Ten Common Mistakes When Processing Your Wildlife Images

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

Do you process your wildlife photographs?


If not, you should.  Photoshop, and by extension Lightroom, is not the devil as many people would like to believe. 


When used correctly these programs form as much a part of the digital workflow as your camera and it is a pity that through the rantings of some people, most who do not fully understand or appreciate the power of these programs, there is still a perception that anybody who ‘photoshops’ their images is cheating.  In a word – crap.


If you were to ask any of the wildlife photographers whose work you admire and respect whether they process their images I am willing to put money on it that there response will be – after some or other comment that you should get as much as possible right in camera – that they do make a few small saturation, contrast and sharpening adjustments to their images.  That is why their images look the way they do.  Stunning!


Now to fully understand all the functions in a program like Photoshop you need several degrees and a healthy dose of divine intervention.  Lightroom is a lot easier but there are still a lot of people who do not quite understand how to make all the necessary adjustments to their RAW images.  (You do shoot in RAW don’t you?)  This lack of understanding is probably one of the reasons why many people make mistakes when they sit down to process their images. 


The other, and this is a discussion for another time, is that people try and ‘fix’ their images during post processing.  This could be anything from trying to undo an out of focus image or changing the white balance. A lot of the time this results in photographers converting their images to black and white to try and save them but again, a discussion for another time.


Now before we get to ten common mistakes that people make when processing their images let’s just get one thing out of the way.


Yes, photography is an art form and yes, how you present your images to your viewers is a completely personal choice.  There are however a number of guidelines which we all, knowingly or not, tend to stick to when we photograph and process our images.  In art and photography, guidelines and rules are meant to be broken but it is still worth checking out and keeping in mind. 


Also, this post is written from the point of view that your goal is to create natural looking, unaltered and true-to-reality images of what you saw in the field.  


So with that all said, here are ten of the most common mistakes people make when processing their wildlife images.


1. Over Sharpening




Over sharpening is, in my opinion, one of the most common mistakes people make. 


I have gotten in ‘trouble’ for saying this in the past but if you just look around on various portfolios and photo sharing sites you see a lot of this.  When you are processing your images more is not always more so when sharpening it is sometimes worth to err on the side of caution. 


Always keep in mind that the goal with ‘real’ wildlife, or let’s call it natural history photography is to show your viewer the scene as it was in real life and to present a true representation of the subject.  Sure, there will always be a certain amount of artistic interpretation involved but the goal is, and always will be, to keep it real and over sharpening a subject to the point where it looks overcooked.


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2. Not Sharperning Enough




Where over sharpening can make an image look unnatural and fake, not sharpening enough can also take the edge of of a great image.


I would go so far as to say that almost every image you process will be able to benefit from even just a little bit of sharpening.  Remember also that sharpening an image for posting on the web will not necessarily mean that is sharpened enough for a large print so make sure to know your final goal when deciding whether you have under sharpened your images (so that it still looks natural!).


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3. Over Saturation



When people just start processing their images this is quite a common mistake. 


When you touch that saturation slider for the first time the colors just pop so more must be better right?  Nope, not always.


A little bit of saturation is always a good idea but the problem is that there will always be one or two colors that get overcooked while some of the others look real.  To solve this you could use the HSL sliders in Lightroom to selectively saturate or desaturate the different colors in your image.


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4.  Not Enough Saturation



As with over saturation, not having enough saturation in your images will also lead to a flat, lifeless image.


The first step would be to check the settings on your camera which will help you to determine how much color is rendered in your images.  If, when you are processing your images, you still think you need some color then you can start playing with the saturation slider. 


Oh, and while you are at it, check out the Vibrance slider in Lightroom as well as it is a great way to balance the saturation in your images before you start using the Saturation slider.


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5. Way to Warm




After shooting for a while we all seem to feel this incredible urge to overdo the white balance in our wildlife photographs.


I am sure you will agree that the deep oranges in an African sunset is absolutely stunning but you should not get carried away with the warm, orange tones that the WB setting your camera can add to your images.  You can most definitely create some amazing artistic images when playing with settings such as Cloudy and Tungsten but when you are aiming to create real wildlife images, too much is not always a good thing.


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6. Too Much Contrast



Adding contrast to an image can again be added to an image by changing some settings in-camera and then, of course, with the contrast sliders in Photoshop and Lightroom.


Too much contrast in your images will result in the details being lost in the dark areas, make the image look unnatural and, as a side effect, colors like green and blue will get completely over saturated. 


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7. Not Enough Contrast



The lack of contrast in an image results in the shadows, or darks, being too light and the highlights being too dark.


You can see the lack of contrast in an image when it looks washed out and flat like in the above image.  Adding a little bit of contrast will make the darks pop making for a much more striking image.


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8. Keep it Straight



One of the most distracting things in any nature and wildlife image is a skew horizon and no matter how spectacular the image it will take the edge off and drop it a level from great to good.


Yes, when you are out in the field you have to check your horizons but we all will have images in which the horizon is not straight.  When you sit down to process your images fixing a skew horizon is one of the easiest things to do, normally combined with whatever cropping you might want to do, so make sure to check the box before moving on in you workflow.


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9. Removing Elements From An Image




Ok, removing an element from an image is not a mistake but rather a conscious decision to change the content of an image.


The reason I mention it here is that I feel it is important that as photographers we are open and honest about the images we present as ‘real’ wildlife photography.  Taking away a zebra, in the image above, makes for a much better composition but at the end of the day it’s a lie.  An image which started it’s life as a true representation of a wildlife scene has now changed to an artist’s interpretation of a scene they would have liked to see.


Wildlife photographer Art Wolfe and wildlife filmmaker Marty Stauffer have, in the past, been accused of faking images.  Art might have gotten a bum deal as the image in question, which was originally intended for a book, was used on the cover of Outdoor Photographer without making note of the altered nature of the image.


For more info on the Art Wolfe image manipulation discussion you can check out this link but the short version is that for his book he added a zebra to a scene and people all started screaming foul.  To his credit, Art’s book did have a disclaimer saying that some of the images have been digitally altered so it just goes to show how careful you have to be when presenting your work.


The best thing we can do is to share our images with integrity in an open and honest manner. 


Full disclosure – always.


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10. Changing the Content Of An Image




Was not sure what to use as as the tenth mistake for this blog so I thought I would reiterate number nine again.


I took this in the Madikwe Game Reserve a few years ago. 


Full disclosure?  Ok, ok – I did remove a few flies from around the elephants face. 😉


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So there you go – some of the common mistakes that people make when processing their wildlife images.  Can you think of any other ones?  Would you like to expand on some of the ones above or have any questions?  Comments are open!


Until next time.


Gerry van der Walt


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