Talk of wildlife photography advice and often one of the biggest tips is to shoot at sunrise or sunset. Of course, this is in big part because animals are most active at these times of day but also, because it’s when the light is at its best. Warm golden tones found at either end of the day can transform almost any scene or subject to something truly beautiful. But what happens when we remove color from the equation? When instead of relying on those golden tones we only have shades of white and grey? Well, in some instances, freeing ourselves from color can give us different opportunities to create images that convey far more impact and interest than a color version ever could.
Not all images are equal
The first thing to keep in mind with converting an image to black and white, is that not all images will benefit. Sometimes, it’s possible to ‘see’ the black and white image ahead of time and shoot a scene knowing that’s what you’ll do in the edit, and it works. Other times, an image you think will work well in black and white actually doesn’t. Often the reasons images don’t work can come down to the removal of color highlighting, bad composition or making the subject blend too much with the surroundings. Surrounding contrast competes even more when there is no color to separate the subject. So keep in mind not only do your compositions need to be strong but removing color should only be done when it helps to highlight the subject further, not detract from it.
Which images work well?
So which types of images work well? As a general rule of thumb, images that feature prominent texture, detail and contrast in the subject are good bets. Images with relatively subdued backgrounds, which you can use to your advantage to further emphasis the subject in your conversion, also work very well.
It’s important to think about the tones in your subject versus the tones in the rest of the frame. If the subject is light, we want a darker background. If the subject is dark, we want a lighter background. What that does is force the viewers eye to the subject in a way that is far more important than in color images. And if that subject has interesting form, shape or textures, that becomes all the more dramatic with no color information to distract the eye.
But more than that, not only can black and white add drama to the frame, but also a classic and timeless feel. This works well with portraits, especially, the classic lion. In fact, it tends to be true of all African wildlife scenes which seem to lend themselves to this type of photography.
Overcast light is a beautiful thing
Some of the best light to shoot in, regardless of the edit in mind, is overcast light. It tends to lend itself exceptionally well to black and white conversions. Here, flat light is excellent for allowing us to pull every last bit of detail from the scene. Darker subjects that might otherwise simply look like black blobs, can now show a range of tones. Scenes with flat, evenly lit, mid-toned backgrounds can be edited to a darker palette to allow the subject to really take center stage. Really dark overcast light and bright white subjects can also work very well, where you can over-emphasis the contrast to make the subject pop. When the light softens or the clouds hang heavy overhead, start thinking in terms of black and white and paying attention to textures and tones in the scene before you. By training yourself to see these elements, you’ll start to visualize animal encounters in new ways.
Editing for black and white
The most important consideration for a successful black and white conversion lies in exactly that – the conversion. It’s not a case of simply hitting the B&W button and you’re done. Doing so can produce an image that is very flat in appearance or worst still, lacking contrast in the right areas. Because with these types of photos, it’s not just about having contrast but having contrast where it adds impact. Unlike with color images, you can be much more aggressive with black & white, pushing contrast far more than with its color counterpart. Over-saturation and dodging and burning of colors quickly look unnatural but with that color gone, pushing those boundaries creates dramatic and pleasing results. The same can be said regarding vignettes, adding a subtle one can help draw the eye to the right part of the frame. Subtlety is the key though when it comes to vignettes. I would argue if you can see the vignette, it’s too much.
Regardless of your editing software of choice, to get the best from your images look to add localized contrast through dodging and burning. I use Lightroom for all my edits, first clicking the black and white button in the basic tab of the develop module, and then using a combination of adjustment brushes for those localized areas of contrast tweaks, alongside using the color channel sliders in the B&W tab. These can be very powerful, allowing you to easily alter the brightness of large areas of color in the image. A good example would be a lion against a green background. The lion has orange and yellow tones and the background green. By adjusting just the green, orange and yellow sliders, it is possible to very quickly push the background towards the black end of the tonal range and lift the brightness of the lion up. No masking required. We immediately make the lion stand out, where it’s then ready for some more localized contrast adjustments.
And of course, as with any editing technique, to get the very best results it’s always worth using a properly calibrated monitor. With an image that is predominantly made up of shades of grey between white and black, the subtlety of the tones is crucial so as not to lose texture and detail information. Remember we have no colors to distract us, so our composition and editing must be on point to help carry the image off.
Removing color from your photos can be a great way to experiment with not just new editing techniques but also adding drama and impact to images that otherwise might feel like they’re almost there but missing ‘that something extra’. It’s key to remember though, simply converting your photo to black and white and adding a heavy vignette is not a magic bullet for turning any photo in to a ‘fine art’ masterpiece. Your image MUST have a strong foundation that the black and white conversion then builds on.
All images © Richard Peters and cannot be used, copied or reproduced without permission.