50 shades of wild animals: nature in black and white (part two)

By Steve and Ann Toon | February 14, 2022

This is part two of a two-part series on black and white wildlife photography. You can find the first part, from last week, here.

Background briefing on black and white

Your background is always a key factor in wildlife photography, but when presenting black and white wildlife subjects, it can be the deciding factor in your shot.

Because black and white is synonymous with strong contrast, we tend to lean towards fairly clean, simple, and uncluttered backgrounds for most of our black and white shots; so little gets in the way of this bold juxtaposition between the animal and the surrounding space in the frame.

It may seem strange to present a robin, famous for its red chest, in black and white, but it was the shapes of this shot that fascinated us more than the colors. The tree branch reflecting the shape of the robin stands out more in mono. Canon EOS-1DX, Canon EF 500mm lens plus 1.4x extender at 700mm, 1/6400 sec, f6.3, ISO 1600

When weighing good backgrounds for black and white, we tend to gravitate toward open, empty landscapes with a fairly limited color palette. Think in terms of uniform settings like deserts, snowy landscapes, grasslands, vast plains, etc. These can all be the perfect blank canvas for monochrome wildlife photos.

Such backgrounds don’t have to be completely featureless of course, and sometimes it’s a huge plus for your composition if there’s a freestanding tree, rock formation, leafy interlacings or network of branches. which you can use for visual balance and graphic interest; or simply to make a point on the scale of your image.

Some of our favorite black and white backgrounds are extremely minimal indeed. We love how detail as well as color can be subtracted for powerful effect in black and white images, and we often choose to use the empty ‘negative’ space in the frame when looking to add impact. additional.

Backlit situations often offer tremendous potential for black and white animal images like here, where all the viewer's attention is drawn to the behavior of the birds.  We often convert wild animal silhouettes to black and white when the sky is overcast;  underexpose to accentuate the contrast.  Canon EOS-1DX MkII, Canon EF 100-400mm lens plus 1.4x extender at 348mm, 1/2000 sec, f13, ISO 640
Backlit situations often offer tremendous potential for black and white animal images like here, where all the viewer’s attention is drawn to the behavior of the birds. We often convert wild animal silhouettes to black and white when the sky is overcast; underexpose to accentuate the contrast. Canon EOS-1DX MkII, Canon EF 100-400mm lens plus 1.4x extender at 348mm, 1/2000 sec, f13, ISO 640

A wide expanse of empty sky (blue and cloudless or overcast), a large body of still water, or a wide area of ​​dense, dark shadow can be used as a studio background to really “pop” a animal subject in mono.

It can be intensely powerful sometimes just to emphasize your subject against a very pale or very dark background – taking full advantage of the extreme contrasts of black and white.

A dark, fairly monochromatic subject like this old buffalo photographed in the dark of night from a nighttime hideout provides the perfect opportunity for a truly low-key shot.  Converted to black and white, the result is a powerful, mysterious and intriguing portrait.  Canon 1DX Mk II, Canon EF 24-105mm lens at 75mm, 1/40s at f4, ISO 1600.
A dark, fairly monochromatic subject like this old buffalo photographed in the dark of night from a nighttime hideout provides the perfect opportunity for a truly low-key shot. Converted to black and white, the result is a powerful, mysterious and intriguing portrait. Canon 1DX Mk II, Canon EF 24-105mm lens at 75mm, 1/40s at f4, ISO 1600.

Shadow play – exploiting light in black and white

Cloudy conditions lend themselves well to black and white, which can be especially useful when looking to select lots of fur and feather detail. We frequently exploit this potential on days when the sun is out, but we’d hate to make black and white seem like it’s only when the light is a bit flat.

There are plenty of other, more interesting lighting conditions that can help make your subjects sing when converted to black and white. Stormy skies and dark, dark clouds in bright sunshine, for example, can be perfect for raising the tension in a black and white wildlife photo – but don’t forget to try and match the mood. ambience of heaven about you. A fearsome predator might really benefit from a dramatic setting like this – a graceful antelope might not.

We are big fans of backlighting and love to exploit its potential in our black and white images. Shooting in light allows us to be extreme and transform our subjects into silhouettes like children’s paper cut-outs or shadow puppets.

A subject against the light proud of the horizon with a gloomy sky.  Our first thought here was black and white to showcase the clean, iconic silhouette of this well-fed cheetah against the clouds.  Canon EOS-1DX Mk II, Canon EF 100-400mm lens at 140mm.  1/800s @ f7.1, ISO 800
A subject against the light proud of the horizon with a gloomy sky. Our first thought here was black and white to showcase the clean, iconic silhouette of this well-fed cheetah against the clouds. Canon EOS-1DX Mk II, Canon EF 100-400mm lens at 140mm. 1/800s @ f7.1, ISO 800

The dust particles and water droplets created when our subjects are in motion can totally transform images when shot against the light and converted to black and white. The results can be quite magical as dust and splashes of water register like diamonds or sparkling stars on an inky black background.

We’ll also have black and white somewhere in mind when there’s strong sunlight hitting our subjects. Side lighting casts beautiful deep shadows that sculpt and enhance textures, for example, a fuzzy-skinned elephant, the rough scales of a crocodile, or the mud-covered horns of a wallowing rhino. We can further accentuate these effects in black and white, by underexposing the effect a little, perhaps a little, and by increasing the contrast during editing.

And when the sun is high and casting rich, dark shadows that repeat and echo the shape of a subject, keep in mind that images that might not work at all in color might just look really dramatic converted to black and white. But don’t forget to add a touch of negative exposure compensation to bring out all those rich shadows in your final result.

About the authors: Ann and Steve Toon are a team of award-winning professional photographers based in the UK with an interest in wildlife and wild places in southern Africa, where they spend several months each year photographing and organizing photographic safaris. .

Their work is published in a wide range of national magazines and newspapers, both in the UK and overseas, and they are represented by several leading photographic libraries. They have also written three books, two on wildlife photography and one on rhinos. You can see more of their work on their website at toonwildlife.com and follow their African adventures on their “Beat about the Bush” blog at toonphotoblog.com.

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