Editing The Snow Leopard

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Here is a quick breakdown of some small, subtle changes that can affect an image greatly.  Seldom is there any photograph that goes to publication without any Lightroom or Photoshop work on the image. I usually comes down to taste as to what work you want to do on an image.

When shooting animals in an enclosure (at the zoo) there are some challenges you are going to run into. The first biggest challenge is met in that the animals are right there!  No spending days trekking through the wilderness to "hopefully" find what you want to photograph.

Here is where I started with the image right out of the camera. While the lighting was not perfect nor the background, the animal was at least looking at me.

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The first thing to do in Lightroom was to crop it to remove some of the distracting background elements.  That day I was testing out a Nikon 300mm 2.8 lens so I couldn't get as close I would have wanted. The lens however, is very sharp so I could do some cropping to get it reasonable look.

Cropping out some distracting elements in the background was the first step to brining the viewer's direction to the Snow Leopard's face.

Then I focused on what people look at first, the eyes.  I brought up the saturation of the eyes, added a bit of color and sharpened them.  I then added a realistic highlight by taking one of the included brushes in Photoshop an "Oil Pastel" brush, made it small and on a new layer I stamped a very light blue, color as an eye highlight. Then I did the same stamp on the other eye.  After the stamping, I added a layer mask and went in with a soft brush to remove parts of the highlight that wouldn't be there.  Such as where the eyelid overlaps or an eyelash or hair would be covering up the highlight.  This helps the new highlight to blend onto the surface of the eye.  Next, I pulled back the opacity of the layer to make the highlight a tiny bit translucent for more realism. 

 I then used the spot healing brush and the clone stamp to fix some ares of the face and fur that looked a little ragged.

Lastly, I used the burn and dodge tools to create a custom contrast.  By darkening some of the dark areas on the face with the burn tool and lighting some of the highlights in the fur with the dodge tool, I could control the contrast in the image, exactly.  Then using the burn tool I was able to darken some of the outside areas to create a custom vignette to again bring the viewer's attention back to the face of the Snow Leopard.

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Photographing the Great Horned Owl

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Before I give you the step-by-step of how I was able to get close enough to make this photograph of the Great Horned Owl, first I want to talk about the equipment I used.

I used a  Nikon D5 with a long lens, with a wide aperture a Nikon 300mm f/2.8

While you don't always have to use such a specialized lens, it helps when you want to keep the background soft, which brings attention to your subject, using a technique called selective focus or using a shallow Depth-of-Field.

If I am trying to execute selective focus (where the subject is sharp but the background is blurry) I take these steps:

  • Use the longest lens possible.
  • Use the widest aperture that your lens or the situation allows.
  • Try to put less distance between the camera and the subject. 
  • Try to put more distance between the subject and the background.

This is not always something you can achieve when photographing wildlife but when you can, take the time move your position around to get those ratios in distance.

I also make sure my autofocus is on target.  I used a product called Focus Tune to find tune my 300mm lens to make sure it works well with each camera body I own. This tedious process,   gives me the confidence that when my autofocus hits on the eye of the animal I am photographing, I KNOW its going to be sharp.

Finding the Great Horned Owl is the real trick to this photograph.  Once you learn of the species  in your area, you need to exercise great skill in your approach to observe his daily routines, to get yourself into a position to capture great images of the animal.

In this particular case, I walked into the Sacramento Zoo and right near the entrance was this owl, resting on a handler's gloved hand.  I did take the time to ask, when no one was visiting, to move around a bit, that way I could get the subject farther from the background for a better shallow Depth-of-Field shot.  Also, moving around a few feet I could also get the owl to be in the best light.

The zoo is a great way to practice with wildlife that you know is there.  While there are other challenges you will face in the zoo, enclosures, people setting their drinks on your camera bag, its a fabulous place to work on your wildlife photography skills. 

 

 

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

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When you are out photographing, many times weather just doesn't cooperate. You have to be patient and I feel it is just best to wait.

When you have an iconic subject like the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco - you have most of the battle won by have just having a good subject.  Here is where we started from:

 Nikon 24mm to 70mm zoom lens.  Shot at 24mm.

Nikon 24mm to 70mm zoom lens.  Shot at 24mm.

This evening I was out with four other photographers, which I highly recommend doing as its great to see everyone get to a site and then scatter, so each person gets their own unique view of the area. It can be a great learning experience see what others are seeing an trying to capture. 

 When we arrived about an hour before sundown the sky was showing overcast, low cloud cover.  Not that uncommon of an occurrence in San Francisco. However, there is nice subject to work with, so I thought I'd try a few things.

I knew that later in the evening the lights would come on to illuminate the architecture so I had to be ready. The first thing to deal with is composition.  Since it was still light out, the exposure would be dealt with later so I had about 45 minutes to explore some different views.

First things first, I had to decide on a lens.  I had with me a zoom lens, Nikon 24-70 so I started with that.  I was toying with different compositions to try and incorporate some foreground in the shot, other than just the lake.

I noticed one or two blooming lilies that were a bright yellow and I thought that might make a good foreground.  In order to make the composition work, I switched to my Nikon 14mm and started to position my tripod so the flower could be no less than 18 inches away.

Next, I had to deal with Depth of Field. I could have shot the image at f/22 and likely would have been able to get the entire scene in focus but that would cause some diffraction in the final image..  When images are shot at f/22, because of the tiny hole that light has to pass through, that setting can cause the image to not be as sharp as I'd like.

Inspired by a good friend of mine, photographer, David Bozsik, who has been Focus Stacking (taking several images at different focus plains and assembling  them later) for quite some time, I thought I'd give that try.  

As the light was getting low, I didn't want to run my ISO up very high in an effort  keep the image as sharp as possible. I ended up shooting at F/5 the sharpest point of this lens.  While I shot several images, I only need to stack two of them to get the foreground sharp and the background sharp.

If you remember, I was shooting on a tripod at a very slow shutter speed so I knew the water would be softly blurred.  So the only two shots I really needed were the shot of the foreground and the shot of the structure across the lake.  While I could have assembled them in Photoshop I instead opted for Helicon Focus software to combine the foreground with the background image.

The slow shutter speed blurred not only the water but the sky as well giving it an interesting mottled look. 

The other bonus of working with only two images, I was able to change the exposure for the flower (lighter) and have a different exposure for the Palace area.

The timing of shot like this happens very fast as the light is changing rapidly.  You have to wait for the balance of light from the sky and surroundings to match the intensity of the artificial lights on the buildings.  Shot too early the artificial lights would be not making an impact, shot too late and sky would be black and nothing interesting. 

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Before and After

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As a professional photographer, techniques and digital processes change rapidly.  Sometimes its difficult to keep up with all the changes from lighting to post processing of images.  One thing that doesn't seem to change that often is the people.  People are fundamentally the same, in that they want to look their best and they want there product to be shown off in its best light.

For example I photographed this model, Melissa Tingley back when she was about 12 years old.  She grew up and got into modeling and I photographed her many times.  After appearing in magazines such as Playboy and numerous calendars, I photographed her for an advertisement for San Francisco Cigar Company. 

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This shot was taken in the studio with one large 4-foot soft box on the subject and one small defused light on the background.  Pretty simple lighting.  The idea is to keep the main light as close to the subject as possible to yield a broad, soft flattering light. The closer the better for creating a softer light.

Fast forward to last month where I photographed Melissa yet again. Like the last time the advertisement  was for the San Francisco Cigar Company.  They have a new store in Martinez California and wanted to use some images for promotion.  The owner, tracked down Melissa and we were reunited as photographer and model once again.

This time was a little different as we were shooting on location inside the store.

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Luckily, it was before the store was open so we didn't have to work around customers but the store offered some challenging lighting puzzles to figure out.  First, the store was primarily dark.  Dark, rich woods for the floors and fixtures and dark leather for the sitting areas.  The lighting on the walls was any photographer's favorite, spot lighting on light colored walls. Once we understood the color balance for the background, using my new best friend the color meter, we were able to alter what the camera saw in terms of color balance and we could alter the lights with gelatin filters to balance everything. 

The lighting I used was Profoto B1 portable strobes that I think are fantastic.  They are easy to dial in the exact amount of light you need and the light modifier choices are almost endless. For this shot I used one head mounted in a large 5-foot Octigon soft box for that large soft light that makes skin look great.  I also used another B1 in a 4-foot strip light soft box to create a little separation between Melissa and the rest of the store.  Lastly I used a B1 head with no reflector or soft box (bare head) to kick some light into the rest of the store. 

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In the final shot, we used the same lights as before but because of the Profoto versatility we could turn the lights way down and shoot at a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field.  This would bring less attention to the items on the bar, (Cigar, dice and wine glass) and background and more focus to the model.

I am looking forward to photographing Melissa again but hopefully sooner than 12 years. 

Copyright 2015, Terry VanderHeiden