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Tips for Black and White Wildlife Photography

This blog will help you understand the impact of how simple black and white images can transform into works of art from your colour wildlife photography.


  • An Introduction

  • Colour Verses Black and White

  • The Power of Black and White

  • Shooting in Black and White

  • How Black and White Can Save Your Images

An Introduction

When it comes down to striking images in wildlife photography, black and white or monochrome can be one way to really get your wildlife shots to stand out from the rest of your images. It may sound obvious but working with two colours, white and black can really help your creativity when it comes to capturing images of wildlife. The detail in a black and white photograph tends to shout out strongly and effectively from a coloured image. You could almost say that a colour photograph is described as a novel where you can read everything in fine detail. A black and white photograph can be depicted as more of a mystery and allows the viewer to create their own story. This is one of the many reasons why lots of people have black and white prints made into wall décor. These images are designed for viewers to stand in front and assess the story of the image.

For a black-and-white animal portrait like the image below, the viewer would assess the image and try to understand the story or mood behind the frame. What is the Hippo doing?, Is the Hippo in pain? Why is the Hippo staring at me? Why is the animal coming out of the shadows? Has this animal gone through a traumatic period of time and is there anger in those eyes? All of these thoughts can be ignited by the viewer with the use of only two colours. An image with colour provides the viewer with the entire story, the mood, the whereabouts and the status of the subject.

"When black and white wildlife photography is done correctly and creatively, it usually beats any colour photographs taken by a large distance," says Mark A Fernley.

Male Hippopotamus photographed on the Chobe River, Botswana. The image shows the stare-off between beast and man, expressing the magnificent facial structure of the famous Hippopotamus.

Colour Versus Black and white

This is a basic way of putting it together. Simply close your eyes and imagine a Giraffe in a field. Your mind will create the iconic subject of the giraffe in coloured detail along with the surrounding green or brown fields and trees of the open plains. This image in colour will provide more information and your eyes will be forced to search the surroundings of the Giraffe. A black and white equivalent of this will isolate the Giraffe in the image's frame and focus on the animal's shape and patterns but will devalue the foreground and background forcing the animal to be the main subject of interest.

It is very important to know when to shoot in black and white or what images to change to black and white when in post-processing after your photographic safari. If your photographic subject holds colour in its background or your animal holds beautiful colouration such as a Lilac Breasted Roller (a colourful bird), then a black and white image will be off the table. With a Lilac Breasted Roller or colourful bird, your image is to show off its true colour. Having said that, if an animal holds strong colour but also holds a strong shape, a black and white image may not be off the table.

The two images shown below clearly show the correlation of colour verses black and white. The image on the left almost forces the viewer to focus on the subject only where as the image on the right allows your eyes to roam freely around the subject.

The Power of Black and White

The two images shown below are a perfect example of how black and white images can instantly transform into subjects of art. If you set your camera to black and white or just decrease your vibrance or saturation on Lightroom images, you can begin to get creative with black and white. Images taken in black and white can truly bring out a dramatic feel in your wildlife images.

The image to the left was taken in colour but transformed to black and white through Lightroom. As the image in black and white was then transformed into a rather dramatic photograph, the photographer was eager to dramatise it even more. The contrast was enhanced along with an increase in texture. The whites were increased and the shadows were darkened. Finally, the edges of the image were finally separated from the subject. This was done by Post-crop Vignetting where the edges were made darker, isolating the lion's head. Here we can say that the left image (black and white) presents a far more artistic feel than the right image (in colour) which can be perceived as a real-life wildlife photograph that can be used for identification purposes.

Shooting in Black and white

As we all know, lighting is one of the most important factors when it comes down to photography in general. Good lighting is always the key to getting a great and effective wildlife photograph, to help illuminate the subject in the frame. Even though post-processing has come a long way to save images from lighting issues, you will always need an adequate amount of lighting when capturing the perfect image in the field.

As you know, shooting in low light can be a struggle in wildlife photography and low-light colour photographs can be difficult to provide the wow factor. When it comes to shooting in black and white, lighting is not as important as when shooting in colour. If you are in an overcast environment, black and white images can save your shots, especially when photographing Hippos in overcast rivers for example. We will get to that later.

Black and white can allow you to capture the tones and textures of your animal subject and features that may be hidden in a colour image that is shot on a bright, sunny day. The morning and evening low light hours are going to work great when the low angles of light bring out the textures and lines of wildlife making for perfect black-and-white photography.

If you are a beginner and want to shoot in black and white from your camera, without dealing with coloured images, If you are a Canon shooter, here is what you can do to set up your camera. Nikon and Sony will have similar setups.

Based on a Canon Body, simply turn the camera on and press the menu button located at the top left. From there, go onto the first menu on page 3 and select Picture Style. From there click on the (M) Monochrome function and that will keep your camera shooting in black and white. Finally, you can set your Default settings and here you can amend how the black and white will appear such as the contrast of how strong the black and white will be shot at.

Black and White Photo Tips:

  1. Look for textures in wildlife such as low light on fur, contrasted shadows in scales etc.

  2. Make sure your subject is sharp and offers great detail.

  3. Look for dark shadowing behind your subject to create a dramatic feel.

  4. Make sure the animal or subject offers an interesting posture.

  5. Make sure your subject is isolated from its surroundings.

  6. Ensure your subject or animal is brighter than its surroundings.

How Black and White Can Save Your Images

Here in Botswana (one of our many safari destinations) during our photographic safaris, we face some challenging issues when cloud cover sometimes shadows the rivers of the African wilderness. When you do not have a nice green reflection due to a lack of vegetation or wrong positioning, you can be left with the water reflecting the sky and this can wash out and ruin a photograph. This sometimes makes the lighting on the rivers very shiny with a colourless white that does not look appealing in coloured photographs. The aim is to result in getting a black-and-white image containing a white foreground and background surrounding a strongly contrasted headshot in the centre as shown below.

This is how it's done:

When an animal such as the hippopotamus is lingering in the water, make sure you have the shutter speed high enough to ensure a sharp shot, as the head thrashes around to guarantee no motion blur. Try and keep your F-stop as low as possible and increase the ISO to overexpose the background and subject. Make sure the subject is not too overexposed that it can't be fixed on Lightroom. From here you will end up with a mildly overexposed image either in black and white or in colour if you have photographed it without turning your camera onto monochrome.

In Lightroom, you can bring down the blacks and shadows along with decreasing the exposure to get this result. The textures in the animal should overpower the image with detail and you should be left with a striking image.

The above shows a monster Hippopotamus photographed in the heart of the Cubango River located in the Caprivi strip, Namibia. After sailing the river photographing many other Hippo, Elephant and thousands of river birds, this stunning individual exploded out of the calm but dangerous waters. As if in slow motion, a large body of grey mass bolted straight into the air where its gaping mouth opened in the most remarkable way. While grunts and low vocal screams were made, I got the shot that truly expressed the magnificent oral and dental structure of this lone Hippopotamus. This black and white photograph truly brings the body to life. With an overexposed background and a strongly textured subject, this print truly brings out the best of the magnificent Hippopotamus and makes a fantastic statement wall piece.

The image below shows a young male Lion walking the open grasslands in Botswana. The photograph was taken in colour from a vehicle but the lighting was a problem. The lighting was shining towards the lens lighting up the open plains but creating shadow on the subject. Wildlife photographer Mark Fernley decided there was a possibility that it could make a great black-and-white image. When he got the shot at that time, it did not strike out as something of interest.

When he transformed it on lightroom into black and white, the background immediately becomes dismissed and the subject becomes the subject of interest. Shadows were darkened along with a bit more post-processing leaving the lion with great detail.

So is black-and-white wildlife photography your thing? Do these images seem like something you are interested in? Many wildlife photographers out there deal with black and white and their images really stand out from the crowd. If you have only dealt with colour, try it and have a go at creating something dramatic and different. Maybe you can save some of your older images by transforming them into something new.


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