Photo editing can sometimes get a bad rap, conjuring up images of laughable Photoshop mishaps and sometimes even deliberate deception. But in reality, all professional photographers edit their photos, and that includes wildlife photographers. When it comes to bird photography, the judicious use of photo editing tools can help you make your image match as closely as possible to the beauty you witnessed in person out in the field. But how much editing is too much? There’s a fine line between a well-processed photo and an image that’s been manipulated to the point where it’s no longer true to what you saw through the viewfinder. Whether you’re producing an image to share on Facebook or submit to a contest (like, say, the 2018 Audubon Photography Awards, which are now open for entry), you’ll want to stay on the right side of that line.
To help you navigate the sometimes confusing best practices of bird photography, we asked wildlife photographer Melissa Groo, whose dramatic photo of a Great Egret took home the Grand Prize in the 2015 Audubon Photography Awards and who now serves as a judge on the contest, for some tips on how to make the most of your photo.
DO shoot in RAW.
Every DSLR camera (as well as professional mirrorless cameras) has several options in terms of what format you want to shoot in. But for a professional looking shot, says Groo, you’re going to want to shoot in RAW, which produces the most authentic image because it contains minimally processed data. RAW preserves almost all of the information it takes from the scene that you see through your lens, which means that when the times comes to edit your photo, it’ll give you lots to work with. Because of this, some photo contests require you to submit your RAW files along with the final edited version. (FYI: Different brands have their own names for this format—for Nikon it’s .NEF and for Canon, .CR2—so do some research to figure out what the RAW format is called for your camera.)
DON’T add, remove, or manipulate individual elements of the photo.
In general, your edits should affect the image as a whole, rather than specific details. Although it only takes 30 seconds to airbrush out an unsightly branch from your picture of a Black-capped Vireo, edits like this are considered an alteration beyond standard optimization, and that also includes pasting in or clone-stamping out elements. These tools, while sometimes tempting, take a natural scene and make it unnatural, which goes against the ethos of wildlife photography. When it comes to the Audubon Photography Awards, for example, what the judges are looking for is "an honest depiction of that exact moment in nature, just as it appeared when you pressed the shutter,” Groo says. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
DON’T crop too much.
There’s no hard rule for determining how much cropping is too much, but as Groo points out, your goal is to maintain the integrity of the image. Some files will lose too much resolution once cropped beyond a certain point, and there will be a noticeable lack of image quality. You should also consider composition. In general, the space around the bird is important—don’t crop so much that the bird feels squished. If you’ve frozen a bird in flight, for example, make sure you leave some visual space for it to fly into.
DO adjust exposure, contrast, and vibrancy.
Lighting can be unpredictable when you’re out in the field, and even the best photographers will end up with some overexposed shots. That’s where shooting in RAW comes in handy. Using a photo processing application such as Adobe Lightroom, “you can adjust exposure in RAW while recovering the most detail,” Groo says. For example, even if your shot is overexposed, the RAW format will still have data on where the highlights and shadows are, so you can restore them. (Note: If the image is blown-out, there's no way to recover that information.)
The same goes with color. If your raw image doesn’t quite capture the bright colors of the bird’s plumage, you can compensate by increasing vibrance, which fills in colors in areas that aren’t already saturated. Avoid increasing saturation, though, as it boosts the colors in the entire photo and can leave you with an unnatural looking image. The underlying principle here, as with all photo editing, is that your adjustments should make your birds more true to real life.
DON’T go crazy with the sharpening.
Unfocused photos are the bane of any photographer. Professional photographers like Groo will sometimes sharpen their photos to bring out the details of the bird, and you can, too. But sharpen too much and you may end up with noisy pixelation around the bird and an edge, or halo, that wasn’t in the original photo. This can make the details on the bird look hyperreal—or “crispy,” as Groo puts it. “It’s just as bad as having an unsharpened photo,” she says. As with many things in life, a little goes a long way here.
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