50 shades of wildlife: Nature in black and white (Part one)
Display and defence, camouflage, and courtship; for mimicry and to mesmerise; colour is crucial for survival when it comes to the world of wildlife. When it comes to wildlife photography, on the other hand, it just might be the thing that’s holding you back.
Crazy as that sounds you’d have to agree that without the familiarity of colour a viewer is certainly forced to look twice at a black and white wildlife shot; even of a common or much-photographed subject.
And while generally something to celebrate in nature pictures, colour isn’t always the wildlife photographer’s best friend; often posing an unwelcome distraction in the constant battle to isolate subjects from clashing and over-fussy backgrounds in the field.
But these are not the main reasons we’d urge you to consider giving black and white wildlife photography a go. The thing that excites us both most about reframing the natural world in mono is that it completely frees us up to present our wildlife subjects in any way we choose.
By taking colour off the table, we’re instantly signalling that we’re breaking with one of the biggest constraints that bedevil conventional wildlife photography; that ‘by nature’ it’s got to be representational.
Presenting the vivid and richly colourful world of nature in mono is about as far from ‘natural’ as you can get. So, if you’re looking for exciting new ways to present your wildlife subjects and would welcome the chance to convey a different or more personal take on the world of nature, why not take a closer look at what black and white could add to your portfolio.
Monovision – shutting out nature’s rainbow
We should make it clear we’re not suggesting you turn your back on colour completely. While the top fine art wildlife photographers tend to major in black and white, they like to keep their options open and still shoot in colour when it suits them. But there’s a reason they like to shun colour.
That’s because black and white not only offers them massive scope for creativity but done well has bags of instant impact. It can certainly prove a more direct, intense, and arresting way to convey something meaningful, metaphorical, or evocative about nature’s beauty, fragility or the changing human relationship with the natural environment.
For this reason, it will help you hugely on your black and white journey if you have a clear reason or vision in your head each time you turn away from using colour in a picture. Black and white works best where it’s a considered choice for a deliberate, desired effect.
It’s not just a matter of opting for black and white when the light’s a bit rubbish in the vain hope you’ll salvage something from the day’s shoot. Nor a case of simply converting any random, decent, conventionally shot nature photo from your back catalogue to black and white and ‘bingo’.
This is why we don’t tend to convert many images from our existing files to black and white; preferring to work at the point of capture from a preconceived idea, or in response to something inspiring in the field. Our best mono shots have usually come where we’ve responded to strong potential for pursuing a black and white approach ‘in the moment’.
The big advantage of working this way is that it will help you train yourself to see and ‘think’ black and white when you’re out with your camera. It also means that you’ll have the advantage of being able to lock-in any minor in-camera adjustments as you photograph so there’s less to do at the post-processing stage.
If you find yourself struggling to visualise the results when photographing wildlife in black and white at first, it can help to set your picture style to monochrome and check the LCD display or use Live View to get a preview of your image. Bear in mind on some cameras you may need to shoot in RAW + JPEG to see the preview image in black and white.
If you’re equipped to photograph wildlife, then you’re equipped to photograph wildlife in black and white. There’s no investment in new equipment needed – it’s more about cultivating a new mindset.
We certainly don’t use any special equipment or filters. Wildlife photography requires a lightning response to fast changing opportunities so fiddling around with filters isn’t really an option for us – especially given the fact most filter effects can easily be replicated in post processing should you require.
Get with the mono-culture – best subjects for black and white
To make life easier for yourself we’d recommend making a beeline for high contrast subjects that readily suggest a black and white treatment. Obvious contenders for us would be mammals like zebra with their bar-code stripes and giraffes with those wonderful crazy-paving coat patterns.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, so don’t overlook obvious subjects that are monochromatic to start with; snow hares, black swans – that sort of thing. ‘Oven-ready’ for consideration in black and white, these make a great starting point, especially if you can also make use of complementary or contrasting backgrounds – white on white or white against black for example.
Discovering which subjects and scenarios benefit from being in black and white becomes easier if you can train yourself to see past the individual animal or bird you’re photographing and break everything down into a series of contrasting tones, shadows, shapes, and textures.
Without the distraction of colour these are the elements of your image that will be starkly revealed to your audience in black and white. Your job is deciding which of these graphic elements you want to showcase; whether it’s line, form, pattern, or simply the tension between your subject and the remaining space in the frame.
This is where the benefits of doing your black and white creative thinking in the field comes in. Once you’ve worked out what it is you want to emphasise you can tweak your camera settings accordingly to make it stand-out.
For example, suppose we wanted to celebrate the shape of an iconic wildlife subject like an elephant in black and white, we could choose to draw more attention to that in our picture by creating a silhouette.
In this case we’d dial in considerable negative exposure compensation – possibly a couple of stops or more – to remove all detail, radically beef up the contrast, and hammer home to the viewer it’s that classic outline we want them to appreciate.
At the other end of the scale, say we want to capture an ethereal shot of a flying white swan. For a pale, delicate subject like this we might choose to go to the opposite end of the scale and deliberately overexpose for a dreamier and ghostly high-key style – an effect which will be stressed even further in simple black and white.
About the authors: Ann & Steve Toon are a UK-based, husband and wife team of award-winning, professional photographers with a specialist interest in the wildlife and wild places of southern Africa where they spend several months each year photographing and running photographic safaris.
Their work is published in a wide range of magazines and national newspapers, both in the UK and abroad, and they are reprepresented by several leading photographic libraries. They've also written three books, two on wildlife photography and one on rhinos. You can see more of their work on their website at toonwildlife.com and follow their African adventures on on their 'Beat about the Bush' blog at toonphotoblog.com.