Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Behind the scenes…

I’d like to take a few minutes to explain my methods to improve an image using Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. I strongly believe that any image will require at least a few minutes work in either of these applications to extract the best from a digital image. It’s not too difficult and will often transform an image into one that is worthy of publication—either as a print or a web-based, digital image. ( Note-Please click on the images in order to obtain a magnified view)

This image of a Barn Owl in flight was take early one morning at Tophill Low. I was using my Nikon D3 and a 300mm f4 lens with a 1.4 tele-converter, which gave me a working focal length of 420mm. This is the equipment I often use when going for an early morning stroll without my tripod. The morning was quite bright which enabled me to use a shutter speed of 1/2000 second at f5.6 at IS0 800. I don’t think the Owl saw me until the last second and quickly changed its flight path. Fortunately, it was looking directly into the camera, so I have a great view of those dark eyes with the added bonus of magnificent catch-lights as well.

Before I wade into the processing, I like to have a plan. Perhaps not a cunning one, but at least an idea of what I wish to achieve. The image needs to be cropped, the sky darkened a little to bring out the contrast between the Owl and the background. I also want to extract as much detail as possible from the plumage of the bird and to lighten its eyes to maximise the impact of those wonderful catch-lights. Finally, I want to minimise any noise (there isn’t a lot with my D3 at ISO 800) and save as 1024×768 file in a sRGB colour space suitable for the web and a slide-show presentation.

Well, that’s the plan so let’s make a start…

I will always work on a copy of the original file. Your original should be saved somewhere safe, perhaps on another drive and never touched. I opened the image in Lightroom and used the cropping tool in the develop module to crop the image to 1024×768 pixels. I will often use Lightroom to achieve this as it has some fantastic templates from which to choose. (just press command ‘O’ to cycle through the alternatives and command/shift ‘O’ to cycle through some of the options to each crop template).

Everyone seems to have heard of the ‘rule of thirds’ but long before this was adopted by camera clubs and amateur artist’s, there existed another alternative…The Golden Rule. These ideal proportions were discovered by the Ancient Greeks and exist in nature too; for more information please follow this link

To be honest, this picture could have been cropped in a number of ways. There is no ‘correct’ solution here and much depends on the intended use of the final image. Perhaps if the final use was a book or magazine cover, then a vertical crop would have been more appropriate. However, I wanted a horizontal format that illustrated the Owl turning quickly in mid-air and settled on this choice.

I then opened the cropped image up in Adobe Photoshop and applied a curves adjustment to the whole image in order to darken both the Owl and the sky as seen in the following illustration…

I then applied another curves adjustment layer; this time to increase the contrast of the Owl’s plumage and the sky…

Now I wanted to bring some life to those big, black eyes, so I made a quick selection around the pupils and used another curves adjustment layer to both lighten the eyes and bring out those fantastic catch-lights. Here is a detailed view of before and after this adjustment. I hope you agree that the change is extremely worthwhile.



The final steps is to darken the edges of the image in order to focus the viewer’s attention on the the subject. This is something I always did when printing a traditional fibre based print in a darkroom and something that is easily done in Photoshop using a variety of methods. Perhaps the easiest way would be to use ‘Lens Correction’ from the filter menu. Click on the custom tab in Lens Correction and adjust the vignette amount and mid-point sliders to the left to suit. Do remember that we only wish to add a minimum amount of darkening and the result should in most cases, be almost imperceptible.

Well, that’s about it. All that remains is to reduce the image to the required output size of the final image, in this case 1024 x 768 pixels (with a little output sharpening) and convert the image from the original 16 bit Adobe RGB colour space to an 8 bit sRGB image suitable for viewing on the web.

Sorry for the length of this post. If all this seems too complicated and beyond you then please don’t give up. There are lots of free tutorials on the web and thousands of books and magazines dedicated to both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. One book I would recommend is, “Photoshop CS5 for Nature Photographers by Ellen Anon & Josh Anon.” This title also includes great explanations on how to prepare your images in Photoshop Elements too—so there is no need to sell the family silver in order to buy a copy of Photoshop CS5! —Tony McLean

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