Black & white photography has always been a great passion of mine. Since starting out on film over 10 years ago now, I’ve always enjoyed shooting the medium. For wildlife photography, black & white poses a number of challenges in terms of subjects, types of images and how to bring it all together to produce a meaningful shot. Below are my tips for shooting in mono to capture wildlife images with a difference…
One of the biggest things to get your head around when shooting in black & white is pre-visualising the world without colour. It can be a struggle at first, but to help you along, start by not focusing on the main subject. Instead focus on line, shape and form. Looking for these elements in the frame will help you to find images with strong compositions.
A key element found in a large number of successful black & white images is strong contrast, from bright whites to deep blacks. Looking for contrast will give your images punch, adding interest to the frame. When shooting I often look for harsh lighting to cast deep shadows that will provide contrast, or look for objects within the frame such as black rocks, dark fields etc that will provide strong tonal areas.
Remember that when shooting in black & white, colours that may appear very different to your eye actually lack contrast in mono because their shades are similar. Greens and reds, for instance, can appear similar when converted to grayscale. A good exercise is to compare a grey card to colours when out shooting, as this will help you understand the relationship between colours and their final appearance in black & white.
Shooting high-key images is a great way to find contrast in poorer lighting conditions. Bleached out white skies provide a great backdrop for high-key images and can be worked with to provide striking images that would often look dull in colour. Flat white skies can also be useful for those shots with greater emphasis with the landscape, offering a great chance to create deep contrast between land and sky within an image.
Looking for textures is another creative approach for shooting black & white wildlife images, with animals having obvious textures in their feathers and fur. Deer, for instance, make excellent subjects for black & white portraits, with their fur, often being wet and full of shape, offering great opportunities to showcase the detail of their coats. Getting in close and focusing on small areas of subjects works equally well, with feather details providing lovely textures for powerful pattern pictures.
In terms of extending your black & white shooting skills, I’d recommend working with a polariser to remove glare and reflections in your images. This filter will also saturate colours for greater contrast. When it comes to editing, use the Hue/Saturation/Luminance panel in Lightroom and Photoshop to bring out the colours and really take your black & white images to the next level, adding punch and an extra level of finish to your shots.
Shooting in black & white can be a fabulous challenge for wildlife photography, allowing a new take on common subjects as well as an expansive and creative way to look at the natural world.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.