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 Lightroom and illustrate how to get the most of any photo.
Step 1: Determine the strengths and weaknesses of your image
I 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.
In my original image of a coyote scanning for signs of a wolf, the subject is centered in the frame as I had been following it, shooting bursts in continuous focus mode as it ran from a wolf’s kill site ½ mile away towards the road where I was set up in the Lamar Valley. I was giving no consideration to subject placement or image composition at the time; I was simply trying to capture a sharp well exposed image. My Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens was fully racked out to 600mm and I had added a 1.4x teleconverter for extra reach (as the coyote moved from ½ mile away to 400 feet away when this image was taken) taking my focal length to 840mm. Because of the snow-filled background, I had added a 2/3 stop exposure compensation. I was shooting in manual mode with a fixed f/9 aperture and 1/1250 shutter speed, which gave me an ISO of 720, a relatively good value considering the weather conditions. What I liked most about the image was the discolored snow and matted fur on the coyote’s profile head, his ears alert to any sounds coming from the kill site. The blue of the foreground sagebrush adds an interesting element of depth to the image, though it also obscures the coyote’s legs. The middle and background sagebrush accurately portray the setting, but also can be a little distracting. For my tastes, the coyote could also use a little more separation from the environment.
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 positioned the coyote near the four intersection points generated by my rule of thirds crop overlay in Lightroom. I have elected to crop rather tightly as I am removing excess sagebrush from the image, none of which substantially adds to the image.
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, I have brought my whites near the edge of the histogram so the snow retains detail and its role as the brightest part of the image. 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. I have also slightly increased the vibrance and saturation, where small increases go a long way.
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 brush in Lightroom, 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 am careful not to alter the exposure, rather choosing to adjust the midtones and shadows to give more depth to the coyote. It is very easy to overdue such adjustments, so consider moving the sliders to where you can see a noticeable difference and then backing down the sliders for a more subtle change. I have also utilized a second mask painted over the more colorful regions and increased saturation to bring out the few colors in the coyote’s face and fur.
By Mac Mirabile, WWF