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Monochrome: Simply Dramatic or Dramatically Simple? 

Since I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with seeing images of Africa in black-and-white. Perhaps it’s the simplistic beauty of the medium and how it lends itself to portraying the iconic and epic scenes of my mother continent. Perhaps it’s because it makes me yearn to be alive in a different century, a century where the wildlife that roamed our continent was vast and uncountable and largely unthreatened like Hemingway and Livingstone described it to be in those days. Whatever it is, suffice to say that I enjoy a good photo of African natural scenery in monochrome. That does not mean, however, that any wildlife or landscape photo taken in Africa will undoubtedly work well in black and white! Many people these days use the monochrome medium as a scapegoat or elixir to try and save photos that are average to bad when viewed in colour, not taking into account the fact that it’s hard for a photo that looks GOOD in colour to look good in monochrome to begin with! The same principles of good light, good subject matter and strong composition apply, and you need to find your own nuance of expression and interpretation once the colour has been stripped away from the photo.

But what makes black-and-white nature photography so beautiful? To me, it’s the boiling down of a photo to a simplistic root, and evoked emotion, a nostalgic reflection. Simplicity and drama.

Owing to my fascination with it as described above, it followed inevitably that I started dabbling with it the moment I stepped into the DSLR playing field. Having been an avid naturalist and bush-bound traveller all my young life, picking up a proper camera and lens just made everything click for me. In this article I will showcase some of my results in exploring this medium, and explain why I feel they work for me. I’ve got a predilection to creating quite dramatic monochrome presentations – often employing infrared processing filters and deep contrast to achieve the end-goal for the image. I will also show you the colour versions of the photos, to show you where I began and where I ended up. Hopefully this will inspire you and make you think about how you are using this medium at the moment, and where you might make a few changes in your workflow and artistic vision if you feel you are stagnating.

When I process monochrome images, I am definitely striving to adhere to the following quote:

“Photography should evoke more than it describes”

Desert Survivor

Let’s start with a classic – the one most people have probably seen from my portfolio. One afternoon we were driving around in the dry Auob riverbed of the Kalahari desert, and we came across a lone Blue Wildebeest on a calcrete ridge, under a stunning sky filled with streaky cirrus clouds.

Desert Survivor

I used an infrared filter on the sky and brought out all the subtle depth in the clouds through various tonal contrast adjustments, enhancing the contrast of the stoic animal against the seemingly moving sky backdrop, and the contrast of the horizontal landscape with the diagonal clouds.

Desert Survivor Morkel Erasmus

In cases like this, the monochrome vision and process serves to enhance and elevate the elements and the scale to the viewer – while evoking mood, and even questions about this animal in its harsh desert landscape.

Moment of Silence

This medium can also serve to illicit and emotional response and add poignancy, defining and solidifying a moment in time with anthropomorphic qualities. This photo was captured after I witnessed a pride of lions take down an old giraffe bull in Etosha, Namibia. The actual story is that the lions had chased the giraffe all through the night, and they were all pretty spent by the time their quarry fell. Instead of tucking in, they rested, and this female rested her head on the giraffe’s neck.

Giraffe and Lion

In cropping and processing, I focused on the contrasting patterns of the giraffe and the “golden mean” composition. The monochrome conversion with a hint of coffee toning transforms the image from the obvious to the “else” – not showing what it is in itself, but what “else” it is that I was witnessing.

TTL_4

Wild Eyes

Leopards are elusive, secretive, mysterious and haunting all at the same time. Capturing that in a photo is another story – so many people have easy access to reserves these days where leopards are quite used to modelling for the cameras and providing amazing photographic opportunities, and clear open photos of these big cats are commonplace. Finding a wild elusive leopard on your own, on the cat’s terms, is another experience altogether. I sat and waited for this leopard to emerge from the thickets after my wife spotted it hiding there in the remote northern section of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. After a while, he gave us a fleeting glance through the palm thickets.

Wild Eye Morkel Erasmus

This picture actually isn’t much to look at, and would probably have ended up in my bin if I had not had a specific goal in mind when capturing this one. I find that the best monochrome images are the ones that happen “in the field” – ie you SEE the result in your mind’s eye before you even trip the shutter. By filtering the colours appropriately in various layers, making the foliage dark and the leopard light in tone, I was able to get the look and feel I saw in my mind on that morning.

Wild Eye Monochrome Morkel Erasmus

The beauty of this kind of selective toning is that you end up being able to manipulate (to an extent) the fall of light in the actual scene – tone and shade become the defining aspects of the photo, and these can be molded and sculpted like a fine art sculptor gently crafts his finished work.

Shake It Off

You’d probably think that I only convert static portraits to black-and-white, given the above examples. So here’s an “action” photo too. I have a specific bias towards elephants in monochrome – I just feel they work so well in the medium! Their skin textures and tones, their iconic stature and bulk, and the ease with which they make an image timeless all probably contribute to this. I took this photo from an underground research hide in Etosha (Namibia). This big bull was in a state of musth (hormonal and grumpy) and once he picked up on our scent (safely ensconced in our concrete bunker) he shook his head indignantly – causing the fine Etosha dust to trail off.

Shake It Off Morkel Erasmus

This photo works well for me in both mediums, but the impact is bigger in monochrome. I was able to get the sky nice and dark due to the polariser I was using, and again filtering the blue to dark with an infrared filter.

Shake It Off Monochrome Morkel Erasmus

I could keep posting anecdotes, photos and examples all day. Let me leave you with these general pointers for consideration in your approach in the field as well as in the “darkroom”, if you want to create compelling monochrome wildlife images:

  • Develop the art of seeing the end result (more or less) before you trip the shutter;
  • Develop the art of seeing the potential of lines, textures, structure and mood in a scene when composing;
  • Never be afraid to experiment, never be afraid to learn;
  • Don’t be lazy with monochrome conversions – spend time, play with various colour filters, tease out every inch of tonal contrast and variation;
  • Learn to love your dodge and burn tool!
  • Learn to use layers and masks in Photoshop – your processing will never be the same again
  • Select elements in your photo and work on separate layers for each, getting the exact tone and look/feel you are after for that compositional element;
  • Share your results with people whose opinion you trust, and whose critique can improve your creative process;
  • Enjoy the process and the fruits of your labour!

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