Tips for Black and White Wildlife Photography

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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.”

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.

Deer image

Original color image

Black and white deer

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.

Why Black and White?

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.

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.

Hawk Eye

The textures, lines and contrast of the feathers create a dramatic portrait of this Broad-winged Hawk.

DSC_5418-Edit-Edit

Shooting

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.

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.

Bison Portrait

In this image, the harsh mid-day sun still produced a dramatically lit portrait of a Bison.

Swan on the lake

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.

Composition

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)

Fox

Original image

black-white-wildlife-photography-fox-final

Without the distractions of color this image becomes a moody and detailed portrait.

Processing

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.

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.

  • 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.
High Key processing

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.

Low Key Processing

Low-Key processing in Lightroom creates a more mysterious effect.

Conclusion

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • Andrew Kliss

    B&W nature photography doesn’t necessarily float my boat, but I love what you’ve done with the zebras using high-key processing.

  • Kim

    I was initially not too excited about this week’s focus on black-and-white photography, as most of my subjects are animals. I’m glad I saw this article! I went ahead and tried it out on my dog for some practice, and I really like how it turned out.

  • My Uncle Noah just got an almost new cream Volkswagen Golf R by working parttime off of a pc online.visit their website on my` prof1Ie`

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  • Sarah Smallwood

    I went out on a gloomy afternoon couldn’t think what to do so I started shooting black and white, the sheep wouldn’t have worked in colour but I liked the black and white

  • Anshuman_Mukherjee

    took this one during a walk around my place, dude was busy eating even though he saw me coming. . . .

  • Anshuman_Mukherjee

    shot this one while on walk around the block, dude was busy eating,. . it even posed for me when it saw i lifted the camera . . .

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