Learn by Reverse Engineering Wildlife Images

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

On almost all of the courses I run, somewhere along the line we do a bit of ‘reverse engineering’.

The idea is simple.

I believe that it is more important to actually understand WHAT something like aperture can do to the look and feel of your images rather than the exact technical details of HOW it works.

So, after we have worked through, and everybody understands, basic photographic terms such as aperture, shutter speed, depth of field and focal length we look through various images and try to reverse engineer the image. You will obviously never be able to 100% call the settings and circumstances that the photographer used but it is still a great way to test your knowledge, find inspiration and ideas and grow your own skills as a wildlife photographer.

It goes a little something like this.

Timbavati Leopard

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  • Aperture – The photographer must have used a large aperture as depth of field is very shallow with only the leopard’s face in focus.
  • Shutter Speed – Can’t tell too much but fast enough to freeze the moving animal.  Guessing it was faster that 1/250.
  • Light – From the look of the image an overcast day as there are no shadows.
  • Angle – The photographer was shooting down at the leopard so probably sitting on a game drive vehicle with animal quite close.
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Get the idea?

Might seem a bit silly but believe me it is a fantastic exercise and in a group it makes for very interesting discussion.

Being able to recognize the result of certain settings is a great way to start understanding and ultimately applying these settings and technical tools to your own photography.

Let’s look at another one.

Lion in Madikwe

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  • Aperture – Very shallow depth of field, creating a stunning background, so very large aperture and probably a long telephoto lens.
  • Shutter Speed – Probably more than 1/500 considering a long telephoto lens and moving animal.
  • Angle – Looks like an eye level shot so either a very low angle or further away with a long lens.
  • Position – From the look of the road the photographer was positioned on the curve in the road to allow the animal to approach and pass.
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Kinda cool yeah?

During these reverse engineering sessions it of great to see how the proverbial light bulbs go on all over the place as people suddenly grasp a certain theme or technical term.

Understanding something based on theory is one thing and a necessary starting point.

Being able to spot it, understand it and replicate it is the goal!

Right, one more.

African Jackass Penguin

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  • Equipment – Must be a very wide angle lens as a penguin is not very tall and he is looking down at the lens.
  • Aperture – Considering a wide angle lens and the blurred background this must have been a very large aperture such as f/2.8.
  • Angle – The photographer must have been flat on the floor!
  • Light – There is a strong shadow behind the penguin but still very bright light.  Guessing it was around early afternoon.
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So there you go.

A great way to learn and, if you don’t get out in the field often enough, a nice way to keep the creative juices simmering until your next trip.

During these reverse engineering sessions we will, once we have discussed and explored all options, I will normally share the tech info of the shot for people to see how close they were and, again, learn.

Here are the details for the images I used in this post.

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  • Leopard: 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 1000, 200mm, cloudy conditions from back game viewer.
  • Lion: 1/500, f/8, ISO 1000, 800mm, cloudy conditions from front seat of game viewer.
  • Penguin: 1/2500, f/2.8, ISO 320, 24mm, sunny conditions (16h31) from stomach.
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Give it a try.

Like I said in the beginning, you will normally not call the details 100% correctly but it is a great way to train your eye and a great exercise to improve your own understanding of the photographic tools at our disposal.

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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Comments 0

  1. Neal Kernohan

    Certainly a great way to learn. When I find photograpghs online that I like, I usually pass them through to “Jeffrey’s Exif Viewer” so that I can get a better idea how the shot was taken. Of course, not everyone leaves the Exif data intact, but thankfully some photographers, like yourself, do.

    So, writing down, or discussing, how you think the photograph was shot and then comparing to the Exif, can be used as a self-teaching tool, if you like.

    Some of the details of Walking Lion are:

    Title: Walking Lion
    Caption: A lioness walking directly towards the caemra in the Madikwe Game Reserve
    Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark IV
    Lens: EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM
    Exposure: Auto exposure, Aperture-priority AE, 1/500 sec, f/8, ISO 1000
    Flash: none
    Focus: At 31m, with a depth of field of about 10cm, centered on the focus point
    Keywords: africa, agame drive, approach, approaching, big 5, big five, boswana, carnivore, cat, determined, eyes, flies, fliy, foot, lion, lioness, nature, portrait, predator, safari, south africa, vertical, walk, walking, wildlife
    Date: February 19, 2012 7:26:41AM (timezone not specified)

    Also, one can tell that you shot it in RAW on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, converted to tiff, then to JPEG using Photoshop CS6 on a Mac. So it can give an insight into the tools as well as the shot. Though, of course, the tools can only aid the shot, particular post-camera; getting the shot first is a must.

    1. Post

      Thanks a lot for the comment Neal.

      Jeffrey’s is a very useful and yeah, you nailed all the details on the image. I am off to the Masai Mara tomorrow but when I return I will be doing a whole bunch of new tutorials and blog posts which will hopefully help in giving you more insight into how I process my images. 🙂

      1. Neal Kernohan

        Thanks Gerry for the reply, always nice to know that these things are read. I came across the site by accident, perhaps linked through from a friend somehow, but now bookmarked for sure. Hope you enjoyed the Masai Mara and look forward to reading more on wild-eye!

  2. Johan Jooste

    Hi Gerry, your surname sounds Afrikaans but for this purpose I will stick to English. I really like the first two images but the penguin for me is over exposed on the whites. Do you shoot in RAW because that can be easily corrected in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop?

    1. Post

      Hi Johan,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I shoot in RAW and have done a number of online tutorials in which I show and share the way I process my images. I have had a look at the penguin image again, and it’s histogram, and there are definitely no lost details in the whites. The histogram leans slightly to the right but no clipped highlights. It could perhaps be your screen calibration that makes it look a little overexposed.

      Then again, the nice thing about photography is that there is no right or wrong and we can all shoot and process our images to our own taste! 🙂

      Appreciate your comments and love some of the landscape images on your website.

  3. Pingback: Make It Look Like This #1 - Wild Eye Photography

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