Ebony & Ivory: The art of black and white photography

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 25 August 2021

Black and white photography removes distraction and allows the viewer to focus solely on the subject. By stripping out the colour, William Steel builds an emotional connection between viewer and viewed.

Light is what I remember most about a subject. The way it falls and illuminates details on a fleeting moment. Black and white photography strips back the elements and tells the story of the subject and that subject’s relationship to the light.’

In selecting the images for his 10-year signature series catalogue, William Steel found these properties of light and shadow, texture and contrast, were key features on the journey he wanted to represent.

‘From a young age, I was captivated by the wildlife that surrounded me. Raised in Botswana, I was able to explore and discover the beauty of unspoilt wilderness. This early love for nature encompasses everything I do and ultimately defines my photographic style.’

Great photography is a combination of beauty and intrigue, he says, and he has always tried to focus on these aspects regardless of the subject he is photographing. Creating photographs that evoke emotions in others is the underlying goal.

‘I have always striven to try and create unique images of common wildlife, searching for a strong emotional connection between the animal and the viewer,’ he explains.

Tall Trees
Western Cape, South Africa 2020

A bokmakierie calls from the top of a dead sisal branch. High vantage points provide the perfect place to advertise for a mate, and the booming ‘bok-bok-bok’ calls that give the bird its name resonate across the open fynbos.

Colour has a way of masking this, and so black and white photography eradicates the distraction. By focusing on the elements that make an animal unique and distinct, you can convey the visual intrigue of that subject. As a result, a narrative is formed through the character’s form and shape.

After Dark
Khwai Private Reserve, Botswana 2019
Sometimes the environment creates such a beautiful frame that the subject itself simply emphasises the backdrop. Termites are the founding fathers of the Okavango Delta and are a stunning visual symbol for this unique and diverse ecosystem.

Racing stripes
Central Botswana 2017

Zebra, excited by early rains, chase across an open pan. ‘Racing Stripes sat undiscovered in my archives for several years. As my photography has changed and developed over the years, so has my artistic style, and a black and white edit fitted this image firmly into my portfolio.’

Chobe National Park, Botswana 2019

A chacma baboon plays with a baby. Just like humans, young baboons are a great source of entertainment for all members of the troop. The infant is less enthusiastic about the ordeal.

Before the Storm
Etosha National Park, Namibia 2018

The smell of petrichor fills the air; the first rains of the season touch the dry earth – a welcome relief from the debilitating drought. The vast African landscape, and the world’s tallest mammal, are dwarfed by this incredible sky.

Mabuasehube, Botswana 2018

When a cheetah moves through the vegetation, the grass bends and then falls back into place, showing no evidence of this brief interaction. The art of movement is a beautiful ballet of action and reaction.

Spitting Mad
Chobe National Park, Botswana 2019

Water levels drop in the Chobe River and tensions begin to rise. As the conflict escalates, spit starts to fly; there is a vocal standoff. When all else fails, fighting begins, at times a deadly exchange.

The King
Mabuasehube, Botswana 2018

Lions are the proud symbol of Africa, and black-maned lions the iconic species of the Kalahari. They are the epitome of strength and resilience. The black and white texture of this lion’s coat immortalises its stoic form.

Shades of Grey
Sossusvlei, Namibia 2018

As the sun beams down, warming the earth, shadows form in the waves of sand. Each dune overlaps the other, creating an ocean of texture and tones, perfect for a monochrome conversion. The gemsbok breaks these patterns of grey.

Western Cape, South Africa 2020

A white-fronted plover shakes its tail feathers in a moment of calm on a beach. As the sun sets, the wet shells reflect this light, creating amazing bokeh. The sharp lines and details of this tiny bird are a perfect juxtaposition to the circular orbs.

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