The list of world-class black-and-white wildlife photographers is a short one, but even if it were pages long, South African photographer Heinrich van den Berg certainly would belong near the top. A wildlife photographer with a tremendous portfolio of color images, van den Berg’s new black-and-white body of work is astounding. He creates polished images that go far beyond typical wildlife photography—and typical black-and-white photography as well.
“I believe that if black-and-white photography is done correctly,” van den Berg says, “it can convey much more emotion and a deeper meaning than color ever could. It’s as if by subtracting color, the viewer is forced to add his own emotion to the images. Color photography is like a novel that spells everything out in detail, whereas black-and-white photography is like poetry—its strength isn’t in what’s said; it’s in what’s left out.”
Not much seems to be left out of van den Berg’s black-and-white wildlife images, showcased in his newest self-published book, Shades of Nature. His images have a commercial slickness, a refined feel not unlike studio photography. Part of this look is achieved through lens selection and lighting, while some of it comes from the way the photographer converts color digital images into black-and-white. Most of it, however, is a simple reflection of his personal aesthetic, refined through years of practice.
“The more time one spends photographing in an area and spends photographing the same subject,” van den Berg says, “the more one is able to peel away the clichéd way of seeing. It’s very important to go through the process of first capturing the clichéd images before you can move on to a more creative level. But it’s important to spend enough time to be able to move to that next level. With the first images on a shoot, the images are either too busy or too simple. It’s only after spending some time with the subject that the images become graphically slick.
“I like simplicity in wildlife photography,” he continues. “The most iconic images in history have been simple. I use a variety of lenses, and I love doing wildlife photography with wide-angle lenses to pull the viewer into the scene. I use Quantum Qflashes for my flash work. They’re compact, durable and strong enough to give a bit of a studio light effect, even in the harsh African light. By using a variety of lenses to create different perspectives, as well as adding some flash light to the images, it’s easier to create that studio effect.”
Van den Berg’s studio effect is brought full circle with deliberate conversion to black-and-white. He doesn’t shoot film, much less black-and-white film, as he hated his early experiences with it. He shoots with a digital SLR and converts digital image files into black-and-white—not to hide pedestrian color work, but to see something different, something that color photos can’t quite provide.
“I believe that in the process of photographing,” van den Berg says, “one needs to capture as much information with the camera as possible, in the most practical way. I would have loved to shoot in black-and-white, or with medium-format cameras, but by shooting in black-and-white, I’ll be erasing digital color information on the shoot that I could probably use in the postprocessing.”
It took van den Berg a very long time to feel comfortable showing his black-and-white photographs. The learning curve for digital conversion was steeper than he expected. He tried many different “quick-fix” programs, but these were often even worse than his own poor attempts. In the end, the solution to creating black-and-white images he was proud of was simple: practice, practice, practice.
“The process of learning how to convert images to black-and-white was not only a steep technical learning curve,” he continues, “but also a psychological learning curve. I needed to find out what kind of black-and-white images really worked for me. I started out doing sepia or black-and-white with a tint of color, but that doesn’t really suit my style. If I want to do black-and-white, it has to be black-and-white—I don’t want to add a tint of color to make the images look older, or add grain to make them look like film. I want to be ruthless and strip the images of all color and in the process add another dimension to them.”
Van den Berg’s deliberate methodology (see the sidebar “Heinrich van den Berg’s B&W Workflow”) carries over into his approach to printing as well. While it applies to inkjets and any other type of digital output, in his case, it’s most often applied to book printing. He self-publishes his work, but he doesn’t do it from the basement studio. He works hands-on with high-quality printers and makes press checks for every page in a book.
“I believe the responsibility of the photographer doesn’t stop after pressing the shutter,” van den Berg says. “To present the colors and tones of an image to an audience in the way that the photographer saw it is important. With slides it was easy; the photographer just handed the slides to the postproduction artist, and he would match the scan to the slide. With digital, there’s no master to match to, so the postproduction artist has no idea what the colors or tones should be; he never saw the original subject. And most of the time, he doesn’t know what color the subject—like an elephant, for instance—was on that day. The color of an elephant can be anything from blue-gray to brown, depending on the light or the color of the mud in the area. So he invariably changes the image to the wrong color. It’s critical that the photographer is involved in the color correction after the image was taken.”
Van den Berg’s photography, though, isn’t simply a technical endeavor. It requires of the artist a unique way of seeing—a different approach than is required with color. This, too, was something he worked on diligently for years.
“Shades of Nature was the first black-and-white project I’ve done,” he says, “mostly because it took me this long to mature enough to appreciate the difference between ‘fake’ black-and-white photography and the real thing. There are many photographers today who believe that converting a mediocre image to black-and-white will miraculously make it more arty and more beautiful. It takes time to understand that black-and-white isn’t a quick fix, but a totally different kind of thinking and seeing.”
“The way I started out doing black-and-white was fake,” van den Berg explains. “I just converted my color images to grayscale and added contrast and all kinds of bells and whistles to make it look arty. When I look at those images today, I can’t believe that I did them like that. For me, there has to be some kind of truth or anchor in reality in the black-and-white conversion process. If you make the image too contrasty, or add too much sepia or vignetting, then it loses its grip on reality, and the viewer perceives it as contrived. There are some really good and beautiful examples of images that are done in this unrealistic manner, but that’s not my style.”
Van den Berg’s style comes back to graphically simple and interesting compositions, combined with lighting that adds a level of polish that works wonderfully with his subjects.
“When photographing for black-and-white,” he says, “one has to imagine what the scene would look like in black-and-white. It takes some time to get that right. Images with sidelighting work very well in black-and-white, and often images with a lot of contrast that wouldn’t work in color at all. The normal frontlit images most of the time don’t work.”
Nowhere is van den Berg’s affection for deliberately lit, stylized wildlife images more evident than in his image of a family of meerkats.
“Animal Planet on the Discovery Channel has a series titled Meerkat Manor,” he explains, “and I was assigned to do the still photographs. The meerkats were obviously used to filming, so I could get very close. I placed three Qflashes around them. They were oblivious to people, and at one stage, one of them climbed onto my head to use me as a lookout point. They often use small trees as lookout points, and it saw me as a tree. It had a tick on it, and the tick climbed onto my nose and bit me, giving me terrible tick-bite fever a week later. While I had the fever, I didn’t think the meerkats were that cute anymore.”
Adds van den Berg, “I’ve always loved black-and-white, but I didn’t understand it. It took me all of this time to arrive at the place in my photography where I could start working with it. And I’m just starting to learn about its rules.”