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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shades Of Wildlife

South African photographer Heinrich van den Berg strips his dramatic wildlife images of color to create dimension and add emotion. They’re stunning, graphic, refined and evocative.

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Thanks to incredibly successful camouflage, the Peringuey's adder can totally conceal itself by burrowing into loose sand. The snake moves swiftly in the dunes to get to a spot where it can lie in wait for prey.
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.

Huge numbers of springbok used to migrate through the Karoo. Like much of the wildlife there, fences have made profound changes to the populations and their patterns of movement.
"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."

Heinrich van den Berg's B&W Workflow

To achieve that additional dimension, Heinrich van den Berg converts image files from RGB to LAB mode, and then to CMYK. At each stage, he copies each channel to its own individual layer before sorting through them to determine which layers have the most potential as black-and-white images.

"In LAB, I mostly use the L channel," he says, "so now you have eight layers to compare. Decide which one works best, or what combination works best. Delete the layers that don't work, and play around with the rest by changing Opacity to bring out the strengths of each layer. Change the Curves to make the black, black and the white, white, and to create all the shades of gray."

The other approach van den Berg relies on regularly for black-and-white conversions is Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro 2, which he calls a brilliant, intuitive program.

"Here, I'm often more aggressive with my conversion," he says of the software, "adding some vignetting and contrast. Then I compare the results from the Channels method and the Silver Efex Pro method, and decide which one works best. I often copy the results of the two methods over each other in different layers and use elements of both."


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