Capturing the character of seals in Black & White

I love black & white images, but I don’t often choose it for wildlife, preferring to use an animal or plant’s natural colouration as an integral part of the photograph, writes Andrew James. However, on a recent trip to the south coast to photograph seals, I knew the instant I was on location that black & white was going to be the best way to show off the scene I could see in front of me. I even have witnesses to me stating this about 10 minutes after we arrived.

Why? Well basically the whole scene was almost monochromatic anyway, and I knew that with black & white I could use the interesting elements effectively. With a relatively high and bright sun giving me very little warmth, I decided to concentrate on the type of image that when processed as a black & white would make the most of the tonality.

The seals’ bodies ranged from black to almost white where the sun was hitting wet fur, and the textures were wonderful. The muddy bank they were lying on also had some interesting details and of course some of this was also caked onto flippers and bellies. The last time I saw animals looking this muddy, they were hippos in an African river. But this time I was enjoying a very British safari.

As rule I prefer not to zoom in too much on an animal because I really like to include a lot of its environment to give it context. But the flat sand bank was featureless, and the top lighting on the muddy sand bank wasn’t giving me any help, so my instincts were to abandon my usual shooting style.

If you’re wondering why I was shooting in these conditions and not when the light was better, the answer lies in the tides. At this spot, the seals are only on the sand bank at low tide, and there was no chance of better lighting as by the time the sun dipped lower in the sky, the whole place would be flooded, and the seals long gone!

Photography is just a conundrum to work out, and this puzzle was definitely telling me to zoom in, so using my 100-400mm I tried to find a composition I liked. Seals are quite long animals, and from a fairly front-on position I decided cropping some of the body behind Big Cyril’s (not an official name) front flipper was the way to go, leaving the texture and tonality to do all the work.

As the light was harsh, some of the detail dropped to full black and I have left it looking very gritty and contrasty in this edit as I think it suits the subject. Remember, it’s always best to capture in a full colour raw, as this gives you more information to play with back in your processing software. Let’s be honest, seals aren’t the most beautiful of creatures, but they have character in abundance so bringing that out in black & white made sense.

It was amazing how chilled the seals were to the little boat as we sat quietly and picked off a few shots. We had dropped an anchor in the water and just drifted down until it held us solidly within shooting range. By doing this quietly and without crashing about or talking loudly, we didn’t spook a single seal and it allowed time for them to stop being curious about us and act normally on the mud, bar an occasional glance in the boat’s direction.

That said, the seals in the water were still very much interested in us and this is a feature of these intelligent animals. They weren’t threatened by our presence, just curious and brave enough to swim incredibly close – at times too close for the long end of my zoom. I just got as close to the water’s surface as I could and used a single AF point to focus on the lead eye or directly between both eyes if the seal was looking directly at me. I shot everything at f/8 for a little extra sharpness as they have surprisingly long faces. Leaning over a boat is a weird shooting position and not comfortable at all. I was using a 1DX so had no flip-out screen either – not that in the bright conditions it would have been easy to see the scene on it anyway. That’s one of the big drawbacks of flip screens and why, whenever possible, I still prefer to shoot with my eye to the viewfinder. When I am doing this I always have my spirit level indicator showing so at least I can avoid shooting too wonky, although a little bit of straightening is often in order in Transform (Lightroom).

I didn’t want to be there more than an hour as even though the seals were chilled there is no doubt our presence would mean they didn’t fully relax. In fact, at one point another boat came hammering down too fast to look at the seals, got too close to them and moved about 10 of them back into the water. In my opinion this is wrong. While the seals won’t have come to any harm in the long run, this was their chill time and it’s important to make the encounter as respectful as possible.

Do things quietly and slowly, have a great encounter and get a few pictures, then bugger off home happy leaving them to their own environment is the best way. I’m not saying we can be perfect all of the time when it comes to wildlife encounters, but we can do our utmost to minimise our impact.

My last shot of this little article is slightly more environmental so more typical of my compositional preference. Our anchor started slipping as the wind picked up, so we backed off and re-dropped it, this time leaving ourselves at more of an angle. With the light slightly more to one side and a line of higher cloud in the far distance, I framed up at about 300mm, deliberately underexposing the shot by half-a-stop to ensure the cloud detail was fully captured, as it was going to be important in holding in the top of the frame.

Then it was just a case of waiting for Big Cyril to give me the right pose. It took a while as he was generally ignoring us and snoozing, but eventually there was a bit of a commotion between two males in the water nearby and that was enough to draw his attention. He gave a little cock of his head, and I fired off two quick shots. It’s not much of a difference but it was all I needed to get the shot I wanted. Incidentally, my shooting set-up was almost exactly the same as for the puffins I wrote about last week, so continuous focus and shooting were both engaged, but there was never any rapid sequences of frames as all I needed to do was pick off one or two shots, even when I was photographing them moving in the water.

So, what next for me and these seals? Well, I want to go back when the conditions are better suited to colour and I reckon that would be when low tide coincides with a sunset, so I can get some warmth washing over the mud and bringing out the colours in the fur. I might even be able to play with the backlighting for some interesting effects. The trouble is, the tides aren’t right for a couple of months and even then, who knows what the weather will do? There are no guarantees that all the right conditions and elements will coincide, but I guess that’s all part of the excitement. We keep trying to work out the puzzle on every session we do.

Published in Camera Skills

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