Publisher

Printing Sacred Nature Part 1

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I published Sacred Nature, the ultimate coffee-table book by Jonathan and Angela Scott from Big Cat Diary fame. And for this book, because we had sponsorship from Canon, we went all out to create a book of superior quality. To do this, we decided to print at Artron in China. It has been an interesting and fulfilling experience for all of us. This is part one of two videos.

 

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Wildlife Photography Reflection

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Change, according to Edward Lorenz, is caused by the so-called butterfly effect – a butterfly wingbeat on the other side of the world. Or, in my case, a mosquito wingbeat in Lower Sabi in the Kruger National Park. An arbitrary, minute insect landed on me 18 years ago and almost brought me to a stop. For me, change was cerebral malaria that dangled me over the edge.

But it also changed the way in which I thought about most things, and steered me in a new direction. This close encounter with the end of life resulted in the end of my engineering career and made me pursue my photography dreams.

The bug had bitten me badly; I became a professional wildlife photographer. I needed to share my images, so in 2001 I formed a publishing company with the aim of displaying my own images in books, in a way in which I wanted to show them. I believe that the creative process does not end with the release of the shutter, that the photographer has to be involved in all the aspects of creating the final product – be it a photographic print, an image for Facebook, or for a book.

I have published more than 20 photography coffee-table books, but the ones that I care most about are those not published for commercial purposes – the ones that are for myself. When working on these books, I ignore what people might think. The only judge of the images is me. I work on these books for months on end, defying all commercial logic.

The first of these was Art of Nature, which focused on the elements of art. Then came Shades of Nature, a flirtation with black-and-white photography. Most recently, I have created Reflection, my largest book yet, printed in black and white, sepia and colour. Its theme is change.

These books have been surprisingly successful. What I have learnt from them is not to judge images based on other people’s opinions: don’t judge your images with your ears, and don’t photograph with your eyes or your fingers. Use something deeper inside you than just sight, hearing and touch.

Since my malaria episode, the photography bug has bitten countless other wildlife lovers like me, also causing fevers and change. They have all changed from being passive appreciators of the wild to obsessive artists. Their blood has been infected with the urge to share what’s inside all of us. It is an urge that needs to be nurtured and protected from other people’s opinions. It is an urge that infiltrates our dreams and shapes our futures.

My advice? Don’t try to cure it.

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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.

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Shades of wildlife (as published in Outdoor Photographer (USA))

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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.”

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Publisher

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I am the founder of HPH Publishing. Since 2003, Philip van den Berg, Ingrid van den Berg and I have produced more than 20 coffee-table books. HPH Publishing specialises in natural history and customised coffee-table and guide books.

To find out more about HPH Publishing, and to order books online click here.

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Heinrich van den Berg Books

I founded HPH Publishing. Since 2003, Philip van den Berg, Ingrid van den Berg and I have produced more than 30 coffee-table books. HPH Publishing specialises in natural history and customised coffee-table and guide books.

For more information visit www.hphpublishing.co.za