A short Guide to 
Post-processing in Relation to Wildlife Photography

I am frequently asked questions such as "how much sharpening do you apply?" or "how much do you crop"? The right answer to both questions would usually be "too much", but of course there is no universal answer to these questions, because it very much depends on the photo. Subject size, sharpness, framing, and final use of the photo all matter, and therefore it is impossible to give a short answer to the above questions. It is however possible to apply some genreal rules which should allow you to get better results without spending more time on your photos.

Why postprocessing? 

With digital photography we are given the possiblity to influence very much the outcome of our photography after we have taken the photo. In order to be competitive, today's nature photographers have to not only know how to approach wildlife and how to handle their cameras, but also how to post-process their images in a pleasing way. This is why I want to give here a few tips .

Should I shoot RAW or JPEG?
Short answer: RAW. That is if your camera supports RAW of course, and if maximum detail and control over colors and dynamic range is important. In other words, I would photograph little birds only in RAW in order to get a maximum of feather detail, but for landscape photos that will be resized for web-use, i wouldn't mind shooting JPEG. Since I photograph mostly birds however, I shoot RAW.

Which RAW-converter?
All RAW converters have to interpret the RAW data of a photo, and some do a better job at that than others. For example, most RAW converters apply some color correction and noise reduction by default to all photos (even when all sliders are at zero), and that is why some photos look blurrier in some RAW converters than in others. So which are the good ones? Lightroom, Aperture, Bibble, Capture One, Adobe Camera RAW, Canon's DPP, and Nikon's ViewNX are all good, some better in one area, and others better in another area.

The Workflow
In order to be efficient with postprocessing, one should establish a workflow that suits him. For example, one can do all the editing in the RAW converter with no additional programs, or alternatively he can just use it to transform the RAW-files into TIF files, and then do the main editing in an aother program of his choice. There is a large variety of editing programs availble, and it would be impossible here to analize them all, but for sure Photoshop is one of the best and most used ones. Personally I use Lightroom as a RAW-converter, where I open the files, select the photos I want to edit, and apply some basic adjusting. After that I save them as TIF files and open them in Photoshop, where I do all the editing. I also use noise reduction programs as plugins in Photoshop, of which some of the best are Neat Image, Topaz Noise, or Noise Ninja.

Where to start?
First of all, you will have to choose the photo that you want to process. This isn't always easy, especially when you have 250 photos of the same bird sitting on a branch, some a bit sharper than others, some a bit better exposed, some a bit better framed, some with a slightly more pleasing background, and the last ones maybe from a bit closer distance, if you managed to approach the bird some more. What are the criteria on which to base our choices? I have observed the caracteristics of winning photos in our competitions for morew than two years by now, and I think I have somewhat figured out which are the photos that score highest. Here are some critiria that might be considered:

  • The subject should be sharp and in focus. Wings can be blurred, but the head and eyes should not be. Good detail is important.
  • Interesting poses work better than boring ones. 
  • Action is generally more appealing than simple posing.
  • Front views work better than rear views, but rear views can be nice if the subject has the head turned to look sideways or towards the photographer.
  • Blue and grey skies are usually not very intersting backgrounds.
  • The subject should have some importance in the frame, and the background should not disturb the subject visually.
  • Soft morning or afternoon light is usually more pleasing than harsh midday light.

Choosing your photo in the RAW converter: not always easy!

Rough adjustments in the RAW-converter
Whether or not you do your main processing in the RAW converter or afterwards in Photoshop, it is usually good to start with some rough adjustments in the RAW converter. Burned-out highlights (whites) contain sometimes still some additional detail that can be recovered with the highlight and shadow adjustment sliders. Exposure is also best corrected in the RAW convreter, and soemtimes some noise reduction can already be applied at this stage. After these rough adjustmens, I usually export the photo as a TIF file, and open it up again in Photoshop. There is of course also the possibilty to open the files directely in Photoshop, in which case Photoshop becomes the RAW-converter, and pre-adjustments might not be necessary.

Before and after - If you shoot RAW, blown highlights are not always as blown as they seem:

Original: the highlights seem to be burned out

Playing a bit with exposure and contrast sliders shows that much detail is still present

Cropping and choosing your frame
In order not to be working on a big file all the time, the next step is usually to crop the photo. We will cover more extensively how to choose the best framing in another article, but here are a few tips:
  • Give the subject some space to breathe. If you crop too tightly the photo will be less appealing.
  • Usually it is a good idea to leave some empty space in front of the subject, which means in the direction that it looks.
  • Horizontal framing works better most of the times, but not always. Look at the subject orientation in order to choose the format. Square format is rather unusal in wildlife photography, but can be used as well in some cases. It is however usually best to stick to a 2/3 or 3/4 aspect.
  • Give your subject importance in the frame, do not let other subjects distract from it.
  • Watch the harmony and visual balance of your photo. Often there are lines (branches, grass, reed, etc) in the photo - pay attention to them when choosing your frame.
  • Use the rule of thirds, but not only and not strictly. Sometimes the subject can be put in the center of the photo, especially with the subject coming towards the photographer.
  • Use your artistic inspiration: an unusual crop or a slithtly turned angle can make a difference!
  • Crop only as much as the image allows... the subject should still be crisp and sharp in the end.

Five different crops of the same photo: Which one works best for you? 

Centered subject is ok, but a bit boring in this case

Subject on the left leaves no space "in front" of the bird

Subject on the right seems better

Horizontal framing would be a nice option too, but again doesn't leaves much space in front of the bird

Some more artistic framing, for those who like it

Sharpening and noise reduction
Once the framing of the photo has been chosen, I sometimes use some noise reduction already, if the photo is very noisy. After that the photo can be resized. I usually downsize it to around 1.5x of the final size (for example to 1800 pixels wide when the final size is 1200 pixels), and then apply some unsharp mask and sharpening. I will not tell here how much unsharp mask and how much sharpening should be applied, but only this: The sharpening and unsharp mask should make the photo look better, and not add much visible bright or dark outlines around the borders. If borders around contrast areas become very apparent, then the photo has been oversharpened, and therefore it won't look natural any more. Sharpening should remain invisible, and bring out detail without adding noticable artifacts. 

Sometimes default sharpening (Photoshop) will provide very good results, but other times you want to have a bit more control. For that you can open (in Photoshop) the "Smart sharpen" window, (menus: filter - sharpen - smart sharpen), and play with the two sliders, amount and radius. It is best to either use a very small radius (0.2-0.5px) and a medium or large amount (up to maximum if you use 0.2). If you use a larger radius, then you should use low amount, otherwise uggly borders are likely to appear. The same goes for when using the unsharp mask filter (menu: filter - sharpen - unsharp mask).

Sharpening in Photoshop:

Unsharp mask in Photoshop:

Noise reduction with Neat Image plugin:

Resizing your photo
After some sharpening and/or unsharp mask has been applied at this stage, the photo can be resized to it's final size, which is 1200 pixels wide (horizontal fomat) or 900 pixels high (vertical format) for our competitions. It is best to apply once more some careful sharpening after resizing to final size, because this process slightly softens the image. If there is now some more noise appearing because of the sharpening, some final noise reduction can be used again.

Colors - yes, but don't hurt my eyes please!
Usually the camera does a pretty good job regarding color balance, so heavy alterations should not be necessary. There might be some slight correction needed if the photo is too blue or too yellow, which can be done either with the color balance sliders, the color filters, or with the channel mixer. Saturation, vibrance, and contrast might need a little boost (depending on the camera and the RAW-converter), but they should be used with care - highlights are quickly burned out, shadows stamped out, and oversaturated colors will take away the natural look of your photo. Remember: we want to present a realistic image of a small piece of nature, not create a piece of fine art. If you are not sure about how much color saturation or contrast is good, then check out some photos in our photo competition galleries, and compare the best ones to yours.

Resized to 1200 px and re-sharpened final photo, with vibrance and saturation enhancing

Save it!
When your photo looks the way you want it, then save it: First as a TIF file, and then the final as a JPG file for internet use. ATTENTION: JPG files should not be opened and saved multiple times, because they will lose some quality every time due to the compression.

The Golden Rule of post-processing

Here is the simple golden rule: The best post-processing is the one that remains invisible. In other words, if you can see easily any effect of post-processing in a photo, then it has already been overdone.

Quick résumé of the the workflow:

  • Shoot RAW instead of JPG (if your camera allows it).
  • Open file in RAW processor, where you can recover burned highlights and ajust color temperature.
  • Export your file to photoshop if you have it, or continue with your preferred application or RAW converter.
  • Choose your framing, and reduce the file to about 1.5x final size.
  • Apply modest sharpening and unsharp mask.
  • Adjust contrast and colors the way you want them. Careful not to burn highlights and blacken shadows.
  • Apply noise reduction if needed.
  • Resize your photo to final size (i.e. 1200 pixels with for our competition), and apply som more sharpening, until your photo looks crisp and sharp.
  • Apply noise reduction if needed.
  • Save your file as a first as a Tif file, and then a copy as a JPG file for internet.

A final word
I wanted  to make this article short and easy to understand, but I'm not sure i succeeded... there are so many aspects involved, so many possibilities also in terms of computer applications, that it is impossible to cover them all in a short article. I hope nevertheless that it can help a few readers to get better results in their photography, and that in the future we will see more photos that are improved through post-processing, instead of being degraded by it.

And a word of appology: This article should have been published in greek as well as in english, which was finally not possbile due to the rather heavy translating work. However, if anybody has the time and courage to translate it into greek, feel free... otherwise I hope that most people understand the essentials of it. In the future we hope to publish more articles on our blog, which will also be written by greek writers, and therefore will probably be published in greek only.

By Felix Rehsteiner

4 σχόλια:

  1. Nice one Felix. I've got the same overexposed crested lark from Sigri, and I am now struggling to learn lightroom.
    In you article, you started with lightroom settings and ended up with photoshop, quite confusing for me...

    1. Thanks for the comment Spyro.
      I explained in the article that I personally prefer to chose the photo and make rough adjustments in Lightroom, and then export it as a TIF-file into Photoshop where I do the final operations, such as cropping, sharpening, noise reduction, etc.
      It is of course also possible to do everything either in Lightroom or in Photoshop, but I find the two-appications workflow preferable because each application has it's strengths in different areas.

  2. Συγχαρητήρια στους διαχειριστές για την ιδέα να δημοσιεύονται τέτοιου είδους άρθρα!

    Σχετικά με το ιδανικό sharpening στα πουλιά, θα μπορούσε να θεωρηθεί σαν κανόνας το sharpening να μην ξεπερνά σε ένταση και λεπτομέρεια καταγραφής όσα στην πραγματικότητα θα μπορούσε να διακρίνει κάποιος στο πουλί δια γυμνού οφθαλμού αν το είχε μπροστά του και το παρατηρούσε από πολύ κοντά;

    Στην αρχή, θεωρούσα επιτυχία την φωτογραφική απεικόνιση του φτερώματος με λεπτομέρειες τύπου μάκρο φωτογράφισης αλλά, ακόμα και αν κρατήσεις ένα πουλί στα χέρια σου, ποτέ δεν πρόκειται να δεις έτσι το φτέρωμα. Το φτέρωμα μπορεί να είναι στιλπνό, λείο, θαμπό ή γυαλιστερό, απαλό ή ανάλαφρο αλλά ποτέ sharp.

    Eπομένως, ο βαθμός του sharpening στα πουλιά, στο post-processing, έχει νόημα να ακολουθεί τον παραπάνω κανόνα ή τελικά η απόφαση είναι του φωτογράφου αναλόγως με το καλλιτεχνικό αποτέλεσμα που θέλει να δώσει;

    Μαρία Αμπατζόγλου

  3. Efxaristo Maria, den to skeftika pote etsi pou les, alla einai endiaferon... simfono oti ta fteroma den prepei na einai katholou sklira (oversharpended), kai prepei na min xexasoume oti einai ena malalko pouli pou fotografisame, kai oxi ena glypto.
    Stin praktiki omos, mou fainetai arketa diskolo na exoume afti tin epilogi, giati genika den eimaste tosso konta ap'ta poulia pou boroume na dialexoume possa leptomereia na deixnoume, giati to perisotero pou boroume na exoume sti fotografia, to kalitera. Einai epeidi kanoume fotografia agrias zois, oxi fotografia se zoologiko kipo.