How to Photograph Wildlife in Black and White
The subject of black and white wildlife photography can split opinions. Some photographers make a conscious choice to purely shoot in this format, while others tend to stray away from it and only produce colour images. Many, myself included, will produce work in both formats.
My reason for this is simple: shooting purely in black and white is like going to your favourite pub and only drinking their best beer. Yes, it’s delicious, but why limit yourself to one drink? Or for that matter, one pub?
The reality is that every photograph you take has the potential to be converted to black and white; even Instagram stories can be altered with a simple filter. This does not mean, though, that all images will look better in black and white. So why do photographers use it and how (and when) should you shoot black and white wildlife photos?
Before You Take a Photo
There are a few key steps to follow when shooting in black and white that match those used when photographing in colour. Firstly, and most importantly, is making sure your image quality is set to the raw format. There are plenty of tutorials out there on why you should be photographing in raw.
Essentially, shooting in raw records a “digital negative,” so unlike shooting in JPEG the image will not be compressed and will not lose any of its detail or colour information. This gives you a lot more depth during your post processing. This is vital when then converting and editing images in black and white.
Secondly, you must plan your shoots and give particular thought as to why it is you want to photograph your subject in black and white. It’s very rare that the best shots happen by accident. Some of my favourite fine art wildlife photographers, who produce stunning black and white images, spend weeks planning a shoot and head out with a specific shot in mind. Putting this method into practice allows you to be a lot more precise as well as creative when it comes to producing your images.
While it isn’t always possible to be in the right place at the right time and end up with an image you can be really proud of, for the best results you should study other artists (don’t limit yourself to photographers) and see what works and what doesn’t and try to visualise how you’d like your shot to look before you’ve taken it. The gorilla shot below was a product of weeks of planning and knowing how I wanted to frame my subject before I picked up my camera.
Choosing Between Colour and Black and White Photos
While I always try to apply a few personal rules to my wildlife images (to get as close and shoot from as low as possible), there are a few distinctions that must be made when shooting for black and white. The first and most obvious is that by losing all colour from your image you sacrifice emphasis on some of the smaller details to create a more dramatic overall effect. I often ask clients on safari why it is they like black and white images; almost all of them say it’s because “it just has that something about it.” I don’t disagree.
What do they mean by this, though? For me, it changes an image from an accurate depiction of reality to one open to more interpretation by the viewer. But to create a striking black and white image requires more than simply converting it in post. As you no longer have any colour to create your impact, you rely more on contrast, shadows, and highlights.
With colour photos I often discourage a heavy contrast, but with black and white it’s key to an interesting image. How to edit your images in black and white is a subject for a different article, but here are a few things to look out for when composing your images:
#1 Watch the Sky Line
In most cases a plain blue sky is not a photographers friend; it can give your image a bland, flat look. Instead, be on the lookout for darker, stormier skies, particularly as the darker clouds will trick the eye in to thinking the white areas of your image are even brighter. This creates a great deal more contrast and as a result more impactful image.
Similarly, it is incredibly rare that a sunrise or sunset is going to provide you with your dream black and white image. While it provides us with a ‘golden hour’ for photography with a much softer light, heading out to photograph a sunrise in black and white often produces disappointing results.
#2 Use Silhouettes
I’m lucky enough to live in Kenya’s Masai Mara, where we are spoilt for large horizons and an abundance of wildlife patrolling them. Getting below the horizon and importantly using a fast shutter speed allows you to silhouette your subject against a dark backdrop. This takes all focus off of the image’s individual details, instead creating an entirely different feel to your image.
It’s really important to note that this can only be achieved when you position yourself below the horizon and so can frame the subject against the sky. Being level or above your subject will mean you lose the silhouette effect.
Read more: How to Shoot Striking Silhouettes
#3 Spot Patterns
Nature provides us with incredible natural patterns. My favourite is that caused by the wildebeest migration: a year long journey undertaken by 1.5 million wildebeest and 300,000 zebra. With so many animals in one place, it can be hard to know where to point your camera and it’s easy to fall into the trap of “point and click.”
By continuing to take time over your composition, it provides a great example of the patterns we can uncover in nature. Shooting for black and white provides a vital component to this as it takes attention away from any of the individuals in the image to instead focus on the group and pattern as a whole.
Applying one or more of these rules provides a great starting point for your black and white wildlife photography. The most important factor to consider is that practice makes better – not perfect. I’m a firm believer that there is always a way to improve your work, but getting out there and taking as many different images as you can is the best way to get as close to perfect as you can.
It’s very easy to continue to work to your photography style and produce a multitude of great, but similar, images. There is no wrong way to take a photograph; keep experimenting and striving to achieve different results.