Battling High Contrast in Wildlife Images

Since the invention of photography photographers have been trying to find ways to successfully photograph high contrast scenes. In landscape photography graduated neutral density filters are commonly used to darken bright skies, and polarizers are used to eliminate reflections and bright spots. Now it is vogue to bracket several exposures and create HDR images or even manually composite several exposures in Photoshop. All of these techniques work great for shooting landscapes and other still subjects but we can seldom apply them to wildlife photography. Our skittish subjects will rarely stay still enough to shoot several bracketed exposures and graduated filters would usually be impractical for animal portraits. Luckily there are several techniques we can apply in camera and in post to help save our high contrast shots.


Fill flash is an amazing way to remove harsh shadows. Setting your flash -1 or whatever compensation that will add detail into the shadow areas of the subject is incredibly beneficial. Fill flash means you use flash but the flash is not the main light source. So if you photograph a bird, the natural light will light the bird but the fill flash will brighten the shadows as in the above image taken back in December. If done right the average person shouldn’t be able to tell you used flash. Using the flash as your main light can look unnatural in outdoor shots. When using fill flash it also adds the reflection of the flash in the subject’s eyes – this is called a catch light – and helps draw the viewers attention to the eye’s of the subject. Fill flash works great for portraits or even adding a little more emphasis on foreground elements in landscape images.

Sadly fill flash won’t work in all scenarios. The shutter speed may be too quick for the flash to sync or the burst of light may startle the animal being photographed. In these cases we can fix some of the issues in post. Using the Fill Light and Recovery tools in Adobe Camera RAW can help lower contrast or even give your images a look which resembles HDR. Fill light lightens only the darks and Recovery darkens only the lights. Adjusting the Fill Light slider to much can add unwanted noise especially in underexposed and high ISO images. It’s better to darken the image to obtain the final result than to lighten it especially if the image was shot at a high ISO. I try to avoid using the Fill Light slider extensively if I’m shooting above ISO 400 with my Nikon D200. Adjusting the Fill Light and Recovery can add detail to darks and darken brighter distracting parts of the image allowing you to better control the images contrast. If these effects are applied heavily then the image can sometimes look like a hyper real HDR image. I like to use this effect on a variety of subjects including portraits and wildlife to showcase the maximum amount of detail in the subject. This hyper real effect can be added to lower contrast shots like this cat lying in the shade to give the image some extra pop. I usually use a technique called exposing to the right so I can obtain detail in the darker parts of the image so I can increase the Fill Light to get this hyper real look without a noticeable increase in noise. I’ll write more about exposing to the right in one of my next posts.   


High contrast scenes will always be difficult to shoot, but by using a combination of fill flash and editing we can still get great images.

– Ryan Watkins

How I Got these New Deer Photos

I recently got my Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 back from being repaired from a local camera store and had some great opportunities to use it. My 70-300 is usually on my camera when I’m outdoors in-case I see any distant wildlife. While going out on my parent’s property in mid-Michigan, my friend and I encountered this playful deer. It let me get relatively close to it before it scampered off. We encountered it again in the same spot later on that day but the brush prevented me from getting an image of it. I had to shoot wide open and at a higher ISO than I usually like to obtain a quick enough shutter speed to keep the image sharp. If you’re using a 300mm lens you don’t want to use a shutter speed slower than 1/300s of a second if you’re shooting handheld. If you’re using a 50mm lens try not to shoot with a shutter speed slower than 1/50 of a second; if you’re using a 105mm lens 1/105s of a second and so on. You’ll have to set a combination of shutter speed and aperture to obtain a quick enough shutter speed. I prefer to keep the ISO lower and my aperture at f/8 – which is my lenses sharpest aperture – but there are times when wider apertures and higher ISOs are needed to prevent blur in a shot. Most lenses are sharpest a stop narrower than wide open so if the light is good enough you don’t need to shoot at your lenses widest aperture. The vibrations reduction on my 70-300 also helped me hand hold the image at even slower shutter speeds. This will help compensate for camera shake but not movement of the animal. Canon has this feature in there IS (image stabilized) lenses – Sigma calls it OS and Tamron VC. Sony and Olympus have this build into the camera. It’s great to have one of my favorite lenses back so I can get back to shooting one of my favorite subjects: wildlife!

– Ryan Watkins

Macro Wildlife

Macro image of turtleMost of us would opt for a telephoto lens for shooting wildlife, but in some instances we can shoot with macro lenses or lenses with other macro accessories. Many of my favorite wildlife images have been obtained of turtles, frogs, bees, and other insects shot with my Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Lens with several Kenko close-up filters. For those who enjoy shooting macros dedicated macro lenses come in a wide variety of focal lengths and price ranges. For those of us who shoot the occasional macro or want to have their macro lenses focus even closer there are a variety of accessories which allow our lenses to focus even closer. Extension tubes are a common accessory used for macros. They fit in-between your lens and camera body allowing closer focusing, but you have some light loss when using these. Since there is no glass in them image quality won’t suffer if several are stacked on top of each other. I use close-up filters. These attach to the front of your camera lens like any other filter. There is no light loss like when using extension tubes, but if you stack several on top of each other there can be loss of image quality. You are also limited to only being able to use these on lenses with the same size filter thread. There are other ways to get your images to focus closer like bellows and reverse mounting lenses but these are less common. For people who love to shoot macros, purchasing a dedicated macro lens is definitely worth it. Using macro accessories on your existing lenses can be more affordable and you can get some amazing results as well.

 Macro image of a bee

Shooting macros can be more difficult than shooting other subjects. When shooting macros it works best to use manual focus. Autofocus is less reliable when shooting up close. Also try to use narrow apertures to retain focus throughout the entire image. I always try to focus on the subjects eyes. If you want part of the nose and eyes to be in focus, focus a little in front of the eyes so the depth of field will carry through to the nose and back to the eyes. Shooting with wide apertures can also create dreamy soft effects which work well when shooting flowers. Lighting is also very important. For all of the images in this post I used flash. Sometimes I was able to use my camera’s on camera flash for fill while other times I used my Sunpak PZ42 hot shoe flash off camera with a LumiQuest Ultrabox diffuser. Light is incredibly important for macros just like it is for any other type of photography. Flash can be very helpful in getting enough light to capture scenes with the desired aperture and to add a catch light into you subjects eyes. Catch lights are the reflection of the light source within your subject’s eye. Catch lights help draw the viewer’s attention into the subject’s eyes. Ring Flashes are very popular for macro photography. They surround your lens so the lens doesn’t get in the way for shooting macros and creates very few shadows. Ring Flashes were originally invented for dental photography in the 1950s but now are used in fashion and glamour photography quite extensively. There are several companies which make ring flashes and several which make adaptors to change your hot shoe flash into a ring flash like Expoimaging Ray Flash, Orbis, and DIY.

 Macro image of a frog

Focusing your lens on the smaller wildlife in your own backyard can produce some amazing results.

– Ryan Watkins

Long Exposure Abstracts

Long Exposure Abstract of birch trees.

As photographers we usually strive to create the sharpest images we can. But do we always need our images to be sharp? Sometimes we can make an image more compelling by removing the clarity and detail. If an image is blurred we can place more emphasis on the color and shapes within the image. You’ll need to use long exposures to create blur in your images. Wider lenses will require longer shutter speeds to create a pleasing blur, while longer lenses will blur images easier at shorter shutter speeds. Using Shutter priority at speeds in-between 1/10 of a second and 1 second will usually create nice blurs. It can be difficult to get long enough shutter speeds to create these blurs during midday so filters may need to be added. Neutral Density filters are dark pieces of glass which screw onto the end of your lens to provide longer exposures. Circular Polarizers can also help cut light. I try to avoid using very narrow apertures when doing abstracts because it makes dust spots more evident. I also always keep my camera at its lowest ISO – which is 100 – for my abstract blurs. Turn off any type of lens stabilization. Make sure that you image is noticeably blurry and not just a little blurry. If it’s only a little blurry viewers may assume the shot was supposed to be in focus but was an error on the photographer’s part.

Different subjects work better for different blurs. During last fall’s peak colors I knew another sharp image of this group of birch trees would be nice but conventional shot. Instead I switched my camera to a very long exposure and moved the camera downward during the exposure. This caused the entire scene to blur in the direction of the trees. The orange contrasting against the white birch trees made this into an interesting shot.

Budding Tree Abstract created with a zoom blur

Moving the camera up or down during the exposure won’t always result in a good abstract image. For example I shot this above image of a budding tree a few weeks ago using a zoom blur. I used a long enough exposure to zoom my lens from its tele end to its wider end to obtain this almost exploding like effect. This helps bring you viewer’s eye into the center of the image. When doing zoom blurs I prefer to use a manual exposure mode. This makes it so my exposure doesn’t vary while zooming so I can still obtain details within the lights and darks.

An abstract image of a sunset creating by doing a zoom blur while turning the camera

Lastly my favorite blurred abstracts can be obtained from spinning the camera while zooming the lens during a long exposure. To obtain this next image I pointed my Nikon D200 and Tokina 12-24mm f/4 wide angle lens at the setting sun which was peering through a mass of trees before it hide its face under the horizon. I extended my arms until my elbows were locked with my right had grasping the camera and my left hand grabbing the lens. The camera was held vertically. I turned the camera so it would be in the horizontal position while simultaneously zooming the lens. This creates a circular mildly vortex like blur. All you need to do is turn the camera while changing focal lengths. This makes the lines in the image draw the viewer’s eye back into the shot. I also used this effect a week ago when photographing trees in a local park. This created an almost Van Gogh like post-impressionistic look to the image which I especially like in this final image.

An abstract of a tree created using a zoom blur and turning the camera.

 – Ryan Watkins

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