It’s hard to know what’s possible in post-processing until you see the before-after photographs. Most often you keep wondering if it was real or the photographer has manipulated things.
While I cannot point out what exactly happened behind the scene of a particular photo taken by another photographer, I can show you some of my photos to give you an idea about what’s possible in post-processing.
I use Adobe Lightroom Classic CC software for post-processing my photos, you don’t necessarily have to use it to understand the concepts. There is a possibility that you might not find some of the tools that Lightroom provides. In such cases, you’ll have to figure out how to do similar things in the post-processing software that you are currently using.
I am adding the screenshots to show you the various adjustments I have made to a photograph. This will give you an idea about how you can get similar results. I hope it’ll be helpful. If something is not clear, please don’t hesitate to post your question(s) in the comments section. I’ll try to answer them all.
And all the example photographs were taken in arguably the best bird sanctuary in India, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary.
So, let’s jump ahead.
Photo #1: Post-Processing of Rose-ringed Parakeet
Below is the photograph of Before-After screenshot of the Rose-ringed Parakeet.
If you look at the below screenshot that shows adjustments done to this photo, they are pretty standard ones. I have added a bit of Exposure and worked on the global Contrast. Then I have reduced the Highlights to bring back the details on the tail of the bird. Opened up the Shadows a bit to bring out some detail in the overall shadow regions. I have pulled the Blacks slider to the left making the darker regions go much darker. This way, I can give more emphasis to the rim light around the bird.
I have then added a bit of clarity to bring out the subtle feather details on the bird.
The real adjustment was done using the Radial Filter as you can see from the below screenshot. I have reduced the exposure towards the corners of the image. It’s kind of a vignetting effect. This helps to bring more attention towards the bird which is indeed lit beautifully.
Here’s how the Radial Filter works. Wherever there’s a Red overlay outside the oval, the Exposure adjustment is applied 100%. And then it gradually decreases towards the other side until it reaches zero. It works similar to the Graduated Neutral Density Filter.
Finally, I’ve applied a bit of Sharpening.
Here’s Before-After screenshot again.
Photo #2: Post-Processing of Common Moorhen
Here’s a before-after screenshot of a simple photograph of a Common Moorhen taken during the Sunset.
There isn’t much of a difference between the before and after photograph, isn’t it?
That’s exactly what I want you to try for. Most often, there shouldn’t be too much difference between what you got in the field vs. what you get as a post-processed output. If you do a great job of capturing all the details with the perfect exposure in the field, then post-processing becomes way too easy. At least, in most cases.
If you check the below screenshot, I have added a bit more Exposure to bring out the color, then boosted the rich tones with the Vibrance Slider, and finally added a bit of Clarity to bring the ripples of water. only worked on the Exposure, Clarity, & Vibrance sliders. That’s about it in the global adjustments.
This is an example which is an illustration of why it’s not necessary to use all the different adjustments given by a software program (in this case Adobe Lightroom Classic CC). The post-processing boils down to what you want to get as a final result, not what’s there in a tool.
Very rarely we get to use Graduated Filter tool for bird photographs. But, in this case, I wanted to selectively darken the top and the bottom of the image. So, I have used two Graduated Filters, as shown in the below screenshots, on this image with different settings. While the top Graduated Filter uses a negative Exposure of -0.82 Ev, the bottom one uses a just -0.44 Ev. That’s for a valid reason.
Think about it, the distant objects might seem darker while the near ones don’t, right? So, whenever you are trying to manipulate the light in a photograph, always (I mean always) remember how the light works in reality.
You can always argue that there are literally infinite possibilities you can derive from real life, but what’s important is to keep in looking natural for most cases. It’s better to keep in natural than to fight with everyone about what’s right and what’s not. What do you say?
Then, I left the Sharpening to a default value that Adobe Lightroom uses. And, haven’t touched the Noise Reduction, the reason I’ll explain later in the article.
Remember that it’s usually not necessary to apply Sharpening to the silhouettes as there’s already a great contrast. If you don’t already know this, the Sharpening also works on contrast. So, don’t apply sharpening to all the photos. Be judicious.
Finally, I have applied a slight Post-Crop Vignetting to the image to give more prominence to the center of the frame. Slightly darkening the edges of the frame helps to force the viewer’s eye (in a subtle way) to the center of the frame.
Here’s Before-After screenshot again.
Photo #3: Post-Processing of Painted Stork
Below is the Before-After screenshot of a Painted Stork yawning.
If you look at the RAW file (Before screen), you see that it’s bit Blueish. Isn’t it? That’s because of the Auto White Balance setting which had selected cooler color temperature. By selecting a Custom White Balance setting in the Adobe Lightroom software, I was able to get the warm tones that made this photo more appealing. That’s the beauty of shooting in RAW mode as I have told countless times.
If not for anything, just by setting the right White Balance, you’ll be able to make a photo look far more appealing. So, if you aren’t yet shooting in RAW mode, you should start doing so right away.
One more interesting this to note is the Dehaze slider in the Presence Panel. Basically, it helps to reduce atmospheric haze. Though I didn’t get to use it much, it’s definitely very powerful. In this particular photo, it wasn’t the haze, but it was the fog. So, by applying the Dehaze, I was able to reduce the Fog effect. Normally, you wouldn’t do it as fog adds a great sense of mystery to a photo. But in this case, it worked well.
If I love Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (Officially known as Keoladeo Ghana National Park) so much, it’s because of the fog 🙂
Next up, I have used the Radial Filter that I explained earlier, to decrease the exposure around the bird. In this case, I have also decreased the Clarity thereby blurring out the background that’s already out-of-focus.
If you look at the Sliders that are available in Graduated and the Radial Filters, you can understand how powerful they can be. You can basically control everything about a particular selected area, the process commonly referred to as Targeted Adjustments. That’s powerful but also dangerous if don’t know what you are doing.
The next step is to Sharpen the details. There’s this slider called Masking (which I have used in this image) in the Sharpening Panel that does an incredible job. I’ll demonstrate later in this article.
Finally, I have applied a good dose of Post-Crop Vignetting that gave it the final look.
Here’s Before-After screenshot again.
Photo #4: Post-Processing of Common Coots
Below is the Before-After screenshot of Common Coots. I love to process such simple photographs. Because, I can get the job done in less than a minute, most often.
Basically, choosing a Custom White Balance and adding a bit of Exposure made it look great. Later, by decreasing the Highlights I could get rid of some excess light on the beak of the bird and by opening up the Shadows a bit, I was able to bring out the subtle details in the feather of these dark birds.
Isn’t it very simple? That’s what I always tell.
Here’s the subtle but important step though. I have selectively decreased the highlights on the beak of the left bird and increased the sharpness only on the left bird. Note that I have used the inverse Radial Filter here. Notice that I have checked the Invert option.
Here’s what I mean. See, only the left bird is affected, as shown by the Red overlay when I made the adjustments. This was necessary because most of the photo is soft-focused with a completely out-of-focus background which makes this photo get a dreamy look.
The key take away from this photo is that you got to know exactly what you are after and do just that. Don’t start meddling with the Sliders just because you have them, doesn’t matter which post-processing software you use. It’ll only make matters worse and leave you frustrated.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb:
Always start with the end in mind.
Finally, I applied a tad-bit of Post-Crop Vignetting to hold viewer’s attention inside the frame.
Here’s Before-After screenshot again.
Photo #5: Post-Processing of Great White Pelican
It took me precisely five years before I got to see these gorgeous birds—Great-White Pelicans—in full strength in Bharatpur. There was only one Great White Pelican which landed in the Park four years ago, I guess, which was photographed by only one photographer as I know. And, that was me 🙂 No wonder, that photo adorned the cover page of my most popular bird photography eBook.
Great White Pelicans are the Heroes of Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. Some photographers don’t even come to the sanctuary if there are no Pelicans. I am not kidding. These Pelicans are very attractive and yield some of the most amazing photographs especially with the extraordinary and unique setting that Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary provides. Go ahead and check my many Great-White Pelicans in my Instagram or Facebook photo stream.
Let’s check the Before-After screen. Very subtle but important changes, right?
Let’s look at the Global Adjustments. I have selected a warmer tone using the Daylight White Balance setting bringing out that Rose/Pink hue on the Bird. The bird is also referred to as Rosy Pelican. The rest of the adjustments are pretty typical.
I have used two Graduated Filters, one for the background and one for the foreground, as shown in the below screenshots. As usual, I have darkened them both to add emphasis to the middle ground. I have brought out the Clarity a bit on both cases as the foreground water and the Background texture adds to this photo.
Then, I have applied a good dose of Sharpness to the photo. Now, the question is, isn’t it going to Sharpen the background too? Which will end up being more of a distraction, right? That’s where this magic slider called Masking, come into play.
Here’s how the Masking works. Basically, by using the Masking slider, I can mask the Sharpness on all the unwanted regions. In this case, the Background. Which means I am applying the Sharpness selectively (as explained in my Post-Processing Video Course for Nature Photographers). You know, that’s a powerful feature that Adobe Lightroom added. Had it not been for this, we would have been forced to use Adobe Photoshop just for the Sharpening and Noise Reduction as they both should be done selectively in most cases.
Finally, I have applied just a bit of Post-Crop Vignetting to giving a finishing touch.
Here’s Before-After screenshot again.
Did You Notice Something Missing In These Five Examples?
Notice that I haven’t applied any Noise Reduction at all! I haven’t reduced the Noise at all in any of the five photos despite the fact that I have shot them in ISO 100 to 1000. There’s a reason for that. There are in fact multiple reasons. I have discussed this in detail in my Post-Processing Video Course for Nature Photographers, however, I’ll let you know a few key things to keep in mind.
- Don’t shoot using higher ISOs that’ll turn out to be too noisy.
- Don’t worry about reducing the noise if you don’t see it yourself! Yes, if you don’t see the noise in the resolution that your viewers will finally view, then what’s the point in reducing?
- Even if there’s a noise present and if you don’t mind it, just don’t mind reducing it. Period.
Remember, no matter what you do, when you reduce the noise, you are essentially reducing the details too. Or, in technical words, you are smoothening out every detail out there. Your noise reduction algorithm, however smart it is, can’t differentiate very well between what’s noise and what’s subtle detail. It’s a long story if I have to explain it in length. Let’s stop it here.
Global Adjustments Vs Local Adjustments in Post-Processing
There was a question in the comments section about the difference between Global Adjustments vs Local Adjustments from a long-time avid reader of my blog, Gaynor.
I thought it’s worth to include my answer here in case you had the same question.
Global Adjustments in Post-Processing
Any slider or a tool which affects the whole image is referred to as the Global Adjustment tool. Basically, that particular slider changes all the pixels in an image.
For instance, increasing the Exposure (using Exposure Slider in Adobe Lightroom) brightens the whole image. Increasing the Contrast (using the Contrast Slider in Adobe Lightroom) increases the contrast of the entire image. And so on.
White Balance, Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, Vibrance, Sharpnening, & Noise Reduction, falls into the Global Adjustments category. These tools are available in most post-processing software.
Local Adjustments in Post-Processing
Any slider or a tool which affects only the area or part of the image is referred to as the Local Adjustment tool. Basically, that particular slider changes just the pixels in the selected area of that particular image.
For instance, reducing the Exposure on the Sky using the Graduated Filter in Adobe Lightroom darkens just the Sky. Basically, we select just the Sky using the Filter tool and instruct the Adobe Lightroom to reduce the Exposure only where the Filter is applied.
Another example is, we can select just the main subject (say a bird, mammal, or a face of a person) and increase the Exposure just on the main subject leaving the rest of the image intact.
Since in these cases we only touch a part of the image, it’s referred to as local adjustments. Also, commonly referred to as targeted adjustments.
Graduated Filter tool, Radial Filter tool, Adjustment Brush, & HSL/Color Panel, are the local adjustments tools that are found in Adobe Lightroom software.
I hope these five post-processing examples gave you some ideas that you can put to use. Don’t worry too much about getting perfect results in the post-processing. In fact, there’s nothing called a perfect result. It’s subjective and varies from photographer to photographer. So, go ahead and try various things. If it comes out good, great. Otherwise, you can always start over. Isn’t it?
You can always skip the painful and time-consuming process of learning everything by yourself and invest in a good starter’s course on post-processing or a workshop. The knowledge that you gain from the pros or experienced photographers can be invaluable. You might never know what was possible with your RAW files if you are never exposed to some tools.
Seeing the experts do what they do best. And seeing the results first-hand as they do it, can cut the number of weeks or months or sometimes years of practice that’s necessary.
Do you want to know why I have used the settings that I have used in these five examples? What’s my thought process behind it? Why I chose what I chose?
Do you want to learn how you can apply these settings to get the results that you are after? How you can decide which sliders are suited for a particular task? What you should do and what you shouldn’t? What’s good, what’s bad, and what’s worse when it comes to powerful adjustments that these state-of-the-art post-processing tools like Adobe Lightroom?
Look no further.
I have spent several months making a video course tailored to the needs of nature (birds, wildlife, and landscape) photographers which is geared towards the novice to the intermediate level photographers. I have taken considerable time, to be precise about 6 hours!, to go over every feature that I personally use and have demonstrated every one of them with examples. Yes, it’s not a bland theory it has substance. I have told you what to do, but I have shown you more too.
Why not give my first ever video course—Post-Processing for Nature Photographers using Adobe Lightroom—a try? I have covered each and every Panel in depth and have included the complete step-by-step walkthrough of five photographs. Whether you are a beginner who has no idea about what post-processing is or what Adobe Lightroom is, or if you have some experience but don’t know what to get the desired result, you’ll be surprised to learn how easy it is to get what you want.
While a course might not turn you into a master at post-processing, you’ll get the much-needed head-start. Also, you’ll now be on the fast-track.
Now, it’s your time to ask me any questions or doubts that you have about the post-processing steps and tips that I have mentioned in this article. I’d be happy to answer and looking forward to it.
One More Thing…
All the above post-processing steps and the results I achieved depend on something vital. And that’s the Exposure. Without aiming for the perfect exposure in the field, I wouldn’t have even come close to the results that you see in every case. If you don’t believe how serious (shall I say, crazy?) I am about getting the perfect exposure in the field, you have to either come to my photography workshops (which I’ve stopped for a while now) or read my massive eBook of 180+ pages just on getting the perfect exposure in the field.
If you ask me, you should first and foremost put all the effort towards getting the perfect exposure in the field, then anything. Once you start getting great results in the field, post-processing will be a breeze. I vouch for it.
That’s it for now.