Want to set your photography apart from the crowd and get images that can be even more compelling? Lose the color!
Think “wildlife” and you’ll likely think “color”—vivid plumage, multitone fur, brilliant scales, all against backdrops of verdant green and sky blue. So naturally everyone shoots wildlife in color. It’s all the rage these days—particularly in nature shooting—to crank up color saturation to make photos stand out. But while vivid colors certainly catch the eye, sometimes taking the saturation in the other direction can have just as much, if not more, impact.
When you drain the color from an image, it allows the eye to focus on form, textures, shapes, and composition. With wildlife photography, you can use monochrome to highlight the patterns of an animal’s fur or the textures of its skin, and to turn a distracting background into a neutral gray. Probably the biggest advantage of black-and-white is that it gives you a far greater leeway for exploring tonality. Viewers have certain expectations, for example, of how intense or what shade of yellow a lion should be. But in a monochrome image, you gain the freedom to choose to render the lion in high-key, or brooding dark, or anywhere in between, without making it appear as a grand departure from reality.
Years ago, when color film came onto the scene, black-and-white imaging began to fade in popularity—especially in wildlife photography, with its emphasis on naturalism. But monochrome has returned with a vengeance with the advent of digital. The digital camera’s most powerful tool here is RAW capture, a format that allows you to “develop” images in a wide variety of color palettes—or with no color at all—from the same file.
Seeing in B&W
So many times I hear people say, “The image didn’t work in color, so I tried it in black-and-white.” This tactic can sometimes salvage an image, but to create successful b&w images consistently, you need to learn what to look for.
Contrast is a major force behind black-and-white imagery. A bright animal on a dark background is an obvious choice, but also look for color contrasts that can be taken advantage of in conversion. Take, for example, the cheetah image on this page. The cheetah was yellow and among some green grasses; in conversion, I was able to push the grasses darker and the cheetah lighter, though in reality they were relatively the same luminosity. This left a moodier image than the reality—an afternoon shot with lackluster light.
Which brings up another advantage of b&w: You can shoot longer in the day. Because additional contrast usually improves a monochrome image, successful captures can be taken well outside the “golden hour.” Shadows or strong sidelight can be used in composition to emphasize the shape of an animal.
Underexpose a bit with backlighting to highlight the outline of a furry creature, or go the other direction and overexpose a portrait for a high-key effect. For the giraffe on page 108, for example, I positioned myself so that a cloud was behind it, and overexposed by 1.33 stop in order to blow out the sky for a studio portrait look. This graphic approach works very well in b&w and allows you to shoot in conditions that may never work in color—the eye is more forgiving of blown highlights in b&w than in color, where they can really distract.
Textures can also be emphasized through b&w. The rhino on the opening spread is a perfect example: Naturally dull in color, it’s already on its way to a monochrome image. By increasing I contrast, I was able to enhance the detail in the hide, and the repeating lines of the ribs. I was also able to emphasize the tonal difference between the rain-soaked areas and those that were still dry. The bright background shrouded in rain also enhanced the image’s mood in b&w, whereas in color it looked lifeless and washed out.
The patterns of the zebras at right were also brought out in conversion. Already monochrome, they were perfect candidates, but the background was a bright, distracting tan and green. The conversion allowed me to darken the background and highlight the dust being kicked up, allowing the high-contrast animals to really pop.
If you already have sufficient gear for shooting successful wildlife images in color, you have everything you need for b&w. And many of the same rules apply. You want your subject to stand out, so look for a complementary background, without clutter or distracting elements. You can most often achieve this through the use of long telephoto lenses, which limit the angle of view behind your subject. You can then fine-tune the background by moving yourself up, down, left, or right.
Another benefit of teles is the inherent lack of depth of field that comes with high magnification. A patchy, high-contrast background can be greatly smoothed out with a shallow focus on your subject, and can be evened out more with selective dodging and burning later on. For small creatures, a macro lens can be used for the same effect. While photographing the snake above right, I used a 180mm macro to isolate its head as it went through a sandy patch. An image of it in the grass may have worked well, but for me the simpler graphic image worked better. Without distracting blades of grass, it allowed smaller details, like the reflection in the eye and the flick of the tongue, to pop.