HDR Wildlife: Exploring Stillness in Nature

The saltwater crocodile symbolizes a rare species–animals that are photographed with HDR. When we think of HDR methods, we don’t usually think of wildlife subjects.

Often, we follow the prevailing view that HDR only can be used with landscape and scenery. This is not so.

HDR photo of Maximo, captive salt water crocodile, by Jim Austin
Maximo, the largest captive salt water crocodile, at 15 feet 3 inches and 1250 pounds, is at home in the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm, Florida.

In fact, with some understanding of specific behaviors of an animal, anyone can make successful high dynamic range photographs of wildlife. To photograph the salt water crocodile named Maximo, above, I took three registered frames and processed them with HDR methods.

However, I first had to observe that there were moments when the huge crocodile was motionless while afloat. Photographing wildlife with HDR techniques takes a bit of patience, similar to what you need to do for HDR landscape, but with a greater likelihood of mistakes because the subject has to be still.

Consider… While there are approximately 130,000 HDR landscape images on Flickr.com, a social photo website, there are only about 5,000 HDR wildlife images on the site. Here I hope to show the untapped potential of HDR wildlife photography.

HDR reflection photo of Mallard Ducks by Jim Austin.
Here, a mallard couple rests on a tree root in the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Virginia. Three frames in Photomatix Pro with Tone Compressor, and Default setting were used.
HDR photo of Cape Griffin Vulture preening by Jim Austin.
 A Cape Griffin Vulture was captured while preening. A tripod, 400 mm lens, three registered exposures in Photomatix Pro with the tone enhancer and smooth setting were used.

Wildlife is in the Details

To do HDR wildlife photography, I use the same skill set I’ve used with film or with digital capture. I approach quietly and slowly, then keep photographing my subject, and keep on taking frames until I get three frames in a row during a period where the animal is stationary. All animals move, but some are still for a fraction of time. Wait for the subject to pause, then release your shutter.

Making three identical frames of a motionless subject and combining them in software gives you great detail. For nature work, it is crucial to keep detail in both highlights and shadows. This is the first secret of HDR wildlife.

The second secret is to avoid overly processing and over-saturating your subject. None of these photographs here are “HDR-like.”

They are not “grunge” or “extreme.” These photographs are not about producing an “HDR look”. They are all processed in Photomatix using one of its types of tone mapping, with a goal of maximizing shadow and highlight detail.

Vision & Light

Intriguing wildlife photographs are infused with light. Even subjects we’ve seen before, like mallard ducks, can be seen with a new vision as they are illuminated by HDR methods. To show an ordinary subject in extraordinary light, the direction, quality, intensity, color, and contrast of the ambient light around the animal must be thoughtfully considered.

So, before you expose multiple frames, ask yourself: “From where is the light on my wildlife subject coming? Is it the soft light of a cloudy day? Am I shooting under hard, high contrast daylight?” I’ve used HDR under both conditions, with low contrast and high contrast light.

Remember to use a bigger exposure bracket the harsher the light becomes, in order to catch the whole range of contrasts. HDR methods work better under some lighting conditions than others.

Try to photograph your wildlife subjects in compelling light, whether it is low or high contrast. The point is to develop and grow your own vision, and train your visual processing system to become sensitized to varieties of interesting natural light. Don’t rely on post-processing to provide interesting lighting.

Work Flow Ideas

Teaching courses in HDR photography, I invite students to first develop their own workflow and then be flexible with it when new methods come along. At present, I use Photomatix Pro Version 4, engage the auto-bracketing feature of my digital SLR, tripod-mount the camera and release the shutter with a cable release. Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS 5 are key parts of my workflow. My successful work flow also involves:

LOW ISO: Photograph at the lowest ISO possible. Use RAW file capture whenever possible.

STABILIZE: If I’ve left the tripod behind, I hand-hold. A digital SLR that has at least 5 frames per second is helpful for this fast bracketing. If your camera has a slower motor drive, you will probably want a tripod to keep the frames in register.

WHITE BALANCE: Remember to adjust your white balance in camera. Although Auto White Balance frequently works well, try Manual White Balance settings with a white blank piece of paper.

KEYWORDS: After downloading, I add metadata tags to all photographs, using HDR as a descriptor, then crop and straighten if needed.

EXPOSURE & COLOR CORRECTION: I adjust exposure, then shift the color slightly to warm it up using a preset in Lightroom 3, because my Canon camera tends to see more in the “blue” light spectrum.

BACK IT UP: The crucial part of all digital imaging workflow is to back up all work with separate and safe storage.

Choose Your Own Software Work Flow

As photographers we all have an individual work flow. The beauty of digital imaging is that you can customize your workflow to your own tastes. Lightroom is part of my workflow, but my students use programs that work for them, including Aperture, Photoshop and HDR Efex Pro. In general, any program that advances your understanding of HDR can be valuable.

There are different kinds of tone mapping. I use Exposure Fusion in Photomatix Pro. The highlights and shadows adjust setting works well for most of my photographs. Photoshop CS5’s Merge to HDR Pro is effective also.

HDR photo of two East African Crowned Cranes by Jim Austin.
East African Crowned Cranes court each other at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida. The birds have a seven foot wingspan and are the national bird of Uganda.

“Ghosting” is an annoying problem that results whenever the subject moves between frames of an HDR bracketed series of exposures. Correcting “ghosting” eats up processing time. Although Photomatix Pro, Photoshop CS5 and other HDR processing software programs have excellent anti-ghosting formulas, running them takes up a lot of time and increases your frustration.

When you photograph wildlife, get those frames in perfect register if you can. To do this, you have to find and wait for those “in-between” moments when those active animals are motionless.

Close-up HDR photo of coiled Reticulated Python by Jim Austin.
This Reticulated Python at the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida is 21 feet, 9 inches long and weighs 140 pounds. It takes seven strong people to measure and weigh him.

Seven frames and Photoshop CS5 Merged to HDR Pro.

HDR photo of Horned Owl by Jim Austin.

Subject Ideas

Some wildlife animals lend themselves to HDR work, so you may want to consider these species, when you can catch them not moving, for compelling imagery:

1. Alligators, crocodiles, Komodo Dragons, tortoises, turtles and other cold-blooded reptiles, especially in winter.

2. Any approachable bird.

3. Insects in the early morning.

4. The big Five game animals of Africa.

5. Underwater marine wildlife.

Winking, wet and wild, this Horned Owl on Georgia’s Cumberland Island awaits the sun to dry out its feathers.

Three exposures, 400 mm Canon lens, f/9 bracketed around 1/20th of a second and Photomatix Pro with tone compressor method was used.

by Jim Austin
All text and photos: © Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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