When I first picked up a camera, I was quite dismissive of black and white photography. I assumed it was perpetuated by people longing the for the simplicity and stability of a bygone era. But as I've experimented over the years, I've really warmed to it. I like how you can visually-simplify an image by removing an otherwise distracting element, in this case colour. It puts the emphasis on shape, form, and tone. And it gives you an image which is more neutral at first glance - compared to some colour photos which can be a bit attention-grabbing. Of course there's a place for both those aesthetics, depending on the situation, but for today we're sticking to the world of greyscale.
This is the last collection of photos from last autumn's deer rut (you can find the rest on the blog). I'll share the photos that I thought worked best in black and white, for one reason or another, and I'll try to explain my thinking behind the decision.
With this first photo, it was coming up to sunset, and large areas of the sky and background were lit brightly, but the deer was under the shade of the tree. That difference in light levels is tricky for a camera. It leads to either a subject that's too dark, or a background that's too bright. Sometimes, when there's a clean outline, I'd lower the exposure, and shoot a silhouette. But on this occasion I opted to raise the exposure for a high-key shot, getting a correct exposure for the deer and the tree, and letting the background and the sky over-expose. This can lead to some strange side-effects in colour (some areas will over-saturate, while others will lose colour), and we innately detect that something weird is going on. However, in black and white, you get a nice crisp image, with a bright background that helps add context without detracting from the subject. I especially like how the tree starts relatively dark on the right-hand side, and gradually fades into the bright sky.
This next photo was a similar lighting condition. I did share some colour panoramas of these sparring red deer stags in a previous post. At this point they were very shaded compared to the back-lit dewy grass, and the colour version looked a little strained. So here again I prefer this in black and white for all the same reasons as the previous photo. It's the eye-contact between the two stags that really make this one pop for me. It really makes me wonder what's going through their mind.
I don't tend to capture deer as they browse, but sometimes from the right angle, in the right light, they make a nice picture, showing the full extent of their antlers. I was pleased to capture the eye-contact in this one too.
This is the deer with the monster antlers. It was one of the first times I saw him, and it was reviewing these two photos that got my attention, and made me wonder if I'd be able to get a photo of him on-black. Here the light wasn't conducive for a low-key photo like that, and I liked the twinkle of the blurry sunlit leaves behind, so I went for a slightly high-key black and white version. I prefer it over the colour version because the various background elements blur into one a little better - you don't have your subconscious telling you that some bits are green, some are yellow, and some are brown. It's all one blend of greyscale, which I find simpler and more appealing. Because the background is bright, and the subject is central, and slightly darker, it focusses the eye on those incredible antlers, which is the point of this photo.
Here, another shot taken moments apart, shows a wide-aspect landscape view of the scene. I like this one because it conveys more of a sense of place and surroundings, with less focus on the deer/antlers - albeit they are still very much the subject. 16:9 is also a favourite aspect ratio for me.
This one could have gone into my low-key deer blog post, but I decided to save it for this black & white post instead. He's got a lovely curve to his antlers, and I like the fact that much of his face is in shadow due to the angle of the low sun. Sometimes high-contrast photos like this can look a bit OTT in colour, so I opted for the black and white approach. I think it also helps the deer stand out from the background, since both are similar colours. So once the colour is removed, it's purely a case of light vs dark, which makes the background recede.
This was an obvious choice for black & white treatment. This gnarly old stag was quite a brute, and I knew this would make for a dramatic photo. But with so much grey sky in the photo, the only real colour was in the grass, and that's the third most important element in the image, after the sky and the deer, so I didn't want it pulling focus.
As mentioned above, black and white photography provides more latitude to push contrast, and deep blacks in particular, which in colour look instantly abnormal. This photo in not meant to look like a documentary-realistic depiction of a deer. It's a dramatic presentation - an exaggeration, and the strong vignette and dark foreground only get past our brain's plausibility-detectors because of the abstraction that black and white affords.
Fallow deer are harder to get close to than red deer, as they're smaller, and more skittish. They come in a range of colours and shades, from almost black, through brown and beige, to white. I like shooting the white fallow deer against a dark background, to get a contrast like this, where the subject almost leaps out. I haven't darkened the background or brightened the subject here. It's just about using the light and shade in the moment.
This is the last photo, and it's a slow-exposure to capture the movement of a fallow deer as he trotted past me. I've applied a vignette - perhaps too much - but it was a style choice. The motion-blurs take some experimentation to get the right shutter speed, and luck with light, background, and position of the legs. So with a lot needing to come together for success, I'm pretty pleased with this one.
A Good Year For Deer
All these recent deer rut blog posts have featured photos from the 2021 autumn deer rut, where I managed to get a really good set of photos, covering different styles and subjects. Deer photography can be very frustrating at times, and some years I've achieved very little in many trips out. This year I hit an all-time record number of visits; around 16-20 trips out deer stalking over a period of around a month. Sometimes sunrises, sometimes sunsets, sometimes both in the same day. It's rare I have the time and opportunity to dedicate to a project like this but since things were going well, and I had no other photography trips/projects on, I doubled-down on it, and I think it really paid off. I'm particularly proud of my low-key portraits, of that one older stag.
But that'll do it for deer on the blog for a while. I've got loads of other things I want to share in the coming months, so it'll be something new and fresh next time around.
For those reading this shortly after it goes live, you'll know spring is in the air. April is a hugely dynamic month. While you're out for a walk, take a look at the tree branches. They're budding right now, and ready to burst into a synchronised explosion of leaves over the next few weeks. It's been a long winter, and I can't wait to see sunshine and the woodland canopy again. Do get out there and enjoy it.