Black and White Abstract Photographs

by Dr. Robert Berdan
March 5, 2011



Frost on bullrushes in hot pool, Winter at Vermilion Lake in Banff National Park by Robert Berdan

Frost on bullrushes in hot pool, Winter at Vermilion Lake in Banff National Park

I think every nature photographer has experiences like this - you get up an hour or two before sunrise, it might even be freezing cold out, you choke down some coffee so you are half awake and you drive a 100 km or more to be at a specific site hoping for a beautiful sunrise. Only the sun does not cooperate. The sun might pop straight up into the blue sky resulting in harsh cold light, or the sun might not show up at all and decide to hide behind some clouds leaving your shivering while you wait with your camera for something to happen. Truth is this is what happens to me most of the time. In fact I expect the sun not to show up or cooperate, that way when it does do something spectacular I consider it a gift. I also use the opportunity to look for something else to photograph. I have to because gas isn't cheap and I don't want to be skunked. In the photograph above - this intimate scene was literally at my feet so I pointed the lens down and started to photograph the frost that had formed on the bullrushes. There wasn't any colour so I converted the image into black and white to emphasize the shapes and tones in the image. It wasn't the photograph I was hoping for that morning, but it was the most interesting image I came away with that day.

Snow ball on tree branches black and white photograph by Robert Berdan

Snow balls in tree branches 300 mm F4 lens

The photograph above was an another unexpected picture. I had been scanning the scene with my 300 mm telephoto lens and for some reason I was attracted to how the snow formed small balls on the branches. It's not a scene or photograph I could anticipate, but later in editing my files I converted the image to black and white and I found the pattern to be intriguing and for some strange reason it reminds me of outerspace. Maybe I have just had to much caffeine.

Falled tree over river in black and white by Robert Berdan ©

Tree, ice and open water - Marble Canyon

In the photograph above my eye was drawn to the diagonal created by the dead tree over the flowing river in Marble Canyon.The branches appear like small hairs and the dark tone of the water below the branches provides a three dimensional feel. I think it is the contrasting shapes and tones that inspired me take this image.

Hayfield abstract pattern in black and white by Robert Berdan ©

Cut Hay Field

If you didn't know what this image was it could have been a photograph of many different things. It could be a magnified view of record grooves. The alternating patterns that I deliberately positioned on an angle suggest a sense of rhythm and movement. There is no single focal point so the pattern itself becomes the subject of the image. Again colour did not add anything so by converting the image to black and white the picture is simplified.

Floating Grass on water - abstract photography by Robert Berdan ©

Grass in pond water

The day I took this image I was hunting for birds and amphibians or anything that might be of interest around this small shallow pond. At one point I noticed the grass swaying in the water as the wind blew, so I pointed my telephoto (70-200 mm) lens down and extracted this image. For the most part the grass was yellow -green and the colour again did not add much to this simple composition. By turning the image into black and white the focus is on the lines or blades of grass that repeat across the frame to form an abstract.

Cirrus clouds over Alberta prairie in black and white by Robert Berdan

Cirrus clouds over the Alberta Prairie

It was a hot summer day near Dinosaur Provincial Park in Eastern Alberta when I took this photograph. I was with a friend and we were looking for wildlife around the south rim of the park. We were hoping to find black widow spiders which are sometimes found around the entrance of prairie dog holes. We didn't find any, but I couldn't help but notice the smooth flowing lines created by the cirrus clouds floating over the prairie. The sky was darkened by adding a red filter during the conversion to black and white with Adobe Photoshop in order to bring out the texture in the clouds. When I am out on the prairies the most prevelant feeling I get is one of space which is why they call it "Big Sky Country".

Dew drops on spider web in black and white by Robert Berdan ©

Spider Web early morning in the Lake of the Woods region Ontario - 100 mm macro lens.

Spider webs covered in dew have always fascinated me and have become a cliche in nature photography, but that hasn't stopped me from taking pictures of them. On this foggy morning near Lake of the Woods in northern Ontario I was just out waiting for the sun to break through the fog and maybe create some god rays, but it didn't happen. I walked out on a dock and noticed the webs covered in dew between the rope hand rails The dock bobbed up and down on the lake as I moved making it difficult to use a tripod but I managed to get a few closeups of the dew drops that appear like pearls on a string.

Black and white abstract  photograph of a forest using a long exposure and camera movement by Robert Berdan ©

Motion blurr in a forest - 1\4 second exposure while moving my camera up and down.

This photograph was taken on an overcast day in a forest by moving my camera up and down during a long exposure. I knew I would create something abstract and unrecognizable. I have seen other photographs where the photographer moved the camera up and down during long exposures and liked the effect. The drawn out rays of light that came through the forest appear like a meteor shower and I doubt anyone could have guessed what the original subject was - but that's OK. If an image makes someone think and wonder that is enough. I don't shoot these types of images very often, but I find sometimes I have to remind myself it's OK to just play and experiment and see what happens - that's part of the fun.

Whirlygig beetles on pond surface in black and white by Robert Berdan ©

Whirlygigs are small black beetles that are often found floating on the surface of ponds where they spin around.

The small spots floating on the surface are small water beetles called whirlygigs - I was actually trying to find and photograph some water striders, but they proved too quick for me on this summer morning. As the whirlygig beetles spin they form circular water patterns that radiate outward. The beetles feed on the surface of the pond and scavenge debris. You have to stop and watch them. These beetles have specialized eyes that are divided in half allowing them to see both below and above the water surface so they can hunt in both worlds. They first appeared to be just specks moving in an ocean of water.

Cattail leaves black and white pattern by Robert Berdan ©

Cattail leaves

This last image was also taken around the edge of pond. The cattail leaves were backlit and bright green in colour against the blue water. I deliberately cropped the photo tightly to focus on the ladder-like repetition of the leaves. This image also works in colour, but I wanted to focus on the tonal quality and fine structures within the leaves.

In Summary - the next time you head to capture the sunrise and nothing happens worth shooting, consider looking at some of the other things that might be around you. Abstracts may not be your cup of tea, but taking these types of images can help you develop and improve your seeing. If you open yourself up to possibilities, you can sometimes make pictures happen. The truth is sometines I do get skunked - I think it happens to all photographers (honest ones anyway). The only thing we can do is to remind ourselves how great it is to be outside in the first place and sooner or later we are going to get a lucky break - sometimes the image you didn't expect to turn out may be your best shot of the day.

"It's better to be prepared for an opporunity and not have one, then to have an opporunity and not be prepared."
                                                                                 Whitney M. Young. Jr. Amercian social reformer 1921-1971

Perserverance is an essential attribute for any nature photographer and something I learned the hard way in graduate school when 90% of my experiments did not work. Be prepared and willing to experiment and look for interesting shapes and patterns and if colour is not a dominant component consider converting some of your images into Black and white. RB

Recommended Links to other sites with Black and white Photographs

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