A South Africa photo safari will be full of opportunities to photograph animals at close distances. These images have all the details and interesting poses found in modern (human) portraits. You can apply current portrait processing techniques to your wildlife portraits. This technique gives the image added depth and dimension and adds the illusion of the face coming forward.
The key characteristics of this technique are Light, Contrast, & Sharpness
Areas with contrast and sharpness draw the viewers attention and lighter areas seem closer to the viewer building intimacy and connection between subject and viewer.
Begin in Camera Raw or Lightroom
Start with a basic White Balance adjustment if the image is too warm or cool.
Also quickly adjust the tone for good exposure and add some contrast. We will add more contrast later and do further work on the overall Tone.
You can also add punch to the eyes now, but I like to leave this as the final touch.
Dodge and Burn
Dodge and burn will increase contrast and bring out specific details that you think are important. Details around the eyes and character features on the face are good targets. For animals with facial markings, it is good to bring these out.
This step is done in Photoshop since it will be achieved using a layer mask. Switch To Photoshop from Lightroom by accessing the left click menu and selecting Edit In – Photoshop.
Create a new Layer with blend mode of Soft Light
Fill with 50% gray
Choose Dodge tool
The Dodge/Burn tool has controls which limit the effect to specific tonal ranges: Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows
Start with the Dodge Tool: Set range to Highlights with Exposure between 5 – 10% Paint over areas on the face to brighten highlight areas and other areas you with to appear closer to the viewer. Repeatedly go over areas to make the effect stronger or raise the Exposure setting higher.
Switch to the burn tool and darken midtone and shadow areas in the same way.
It is a bit of a pain, but try to burn and dodge in the whiskers and eyelashes: they are unique to the animal and thus important to present to the viewer.
Contrast and Sharpening
If you are familiar with using Smart Objects, you can duplicate your image layer and convert it to a Smart Object. Then choose Filter – Camera Raw Filter.
The alternate method is to run the Camera Raw Filter on the layer. The difference is that with the Smart Object, you can go back and fine tune your Sharpen and Clarity values.
In the Camera Raw tool, choose the Adjustment Brush, then set Clarity to around 25 and all other sliders to zero. Check the Mask at the bottom of the dialogue box and paint over the face where you want the effect. Click it off to see the effect, then also increase the Sharpness around +10 – +25. Press Ok to return to PhotoShop.
Press D to set Foreground and Background to default colors of black and white.
Create new Adjustment layer and choose Gradient Map Adjustment Layer . In the properties panel click on the gradient ramp to open the gradient editor
Drag white color stop left toward the center to intensify the highlights.
Drag midpoint slider to the left or right a small amount. ( you might want to try midtones both to the left and right on separate layers to see which you like best.) Click OK . Reduce layer opacity to 30% or a percent that gives the look you want. You still want a hint of color instead of a completely monochrome image. The amount that looks good to you will vary depending on the image.
Add some Fake Depth of Field
If the image could use more depth of field, this step will add some.
Add another merged layer to the top of the stack
Use the Filter Blur Gallery Iris Blur and place the oval over the face
Adjust it to fit and so none of the sharp areas are covered
Increase the blur amount. Since animals do not have oval shaped faces (ears etc. ) you can add a mask to the layer and paint black to remove blur from these areas.
Make a merged copy and name it Sharpen. You can make this layer a Smart Object f you wish. Choose Filter Other Highpass. Add radius of 1 – 5 pixel: enough to be able to see the hairs and whiskers, but without a large halo around edges. Change the Blend Mode of the Sharpness layer to Overlay. If the effect is overdone you can reduce the layer opacity or adjust the radius.
At this point you can also add a layer with texture to add a gritty effect. Use a mask to block the texture effect from the eyes so they stay sharp.
Adjusting the Light
The idea here is to darken the background and leave the face bright.
There are several ways to achieve this. One way is to add a curves adjustment layer then mask out the areas you want to remain bright.
Another method is to add another Merged layer to the top called lighting
Do a Camera Raw filter and choose the Radial Filter tool to draw oval to encircle the main part of the face. Adjust Exposure to darken outside the oval. Alternately use the Adjustment brush to navigate the non oval face.
Add punch to the eyes
If you have used all Smart Objects and Adjustment Layers, you can go back to the Dodge and Burn layer and add some contrast to the eyes. If you have used stamped layers, you simply add a layer at the top, fill with 50% grey and set the Blend Mode to Soft Light. Use the Dodge and Burn tool.
A vignette or cropping might also be a good edition.
Use this series of adjustments on several images to give a consistent look to a collection.