The textures, lines and contrast of the feathers create a dramatic portrait of this Broad-winged Hawk.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a deer standing in a forest. Was the image you imagined in color? Most people will visualize the image in color. But are the colors necessary to produce an image of the deer? Let’s take a look at some advantages of wildlife photography in black and white.
Composition is even more important in black and white than in color. While a colorful image sometimes hides poor composition, black and white enhances and brings out the composition of your wildlife shot. Use shallow depth of field to isolate the subject, making a dramatic portrait and bringing out the textures of the fur or skin. Remember to use the KISS theory of composition. (Keep It Simple Silly)
Low-Key processing in Lightroom creates a more mysterious effect.
It is important to note that not every image will make a great black and white one, some images and subjects will require color to make an impact. If color is the purpose of an image – say, for instance, your subject is a red-headed wood pecker, then black and white may not work for that subject. Some photographers hold the opinion that an image lacking color is a good candidate for black and white conversion; however, even very colorful images may be hiding a dramatic black and white image.
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Know what you want to photograph and then find the best destination to photograph it.
“Wildlife photographers, many of them, use telephotos far too much. If you’re going to be photographing a beautiful woman you’re never going to shoot her with a 400mm lens or even a 200 or 300. You’d shoot her with a standard lens or a wide angle, and it should be the same with animals.”
Many wildlife photographers don’t have a specific animal in mind when they pick a location. They choose the destination and then the animal, while ideally it should be the other way around. For example, Amboseli is the best place in the world to photograph elephants, according to Yarrow.
Most of the work is getting everything sorted out to be in the right position.
As illustrated by the photo of the grazing zebras below, high-key processing creates a cheerful or upbeat image, while a low-key interpretation of the same image reveals a more somber or mysterious aspect to the image. Though a high-key image is very light, it should still have black areas; and conversely, a low-key image is mainly dark but should also contain some white areas.
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The photographer was close enough to take a selfie of himself in the bear’s eyes.
Without the distractions of color this image becomes a moody and detailed portrait.
High-key processing in Lightroom creates a cheerful image of zebras grazing in a field. The same image was then opened in Photoshop and the layer was duplicated adding a motion blur. The layer blend mode was changed to Overlay and a layer mask was added to keep the zebras from being blurred. This gives an artistic effect to the grass.
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When it comes to wildlife photography Yarrow likes to shoot at close proximity and with ground level perspective. The main concern with this approach is how to keep yourself safe at all times. To keep himself out of harm’s way, many of his shots are made using remote triggers. The camera is pre-focused and hidden out of the path of the animal. The idea is that the animal shouldn’t be aware of the camera until it’s about a foot and a half away from it.
With the kind of photography that Yarrow does, 95 percent of the work is about getting into the right position so that he can then use his skills to make an image. That means a huge amount of work—paid and otherwise—to research and arrange the logistics. Pressing the shutter release is just about 5 percent of the job.
South African photographer Heinrich van den Berg once said, “I believe that if black-and-white photography is done correctly, it can convey much more emotion and a deeper meaning than color ever could. It’s as if by subtracting color, the viewer is forced to add his own emotion to the images. Color photography is like a novel that spells everything out in detail, whereas black-and-white photography is like poetry—its strength isn’t in what’s said; it’s in what’s left out.”
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Photoshop: Use a black and white adjustment layer to fine-tune how each color tone is converted to a shade of gray. This is a great starting point, but you may also want to adjust contrast, and dodge or burn areas to dramatize the subject.
If you use Photoshop to convert your images to black and white, don’t be afraid to experiment. Never just use the Image Mode – Grayscale to convert your image, that is like “throwing away the baby with the bath water”! You will throw out too much useful color information that could be used to create the mood you are looking for in your image.
Lightroom: Using the black and white tab, similar to Photoshop, you can also adjust how each color tone is converted to shades of gray. Nik Silver Efex Pro is a very powerful black and white software.
One of its greatest features is the preset effects already preloaded into it. Use one of those presets as a starting point, and follow up with the powerful adjustment panel to really fine tune your images.
Without color, the key ingredients to shaping your image are light, composition, contrast, and tones. When photographing for black and white, lighting can transform an image. Black and white works well in all ranges of lighting conditions. Even the harsh midday sun, (difficult lighting for color shots) can products some fantastic results. How many times on a gloomy, rainy day have you grumbled about terrible lighting? Well, maybe for color photography it isn’t ideal, but the great thing about shooting for black and white results, is that even overcast days can produce some great images. It can allow you to capture the tones and textures of your wild animal subject, features which may be hidden in a color image, shot on a bright sunny day.
Color, though admirable, may be a distraction that interferes with the viewer’s ability to see the textures, lines, patterns, and contrasts within an image. Often your wildlife subjects are surrounded by lush green foliage and blue sky backgrounds, and in color photos, the trend is to saturate them. With black and white photos we take the attention away from those colors, and draw it to the wildlife subject. Colorful images may tell a story, while black and white can reveal a more emotional portrait of the wildlife. Color may show the actuality of a scene, black and white is a perception of the captured reality. Black and white can add drama to your wildlife images that color will hide from the viewer.
In this image, the harsh mid-day sun still produced a dramatically lit portrait of a Bison.
When you’re photographing an animal, if your line of sight is higher than the animal, it immediately suggests that the encounter is artificial and that you’re higher up.
The black and white processing in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 in this image converted the green foliage into a dark background. Now the emphasis is on the deer and the texture of its coat.
The next time you are out photographing wildlife, look for opportunities to shoot black and white images. What wildlife do you like to photograph? Get out there and discover some stunning black and white wildlife opportunities!
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a week full of features on black and white photography. Look for 5 Simple Ways to Create Expressive Photos in Black and White earlier today and more daily over the next week.
When exposing this image to keep the detail in the swan’s white feathers, the background was exposed to nearly black. Converting to black and white required very little processing.
David Yarrow, probably the most easily recognized names in wildlife photography, believes in what Andy Warhol said: “My favorite color is white and my favorite color is black.” In this interview with GMAX Studios, he shares some of his secrets:
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The time of the year is of critical importance to wildlife photography. For shooting his images in Amboseli, for instance, Yarrow prefers skies that are moody–an almost impending doom look. This is something that can only be achieved in October.
Yarrow borrows from Robert Capa when he says, “If your images aren’t good enough, you’re probably not close enough.” He also mentions Ansel Adams, saying the lens looks both ways—maybe not necessarily when you’re using a 400mm lens, but it’s certainly true when you’re using a shorter one.
There are too many ways of converting images to black and white to mention them all. But Photoshop, Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro 2 are the three processing means I use the most. Whichever program you use for your conversion, you must learn to take control of the process. Instead of stripping the color out, use the tool in your editing program to turn colors into controlled shades of gray. Different processes applied may produce different emotional reactions to a single image.
Of course, the morning and evening glow hours are going to work great when the low angle of light brings out the textures and lines of wildlife. If you are just starting to develop your skills shooting for black and white wildlife, or you are having problems visualizing your images as you shoot, here is a helpful tip. Most DSLR cameras with allow you to set your picture style to monochrome when you are shooting in RAW. The preview will appear in black and white, but your RAW file will still contain all the image’s color information, that you can use later as you convert to black and white. Stripping out all the color from the preview will help you see the forms of the image without the distractions of color. Use this process to help train your eye to see in black and white.
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Yarrow’s inspirational black and white images are some of the best examples of wildlife photography. His work is routinely featured in print publications, and he also sells limited edition fine art prints.