Almost five years ago on a trip out west to neighboring Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, I ran into a photographer who happened to be a Nikon Ambassador. We had just failed miserably in attempting to photograph the first rays of sunlight on the Tetons from Schwabacher’s Landing (along with dozens of other photographers), because the peaks were completely blocked by low hanging clouds and there wasn’t much to see. We talked for a while, and the conversation eventually turned to photographing the wildlife in these two parks because he was about to lead a workshop that included photographing the wildlife there. And he said something interesting that has stuck with me since then about certain compositions in wildlife photography. He said, “The world doesn’t need another perfectly exposed and perfectly focused, full frame shot of the front face of a bison, or any other animal for that matter!” He said he now concentrates his efforts more on the wild animal within its habitat; a kind of environmental portrait.
I never had any intention to photograph the wildlife there, but after hearing that option, thought if an opportunity arose when I could do so, I would attempt his “wildlife in the landscape” approach, since I was there to experience these two national treasures for their unique geography, if there happened to be an animal within the shot, it might make it better. Well, a perfect opportunity to do so occurred just a short time later that same morning when a small herd of pronghorn skittishly crossed a dirt road, yet a single one remained, hesitant to follow the others across. With a legacy, manual-focus 70-200mm lens, hand-held, steadied on the hood of the car I would live in for the next two weeks, I managed just a few frames before it darted across the road and was gone, ending up with my very first wildlife photograph(top).
With all the wildlife in the two parks, there were plenty of occasions to include some in the landscape during the visit that definitely improved shots. Most were taken with the telephoto, but once I did find myself, along with about a dozen other visitors, surrounded by a herd of buffalo that wandered through Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone, and used the wide angle since they were so close; although a telephoto would have given me the full-frame front face shot I tried to avoid. I don’t think any of us realized what the possible dangers were, but everyone was super quiet while the animals continued to graze, seemingly undisturbed with our presence (second from left top row).
But wildlife photography is not something that comes to mind in my local area, and after that trip in 2016, that type photo has been a rarity. The suburbs here do not offer the far-ranging vistas and grazing buffalo herds with a mountain range as a backdrop. Birds are about the only wild animals easily seen in my neck of the woods, but I don’t actively seek them out. If they happen to enter a shot that might work, I’ll give it a try; but that poses a problem. Since I primarily shoot the landscape, the camera is usually set at a very low ISO, with smaller apertures and very slow shutter speeds with the mirror-up function on, necessitating two shutter releases for each image; not your ideal settings to capture flying birds. Still keeping in mind the theme of the wild animal in the landscape, what usually happens when I see some approaching birds that may figure into a composition, there is a lot of frantic holding of buttons, spinning wheels and adjustments to raise the ISO, increase the shutter speed, etc. and change to a continuous high-speed frame rate, and end up coming away with a bird that is still slightly blurry!! There just never seems to be enough time to make the proper setting adjustments (Yes, it would be nice to have these settings pre-programed into a single button; maybe in the next camera).
After being frustrated with such poor results so often when these opportunities occur, I made an attempt to salvage one particular photo that I loved, but was unusable with a blurry bird. The rest of the image was perfect, but the bird just killed it. In post-processing, using the same technique previously used to repair halos around solid objects (mountains, buildings, etc.), I used Photoshop’s clone tool set to a sharp edge, to “draw in” the clean, crisp edges of the bird, taking samples from both inside and outside the bird. Since the birds are basically silhouettes, it’s a fairly straight forward, but tedious, process. Viewed at 1:1, by moving the slider, the heron above can be seen slightly blurry before the process was applied, and the resulting sharper bird afterward. Using this process, the pixel-peeper in me is sufficiently satisfied to make a print of reasonable size and not be embarrassed with the poor quality of the bird in the original file.
On a recent sunrise shoot at Jordan Lake, there were plenty of opportunities for this wildlife in the landscape type image. There were birds (cormorants? loons? pigeons?) floating on the water, occasionally diving down to feed on the fish, while now and then, a pair of herons would fly by. There wasn’t any problem in sharply capturing the fishing birds, but the fly-bys were another matter, as they were in and out of the frame in a split second because of the narrow angle of view at 300mm. In the image above, in which the herons were helped with the drawing process, if seen at 1:1, the single floating bird actually has a fish in its beak!! Without being able to correct the blurry herons, the image would probably be considered unusable, and end up in the trash.
One simple thing done to the photo that does not alter the reality of the moment much, is flipping it horizontally. The reason behind this choice is that the image “reads” better going from left to right, looking first at the largest bird on the left hand side, and working in the normal direction of reading toward the slightly smaller bird, and finally the one floating on the water (cormorant?) with the fish.
The image below, taken about 5 weeks prior to the one above, from pretty much the same location on a bridge looking down toward the water, may be similar in content to the one above, but there is a marked difference to the feeling to each of these wildlife in the landscape photos. The texture throughout the one above is what really differentiates it from the one below, with the one below being all about the calm water of the foggy morning as the heron silently glides past, having a much quieter, contemplative or serene mood; almost zen-like. In this photo, the bird also required the same touch-up as those two above in making them sharper. The one above exhibits much more energy than calm with the addition of the textured surface throughout the frame. I believe it would have worked as well with a single heron, but the additional birds offer more to a story of the daily challenges of each bird; such as grabbing an early morning meal for the floater. The additional context of the surrounding areas in which they live adds to the story within the frame, much more than a perfectly focused, full-frame close-up of a bison.
The reasoning behind the choice of a 16:9 crop for each is to add to the feeling of a vast landscape in which these birds live that seemed to be missing with horizontal crops that were 2:3, 4:5, 1:1, or a vertical crop, more so for the image below where the heron is much smaller in the expansive, monochromatic gold environment. It seemingly gives the bird much more room to fly throughout the frame.
Getting back to the use of the clone tool, another use for this same technique can be to replace a single bird with the same bird from a subsequent or earlier frame of the same sequence. If the tilt or angle of the bird’s head is better, it’s easy to sample from one frame with the clone tool, and draw it onto the bird within the other, overall preferred frame. It can easily be done because the water surrounding the bird is pretty much the same in both frames, or minimal modifications can be made to blend this small area from one frame into the other. This was done for one of the birds in the image below because its head was turned away, leaving what appeared to be a stick bobbing in the water. By replacing the neck and head, it appeared more natural rather than unnatural in the original frame. Even though this image was taken on the same morning as the two herons above, this image offers a different story and feeling altogether, more like the one with a single heron.
You might even choose to add a bird to a group if necessary. Doing this with birds in the sky can also help when the wings of a bird in flight are in an awkward position or overlaps another bird, making their combined silhouette a confusing blob. It just helps to make for a more pleasing arrangement of birds within the flock flying by. So there are some options available for you to create more expressive images if the need arises. How far you take these options in the departure from reality is a decision you have to make; but that’s a different discussion.
Below is the first image, taken about two years ago on a very foggy morning where the “sharpening” technique was used to clean up the edges of a slightly blurry bird and salvage it. I saw the bird heading in my direction at the last second because of the fog, frantically changed settings, swung the camera around to compose the landscape within the frame without enough time to lock down the ball head, just a split second before it entered the frame! So I was not surprised the bird was not perfectly sharp, but my hopes were crushed nonetheless, and just didn’t want give up on the photo without giving it the best shot to avoid the trash bin. I was beyond thrilled when the operation on the bird proved successful and transformed it into something useful. It is probably best practice to have a quick enough shutter speed to freeze the bird in camera, but my reluctance to use very high ISO settings is the introduction of grain. I suppose having some grain is the better alternative than an unusable image.