I remember the fixer smell I couldn’t get off my hands, seeing my image emerge on paper for the first time as it sat in the developer. I was the darkroom manager at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I was studying to be an electrical engineer—and slowly falling more and more in love with photography.
I remember spending hours manually dodging and burning my prints with tools made from cardboard, coat hangers and strings. I learned and drew my inspiration from masters like Ansel Adams and Jerry Uelsmann. These artists had ways of leading your eyes through the frame by darkening certain areas and lightening others. They could take you on a journey, leading you down into a scene as if you were walking the path yourself or taking you into their endless artistic imagination.
Their photographs, as well as the work of other black-and-white masters like Mary Ellen Mark, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, Sebastiao Salgado, Edward Weston and others, took me to places, shared stories, revealed the extraordinary in everyday objects, introduced me to strangers, shared passions and exposed injustices. They showed me life. I was hooked, and after three years on a full scholarship in engineering, I left and moved to Australia, where I pursued a fine arts degree with a concentration in photo media.
Sometimes our road finds us, and I could have never imagined the journey I was about to take. It has had some major ups and major downs, moments in which I didn’t know from where my next paycheck would come and moments I cried behind my camera because I was so taken by beauty. I love this road and all its turns.
Embracing Change In Photographic Technology
I was very hesitant to move to digital photography, and it took me years to switch. I wanted to feel the light through the whole photographic process, how it hits the subject and travels through a camera to burn a frame of film and how it then passes through that film in an enlarger to illuminate a sheet of paper. Digital imaging lost some of that magic, but it eventually lured me in with its ability to allow me to see what I was capturing while on assignment. Being able to take more than 36 frames without stopping was a total game-changer. No more chemicals and no more debating whether to choose Kodak Tri-X or Fujichrome Velvia (my two favorite films) before a shoot—I could change my color space in post, and that was beautiful.
I had the same hesitation when mirrorless cameras emerged with their electronic viewfinders. Once I finally embraced them, the game changed again. Instead of stopping to review images after capture, I could now see the image I was going to get before clicking the shutter. After years of previsualizing what my exposure and other camera settings would produce in the final image, I now know the results as I’m shooting. I often set my Nikon Z 7II’s Picture Controls to Monochrome so I can even see the image in black-and-white before taking the photo. I find that this helps me see the light again—all the shadows, textures and details—and as long as I shoot in RAW, I can convert back to color if I feel the need later.
Seeing Wildlife In Black & White
I get asked all the time, “Why black-and-white?” There are so many ways I can answer that. My first thought is that it helps me to really focus on the qualities of the light. It brings me back to when and where I fell in love with photography, in the black-and-white darkroom. Sure, removing color can make it easier to guide an eye throughout a photo with dodging and burning, but I think it goes deeper. In the simplicity of black-and-white, we are left with light, textures and emotions.
Why choose color for some images and black-and-white for others? I just let the images speak to me. Sometimes color is a distraction; it can pull our eyes in the wrong direction. Different colors convey different feelings, and if the feeling doesn’t match up with the image, then I take the color away. I have spent years studying eye movement, and it is easier when color isn’t an element.
Early in my photography, I learned Ansel Adams’ zone system. To achieve all the details and richness in his exposures, Adams split his black-and-white tones into zones denoted by roman numerals from 0 (pure white) to X (pure black). There are areas in those zones in which shadow details work (zone II) and areas in which textures show in white (zone VIII). When I moved to digital photography, I started seeing those zones in histograms. In my head, I numbered the histogram starting at 0 (the far left of the histogram where you can see pure black) and ending at X (the far right of the histogram where you can see clipping white), and I look to see if there are details in blacks at the right spot (around zone II) and textures in whites around zone VIII.
The histogram was instrumental in my shift to a digital workflow. One of the many things that I now love about mirrorless cameras is that I can display a histogram in my viewfinder while taking the photo. I always have it on and am constantly checking my details in both the shadows and the light areas. In all the advanced technology, I still see the roots of the craft. Every time I look at that histogram, I feel a bit of Ansel.
Tips For Black & White Wildlife Photography
- My first tip for making strong black-and-white images: Study the masters. Look at darkroom notes, learn about the zone system and read classic photography books. There are lots of resources out there. Go to museums and inspect the prints. Really look at the details.
- Pay attention to your own eye movement. Eyes tend to be drawn to the brightest spots in an image and to the areas with the most contrast. If those are not in the parts of the image that tells its story, try adjusting the light, waiting for the light to change or even using a little dodging and burning in post. It is so easy these days with photo editing software—no more coat hangers, string and cardboard.
- When processing images, work with a calibrated monitor. You want to make sure you can see the true details in the blacks and in the whites. I use a Datacolor Spyder Pro system on my computers. Even though we refer to it as “color” calibration, I find that calibration is just as important for black-and-white editing.
- Watch your histograms. I have set my Nikon Z 7II always to show the histogram in the viewfinder. It is important not to lose details in your blacks or whites. When the histogram spikes on the left or right, I know that detail is lost. I also continually refer to the histogram while editing my images.
- My biggest piece of advice is to let yourself “feel” while taking photos. I ask myself three questions when I take a picture: What do I see? What do I feel? What can I eliminate? Asking myself what I see gets me thinking about the subject and story in front of me. It puts that first in the image.
The answer to “What do I feel?” is where my voice comes in. Do I feel chaos and movement? If so, then maybe I can find a way to incorporate that into the scene, by slowing down my shutter to show movement, like I did in my photograph of a bear silhouetted in front of a waterfall. I wanted to show the chaos of the rushing water around the stillness of the bear.
“What can I eliminate?” helps me take out distractions. Everything you put into the frame is there to stay and can potentially detract from the main subject. It may be a branch of a tree or a bright spot that pulls your eyes away from the main subject. Can I position myself in a way to eliminate that distraction or maybe choose a shallower depth of field?
There are so many amazing photographs out there waiting to be made that it can be intimidating. Over the years, I have had some of my favorite images that I couldn’t wait to share get no reactions or even bad feedback. I used to get upset and worked up until I shifted my mindset. My work is a celebration of this world and the beauty that I see. With every image I put out there, it is my way of complimenting mother earth. Those compliments are sometimes heard and sometimes not. It makes me happy to say my thanks and share this planet’s beauty, no matter the reaction.
Photography is a tool to share our passions with the world. Nature is so much bigger than us, and in it, I have found gratitude by slowing down and photographing it. The emotions I have seen in wildlife, the compassion between an elephant mother and her calf, the patterns I have seen in a dragonfly’s wing…I am constantly overwhelmed with this feeling of being small in a world that is so big and beautiful.
See more of Kristi Odom’s work at kristiodomfineart.com.