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How to Improve Your Wildlife Images

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens)

Keywords: connie_cassinetto, adobe, topaz, denoise, editing, postprocessing, wildlife

One of the things that I like best about photography is the challenge inherent in getting the shot and each genre provides a unique challenge that we, as the photographer, have to figure out how to take on and surmount to obtain success with our shot. Wildlife photography, in particular, has a wide variety of challenges, including getting an action shot of the animal being photographed that is pleasing to the viewer, a sharp image (especially the animal’s eye), in the correct light to show off the animal, and with a subject that fills the frame with a background that compliments and highlights the animal, in addition to struggling with the weather and the equipment required. Very little of what we experience with wildlife photography can be controlled, outside of our camera settings and equipment, and much of our success is based on how quickly we can react to the situation we find ourselves in, both our reaction to the animal and its environment (including navigating in a large group of photographers who all also want the same shot) and our reaction to handling our gear; camera, lens, and at times a tripod. I was reminded recently how confusing all this can be to someone new to wildlife photography as a friend, inexperienced in wildlife photography, and I traveled to Bosque del Apache in early December to photograph birds, in particular to photograph Sandhill Cranes. Added to the complexity of wildlife photography is the discussion regarding what steps to take in processing the image and what the perceived impact is on the image, i.e., that seemingly common thought that we cannot change a wildlife image in almost any way at all.

I photograph to create what I hope is art, of course sometimes I may not exactly get this but I continue to try. I am not a journalist or a documentary photographer so I have no problem with processing an image to my requirements and to meet my goals. To do this, I shoot in RAW, use Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz DeNoise and other software as needed. I often enlarge wildlife images using the Transform tool in LrC, I take out noise in Topaz, I remove debris and general junk in PS. I’m only concerned with the end result of the image and how I might create a more beautiful shot that conveys the beauty and essence of the animal and scene. I use the histogram as a tonal guide once I begin processing the image and work from within LrC using plug-ins. I love the magic of digital processing and I don’t use the film days as a comparison to what I can or cannot do with digital images. I don’t add any items to the image as I have no need for that, but I have played with composite images for fun. 

Walking Through Pond, Nikon D850, Nikon 500PF, 1/3200, f/5.6, ISO 800. I generally look for some type of animal action, no matter how small it might be. I also look to where the best light is and then look for the best subject. This image was on the dark side, note the low ISO, which was rectified by pulling up the Whites slider until it touched the right side of the histogram, and then processed to highlight the bird’s head and its fuzzy feathers. I liked this shot because it shows the bird lifting a muddy leg as it walks through its habitat. I used Photoshop to soften the sticks coming up from the water.
Click for an enlargement


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Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on February 4, 2022

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Hi Jim. I think the best setting for wildlife is AF-C, yes, you will lose shots but you will also get more shots. Putting the camera on AF-S just does not work well for wildlife, every animal is moving in some way. AF-S is great for studio work or interior work. Also setting your camera on f/5.6 allows you to get a faster speed, which is essential for moving shots of wildlife. f/8 might work in some instances, but if there is a cluttered background it won't give you the best bokeh. Most of the time with wildlife the subject is so far away that there won't be a lot of sharpness difference between f/5.6 and f/8, but if you are very close there would be a larger degree of sharpness difference. If you are steady at all, your 80-400 should be fairly easy to hand hold, I do have that lens, too. Practice helps a lot, so find a place where birds are flying about a lot and just practice, knowing that you might not get a great shot but that you are working toward that goal. That's actually what I did when I got my 80-400.

JIm Buntin (jbuntin) on February 3, 2022

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I have been struggling with achieving sharp focus. I use a D500 with a Nikon 80-400mm VR lens. I have been hand-holidng it, but am now experimenting with a monopod. My settings have been AF-S, aperture priority at f8, meter and focus set to S. I set the ISO on automatic. I will try your suggestions for a higher shutter speed (as priority) and AF-C set to release, with D25. In accordance with Thom Hogan's recommendations, I will turn off the VR when using the high shutter speed. I am pretty handy with LRC, and will look into the Topaz AI products.

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on January 22, 2022

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Hi Angela, I recommend, as you "dust off Lightroom" that you read the online Adobe help manual on the Library Module, doing this will save you a lot of frustration in the end. Once you master the Library Module you can learn the rest of the program. Adobe also offers a lot of insights on the Development Module. The best way, I think, to learn the Development Module is to simply start moving the levers and see what they do. Good luck with your processing efforts!

Angela Friborg (Angi) on January 22, 2022

Thank you for sharing your tips and tricks on wildlife photography, and especially on editing. I am now off to find Topaz and dust off Lightroom, as I have been doing all things in Photoshop (which I have only really started to learn beyond crop and brighten and spot removal). I am trying to scrounge up the pennies to acquire the new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens to upgrade from the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR that I have been using for numerous years. However, once I have significantly better lens (will still be a good while - so lots of time to nail down this editing business), I want to be able to do justice in my editing. Time to put the effort into learning the processing end of this hobby! Love Nikonians for all the sharing and caring in this community! One day soon you all will see me doing some of this sharing of the tips and tricks! Happy snapping and stay warm! Angela

David Summers (dm1dave) on January 19, 2022

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Great article! Very good tips on both shooting and processing.