Category Archives: Safari Photography & Post Processing Techniques

Tips on how best to photograph the African wildlife: Planning the shot, capturing the image, then getting the digital photo into your processing system, and finally how to make the most of your photos with post processing and creative techniques.

Boosting Color using Split Toning in Lightroom

 

Lion cub image as shot in the late afternoon in on a shady rock
Lion cub image as shot in the late afternoon in on a shady rock

There are many ways in Adobe Lightroom & Camera Raw (not to mention Photoshop) to correct or adjust the color of an image. Here I will show you how a tool you might not have used before can boost or correct color.

The Split Tone tool adds a specific color to the values defined as “highlights” in the image and another to the tones defined as “Shadows”. It is easiest to see how it works when it is applied to a black and white image.  Split Toning gives a sepia or tinted effect and adds interest even to the extent of adding opposite tones to the highlights and shadows. Applied to a full color image it can correct color casts or intensify color.

This lion cub image has great qualities, but is lackluster in the color.

 

Image after curves adjustment for contrast and a white balance adjustment
Image after curves adjustment for contrast and a white balance adjustment

First things first. I have made adjustments to sliders to bring out proper balance in the midtones, shadows, and highlights. To do this I used a combination of the sliders in the Basic Panel and under the Curves. I also added a touch of Clarity, but not too much now: I can always add more later. As for color, it does pop a little more with the added contrast. I moved the Temperature slider under White Balance to add a bit of warmth and to bring out the yellow and orange tones.

 

Image with Split Tone adjustment
Image with Split Tone adjustment

In the Split Tone tool I selected a light yellow orange color for the Highlights and a more burnt orange tone for the shadows.  In choosing these colors I was thinking what tones the darks and lights of the lion’s fur should be. I  used the Balance and saturation sliders to adjust to my liking. The tool takes all the light tones and applies the chosen color tempered by the Saturation value.  Balance changes the definition of what is light vs dark.

 

The Split-Tone tool settings
The Split-Tone tool settings

 

The final treatment would be a bit of sharpening and some dodge and burning of the eyes.

These settings also make a good sepia black and white.  To see, leave everything and  push down the Saturation Slider in the Basics panel to remove all color leaving only the tones from the Split Tone tool.

 

a monochrome version with tinting from the split tone tool
a monochrome version with tinting from the split tone tool

 

 

Enhancing Wildlife Eyes

A little enhancement to the eyes of your subject adds a little extra pop and elevates the whole image.

Whether using Lightroom adjustment brushes or Photoshop, the basic principle is to add contrast, brighten the iris and perhaps add some spectral highlights.  Professional retouchers have a detailed process for this, but simple edits have good effects.

This image was taken with a flash so there is the added problem of the cat equivalent of red – eye.

eyes

I will be using Photoshop to make the enhancements. It is possible to make these changes in Lightroom, but the adjustment brush is a bit awkward for me so I prefer the fine control possible in Photoshop.

Replace the Red Eye caused by flash

Open the image  and make a  selection of the the pupil.  You can start with a circle selection, but it may not be perfectly round so add to the selection if necessary.

Fill or paint black into the selection.

select-fill

The black looks a bit flat  so mix in a bit of dark gray to help give a shiney, reflective look.

Eyes usually have a white spot reflection in them called a spectral highlight which gives a lifelike effect.  Add a dot of white off center in the pupil.   Place the highlights in the other eye as if it is made by the same light source or the eyes will look a bit crazed.

 

highlight

Now we can add some pop.  For those not concerned with non-distructive techniques (because you have the original raw file or another copy), you can use the Dodge and Burn tools.  If you are less confident and want to make the changes on a separate layer(s) that it can be adjusted, use  a layer and a paintbrush.

This image shows areas to dodge (lighten) start very lightly and build up the contrast .

The next step is just a tiny bit of color. The eyes are such a

burn

dodged areas
dodged areas

match to the color of the fur,  a slight shift in hue will help them stand out.  I added a bit of green to the eyes to set them apart from the color of the fur.

final

Other species have different shaped eyes, but the same principles can be used to enhance their eyes.  Because careful not to overdue this technique because it can look fake and odd if too heavy handed: better to understate the enhancement than to overstate.

Using Photoshop to make a Super Sharp B&W Portrait

I wanted to create some portraits of big 5 animals that show the unique characters of the animal in sharp detail.  Buffalo are maybe the most difficult of the tbig 5 to make look unique – they have many similarities to cattle.   To me it is their massive horns  that make them unique and I wanted to make and image that shows off the impressive size of a good rack.  I selected the starting image because it shows all the important features of the face: both eyes, ears forward, nose , mouth and both horns.

 

photoshop-sharpening-before

 

BW sharpening photoshop-sharpening-final

 

 

Crop for drama

At this point the composition is not too exciting; it is centered, colors are muted and boring, shadows are distracting, etc.   A crop with add drama by making the horns act as sight lines from one corner of the image to the other.  Unnecessary space is eliminated.  The perspective even works in my favor here making the right side horn feel closer to the viewer like it is popping out of the picture and saying “this thing is big”.  The horns are the star here.bw_applied

Switch to monochrome

The color does not work toward the goal of making a portrait of big scary horns attached to an exotic animal. They actually make the buffalo look too common and color patches in the ears draw attention away from the horns.   I will switch this to a monochrome treatment.

I have a favorite  preset in Lightroom “Creamtone” under B&W Toned Presets.  This is actually a duo tone treatment whereby highlights are tinted in one color and the shadow in another.  A balance control will set the “break point” as to whether the highlight color or the shadow color is used.  This preset also applies a high contrast  to the  image with bright highlights which works here because it simplifies the background detail.  I add a darkening vignette to burn the edges.  This concentrates the viewer’s attention onto the subject in the center and adds to the high contrast mood.

You can duplicate the effects of the Lightroom preset in Photoshop by using the Mode< Duotone command.  First the image must be converted to 8 bit grayscale.  Once this is done the command will be available and you will find many preset duo, tritone, and quad tone settings.  Go crazy picking from these or select your own color combinations.  Use an adjustment layer to increase the contrast.  Use a mask or other technique to create the burnt in edges.

At this point in the Lightroom workflow I switch over to Photoshop for fine details and the sharpening step.

I make a copy tweaks to the image such as a touch of brightening just under the chin to bring out some detail there and using dodge and burn techniques on the eyes.

Make the Details Pop

Now the image is ready to add the sharpening that will make details pop right off the page.before-sharp

 

after-sharp

If you have made multiple layers in your document, create a flattened version by  pressing Shirt-Option-Command  – E  ( or Shift-Alt-Ctrl) to create a new flat version of the image and leave the layers intact.  Now make 2 more copies of the image by pressing Command-J (Ctrl-J).   Make a new layer group and place both of these layer copies inside.  The blend mode for the group should be set to Overlay.

Step 2:  Click on the top layer in the group and press Command-I (Ctrl-I) to run an Invert command.  This command basically changes dark shades to light and light to dark.  This will be used later to highlight edges of details and thus provide the sharpening. Change the layer Blend Mode to Vivid Light.

Step 3: The inverted layer will be run through a blur filter. Use Filter>Blur>Surface Blur.  Converting this layer to a smart object first will allow you to come back and adjust the settings later.  In the Surface Blur options, keep the Threshold low: under 25 and a Radius of around 50. Adjust to your taste.

screen-shotStep 4:  Use a mask on the group to limit the sharpening effect to just the face and horns.

This sharpening technique is not appropriate for every image. The high drama works particularly well with dark and monochrome images.  Keep this technique in your bag of tricks to create a dramatic look.  Also you may want to check out a more subtle but similar sharpening method using the High Pass Filter.

 

 

Composition in African Wildlife Photography

In this article I describe three typical types of African Wildlife compositions and the features that make them successful.  My goal is to get you planning ahead, analyzing the scene in front of you, and consciously using your knowledge of composition to achieve the best rendering of the exciting animals you will see on safari.

Looking through my catalogue I can put most of my images into three categories images: animal portraits, animals with environment or landscape, and groups of animals

Animal Portraits

These images have one center of interest; the animal. All other elements that can be distracting are eliminated and all the viewer’s attention is on the animal, its textures, and eyes.

Setting the Camera for the Portrait

When setting up for animal portraits try to include the following camera techniques

–       Include an uncluttered background of solid color. The best way to achieve this is by blurring out the background so it is monochromatic and has little texture leaving the subject in sharp focus.

–       Use apertures such as f2.8 f4.0 or f5.6

–       The background should be at least 2 feet behind the subject

African Wildlife photography tips

portrait-2 portrait-5

Use proximity to show details

Placement of the Subject in the Frame

Most portrait subjects will be too large in the frame to worry about Rule of Thirds placement (more on that below). If there is space around the subject, it should be in front of the subject or in the direct that the subject is moving or looking.

Get close and fill the frame – cropping can be done after the fact to add impact if the aspect ratio is not flatter or you just were not sure how to frame the shot.

portrait-6Other Elements that add to the Portrait

Light and shadows enhance interest. Light from the side reveals texture and gives the 3D pop effect. Shadows can play down less important features. Light can create leading lines that help viewers discover all the details of the portrait.

Some external elements can enhance the portrait almost like props: a bit of fresh kill, flies buzzing around the head, a bit of the branch gripped in a talon.

portrait-3

The mother elephants legs tell the story of  a baby protected and seeking closeness with its mother

African Wildlife photography tips - Photo safari techniquesThe carcass bits in this image add to the portrait explaining the look of bliss on the lion’s face and tail attitude

Animal in its Environment or with a Landscape

The goal here is to show the animal interacting with its environment.  In these images there can be more than one center of attention. The smaller the animal is in the frame, the more importance lies in the composition and its success at getting the viewers attention on the subject

wildlife photography in South Africa

This image not only describes the shape of the young lion, but it’s hunting conditions and challenges.  The eye goes from lion, then up and across the open space.

Place Elements Using Rule of Thirds

Position the subject in one of the strong points of the  Rule of Thirds grid.

environment-2

The subject should be walking, looking, or flying into the centre of the frame. If it is larger than the frame, there should be more space infront than behind it.  As the subject gets smaller the importance of correct placement increases.

africa photography safari and workshop

Lead the Viewer Around the Scene

Leading the viewers eye to the subject,  especially when the subject is smaller relative to the  rest of the image is achieved through careful composition.

Make the subject easy to spot : in contrast to the background

Look for and use leading lines: these are straight or curved lines that lead from a corner or edge of the frame to the subject (rivers, paths, tree branches).

African-wildlife-composition-tips-5

 

environment-1

Present a Story. Begin to think in terms of a still image as a story with  a beginning (where the viewer’s eyes go first), middle  (what they will notice next), and end.  Think about what other elements should be in the image to complete this movement and discovery.

environment-4

I have tighter shots of the cubs playing, but this wider shot tells the story of the nice cool rock they chose and the two lionesses closely supervising the surroundings.  

Leave some active space for the subject to move into.  Space also helps tell the story: it leaves the viewer space to use imagination to fill in off camera elements that complete the story . Space is good for anticipating and catching future action: leave the subject room to spring.

buffalo South Africa
buffalo on a misty morning

Light can serve as a leading line drawing a path from the light source to the subject.   The shadows that will result tell us what is not important.  If shaded items are important, consider using HDR techniques or open these areas in postproduction.

environment-6

The wary gaze and heavy step was important here and the angled late afternoon light highlights this. 

Resizing and Cropping is part of the toolbox. Don’t forget about vertical shots and consider how vertical can enhance the composition (emphasizing trees and giraffes).  Cropping can be done after the fact , but adding space back in to improve a composition is much harder so don’t squeeze your animal in a landscape images too much in camera or you will be removing creative flexibility.

You might have the urge to “fill the frame” but this eliminates the ability to do fine adjustments to the crops afterwards.  It also can cause problems when you go to print such as on a wrapped canvas which requires a few inches of non subject on the borders.

Depth and Vanishing points tell a story. Use depth to place story elements such that viewers are drawn into the 3d scene. Depth and the correct lens can create movement, record proportions and distances. An element in the background can make the whole composition more interesting as long as it is part of the story and not a distraction (a lion moving toward the viewer  or shade tree with a carcass  in the background).

African Photo safari

Animal Groups

These images are not tight enough to be portraits and do not show many elements of the environment. The center of interest is the group rather than any particular one animal.

Example of a Animal Group image

pride of lions with juveniles

Combinations of 3’s work well and have a harmonious balance. Symmetry  such as all looking the same direction or each in an opposite direction gives a balanced feel.  Odd numbers, odd shapes, triangles are more visually interesting and should be included.  This is a chance to show different poses and sides of the animal all at the same time (front, ¾, and side view all at once).  Mixing sizes (juveniles and adults) of animals  or species is  interesting content.

white rhino family rests in the shade

See the Negative Space. Negative space is the outline created by subject(s) as if it was viewed as a silhouette. African animals are perfect subjects for their interesting shapes.  Catch poses and groups that are creating an interesting shape and place them against neutral backgrounds for strong compositions.

African Wildlife photography tips

Composition Does not Stop after the Shoot

Once back in front of the computer you can still enhance composition.  The following are all useful tools for furthering your compositional goals.

–       Use creative cropping: You may wish to make several versions of an image each with a different crop.

portrait-1

crop-1

–       Use tonal adjustments to enhance the impact of the subject, downplay distractions, and otherwise lead the viewer as you intended through contrast and proper lighting.

–       Use color adjustment in a similar manner to lighting to  announce the subject (perhaps through saturation) and downplay secondary elements (desaturate or limit color variation and texture).

–       Use Blur to fade out distracting detail.

–       Clone or Heal elements that are really distracting and can not be cropped out.

Learn to quickly analyze a scene for story, interesting elements to include, what not to include, textures to highlight, light direction, and movement.  Good composition is mostly achieved in the field as you plan the shot and read the animal, but applying a creative eye after the shoot boosts your shots to the next level

Creative Black and White Treatments

high-contrastfinal

With the right image, black and white and monochrome effects can take the image to levels more striking and full of impact than color.  African animal portraits are often perfect candidates for experimentation and statement through black and white.

Black and white can envoke the classic and romantic notion of African safaris, but there  are some attributes that make some images better fuel for black and white than others.

Low Color Contrast:  Many animals have coloration that blends them into their surroundings and to be successful they must use this effectively.  An image of a lion in dry grass can be flat, but when treated in black and white, shape and texture that was previously washed out comes to life.

Neutral Color Subject: Elephants and rhino are more or less grayscale naturally and it is hard to make them pop out as a subject when surrounded by flashier colored skies and vegetation.  In monochrome they can stand out.

Animals with texture: Fur detail, skin texture, whiskers, and face features are often more apparent in a black and white. Details lost to our eyes because of color variations are easier to interpret.

Images with color or lighting issues: In many cases images with great composition and content that suffer from some lighting  or severe color cast problems can show better in monochrome.

Below I present 3 creative ways to use monochrome each of which goes beyond the desaturate slider.

Enhanced High Contrast Portrait

This style is characterized by  detail presented in an aged, almost studio style with a historic feel.

Features of this style include:

Portrait style subject with lots of texture and detail

Burnt edges

High contrast subject

Dark textured background

Start with a portrait with a neutral background.  Open in Lightroom Develop Mode.  This technique works easily in PS using layers and masks, but I will work on this in Lightroom.

 

high-contrast1

Crop if your subject’s face needs to be repositioned. Mostly desaturate the image with the Saturation slider and add high contrast using the Tone Curve or the other tone sliders.   We want a dark background so lower the Exposure a little bit and add a pretty large Vignette.

There are a few different ways to darken just the background: Using the Graduated Filter Tool to draw in from each edge toward the middle, or using the Radial Filter Tool  centered over the subject’s face.  Shape it to fit the face so the most possible background is set to dark tones.  On the tool settings, setting Exposure down while keeping Contrast high and Highlights way up will keep some texture in the darkened areas.

high contrast black and white safari image
image after applying a vignette and curve settings

Now we need to finish darkening the background and refine the  “spotlight” onto the subject so it pops.  Use the adjustment brush with a large feathered brush set at a low flow to darken background around the subject.  Decrease the brush size to get in close to the subject while leaving a slight halo effect around.

Click New to start an adjustment brush to brighten the subject.  Paint all over the face and use the sliders to intensify the effect.  Add final touches like a crop, Dodging effect on the eyes and nose and it is finished.  Use Split Toning to add a color tint to the monochrome.

high-contrastfinal

Duo Tone /  Split Tone

A duo tone image is one in which is printed in 2,3, or 4 colors. It is a way to get subtle richness to a monochrome image.  Lightroom supports using two tones (under Split Toning). The control allows you to set one tone for the Highlights and another for the Shadows and then lets you control  the balance between the two.  In Photoshop  the Duotone option lets you choose up to 4 colors.

In Lightroom, desaturate and correct the contrast of the image.  Under Split Toning , select a highlight color or use the Hue slider to set the Highlights. Saturation will control how subtle the effect is.   Next select a color for the Shadows.  Play with the saturation sliders and Balance until you are happy with the results.

duotones in lightroom
applying a duotone in Lightroom – this is overstated so that you can really see what this technique is about – you can make the effect much more subtle or dramatic

In Photoshop, open the tonally corrected image either already in black and white or in color then convert to grayscale.  Make sure the image is in 8bit mode then the option under Image – Mode – Duotone will be available.

In the control box you can browse through  the preset to get ideas or find one you like.  Make your own or begin with a preset and modify it.  To switch to 3 tones or 4 change the value in the Type box.  The curve will control which range of tones is affected.  The possibilities are endless.  When you find one you like you can save it for easy reuse.

using tritones in Photoshop
creating a quad tone combination in Photoshop – Again,  over stated with shocking color choices to demonstrate how it works
quad tone image
Final effect using quadtones with subtle effect  in Photoshop

Hand Tinted Effect

Start with a image and convert it to black and white.  For this technique I prefer a conversion to black and white that is lower contrast.  I like the Lightroom preset called Creamtone” .  It uses a range from a dark in the the gray-green range and a light tone in the beige range.  Open the image for editing in Photoshop to finish the hand tinting.

original

For this effect you will want to use just a few highlight colors applied to areas that are part of the subject.

In Photoshop, create a new layer for each color you will use.  Create the layer and rename it for the color.  You will want to keep the original luminosity fo the image as you add color so a good way to do this is to put each layer in Color blend mode.  This will ensure that you wont get any hard-edged opaque looking patches of color. You might also want to start with each layer at less than 100% opacity. Use the airbrush tool or a soft edged brush at low opacity: you can overpaint to add intensity.  Perfect application is not the style here. Use the eraser if you make a mistake.

For the final balancing you can change opacity, add a saturation layer,  even do a bit of dodge and burn to the color layers.

In the finished image I used one shade of red to color the meat, a bit of pink on the tongue, yellow in the eye, and two shades of green lightly applied to the grass in the foreground.

hand tinted effect
Final hand tinted image

Using Lightroom Metadata to Research Best Settings

I use Lightroom  primarily for organization and secondly for quick to medium difficulty adjustments.  My advanced work and preparation for print are still done in PS.  Many times LR  is all I need to select photos, prep them for use on the web, and export them.

With all of these features and with more integration tools, added image adjustment capabilities, and printing options going into the program, it is easy to forget that LR is a database. Like all databases, it is only as good as the data is complete and detailed, but if you manage the detail you can create a powerful learning and efficiency tool.

I am a wildlife photographer and a habitual photographer who photographs in the same location over and over and with the same subjects.  The conditions and sometimes fast action do not leave much time to fuss with settings and adjust.  I do get some chances to experiment, but I want to be in the ball park when I enter the water or get in the game vehicle.  This is where a little extra time in LR  provides me with a valuable learning tool.  I consult it before each trip and keep charts for each camera and lens as a quick cheat sheet based on real data.

Settings, time of image, flash use, and equipment are all recorded in the metadata automatically (make sure you adjust the time on your camera for time zones and daylight savings!) but I also enforce the discipline of  recording the location in detail  (for example: north corner or in canal), the sky and lighting conditions, and for underwater – the visibility.  Next I will try to add tides to that.  I also rate each photo before I do much adjusting to it and I keep all but the really embarrassing shots – at least until my disk gets full.

I have learned some surprising things such as all of my best manatee photographs happened between 9am and 9:30am.  There was a significant drop off in number of quality shots before and after this time and the golden time ranges later as it gets later in the season. This makes sense due to the lengthening of days and the sunrise getting later.  Knowing this, I no longer have to get up before dawn!

Using the Library Filter panel in LR I can use it like a query tool to see a count of images with the keywords I have chosen and combinations of the ISO, flash, rating, etc that I choose.  The tool is not a perfectly flexible query tool but you can be clever with your keywords and how you record data to get it to track and measure what you are interested in.  Maybe improvements to this will make it into a future release.

When I have my manatee workshop next week I will be able to look at the time, weather, and water conditions and recommend settings.  I prepared the following chart using meta data in LR.

7am to 9 am
Cloudy and/or  low visibility ISO 640 F2.8 1/80 – 1/100
Bright and clear visibility ISO 320 F3.2 – f5.0 1/60 – 1/80
9 am – 10 am
Cloudy and/or  low visibility ISO 640 F6.3 1/100
Bright and clear visibility ISO 400 F4.0 – 6.3 1/80 – 1/125
10 am – 11:30 Cloudy and/or  low visibility ISO 500 – 320 F6.3 – 8.0 1/80
Bright and clear visibility ISO 160ISO 250 F7.1 – f8.0F6.3 1/601/250

For use on my safaris, I am using the  data to come up with animal specific settings given lighting conditions.  Of course you can use the histogram on the camera screen and your experience to do the same thing, but many times I cant take the time to analyze and adjust in the field (while cageless with sharks or at a lion hunt) Thus is the nature of wildlife and sports photography.

If you needed another reason to keep you photos organized and properly loaded, taking this “big picture” look at a collection of images of your favorite subject  is very rewarding.

Manatee Photography Tips from my Manatee Photography Workshop

Cinemagraph of a Manatee

 manatee-cinemagraph

My next manatee photography workshop will be in February 2015

Get details

We will be in the water nearly all day with the manatees which gives you plenty of time to practice your techniques and get some really great shots.  Unlike other underwater creatures that are gone in one exposure, manatees are slow and linger. Take advantage of this by planning each shot and doing some in the field analysis and learning from images you just made.

photographing

Getting a Great Shot of a Manatee Up for a Breath

The Situation:

There is a manatee asleep on the bottom near you.  Regulations say that you are not allowed to disturb them – especially diving down to get pictures of them asleep.  They can stay under for 10 minutes which is way to long to hover just underwater and wait. How do you get a good image of them coming up for a breath?

1) Choose a manatee who is facing such that there will be light on its face (not in the shade from a tree) and is preferably not facing such that you will be shooting into the sun.

2) Decide your angle; 3/4  shot, directly on, full side pose, vertical or horizontal camera position.  Scan what will be the background and plan to place undesirable elements like people behind the manatee or out of frame.

3) Get into position and float relaxed. Think about your settings, take test shots, adjust.  Take special note of the view of the sky through the water. The deeper you are the more sky will show. This may not be ideal.

4) When it is time, you will want to force some air out of your lungs which will make you sink a bit (you have already tested this and set your weights correctly). Push water up slowly but firmly with one hand to get you under – Do not move your legs or you will cloud your own picture and possibly freak out the manatee.

5) Watch the manatee. They usually have a “tell” when they are preparing to surface. Their body will rock a bit then begin to rise.  Exhale and sink, snapping pictures and keeping your body still and compact to limit movement.

6) snap shots  while the manatee is on the way up. Watch the framing of your shot to get the whole animal – nose to tail- in the shot.

7) Get a shot as he breaks the surface and takes in air. Then some on the way back down with the ripples on the surface.  The manatee may fall pretty fast.  Sometimes they dont get enough air and go right back up or linger.  Just hold your breath and be still .  Get the shot. You will have 10 minutes to rest and try again.

8) While you wait for the next breath examine your shots. Make a new plan.  Try a different manatee if this one is not in a good spot.

manatee-workshop-log-10

Look for the Picture within a Picture

I have been playing around with cropping lately and practicing techniques to turn mediocre pictures into great pictures.

This elephant photo in its original form is not a great composition.  I was concentrating on the baby elephant hoping he would do something fun and cute and I didnt really pay attention to the very touching interaction between the large female and the juvenile elephant.

image47

Some lighting and color correction and a crop with a vignette all completed in Lightroom gives me a very nice portrait with lots of warm fuzzy motherly vib.

image48

Don’t disregard a photo before examining it closely for details and emotions you did not know were in there.