Want to set your photography apart from the crowd and get images that can be even more compelling? Lose the color!
Sometimes, though, you’ll want more depth of field. Images of animals as nondominating features in a landscape usually benefit from a deeper focus. Imagine a deer in a field in front of a background of overlapping hills. Stopping down to a small aperture with a shorter tele (100–200mm) will compress and define those lines; converting to b&w will emphasize the repetition still more.
For optimal b&w images, shoot in RAW, which gives you much more tolerance and pixel information to work with in conversion. Most DSLRs allow you to simultaneously shoot RAW files and b&w JPEGs, with the monochrome appearing on the LCD. This can be beneficial when you’re starting out, or have trouble training your eye for b&w visualization. Couple that with live view, and you can see a world without color.
Once you get your images onto the computer comes the fun of bringing them to life. While you can make b&w conversions in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), I prefer Photoshop for its far greater range of options. (All the images here were converted to b&w in either Photoshop CS3 or CS4.)
While there are a number of ways to convert your files to b&w in Photoshop, I typically just use the Black & White layer, but often take an extra step and use the layer twice. I will first do a general b&w conversion, typically not pushing things too far, and then make a second b&w layer that will use masks to isolate certain areas of the image. This second layer allows me to work on multiple areas of the same color and render them as different luminosities. By masking out those areas of the first b&w layer, it allows the second conversion to come through.
Another tool I use for b&w work is the Hue/Saturation/Luminance tab while still in ACR. This allows me to push similar colors farther apart or closer together, as in the cheetah image (page 52). Even though the grasses were green and the cheetah yellow, I was not able to get the animal to pop as much as I wanted. So I went back and reconverted the RAW file, using the tab to push the grasses closer to blue and the cheetah closer to orange. Now, with the colors more opposite on the color spectrum, they separated into vastly different tones of gray in the b&w version.
Many Photoshop adjustments used for color images work for b&w images, as well. Typically, you want true blacks and whites in your image, and one of the easiest ways to do that is with Levels. Just squeeze the highlight and shadow sliders closer together to add some nice punch to the image. Curves is good method for midtone contrast. A simple S-curve makes a good start, and remember you can always use layers and masks to isolate the areas that it will affect.
Another favorite tool is a nondestructive dodge and burn layer. For this, make a new blank layer and change the Blend mode to Soft Light. Then paint directly on that layer with black or white; black darkens and white lightens. Start with a soft, low-opacity brush and build it up. You can do this twice, using one layer for dodging and one for burning.
This method works well for highlighting parts of the animals, emphasizing their shape, or altering the luminosity of your background to better suit your subject. I used it to get the effect of a black seamless in the baboon picture on page 54. I had taken the shot while she was sitting in front of a red wall at an abandoned resort hotel. In conversion, I darkened the background by turning down the red slider on a Black & White layer, and then further darkened it by burning in the wall.
One last thing I do is tone my images. I use the Photo Filter adjustment layer in Photoshop, click on the color square, then go to Color Libraries and type in “warm gray.” There are about 11 shades that I use to slightly tint my images, but there are many more options available to fit the mood of the image. A cool blue, for example, can emphasize the chill in a winter image.
I love color, but there is a timelessness to black-and-white that cannot be duplicated. The next time you are out shooting wildlife, make a conscious effort to see in black-and-white and watch how it transforms your photography.
Paul Marcellini is a landscape and wildlife photographer based in Miami, FL. He offers prints and tours of the Everglades. See more of his work at www.paulmarcellini.com