By Mac Mirabile, WWF
There are those wildlife photography moments when you just can’t believe your luck – you’re at the right place at the right time, your camera is dialed in and working, and you’re getting some of the best shots of your life…or so you think until you get home and look at your images on a bigger screen. Now, you see your subject is smaller than you recall, is perhaps obscured by foreground elements you didn’t notice in the moment, and your exposure…well, it just seems off. In short, your images just don’t seem to have captured that moment in the way you remember experiencing it. In my experience, there are few if any wildlife images that are not improved by some post-production work. In this article, I will walk through a typical workflow for processing photos in Adobe Photoshop and illustrate how to get the most of any photo.
Step 1: Determine the strengths and weaknesses of your image
Start each session by examining the image for critical sharpness. For wildlife photography, sharpness in the eyes is very important as it’s the first place to which our eyes are naturally drawn. If I have a series of comparable images, it’s very likely that even though all were shot in rapid succession, only one or two have the level of sharpness in the eyes and face that I am looking for. Next I look for elements of the image that are distracting from the subject (e.g., a rock in the foreground or a tree in the background). These distracting elements can be cropped out of the image unless they are part of the story you want to convey. Now consider the strengths of the image, in particular, what you like about it and consider how you will add emphasis to this aspect of the picture.
It was snowing heavily and I was scanning the scene with my Nikon D600 and Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens when I spotted the three starlings perched on the back of one of the bison that was resting in the snow 100m from the road. Because of the heavy snow and cold, I decided to take whatever pictures I could hand holding the lens, rather than setting up my tripod. I set my aperture to f/8 and shutter speed to 1/1000 to freeze the falling snow. I shot a burst of 5 images and checked the sharpness of the birds on my camera’s LCD screen. In most of the images there was falling snow obscuring the birds or my autofocus had missed the bison, instead focusing on the falling snow. After switching to manual focus and shooting another burst, I was convinced I’d gotten the best pictures I could in these conditions and walked back to the warmth of the van. The best single image in the series I captured is relatively flat, with a partial bison on the left of the frame and a large snow covered hill both distracting from an otherwise clean image. The falling snow contrasting against the dark bodies of the birds and bison are the strongest elements of this picture, so my next steps will be to edit in order to showcase that story.
Step 2: Cropping your image
Cropping an image is the first and most common way to enhance an image. When cropping, consider the subject’s placement and the direction of its eyes and body. The most pleasing compositions tend to have ample space in the image to showcase the subject’s gaze. Next consider how to use the rule of thirds, diagonals, triangles or the golden spiral to highlight patterns or space in your image. Consider leveling the horizon, but recognize that a tilted horizon can suggest or highlight an element of movement.
In my image, I have chosen a very tight crop, removing the distracting snow covered hill in the background and placing the birds in the upper left and the bison’s head in the lower right, using he four intersection points generated by my rule of thirds crop overlay in Photoshop.
Step 3: Apply global adjustments to the image
Global adjustments impact the entire image and are useful for quickly adjusting elements of your image such as exposure, color temperature, contrast, and saturation. When shooting in RAW, much more significant changes to these elements and others are available. As a rule, start by enabling lens profile corrections and removing chromatic aberration, which will remove vignetting, fix lens-specific distortion, and minimize purple fringing in high contrast areas. Next, apply the “auto” settings and adjust the shadows, whites and blacks sliders to your taste.
In my image import with camera raw, I have brought my whites near the edge of the histogram so sharpest flakes of snow are bright white. I also bumped up the clarity slider, which alters contrast only in the midtones part of the image. Increasing clarity is particularly effective at emphasizing texture, such as fur. After cropping the image, I made additional changes to the histogram, effectively increasing contrast by dragging both the black point and white point sliders towards the center. Increasing contrast makes the snow pop more, especially against the darker parts of the image.
Step 4: Applying local adjustments to the image
Local adjustments are made utilizing a mask to make adjustments to a particular part of the image. Utilizing the adjustment layers in Photoshop, we can “paint” the area we are interested in adjusting so that the changes only impact the painted area. Local adjustments should be made very subtly, so the masked area does not seem out of context with the rest of the image. Additional final small adjustments can include micro-level adjustments to the subject’s eyes to remove shadows or brighten catch lights.
In my image, I wanted a little more color in the bison and starlings, so I have added an adjustment layer and used the paint brush to slowly paint over the areas that need adjustment, bringing out some more color. I have also used the exposure brush to increase the highlights along the top of the bison’s back, providing more contrast and depth to the image.