reason long exposures work so well is because they create contrast between the blurry and the textured parts of the image. The blurry parts become negative space that brings your eyes directly to the texture. Just the same way as dark parts of an image draw your eyes to the light. 

If you can find scenes like that, you’ll be able to make incredible black and white landscapes. 

The lighthouse captured on Kodak Gold with the Harman Reusable Camera

Slide film versus Color Negative

Alright, so like most people, you likely decided to shoot landscapes in color. And I’m honestly not that disappointed. It takes a lot more work to capture an incredible B&W landscape than it does in color. So if you’re starting your landscape journey, one of the next questions to ask is if you’re better off using color negative or color positive film? 

The biggest difference between color negative and color positive (slide) film is the dynamic range. Color negative film captures far more details in the highlights and shadows than slide film is capable of. Color negative also tends to have less overall saturation, making it easier to edit.

Color positive, or slide film can be absolutely beautiful to hold in your hands. But if there’s lost detail in the highlights and shadows, they won’t be recoverable. Slide film is also not tolerant of under or over-exposure. This means that having a good metering method is critical to getting good exposures. 

Color negative, on the other hand, can be pushed and pulled with ease. Films like Kodak Portra, Gold, and even Ilford XP2 (a B&W film using color film technology) can tolerate up to 3 stops of over-exposure without any visible differences. The colors will become less saturated the more they’re over-exposed, however. But even that is something many photographers love playing around with in their landscape photographs. 

Golden hour on Kodak Portra

Which film is the best at capturing sunsets?

When you’re after warm tones, there’s no manufacturer that does it better than Kodak. Fuji is excellent at balancing daylight films and perfect skin tones, but their films just aren’t as vibrant at sunset. 

Most landscape photographers love using Kodak Ektar 100 for landscapes because it has a greater red spectral sensitivity than Portra. Ektar is also more saturated and has a beautiful grain structure that’s perfect for landscapes. Mixing these factors together means that Ektar will create more color contrast during sunrise and sunset than Portra, which is built to be less saturated, but more flexible. 

The underrated champion of landscape photography in my opinion is Kodak Gold. The film has excellent dynamic range and is slightly warmer than Portra, but less saturated than Ektar. It’s also a grainy film, which shows significantly when you’re shooting with it. When shooting Kodak Gold, nobody on Instagram will ever think you just added grain in Lightroom and called it a day. 

Another fun option to try out is Lomo Purple. The geniuses at Lomography have switched around some of the film’s bases and made blues and greens turn purple for an amazing effect. This film makes deserts look trippy, and turns green fields into Lavender straight outta Valensole, France. Definitely something to experiment with. 

A film image of a house on the ocean
If you can’t tell, this is one of my favorite landscape photos of the year. Taken on Kodak Ultramax with the Pentax S3. An extremely cheap, yet capable system using sharp Takumar M42 lenses.

What is the Best 35mm Camera for Landscape Photography?

The best camera system is the one you’re willing to travel with. Film cameras come in all shapes and sizes, from pocket-sized point and shoots to 1.5kg beasts like the RZ67. Personally, I like sticking somewhere in the middle. The best camera for you will depend largely on your budget and the type of look you’re going for. 

When shooting landscapes, there’s no requirement for a special camera. Literally any common SLR from Canon, Nikon, or Pentax will give you incredible results. Pentax tends to be cheaper, as K-Mount and M42 lenses are still affordable, yet incredibly sharp. Canon FD lenses are seeing a crazy resurgence now, making them more expensive than ever before. 

And Nikon lenses are just as expensive as they always have been. Since Nikon kept the same mount from 1959 until they released their mirrorless systems, meaning those lenses work the same on an FM2 as they do on a D850. With that in mind, if you already own some Nikon lenses, a Nikon SLR like a FM2 will allow you to get incredible quality without taking chances on lenses.  

In reality, the camera doesn’t matter all that much. The best one is most likely whichever system can be found locally. In some parts of the world, Canon camera and FD lenses can be found for a couple dollars. In others, it’s Pentax, or Nikon. Go to a local used camera store and choose whichever one fits best in your hands. 

Lomo 800 shot with a Bronica ETRSi. Photo by St. Laurent Photography

Medium format for landscape photography

There is still a time and a place for medium and large format photography. It’s normal for people to lust after using larger formats of film because it captures so much more detail. I love playing around with my 645 camera, because the photos it takes are just incredible. That said, I always scan those negatives with a DSLR. In the end, however, the grains are significantly less noticeable, and the tonal range is simply out of this world. 

But whether or not it’s worth it is up for debate. The cost of lenses and film more than double when purchasing a medium format system. Instead of getting 36 photos, you’re limited to 15 on the 645 systems, down to as little as 9 shots on a 67 system. And when you’re focusing on distant landscapes, the depth of field advantage that exists for medium format disappears completely. 

A big reason why photographers move into medium and large format film for landscape photography is because these cameras offer them more quality than can be captured by a digital camera. If that’s your goal, then I would suggest sticking with digital. Because while that might be true when you’re taking a single photograph, there are all kinds of ways to make larger, more detailed images with even an entry-level camera and a tripod. Panoramas, and HDRs are just one way that a digital camera can vastly out-perform a medium format Hasselblad. 

But that doesn’t mean Medium format isn’t worthwhile. There is something special using a camera that can take images that size. They’re amazing pieces of machinery that feel like they capture the essence of life in every photograph. Having a large viewfinder also helps to immerse yourself into the frame of the photograph in a way not possible through a tiny 35mm viewfinder. 

However, if you’re considering investing in Medium Format, I’d absolutely suggest renting a camera from a store before purchasing. Try it out and see if the larger image size is worth it for you. 

Hanging film on a wire to dry.
Hanging my photos on a jute string wire in my apartment. Developing at home is easy, fun, and way cheaper than using a lab. At least if you’re going to shoot more than 20 rolls per year. Learn more about developing your photos at home here.

Should I Develop Film at home or at the Lab?

Landscapes aren’t like other forms of film photography. When you get that perfect sunset, you’ll want to have the highest quality negatives possible. For many people, that means pushing film isn’t as much of an option. It also means that re-using color developer from a home C41 kit might prove more disastrous than helpful. So when is it a good time to develop film at home?

As a general rule, when you need high-quality color developing done, you’re better off taking the film to a lab than developing at home. However, it’s the opposite for B&W, where developing at home can give you more control over the final product than will come from developing at a lab.

That’s my usual thought process. Developing color rolls at home leaves a lot of room for mishaps. If the temperature isn’t perfectly consistent, or if I accidentally get a bit of blix in my developer, whole rolls of film can be ruined. But Black and White is typically less fussy. In most cases, small variations in temperature won’t make a major difference in the outcome. And having the choice of different developers means that I can choose the look I want based on the roll I shot. I can under-agitate if I want a little less contrast in the image, or I can over-agitate it if I want the blacks to be deeper.

What do you shoot your landscape photos with? And what’s your favorite film stock for shooting landscape photographs? Let me know in the comments below!

By Daren

Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.

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