Filling in the shades of nature

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For many years I was never really excited about black-and-white wildlife photography. For me it didn’t make sense to subtract colour from the multi-coloured world for it didn’t seem to improve the image. There were some black-and-white nature books that I really enjoyed, but as a rule I was never attracted to, or even wanted to page through, monochrome books in the bookshops. They all seemed a bit inferior to the brilliant colourful wildlife books out there.

In contrast, I have always admired black and white “people” photography. To me, a good black-and-white portrait is much more effective than a colour portrait, because for some reason, when you take the colour out of the photograph, you add emotion. It is as if the void that is left where the colour was needs to be filled by the viewer, who inevitably fills that void with emotion. These colourless portraits throb with feeling, for eyes seem much deeper and lines more profound in black and white.

But when it comes to wildlife, in my youth I seldom viewed it through the eyes of emotion. I saw it through the eyes of a scientist or a photographer, not so much through the eyes of sentiment, feeling and affection. Wildlife was a compartment in my life that didn’t cross the black-and-white line of emotion.

But that has changed. I don’t know when, or for what reason, but in the past few years wildlife and nature have had a much more emotional connotation for me. Perhaps it is emotional maturity. Perhaps it is the close encounter I had with a hippo that tried to kill me by capsizing my canoe, or my traumatic experience surviving cerebral malaria, or the feeling one gets when a lion mock-charges. Perhaps it’s the look in the eye of a newborn springbok, or the feeling I had when a mountain gorilla in the forests of Rwanda looked me right in the eye at two metres. But something has changed. Nature has crossed my line. It is now part of what I am.

So these days I find myself often experiencing nature in a much more personal way. And that has changed my perspective of black-and-white nature photography. Now when I look at a black-and-white portrait of an animal, I experience the same heightened emotion as when I look at the portrait of a person. The void where colour used to be is inevitably filled with deep passionate emotion. I have crossed the line.
But appreciating black-and-white photography doesn’t mean that you will be a good black-and-white photographer. I never had any training in black-and-white photography. I did spend a few dark hours in a darkroom, but images emerging from that room never escaped the darkness. They were pathetically amateurish. I did also photograph my brother’s wedding with black-and-white film, and as a result of my inadequate skills in the darkroom, I decided to send the films to a photo lab – just to be on the safe side. But the lab used the wrong chemicals, and everything came out blank. I was disgusted with the black-and-white photography world, and not surprisingly my brother and sister-in-law felt the same about me! That was the moment I vowed never to use a black-and-white film again.

Enter digital. I know that most purist black-and-white photographers swear by silver nitrate, but because of my history with the stuff, I tend to swear at silver nitrate. I want to keep those dark, lonely hours tucked away in the past. So when digital came along, I ventured into black-and-white photography once again – this time in a nice, cosy, bright office instead of a darkroom. I realised that I didn’t need to go through the pain caused by film.

It took me a very long time to get to a stage where I was confident enough to show my black-and-white images to other people, because learning how to convert a colour image to black and white is more difficult than it sounds. I tried different kinds of quick-fix computer programmes, but they left my images worse off, and they all eventually withered in my hyperspace rubbish bin. In the end, the long road is the only road that doesn’t have potholes leading to the dump.

I find that the best way to convert an image is first to convert it in Photoshop to LAB and CMYK, and then to copy each of the channels to a different layer. It is then easy to see which layers work best.

To photograph the kind of image that works in black and white is challenging. You have to look at the world through eyes that can only see contrast – instead of being drawn in by beautiful bright colours, you have to ignore them and imagine how the colour will change when you convert it to black and white. The kind of light that would make for a good image is also different. No more boring front-lighting. Side-lighting and back-lighting is the way to go. Always look for a suitable background. Blue skies can become very dramatic in black and white when you apply a red filter.

There are definitely certain subjects that are more suitable for monochrome images than others. For obvious reasons, zebra and leopard fall into this category. Other animals that work well are animals with smooth, grey hides, like elephant, rhino and hippo. Close-up portraits always work well, especially if the animal has interesting eyes. If these are looking directly at the camera, it also improves the image tremendously, for then the viewer gets an often riveting personal connection with the subject.

Over time I have gathered a few black-and-white images that I was satisfied with. Eventually, after many years, I came to the point where I was ready to do a book in black and white. Shades of Nature was the obvious title, as this book is the sequel to Art of Nature.

In Art of Nature the focus was on the elements of art, namely colour, line, shape, texture, tone and space – all visual elements, for art is visual. When it comes to the black-and-white images in Shades of Nature, the emphasis is not so much on visual elements, but rather on what is hidden within the images. I chose to focus on elements that are related to psychology – perception, attention, relationship, personality, emotion and cognition – to show the emotional power of images devoid of colour.

I have discovered that a black-and-white photograph pulls the essence of an animal to the surface of the page like no other medium does. It profoundly shows who the animal really is. With black and white, you can photograph right through the skin, and show the soul.

Like many other photographers, I have always yearned to be able to capture black-and-white images like Ansel Adams. I have walked through long, dark passages and darkrooms without any success. But that was before I found the light switch of the darkroom. That light switch is the “Power On” button of my computer.

Last modified: September 18, 2016

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