It’s the twenty-first century and I own a perfectly good camera and expensive lenses. Why would I want to turn back the clock to the early days of photography and shoot in B&W? Isn’t bird and nature photography all about color? I live in colorful subtropical Florida and my species has been blessed with color vision. Use it and be thankful. Besides, color is in large part how I identify these beautiful birds and plants. But then I ran across Clyde Butcher’s amazing Florida portfolio of fine art photography, all in black and white.
Clyde Butcher was an architect, sailor, and photographer from the West when he relocated to south Florida in 1983. Apparently it was not love at first sight. Florida does not have mountains and Redwood forests, and he initially feared the alligators, snakes, and poisonous spiders of the vast swamps. The state’s unique beauty, however, slowly became apparent to him, especially after meeting and slogging through the wetlands with Florida native and friend Oscar Thompson.
Mr. Butcher’s reputation as a chronicler of Florida’s unique landscapes, flora, and fauna has grown. Some have called him the next Ansel Adams–the photos are strikingly beautiful. He has two studios in southwest Florida, one at Ochopee in the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the Tamiami Trail, and the other in Venice. At the former you can view his gallery but also take a guided tour and experience the swamp hip-deep, up-close and personal. Visit his website at http://www.clydebutcher.com. Be sure to check out his techniques and equipment. He is not your typical DSLR photographer.
So, what are the advantages of B&W photography? I believe there are times when color, especially vibrant shades, can overpower the photo and detract from subtle features. B&W cancels this and brings out the variations in light, shadows, texture, and tone that you often don’t appreciate in color. B&W can also set a noirish mood, often melancholy or foreboding, not always apparent with color.
B&W tends to accentuate the contrast of sunlight and shadows emphasizing chiaroscuro, especially when shooting architectural features with their distinct margins. The gazebo, fence rails and shadows in the shot from Eagle Lakes illustrates this. The soft texture of the Pelican feathers contrasts with the sharp, defined, and hard texture of the iron perch. To Butcher “clouds are Florida’s mountains” and it’s in the clouds where one best sees the variations in tone. I’ve tried to capture that in the Harnes Marsh and Vanderbilt beach shots. The B&W mood also brings out the contrast between cloud, grass, and water textures.
I’m still experimenting with bird photography in B&W. With monochromatic birds it seems to work well. I don’t think I lose anything with the Crow or flying Ibises. The jury is out regarding the Jays. What do you think?
There is a technical debate whether it’s best to shoot RAW in B&W or shoot in JPEG color and then convert to B&W. All the photos in this post used the latter technique. Some claim that it’s best to do your post-processing in color mode, bringing out the subtle tones, and then convert to B&W. In any case you should shoot with the lowest ISO possible to minimize graininess. Don’t be afraid of cloudy days, shadows, and low light situations which often add drama to your monochromatic images. I direct you to the website of a fellow blogger, Victor Rakmil at http://www.rakmilphotography.wordpress.com. He discusses many of these issues and displays gorgeous B&W photos.
Don’t get me wrong–I have not become an exclusive B&W photographer. In fact I primarily still shoot in color, but experimentation is one factor making this hobby so enjoyable. Mr. Butcher and others have shown the importance of tone, texture, contrast, and light that can only enhance one skills and results.