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When Color Doesn’t Cut It by Lee Hoy

By November 6, 2014No Comments
American Bison by Lee Hoy

American Bison by Lee Hoy

Text and Images by Lee Hoy

As a wildlife and landscape photographer, I am constantly amazed at the plethora of colors that even a tiny damselfly can exhibit. It is capturing the palette of nature’s colors that often lures us out of bed early each morning, but what do we do when color just doesn’t cut it? What about when we are trying to communicate texture, form, grandeur, or movement and color becomes a distraction?

As a young boy, my parents would take me to the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma where I was captivated by a giant woolly beast that embodied the American west. I have photographed the American bison on many occasions and often find color images to be disappointing. It was only after I bought Silver Effex Pro 2.0 and began to learn its capabilities that I realized black-and-white images were the ticket to revealing to others what drew me to bison in the first place. The deep crevices in the shaggy coat, the splintering of the tips of the horns, the soulfulness of the eyes, and the jagged wrinkles in their hindquarters were expertly represented through black-and-white.

Prior to converting my first bison image to black-and-white, I had honestly never given any thought to black-and-white wildlife photography. That seemed to be the exclusive domain of landscape, portrait, and still-life photographers. Nevertheless, I have found a whole new level of expression for my images (and I can photograph all day since mid-day light can be great for great black-and-white images). I love it when we as photographers discover something “new” to us and it infuses our love for the craft.

While walking along a trail at Brazos Bend State Park this past April, the bull alligators were bellowing and this alone is an amazing natural experience. One of the largest bull alligators was near the trail and, as he prepared to bellow, he lifted his massive head out of the water. Just as he did, I was setup and ready to capture the moment. In color, the image was pleasing. But a quick conversion to black-and-white and it became one of my favorite reptile shots. Every scale on his massive bottom jaw stands out in juxtaposition from one another. His jagged teeth reveal a powerful killing contraption and the mass of bird feathers behind the head are testament to his power. And then there are the soft white blooms and the hard circular edges of the foliage. In color, many of these details were lost amidst the overwhelming green of the foliage.

American Alligator by Lee Hoy

American Alligator by Lee Hoy

I have always been a bit of a desert rat and the allure of Big Bend National Park has beckoned me over thirty different times. For the uninitiated, the desert seems like a place of death. But, to the observant, you would be hard pressed to find a place with more life. While most everyone knows Big Bend is famous for its night sky, it is also a wonderful place for daytime skies. Most days the desert canopy is full of fluffy white clouds or clouds with an ominous appearance. While it might be all the rage to discuss capturing every detail in a shadow or highlight with dynamic range, how about some mystery in the shadows? In the desert, the shadows are where the creepy, crawly things live.

I decided to take some of the photos I loved in color and see just how different they might appear in black-and-white. One photo in particular, that of the Rio Grande River as it exits Santa Elena Canyon, told a different story in black-and-white. As the massive Sierra Ponce cliffs rise abruptly from the river, we are reminded of just how small we are in this landscape. Finally, the ominous clouds and rain in the background add to the story of a once mighty river that desperately needs water.

The hunt was on. I was now scanning my Lightroom library in pursuit of images that would be more powerful in black-and-white. I wondered what else I might have been missing by focusing so much on color. After driving my jeep to the top of Imogene Pass near Ouray, Colorado in July 2011, a late afternoon thunderstorm began to build. I captured the tundra and clouds without much thought. In black-and-white, the texture of the clouds stands out against the smoothness of the tundra.

Finally, last Christmas in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, I captured a scene that in color lacked any real emotion. After conversion, I found myself enjoying the creeping shadows of the trees and the intersection of tracks left by deer or elk. In color, these elements weren’t even a blip on the screen.

Could it be that black-and-white isn’t just the arena for masters such as Ansel Adams? Is color detracting from the impact of your image? Go ahead, convert that image and see if you don’t find yourself appreciating your photos in a whole new light.


Lee Hoy is a wildlife and landscape photographer currently living in Georgetown, Texas, but working on opening a new photography ranch near Uvalde, Texas. Lee serves as the coordinator for the NANPA Nature Photography Group of Central Texas. You can view more of his work at or follow him on Facebook at Lee Hoy Photography.

Imogene Basin, Colorado by Lee Hoy

Imogene Basin, Colorado by Lee Hoy