Wildlife in Monochrome Part One

Discover how AndyR uses monochrome for creating atmospheric wildlife images.


This is the first of two companion pieces to AJ's excellent monochrome Basic Skills article. Good black & white photography is an equal marriage between the "seeing" and the "processing". Part One below covers the former, the latter will follow on shortly afterwards. In part one you will find out why I think that monochrome is a vital component of any nature photographer's armoury. You will get to see how to spot potential images and how to make the most of situations when you find them. I've included both wildlife and landscape images...plus a few extras too!! And many many many mentions of the Ashes for any Australians. So read on! Cobba.

I have not always been a fan of black and white photography as for many years I was stuck in the highly saturated world of commercial wildlife photography. In fact I most definitely had saturation fascination and the thought of removing all the colour and just relying on contrast to tell the story was one that I just didn’t get. Then, whilst on holiday, I went to the Ansel Adams gallery in San Francisco and I began to get it big style. I remember standing in front of that iconic "Half Dome” shot from Yosemite and being moved by the passion and emotion that Ansel had conveyed to me from the image. It just shouted WILDERNESS in a way that I think few colour images can. Since that day I have worked hard to incorporate some modicum of monochrome skill into my work.

The first monochrome image I was happy to show is here. It's a rather aggressive black rhino that came very very close to the battered old Land Rover that I was underneath.  Taken on my medium format Pentax 645N2 it has never been a favourite image of mine as the sky was all white and the colours quite flat. Then, when I discovered my monochrome eyes this was the first image that I came to. Since this was before the world of plug-ins I used a combination of the LAB Colour Photoshop conversion technique and the high pass filter to create this very detailed and compelling image. Of course the picture was made in camera by the composition and terrifying low angle, but it was the black and white conversion that brought it to life. Since then it's been used on magazine covers all over the world as it's one of the most striking and downright stupid images ever taken of a Black Rhino. 

The lesson I learnt is that black and white images have their own unique story to tell, and can instil some real emotion and feeling into an otherwise lifeless image. Of course this implies that black and white photography is a last resort, something that we only try just before pressing the delete key…and I have learnt that actually it is just the opposite. These days I shoot an image specifically for black and white as I am learning to see the opportunities when this wonderful medium can help my photography tell the story that I am looking for. I look at the work of the great black and white photographers like Sebastiao Selgado for inspiration, even though they have nothing to do with my genre of wildlife photography. We can all learn from each other, having the courage to admit it is the sign of a great photographer not an untalented one. Black and white photography is a wonderful medium that anyone can try and which you can take great pleasure and inspiration from, the first step is to see the potential of a shot….

Forget your colour brain
If you read the forums, you know the kind of ones that don't know what girls look like, then any image with noise is considered a bad one. As regular FotoBuzzers you will know our pro mantra, that shutter speed is king and getting a sharp shot is much more important than any noise or other considerations.

Now that has always been my mantra with colour images and it's definitely not the norm....whereas with black & white images having noise is definitely an advantage. You see noise / grain makes a black and white image, it holds it together and gives it presence and atmosphere.

Check this shot of elephants in the pouring rain taken in the Masai Mara. It was a gamble to go out as conditions were tough but I always think that edgy conditions can make great images so it's worth going the extra mile. The light was terrible, really grey and overcast, with so little contrast in the colour image. Also I had to shoot at ISO 8000 to get any meaningful shutter speed, which meant noise. Now on the 1DX I'd never bat an eyelid but in this awful light and conditions the noise was obvious. Terrible for a colour image....but perfect for black & white. The tone and contrast on the elephant is superb too, really showing how powerful a black and white image can be. So when you are thinking about and creating these images you need to make your brain colourless. In fact you need a different mindset, where contrast is king and composition is everything. You need to tell the story with tones and shadows, colour is irrelevant, and so is noise! 

Seeing the Shot
One of the first lessons I learnt with black and white is not to use it when there is a better colour alternative. Something that involves a lot of colour, such as a field of flowers in sunlight or a brightly coloured bird, will tell a better story if in colour. It's pointless turning something colourful into black and white as it's not art but fart. Put the flowers though on a moody day, with intense lighting and perhaps some storm clouds, and you are looking at an awesome black and white shot. Black and white photography is moody, it's full of contrast and edgy. But of course not everyone can see it so easily as the top pros, which is a shame as it is there for all to enjoy.

DSLR LCD to the rescue
Some photographers find it very hard to visualise black & white, so why not let the camera help you? The LCD screen is a wonderful device for teaching black & white and I use it quite a lot. In fact I have my EOS M compact set to this all the time and it's really helped me see when black and white works best. The quickest way to set this up is to put the Picture Style option into your Quick Menu Tab, that way you can easily toggle it on and off. I actually have my EOS M compact set to a black & white picture style all the time, it has allowed me to nail some really cool images that can then be taken to the next stage in the digital darkroom. If you have an old compact that has this functionality then why not do it, it takes up virtually no room in your bag and can produce some very cool results. Only by looking at everyday situations through the eyes of a black & white camera can you ever hope to get tuned into what works and what does not.

Practical Examples
Here are a few thoughts about situations when black and white photography comes into it's own with nature photography....

Contrasty Situations
I really like black and white photography that shows mood and emotion and there is no better time to try this when there is a lot of contrast in the shot. In fact there are many times when the contrast is too high for a colour image but there is rarely a time when it is too high for a black and white image. In fact it is the contrast, or the difference in tone between the darkest black and the brightest white, that is the defining factor of any magic monochrome. 

Here's an example: The magnificent ice cliffs of Austfonna on Svalbard never cease to inspire me and always leave me open mouthed with their stunning beauty. I always photograph them in colour when I can, particularly if we are there in the beautiful light towards dusk when the cliffs really glow. But on this occasion we were forced to be there in the strong afternoon sun and so they were just too contrasty in colour, even with my Lee Polariser. Now I know from experience that in situations like this, strong blue skies and intense ice, that a heavily polarised sky will become jet black after black and white conversion. So I shot this at ISO 200, with an aperture of /f11 on a 24-70mm lens. The composition was intended to show a vanishing perspective looking along the cliffs. Converted to black and white it gives a really cool landscape, with no sense of scale and very striking in its use of tone to get the message across. Of course these landscapes aren't to everyone's taste but I think in these kind of conditions, when there isn't much else on, the black skies work really well.

Tip -  If you are shooting monochromes on a bright, cloudless sunny day (when usually you wouldn't dream of it) then use a circular polariser to it's maximum which will help turn the sky completely black. 

Ok and now for something completely different. I have always wanted to use that phrase in an article of mine and I bet you are all humming the Monty Python tune now! This image shows how a very contrasty situation can again be turned into a wonderfully powerful monochrome image. 


I was in India working on tiger images for my first tiger book and really wanted to shoot some black and white images. Day after day passed and all I managed to take were really great colour images of tigers doing tiger stuff, but I wanted something different. Now I'm experienced enough to know not to push it and to stay patient, eventually if it's meant to be it's meant to be.

One afternoon I got my chance. Shortly after entering the park we found a female stalking some unsuspecting deer. Getting ahead of her path I saw the potential for an interesting shot....in about three hours time when the light wasn't so harsh. Part of me thought about driving away, then my colour brain gave in to my monochrome one and I saw the true potential of the shot. The contrast between the dark wood and the harsh tiger really made this stand out for me and I knew that it would work well in black and white. Of course I shot it in colour first, and I darkened the exposure to ensure that the whites on the tiger's fur would not burn out. Autofocus was easy, I just moved the joystick slightly to take the focus point away from the tree and right over the eye. As she moved closer to the tree I had to adjust my position slightly rather than moving the joystick; I did this to minimise shake as I was hand-holding a heavy 200-400mm lens.  

Of course taking the shot was only half the battle, good processing was essential to finish off the image. I will talk a little more about this at the end but I kept it simple here, just using the in-built Photoshop menus to do the conversion, then finishing it off with some copious dodging and burning to accentuate the moody effect. I think it worked well with this image, tigers are just so difficult to take in black and white so I was glad to get this one under my belt! 

Mad dogs and Englishmen!

Now of course that is one use of contrasty light, but let me ask you this, when is the time when the light is at its most contrasty?

Answer.....in the midday sun.

Now you are gonna say that I am a hypocritical SOAB as I always tell you to avoid this time and only shoot in nice light. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Yes that is right, unless you want to get some uber contasty black and whites or use an infrared camera (more on that in a special feature next month). Then it is a wonderful time to go out, as these two images should show. 

I didn't naturally choose to be out in the harsh light, the lions were just doing cool stuff chasing off an

intruder from another pride so we stayed with them for several hours. When I initially processed the images in colour I was really disappointed as the tones were very very harsh with even worse highlights. I almost threw them away to be honest, there is no way any of my commercial clients would accept them ("Andy you are 'avin' a larf mate" I could hear them saying). 

They were just bland, bland and more bland. Then I processed them in black and white and they popped from the screen. 

Of course they only work this well because I have got the basics right. Just because a black and white is devoid of colour it doesn't mean that you can ignore good composition. In fact bad composition is shown up more in these images than colour ones. Both of these images have similar composition, low angle and a low depth of field (f/4). The top one is more of an straight on shot, I left space on the right to really highlight the brightness of the grass. The one below here is looking into dead space on the right, it's a powerful composition as it makes you think that the lion is looking at something interesting. It was. Lunch. With a small starter. 

So I hope you can see that shooting in harsh light of day, especially on grassland like this, can really make lovely toned black and white images. Of course an infrared modified camera takes this to a whole new level but more on that next time.....

Environmental Portraits
Like I have said previously, I don’t set out to take a black and white shot, but instead take advantage of whatever light conditions there are at the time. My favourite usage of the medium is to portray an animal in the context of its environment and the more extreme weather the better. Of course extreme weather often means low light levels, but monochrome doesn’t care about that, as it is the passion that it is trying to portray not how beautiful the subject looks in sunlight. This of course means that as soon as the weather looks dodgy, like in a typical British summer, I head for the mountains or the beach, both of which can yield stunning monochromes. The beauty of including wildlife in the image is that it doesn't have to be frame filling; in fact it must NOT be frame filling as it is only part of the story. This makes you think about the composition more, which I think shows in the final image. 

The great thing about these kind of images in black & white is that there is no colour tone to dilute the message, they are pure power. Here are a few to inspire you from my archives:


Animals with definite shapes work best here as there are no colours to help / hinder. So this shape of a rockhopper penguin is easy to identify in silhouette. What makes this picture though is not the penguin, as would be the case in colour, it's the sheer power of the environment. It just screams "STAY OUT" at the penguin, I would not get in there in a month of Sundays. But the penguin did, because it had no choice. Amazing animals. The power of black and white.  


Yet more penguins, this time on the Falklands. It's quite minimalist and in colour it just didn't work owing either to the extreme contrast. But black and white gave it a sense of space and wilderness, of wild places where man is most definitely out of place. And that's the message that I wanted to convey when I saw the potential. Mission successful. Like the Ashes. Unless you are Australian. Then you have to cry. A lot. And pick a new team.

This is a very very different image. It's always confuses everyone that looks at it, as it's clearly a Manta Ray flying across a desert.... errrr oh? Weird huh, what an amazing shot and it's brought alive by black & white as it's bloody awful in colour.  

I was in Western Australia, taking a day off from photographing whale sharks, staying at a holiday resort with lots of very very drunken Aussies. Must have been thinking about the Ashes then I guess (gotta get that one in cobba's). The town was famous for it's Manta Rays and I found myself bouncing around on a research boat waiting for them to come onto the surface. When one appeared I'd get into the water and fun along after it like the clappers, always trailing it and fighting a losing battle. In the end I decided to give up trying to beat them and instead take something a little bit more environmental. Here you have the result. It's strange because you cannot see the water! But in the colour version you can, it has a horrible cast and just looks yuk. I almost converted it to black & white by accident, just fiddling in ACR I dragged the saturation slider to the left and almost dropped my hair restorer. I quickly loaded it into Photoshop, used the in-built conversion and used various presets until this one appeared on the screen. That's right you can clearly see my black & white workflow. Move all the sliders until it looks nice. Genius. A very special image. And here's another one, this time showing how black and white can really enhance climatic conditions to give an image that extra ooooooommmmmph!

It's a leopard, one of Olive's sons, trying to work out how to get a very heavy bushbuck up a tree in the pouring rain. Colour was a disaster, a very strange white balance making the whole thing yellow, when corrected it just looked as dull as the Aussie pace attack. And that is as dull as it could get. 

But again in black & white it has been transformed into something interesting. Why oh why might you ask and I will tell you. It's the same theme throughout in all the images in this section. It simplifies the image. Gone are any colour distractions. Instead the picture relies on shadow and grey tones to tell the story. It's simple not complex and that is the attraction of black & white to nature photographers. It strips an image down to it's more basic form where contrast is king. It's that contrast that allows you to see the elongated rain drops (because I shot this at 1/125th second) against the background; in colour they are sadly lost. It's the simplification of this image that allows you to concentrate on what's important, and ignore what isn't. That's the great power of the medium I think. 

Another good use for monochrome wildlife is an abstract, a shot where dimensions are irrelevant i.e. you have no idea of scale and are just relying on composition and contrast to tell the story. Again by abstract I do not mean macro (since most of the macros world is in beautiful colour), just something that makes the viewer look twice at the image. If your composition can do this then the emotion of monochrome will do the rest. Check this image of rock formations on a beach:


It's got nice texture hasn't it for rocks? 

That's because this is about as rock like as the Aussie openers are consistent run scorers. It's the leg of a giant tortoise. Notice the low depth of field, everything isn't in focus and the focus point fades away very quickly. It's a classic black and white, nice contrast and a good tonal range. Check out its owner here:

Mean, you don't wanna mess with him. He moves so fast, well compared to Aussie batsmen anyway. This leads me nicely onto the next section, portraits, as there can be no finer use of the medium than for showing the natural world in close-up.

Up Close and Personal
The final usage I see for monochrome wildlife is the facial close-up and this works best with animals that have a neutral colouration like elephants, rhinos, gorillas and chimpanzees. It also works best when there is no sun, as a cloudy sky in my opinion gives a much better contrast to work with. Now you might wonder where you can do this and there is no better place than your local zoo; this was where I first tried out my black and white techniques with Gorillas before doing it in the wild. Look for shapes and forms, interesting light and most important of all – texture. The rough texture of skin or the hair on a face can make a cracking black and white and remember the more contrast the better so don’t be afraid of shooting in harsh light; it is essential though to be able to see any eyes clearly if you include them in the shot. Check these out:


See the power of these portraits and how the tones really help to increase their mood. All taken on cloudy days, all nice tone and contrast, Portraits work.

Processing Black & White images - it isn’t Rocket Science
So far I have spoken about the conceptual side and the geeks out there might be wondering when I get to gear and technique. Well to be really honest gear is irrelevant as monochrome photography is emotional and dependant on your moods, rather than what camera you have. Some of my darkest and best monochromes have been taken when I am at my lowest ebb – a "creative” personality I believe they call it. But one fact is true, your images have to be technically competent to look good in black and white and it depresses me when I hear photographers say "anything looks good in black and white”. This simply is not true and all the usual basic skills of composition, point of focus and depth of field apply equally to your black and white photography.

Black & white images are a perfect marriage between capturing the raw material in camera and using the digital darkroom to bring them to your vision. That's why they are such fun to produce, as they need more hands on processing that colour images. I love processing them! These days black and white images have never been easier to create. And I am gonna stop right there, as that whole subject needs another whole article to do it any justice. So that will follow on very soon as part two. In the meantime AJ has created some excellent video tutorials on the conversion process which you can find in the workflow section.

And Finally
Well there you have it, hopefully this article has inspired you to get out and capture some great black & white images, or see the potential in those that you already have. NOW LISTEN CAREFULLY FOTOBUZZERS AND READ BETWEEN THE LINES. IT WOULD BE VERY BENEFICIAL TO A FUTURE (AND NOT THAT MUCH IN THE FUTURE) FOTOMISSION IF YOU START THINKING ABOUT BLACK & WHITE. VERY BENEFICIAL IF YOU GET MY DRIFT. Subtlety was never my strongest point!!!

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