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Wildlife and Nature Photography Tips 20 - Finalizing your Composition

My definition would be: The sometimes subtle, or, not so subtle, nuances of shaping the final edit that will make the static image come to life. Wow, that sounds like the description you would get working in the art world. What I am describing are tasks I perform in attempt to, “bring to life”, what I envisioned for the viewer when I captured the original image.

Let's say you, or I for that matter, have wandered about for the past 4 hours, searching for something to inspire you. Here and there you have located and captured some of those interesting subjects and moments. Now it is time to head home and view the two dimensional renditions of your daily foray.

You arrive at the place where you ultimately make it happen - your digital darkroom. Removing the card from the camera, inserting it into the reader, you will probably be like me, hoping for the best. But what you end up viewing at the end of the day are a multitude of shots of subjects that appeared to be appealing only at the time of exposure. There is no longer the "POP" at you when you slap the memory card in the reader later that day. The spark from the image has not only died, but there isn't any smoke left either. What the heck just happened? Parts of the image are over or underexposed, small bits and pieces are gnawing at the main subject. Each nibble reduces the final attraction the event had to capture your attention when you took the shot.

Is there a magic bullet that will bring your images back to life? The simple answer is...nope. But there are possibilities beyond the technical aspects of operating the camera and lens that can help. The changes aren't necessarily ones that knock you off the chair, but ones that make the photograph enjoyable to share with others.

Post Processing (PP) is where you have some control of the image appearance, often this is the type of control you don’t have in the field. Here is where I have found the answer for many of those photos, and it begins when you are in what I like to refer to as, the capture mode. What is the capture mode? It is when you stop cruising, and begin to scan a specific subject. It can be the evening light on Yosemite falls, or the drop of water on the end of a leaf after a Spring rain. You have now arrived at the point of decisions.

What is there to decide? You just snap the shot and you are off to the next subject. Well, yes and no. Some shots are definitely time-sensitive - sunsets, butterflies in motion, etc., but even these require considerations before exposure. Why? Because all of the components in the image are important - even if it be that the background is out of focus.

The primary goal in the field is having less work to perform when you get back to the computer. I will emphasize the computer work for this blog. The photo (below) is an example of an interesting subject. But with the confines of the area and the inability to have more control of the scene before the capture, I concentrated on obtaining the sharpest and most pleasing image of the subject first.

I moved to include the least amount of distraction for background and foreground items. This image is the RAW file converted to JPG without and other adjustments. I was restricted in movement, because this animal happened to be a distance from the camera, and the steepness of the slope in front of me wouldn’t allow for a closer approach. So I walked up and down the roadside until I had background with the least amount of distractions.

Since I couldn’t get closer, my first PP decision was that of cropping(see above). You can see when compared to the second image, I trimmed from all the sides as I decided to eliminate some rocks in the foreground, flowers and rock outcrop in the upper left, and finally tightening up the area above and on the right side. Now I have emphasized the sheep.

Now to deal with a few distractions(see above). Looking at the sheep I noticed the center of the rostrum(bridge of the nose) had a large piece of fur missing. Summer coats are difficult in mammals that are shedding, and birds begin their molting. Both can require bits of touching up. The top back of the sheep was burned out and with some creative cloning, I was also able to restore a hint of texture to the animal as well.

Having completed the major portion of editing, I am now beginning to see the quality of the image I was wanting the viewer to enjoy. Three main steps steps were left for me to really focus the interest of the viewer to the subject. None requiring much work, but I feel it is important. First was sharpening the image where the sheep is (see below). This image didn’t have the overall sharpness I would personally prefer, but with the sharpening of the subject and where the line of focus runs through the image, I am able to draw the eye to the subject and make it appear to have better focus than it really has. The second thing is to add a slight glow to the image except where the sharpest focus is. This adds a richer color and also concentrates the viewer to the center of focus.

The third, and final item, is zooming back out searching over the whole image for any hot spots and distracting elements. If you observe and compare the last two images, you will notice the light colored rock behind the ram is now gone. So are some of the other bright spots in the rock outcrop behind the subject.

I have have now brought back to life what the distractions stripped from the original interest. My mind has a way of letting me see what I want, and not what is truly being captured. This shot was selected from many taken over a 45 minute period of time.

Remember, as you are shooting, to think about the image you want. Watch the subject to understand the moments that have just come to pass. You will then be able to predict what is coming. When you depress the shutter button, you will only have the Post Processing to help you out afterward. So try to take the cleanest image. But use that digital imagery to work the photo to entertain both you and the targeted viewers of the final image. And of course, happy shooting.

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