Wildlife Image Processing – Reprocessing Marakele Aardvark

There is a constant debate in all industries over the world  about the correct processes to follow to obtain the optimum result. Photography and image processing is no different – The social media and web are constantly bombarded with opinions and suggestions on the ethics and methods of image processing.
One of the biggest debates among especially wildlife photographers, is the lenghts that one is allowed to go to in enhancing your image to depict that subject that you saw in real life, as realistic as possible on your computer monitor. I have heard many photographers say that if they have to spend more than 5 minutes processing an image, that image is destined for the recycle bin… Really!? Some people need a wake-up call…!
In the days of film we sent our images to a lab that processed the images in a darkroom, or later, with fancy electronic developing gadgets. Today we do the processing and each study is a modern day darkroom and that is the BIG advantage of digital photography. If you are satisfied with your images being “dull” and not really representative of that scene that you were so excited to shoot, you should not be reading this blog or any other photography blog or website. As photographers we should be striving to master our processing skills to the best of our ability, but still remain faithful to our subjects or objects that we photograph.
Phew!! That being said… I recently decided to revisit one of my favourite images – Marakele Aardvark. I shot the image on 3 September 2011 at 16H56 in the Marakele National Park, South Africa. These nocturnal mammals are extremely shy and skittish and many wildlife photographers will never see one in their entire life, let alone in the golden last light of the day.
Here is the original image that I processed with Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5 some time ago. Note the odd looking watermark and extensive noise reduction to the background…
So, I have acquired must better processing skills over the last two years and there is still a lot to learn. I have however decided to share my present workflow with you, just to illustrate the difference some time behind the computer can make.
Now this is very important! To start with you need to grab yourself a cup of coffee or some good red wine, get some music that tickles your fancy in the background and then, only then, jump into Lightroom…

Unfortunately my excitement got the better of me when I shot this image, as I did not know for how long the aardvark would be around, so the image was rather underexposed – Notice how the histogram leans to the left with some detail in the blacks lost?
That is the miracle of shooting in RAW-format and the power of Lightroom. In processing this image have used Lightroom 4. Lightroom 5 is now available, but the changes to the latter did not involve any of the tools I utilized here and basic processing in Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 5 is identical.
I always start off in the Basic Panel. The first adjustment there in this instance is to increase the image temperature. I could still remember what the scene looked like, but the image temperature was not correct, as a result of the original image being underexposed. So, I increased the temperature to 5600.
Then the crucial part – image exposure. The Exposure-, Highlights-, Shadows- Whites- and Blacks sliders “interact”, so an adjustment in one slider might necessitate a change in another.
In this instance I had to increase my exposure by one full stop and then the adjustments to the highlights, whites and blacks followed.
If you do not know it yet… you must keep an eye on the little triangles at the top left and right of the histogram. In most instances we want both “gray” – if some of the detail in the blacks are lost, the left triangle will change in color and if some of the whites are “blown”, the triangle to the right will change to a color. Ensuring that the blacks and whites are “protected” is easy – Just play around with the Whites and Blacks slider. The idea is to tweak it until it changes color and then just give one more push to the other side until in turns grey again. This way you will have the “whitest” whites and the darkest “blacks”, without having lost any of the detail in both. Just keep in mind that sometimes this rule might be broken, to get some deep darks in your image or to reduce the whites even more and so on.
As general rule I always increase the Clarity to 15 and Vibrance to 25. The Vibrance slider basically adjusts the saturation of the image, but not to the extend and as drastic as the Saturation slider. I usually stay away from the Saturation slider.
The last thing to do in the Basic Panel is to increase the contrast. As a rule of thumb I increase it to 35, and then play around, whilst keeping and eye on the histogram, with little lesser or more contrast.
In the Tone Curve Panel is decreased the highlights and lights (whilst still keeping an eye on the histogram). The reason for this was that the grass around the aardvark was rather bright as a result of the increase in overall exposure by one full stop.
Should the image have required it, I could also have increased the darks and shadows, to get some more detail in the darker areas of the image.
The second most important panel in Lightroom is the Detail Panel. This panel contains the necessary sliders to adjust your sharpening and noise reduction.
It must be kept in mind that this sharpening is referred to as your “input sharpening”, as it is the initial sharpening you apply in converting your image to a large JPEG or TIFF file from its original RAW format. On the other hand, the sharpening you apply when after resizing images for the web or for print, is known as “output” sharpening. As a result, images will traditionally have undergone two rounds of sharpening – the first in your conversion from RAW and the second when preparing for the web or print.
As a general rule I use the setting of Amount 60, Radius 1, Detail 25 and Masking 50.
Needless to say, any changes to the noise reduction sliders is a big no no most of the time and a rarely use it. As such I left it at its default settings, which entails a slight reduction in color noise. If necessary I will only apply noise reduction to the background in some instances in CS6.
I always allow Lightroom to make some slight lens profile corrections in the Lens Corrections Panel, by leaving the box ticked.
You will be amazed some changes even with the best of lenses!
In the Lens Corrections Panel under the Color menu, I allow Lightroom to remove any chromatic aberration caused by my lens. Chromatic aberration is that nasty color casts or lines that you sometimes find on the edges of your images and usually at points of high contrast (or something like that…)
After the initial RAW processing in Lightroom, the histogram looks like this and the image looked like as shown below. The only thing left to do is to export it to CS6 for some final tweaks…
Image after RAW processing in Lightroom
For me the purpose of the secondary processing in Photoshop CS is twofold. Firstly, to give the image some extra “punch” and secondly, to resize and sharpen the image for output on the web or for print.
I have developed an action for giving my images that extra “punch”, after I discovered the magic of luminosity masks by visiting the blog of well known South African landscape photographer Hougaard Malan. I am not going to try to explain the ins and the outs of luminosity masks in this blog, as I am still trying to understand it myself, but you are welcome to read my other blog post LUMINOSITY MASKS – A MUST KNOW FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY, which also includes links to the website of Hougaard and others on the subject.
The action allows me to adjust only the midtones of the image, by either to darken or lighten it, and to add contrast to only those “magic midtones”.
In addition the action also allows me to adjust the “neutrals” and “blacks” of the image for some more “pop”, to add a warming photo filter should I wish to do so, and to selective dodge (lighten) or burn (darken) certain parts of the image.
Once the action has run, there will be 8 layers on top of the original background layer.
The first layer is what a named an “Adjustment Layer”. On this layer I can remove any dust spots or other unwanted objects from the image, apply selective noise reduction to the image etcetera.
The Lighten Midtones layer allows me to lighten only the midtones of the image by increasing or decreasing the opacity of that layer.
The Darken Midtones layer allows me to darken only the midtones of the image by increasing or decreasing the opacity of that layer.
In the Midtone Contrast layer I can increase the contrast in only the midtones of the image. By using luminosity masks and a layer blending mode (LBM) of Soft Light, a lot more contrast can be added to the midtones than with other conventional methods.
By enabling the layer marked with a “1” by clicking the little square to the left to show “the eye”, I can add that “pop” to the neutrals and blacks with a selective color adjustment layer on the midtones only.
The layer marked “2” enables me to add a warming photo filter to the midtones (which I have not done for this image), whereas the layers marked “3” and “4” allow me to selectively dodge or burn portions of the image, by painting with different opacity white brushes on the black masks.
For this image I have elected to darken the midtones and as such increased the opacity of that layer to 25%.
I have also added some more contrast to the midtones by clicking on that layer and increasing its opacity to 25%.
The magic of these midtone luminosity layers lies in the fact that you only make the changes to the midtones and leaving the brightest and darkest portions of the image unchanged, whilst avoiding nasty hallos and other artifacts.
I will strongly suggest that you have a look at my blog post on this as mentioned hereinbefore, and incorporate the magic of luminosity layers in your wildlife processing workflow.
I then enabled the layer with the selective color adjustment on the midtones. By double clicking on the selective color icon on the layer, it will be noted that Properties dialogue box reveals that both the Neutrals and Blacks have been adjusted by in increase in the “Black” slider to +4.
This adjustment is on of the key elements to give the image some more “pop” and at times a will merely decrease the adjustment in blacks slider. For this image a left it at +4.
By enabling the top two layers and by using a low opacity white brush, I selectively darkened some portions of the foreground in the image as well as portions of the aardvark itself. I also lightened the eye of the aardvark slightly.
Well, at this stage the image is done and dusted and all I had to do is to delete the extra channels in Channels palette, i.e. the Light Lights, Dark Darks, and Magic Midtones. This needs to be done, as each channel increases the image size significantly. To do this I simply clicked and dragged each channel to the dustbin.
The image is then saved by merely clicking on “Save” in the File Menu. This way the image is added as a large TIFF file to my Lightroom Catalog, for later use.

Have a look at the final histogram of the image below. No detail in the whites or blacks are lost and the image has a very “balanced” exposure throughout its range. Rather different than the initial histogram at the beginning of this post, right?!!

The second last step is to resize and sharpen the image for display on the web. I make use of the sharpening actions created by Philip Perold for my wildlife photography and the actions created by Hougaard Malan for my landscape photography.

You can download Philip Perold’s actions by clicking THIS LINK and Hougaard Malan’s actions by clicking THIS LINK. These guys have done a tremendous job in the creation of these actions and all credit to them! I have merely done some “reverse engineering” to include some sizes that I regularly use.

I merely have to open my actions pallet by clicking on the “play” symbol, select the required action and and run it…

For this blog post I ran the 640px Wildlife Sharpening action. The image is magically resized and sharpened and the layers pallet will look like the screenshot below.

I have reduced the opacity of the top sharpened layer to 90% for an amount of sharpening to my liking.

The great thing about Philip Perold’s actions is that you can paint with a high opacity white or black brush on the masked top layer, to increase sharpening in certain portions of the image or to hide some sharpening. In this instance I have sharpened the eye and nose a bit more by painting with a white brush on the masked top layer and I have removed all sharpening to the immediate foreground and background by painting with a black brush, as you will see from the image below.

The last step is to convert the color profile of the image to the sRGB color profile for posting on the web. This is done by merely clicking Edit > Convert to Profile > select the sRGB color profile > OK. I added my “new” improved watermark and saved the image to the location I wanted.So, to compare, here is the original image without any adjustments in Lightroom or CS…

… and here is the final image processed in Lightroom 4 and CS6 with the steps as illustrated in this blog post…

Much better, don’t you think?! I think it is also a great improvement from the image at the beginning of this blog post, which I processed a while back…

And for those die hard “purists” out there… I could have followed all the above steps and processed this image in far less than 5 minutes, but I took some time to think about what I wanted to achieve and it probably took me something like 7 or 8 minutes!!

There are as many processing techniques as photographers out there, but this is just my take on the image according to a workflow with which I am rather comfortable at present.

I hope this post can be of some assistance you…

7 comments
  • Doug BoltAugust 7, 2013 - 17:07 - Excellent "how to" description of your Photoshop workflow. And, thanks for the link to the actions. I use Lum actions, but mine are not as flexible as this one.ReplyCancel

  • Gert OomsAugust 8, 2013 - 20:20 - I love this, super one of the people I actually admire shares his workflow and post processing an a fresh image. Enjoyed reading this post as all the other post on your blog.
    Thanks Rudi.ReplyCancel

    • linruphoto@gmail.comAugust 13, 2013 - 08:41 - Thanks for the reply and compliments Gert! Still learning by the day and enjoying every moment! Photography is all about sharing!ReplyCancel

  • Tammie LeeAugust 20, 2013 - 18:09 - hello,
    so generous of you to share your workflow with us. I have lightroom and will give this a try. your photo is quite wonderful. I saw it on the photo of the day site. ReplyCancel

  • Davin SmithAugust 31, 2013 - 05:47 - hi, very nice wildlife photography. superb work.ReplyCancel

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