The goal of post-processing is simple. You want to make your photos look the way you want them to before you share them.
Note I said “look the way you want them to.” There is no right or wrong. There is no absolutely perfect way to process a bird/wildlife photograph. There’s just YOUR way. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to do this. Simply decide what look you are going for, apply that look, and move on.
There is one key decision to make and that decision should be guided by your intended use of the image.
If you’re making images for natural history purposes, i.e., for use in textbooks, or for illustration in field guides, etc. then, you might want to keep the image as true-to-life as possible. If you are simply making art or an illustration for non-editorial use, then the sky is the limit. Let this one decision help frame how you proceed.
As for my own post-processing workflow, it’s pretty basic. I try to get as much right in the camera as possible. This is not because I am any kind of dogmatic photographer who says you can’t use tricks in post. It’s because I am lazy around computers, and besides, I would rather spend time with my finger on the shutter button than on a mouse button. But to each his own.
My main concerns in post are - in no particular order:
- White Balance Correction
- Color Correction
- Exposure Correction
- Noise Reduction
I just don’t do much in post beyond these basics and when I do these (or anything else) I often rely on a series of presets to help. (See more on presets below.)
You can also use a variety of plugins to adjust your images in Luminar. I love Macphun Intensify filters, and still use them, as well as Tonality (For B&W conversion) even though I can manually accomplish much of the same in Luminar itself. It just saves time.
Back to the basics - Let’s look at each of the above mentioned areas and just touch on them.
The main mistake most beginning bird/wildlife photographers make is cropping too much. I say that even though stylistically - I probably crop too tightly for some people’s tastes. I also rarely worry about crop ratios. I simply crop the way my eye sees the image. It’s a creative decision that I make, full well knowing the consequences. Most people will want to crop more conventionally than I do. Here is a basic example. The grebe photo above is the way I saw it in my mind when I shot it, leaving the reflection in the shot because it’s more powerful in my mind. The shot below is a tighter crop that doesn’t quite leave enough room around the bird and cuts off the reflection. But you may think just the opposite. For me, the rule here is - don’t crop too tight unless you have a very specific reason.
Luminar's crop tool features a fantastic ratio tool that gives you many choices, including popular crops for images destined for use on social media.
This is easiest to get right in camera, but there may be times you miss the white balance or, that average white balance just doesn’t cut it. If you’re shooting RAW (and you probably should be) then it’s easy to fix this in post.
Luminar offers a filter called TONE and this is the first step in my own personal post processing workflow. You can eyeball this and most of the time you'll be dead on. What if you don't want a perfectly "normal" white balance?
I won’t spend much time discussing this other than to say I sometimes “cheat” the white balance. That is, I sometimes purposely make the picture too blue or too orange, etc., because I am going for a creative effect. Such was the case in the image below.
In the crane picture above, I wanted to silhouette the birds against the sky but I also wanted a dramatic color for the scene, so I set the WB to 2500 degrees kelvin (see the chart below) to make the scene appear even more red.
As long as you know what you want to do with any particular picture, you can set the WB any way you want. Most modern cameras do a very good job of setting a fairly appropriate "average" white balance or auto white balance, but for full control, set it manually according to the conditions at hand.
This image has an unnatural blue cast which needs to be removed to make the photo look more realistic
This one is simple. I am going for a starting point that matches what I saw in the field. The biggest problems I have related to color correction are color casts. Since I often shoot outdoors, there may be a blue cast in my photographs from the reflecting sky. This is easy to remove in post, sometimes it can be corrected with a levels adjustment, still others by adjusting white balance, and still others by manually adjusting hue and saturation. I tend to work on this using Luminar's filter called REMOVE COLOR CAST.
After using Luminar's REMOVE COLOR CAST tool the image is no longer too blue
The black feathers on the duck are in the shadows and are blocked up. Using Luminar's SHADOWS/HIGHLIGHTS filter I opened up the shadows to balance the image exposure
By shooting in RAW, I give myself plenty of latitude to adjust exposure in post. The biggest worries here are blocking up the shadows or over-exposing the highlights. These problems can easily be corrected in Luminar. The Highlights/Shadows filter is super easy to use, and delivers "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" results.
Shadows opened up to balance the exposure
Sometimes, the digital noise in a photograph becomes distracting. When that happens, you need to reduce the noise without reducing detail.