African Wildlife Photography and the Need for Black and White

Shadows help define details in the elephatnt close-up © P. B. Eleazer

We see in color.  In a digital age we capture in color.  Is there a need for black and white (B&W) photography?  I think few would debate this.  So, for me, the high level question is ‘when should I convert shots to B&W?’.   In this article, I will try and share my thoughts on the issue.

  • With any image, I always try to convey a message or feeling.  For conversions from color, I try to anticipate if the message is enhanced by the conversion or was color part of the message.
  • A famed photography phrase is that ‘light illuminates and shadows define’.  Will the shadows be enhanced by the lack of color?  Is the image ‘contrasty’ enough to support this illumination and definition?

The two above questions are all I need once I get to my computer (digital darkroom).  I am still learning how to optimize conversions, but, at least I know what I am trying to achieve.  I do my conversions directly in Photoshop (CS3).  I know a lot of folks use plug-ins for conversions.  One very popular software is Nik’s Silver Efex.  I plan to try this tool, but don’t today. Here is why:

I feel that the ‘manual’ methods I use help me to understand the interactions of yellow, blue, green, red within my captured image.  As I work each color within my photo, I gain insight that will help me ‘see in B&W’ the next time I am in the field.  It’s my current opinion that this ‘seeing’ is critical to truly differentiated B&W images.

Until now, I have shot with a mind of color and converted to B&W only when I struggled to convey my intended message in color.  From conversion work I have done in Photoshop, I feel I am beginning to be able to shift my mind when in the field and see in black and white.

The detail on the baby elephant 'pops' with B&W © P. B. Eleazer

Black and White and African Wildlife Photography

This is color and not a fantastic photo for wall hanging, but illustrates the point that even elephants virtually hide when in the bush - © P. B. Eleazer

Everything written in this article to this point applies whether I shoot a flower in eastern Pennsylvania, a seagull in Florida or a historic site in Italy.  I believe it particularly applies to animals in Africa.

What drove me to this conclusion? Ironically, the photos of Ansel Adams and my efforts to shoot the Southwestern United States.  I don’t know why Adams shot in B&W.  I have read that Adams believed color (or bad color representation) could distort one’s view of what the scene was actually like.  Maybe, but I also believe that he photographed a lot of locations where colors can be quite monotone and that to shoot in black and white better allowed Mr. Adams to bring out contrast and detail that one would miss in color.

Now I migrate to southern  Africa and my images of elephants, lions and baboons.  In nature, animals survive by blending into their environment.  Even an elephant hides well in the bush.  This leads to a lot of animal images where the colors are in low contrast.  To make these animals pop we need to reveal the textures and detail in the hide.

When actually on safari, you will see details on the game. This is aided by the fact that you ‘see in 3d’ (three dimensions: width, height and depth).  These will present vivid memories that will travel with you.Unfortunately, your photos are captued in ‘2d’ (width and height).  Your job as a photographer is to recreate the feelings of the moment and to allow those details that were witnessed on the animal to be brought back to life through your processing of your images.  For me, B&W is one of our most powerful tools to recreate that place and time.

This was just 'flat' in color. B&W brings out the power of the moment © P. B. Eleazer

While this article featured elephants, B&W works well with giraffe, lions, leopards, baboons and all of the other animals that hide in the bush. © P. B. Eleazer

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