How to Create Wildlife Photos in Black and White

Have you ever wanted to create wildlife photographs that have impact and convey authentic emotions? Have you ever wanted to go beyond a simple descriptive photo of an animal living in the wild?

In this article, I propose some tips and recipes for creating meaningful black and white photos.

If you are already using this creative technique, the ideas developed in this article will supplement your current practice or provide some new alternative creative paths.

If you are not a fan of black and white, you will discover an extraordinary universe without limit of creativity.

Young walia ibex photographed in black and white in Ethiopia. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
Young walia ibex photographed in black and white in Ethiopia.

The Little Story Behind This Article

My passion for the technique of black and white photography began with landscape photography. Since I live in the United States, I often travel the mineral landscapes of Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, and Nevada.

With the use of black and white, the details, the shapes, and the structures are quite easy and natural. With extensive practice of capturing images of these landscapes, I was able to develop my expertise in black and white.

In the fall of 2013, I decided to spend, like I do every year, three weeks in France to photograph the rut of the deer.

This year, the season of summer lasted several weeks longer than usual. At the end of September, the foliage and the ferns were still a beautiful bright color. I was also fortunate to have been granted special permission to capture photos on the Hennessy domain in Charente-Maritime.

Since hunting was conducted on specific dates, I could move freely on the “off-days” without fear of being mistaken for a wild animal.

I had spotted a rather large clearing surrounded by hardwoods, which is quite rare for that region. The decor was perfect.

After several waiting sessions, I had the chance to photograph a solitude red deer stag that came to bugle. Well hidden in my blind, I was able to capture a magnificent series. He stayed more than three hours to bugle, graze, and sleep. It was an unexpected pleasure to witness such a sight.

When I decided to develop the photos, I naturally chose to use color.

The developed photos were interesting. They were well-constructed, with magnificent décor, and had a beautiful light. But they were all classic photos, and it felt as if I had already seen them hundreds of times.

The series of six photos was spread out in front of me. I was somewhat satisfied, but I could not feel the emotions generated by the power and the beauty of the animal. I felt as if I had returned to illustrative photography, which I had abandoned three years ago.

It was then that I decided to convert them to black and white. I realized that I could darken the green color of the leaves in the background to enhance the shape of the animal.

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I could easily highlight the dark orange coat of the deer stag by overexposing it a little more and creating a better contrast.

The dodge and burn that I applied to the eyes allowed me to accentuate a fierce, wild and determined glance.

By applying a dark and gradual vignette around the deer stag, I accentuated the contrasts even more. The red deer was very highlighted.

I applied the same development to the collection of six photos. Once finished, I had in front of me a set of coherent and consistent pictures. The photos were creative, different, and unique. I had finally been able to photograph the bugle of the deer as I wanted. I finally had captured the emotions I had experienced in the field. The wild beauty and the natural power of the animal were accentuated in the black and white.

The technique of black and white had allowed me to create interesting and different pictures which communicated to the soul of the viewer. That was the beginning of my work in black and white wildlife photography. The years that followed have proved to me that I had made the right choice, because I had found a way to express myself in wildlife photography. In the rest of this article, I will explain the elements of black and white photography which propelled me to success.

Qualities to Develop to Become a Wildlife Photographer

Before giving you tips for creating animal photos in black and white, it seems especially important to me to list some qualities necessary to make exceptional photos of wild animals in the field.

  • First of all, you must have a real passion for wildlife and its diversity. Never forget that you are taking good pictures of that which you know well. Be curious! Read books on species that inspire you. Watch all the animal reports concerning specific fields or areas that interest you. The more you know about key behaviors and animal habits, the better your photographic creations will be.
  • Never forget that a wild animal is unpredictable. Even if you are well prepared, even if you have learned as much as you can about a species, you will always encounter surprises. Nothing will ever match your expectations. A wild animal always reacts according to its primary instincts which are surviving, reproducing, and eating. Try to anticipate as much as you can.
  • Be a good observer. We live in cities and towns in which our collective life is organized according to our needs as human beings. Our senses have been developed for this urban environment.

    In nature, everything is different. You must relearn to observe the signs of wildlife. The smells, the direction of the wind, the morning dew, the shape of the clouds, a bird's cry are some signs that can provide precious indications of what is going to happen. You must learn to practice mindfulness.
  • Learn how to improvise. You must be ready to face the unpredictable once you are on the ground, but you must also be prepared to improvise.

    For example, knowing how to create a blind in the field with leaves and a few branches is an elementary act to discover photos of red deer or bear in Europe. Improvisation management can be learned. You should always practice these skills, even if you find yourself in a situation where you believe you are becoming a master.
  • Always ask about the weather. Knowledge of the weather is a real asset for you. If it is raining, you must prepare your clothes and the blind accordingly. The knowledge of the wind direction is essential. Wild animals always walk facing the wind to detect predators or a danger. Therefore, you must position yourself so that they do not smell your presence. Poor knowledge of weather conditions can lead to a disastrous photo session once in the field.
  • Respect nature and wild animals. In my opinion, these are the two essential qualities of a good wildlife photographer. The more you respect nature and the animals you photograph, the more likely you are to blend in with the surroundings and become a part of your environment.

    The more you show respect, the more you will anticipate the details of nature and blend in with the landscapes. This attention to detail is reflected in the quality of your photographs. Never disturb an animal to take a photo. Indeed, the frightened or constrained look of a wild animal never produces a good photo. When the attitude is more natural, the finished picture is more beautiful.
  • Be patient. Underwater and terrestrial wildlife photography is one of the most difficult photographic fields to master. When creating interesting pictures, time is not measured in days, weeks or months. It is measured in years.
  • Knowing how to take sharp, well-composed, and well-framed photos takes just a few days. However, creating meaningful animal photos requires a great deal of self-knowledge, humility, and patience.

Some Pictures of Wild Animals in Black and White

Why: Creating Animal Photographs in Black and White


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