Over the years I’ve made thousands of images of the natural world around me, most of them in full, vivid colour as they are meant to be. Nature is, after all, the full representation of the spectrum; even beyond the visible, as many animals can perceive wavelengths of colour beyond what we are capable of. I believe this is the main reason why most nature/wildlife photographers retain the colour in their images. After all, if you’re showing your audience something they’ve never seen before, you should leave nothing untouched (in terms of representing your subject, of course). Without colour, however, many other factors enter the equation. The simple fact that colour is missing encourages the viewer to use his/her imagination, to extrapolate if you will, to interpret freely. Emphasis is moved from the basic “oh this is my favourite colour, I love this” to allowing the eye to wander around the frame, letting the mind appreciate the subtleties within the image. Probably black and white nature images aren’t for everyone, but they occupy a special place in my heart. Today I’m sharing with you 13 b&w images I’ve made over my short few years as a photographer.
Light is the most important ingredient in making good images, and the textbook key to making a strong image is to have the sun at your back, your shadow pointing straight at your subject. Add an interesting position, even with a regular run-of-the-mill bird such as this Laughing Gull, and you’ll definitely wind up with a keeper.
However, you know I’m never one for the rule book. I love working with backlight probably more than any other arrangement. A strong backlight can be difficult, however. I used my flash to open up the textures of the feathers of this Stilt Sandpiper as the sun blazed away at its back.
Some folks lock off shooting when the sun is high in the sky, which is understandable in certain circumstances. Light from above can work to your advantage by providing a sort of spotlight on your subject. Who says you can’t have moody lighting just like in the studio? After all, nature is my studio. Here’s a White-chested Emerald illustrating my point perfectly. Interestingly enough, this photo was made at a relatively short focal length: 100mm. Working with birds at a feeder means that you don’t necessarily have to have big glass to make strong images.
Even if your subject is far away, with the correct physical setting will always work. I made this image of a Common Tern (I think, if I remember correctly) many years ago at Galera Point, looking into the mid-morning sun. The background is actually a rock face that was in shadow. The bright light fell on the hovering bird and the crashing waves. Who needs Photoshop?
Overcast conditions also make for excellent photography. Midday overcast conditions are even better. This Great Egret was very gently backlit and illustrates the strength of low contrast b&w perfectly. Not many people venture here for some reason, I don’t know why. But this bird looks as if it’s soaring through a dream, doesn’t it 🙂
High contrast b&w is a tool many photographers use to highlight strong lines and certain textures. With the strong silhouette of a Wattled Jacana standing on a lily pad just beginning to feel the weight of the tiny bird, I raised the contrast just enough to make the pooling water look like quicksilver. The little bit of the second lily at the corner of the frame completed the composition perfectly. In fact, this image was third runner-up for the 2nd Birds As Art International Photography Competition a couple years ago.
Apart from the use of light, the importance of artistic composition is of course emphasized when making b&w images. The viewer should be able to look at an image and feel something within his/her heart and soul. Sadness is easily communicated, be it real or perceived. For example, the following image of a Cattle Egret standing atop a cow in the marsh in the misty early morning seems to be looking down, despondent almost. So too is the cow. The fact that most of the coconut palm branches in the background are pointing downward also add to the sombre mood.
If that image didn’t make you heave a sigh, this one definitely will. When I had just bought my first long lens, I saw this Brown Pelican walking far out on the mudflats. Only after I took photos I realized why it was walking. One broken wing. Poor thing was walking slowly, dragging its left wing as it shuffled across the soft mud. A careful look at the image shows the extent to which the bird had been walking, giving the viewer a special glimpse into its difficult (and probably acutely shortened) life.
The Pelican image above drew attention to a basic compositional concept, that of serpentine leading lines within an image. At times, you get a subject that illustrates this “line of beauty” without needing to rely on the environment to provide it. A tight portrait of the aptly named “snakebird” (or Anhinga as it’s officially known) has both delicate and harsh textural qualities. The soft backlight combined with the innate ferocity of the bird’s gaze and razor sharp bill makes for the perfectly balanced image.
Sometimes a single bird may not provide your line of beauty – but a flock will. This flock of Dickcissel leaving their roost in the early morning stood out from the background only because of the amount of mist present. If you look carefully, you’ll see the faint outline of trees behind the birds. Had there not been all this mist, the outlines of the birds would not have been this strong.
Continuing along the lines of texture, the background itself can provide the perfect setting for layering of textures. Layering is of course, another important aspect of powerful imaging. Starting from the base of the following image, we have the dark layer of distant trees, followed by the faint outline of the northern range, and in the third, clearest layer of pure sky – a Gull-billed Tern hovers, frozen in the perfect location.
And how would this post be complete without me talking about slow shutter speeds? Haha! Low light levels make for otherworldly images. Add an unconventional shooting angle and you end up with images like this one:
Slow shutter speeds also facilitate the capturing of behaviour that would otherwise go unnoticed. Did you know that when a bird ruffles its feathers, its head stays completely still while its body is in constant motion? Have a good look at this Striated Heron ruffling, shot at 1/50th of a second.
I hope you enjoyed viewing these images as much as I’ve enjoyed speaking about them. I hope that at least one of them spoke to you. Any favourites? Do let me know which, and why 🙂