I spend a lot of time shooting black bears in forests, dark forests with bright light filtering through trees creating a puzzle-like effect of light rays on the forest floor – one of the most challenging environments for image processing. Without writing a whole blog article on the art of exposure compensation, I’m going to explain the processing that I did in one interesting cinnamon black bear image I took recently in Sequoia National Park. This image was shot on a Nikon D4s body, at f4, 1/640 second, iso 400, on a tripod.
When I found the bear working through the side of a meadow, shaded by pines in afternoon light – I safely followed him hoping for a more interesting image. He (no cubs, so assuming a boar) crossed the northern border of the meadow back into the forest and then began working west, directly into the light. As he crossed through bands of light I continued following and shooting, but the best moments came in full shade with a bright background. He stood next to an eight-foot-tall broken pine stump and began sniffing at the bark for lunch, in this case, insect grubs. He had stood so quickly that I hadn’t adjusted my compensation to account for the deep shadows. In the previous set of images he was in the sun frontlit, so there was no compensation set. I shot off a dozen images before taking a second to dial in +1 compensation (eV) for the rest, but by then he had bent over some and began digging into the stump, about 4-5 feet up.
So I got the image I expected, a shadowed-out, nearly silhouetted standing bear image with some burned out background highlights. See the original file below as seen in the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) Converter in Photoshop CC.
There was a time when, if I had shot this on film or in the early digital photo days, this image’s final look would have looked just like this. Yes, I could have filled the shadows a little even back then, but the Photoshop processing platform is so much more powerful today.
I began by entering the Lens Corrections dialog box in ACR and clicking on “Remove Chromatic Aberrations” and “Enable Profile Corrections”. Since my Nikon 500mm f4 SWM lens is pretty old I have to select “Nikon” in the Lens Profile: Make box before the program selects the correct lens and applies the correct lens profile to the image. This is an important step in flattening the image, removing barrel distortion found in the unprocessed raw file. Every lens has distortion issues, and using the correct lens profile will mitigate the image damage they casue. For my lens I noticed a small wrinkle is flattened and the outside edges of the image are brightened. Many types of lens distortions can be fixed by using the lens correction dialog box as illustrated here.
In order to keep this blog post to 1000 words, I’m going to skip other, more detailed exposure corrections I could have used in Curves, and just go with the corrections I used for this image in the Basic dialog box.
Shown in the image below.
Here are my adjustments for each exposure control in the Basic dialog box. Nothing complex.
I moved the Exposure setting to +.95. I should have been shooting at +1 eV compensation anyway, but now I’m making up for that here by brightening the overall image.
Brightening an image globally tends to wash out the blacks some, so by adding some contrast I’m moving more light pixels back to the dark side from the middle of the histogram, and more light to the light side from the middle of the histogram.
In most cases, especially here, the already shadowed side of the bear, as well as the bright background, are too extreme after adjusting the contrast. So to counter that, I moved the Highlights slider far to the left to bring back the highlights so no clipping occurs, except for some tiny spots. I also moved the Shadows Slider far to the right, in order to brighten just the shadows.
To remove the bright spots being clipped, I slid the Whites slider to the left (-28) until the clipping stopped. It shows as a red overtone when the clipping warnings are on. Likewise, I brightened the dark areas by moving the Black slider (+29) until I felt like the overall image exposure was more balanced. These 6 controls are critical to making the image exposure appear the way I remember seeing it. Our eyes are vastly more powerful than the camera in providing our minds with a useful image – so my goal is always to return the image to what I feel was what I saw at that moment.
The Clarity slider (+13) adds contrast between colors, something I refer to as increasing color sharpness. Backlit subjects can lack clarity in the colors on the shadow side of the image. I also increased Dehaze, a form of mid-tone contrast (+17). I pushed up the Vibrance (+9) until I began to get color clipping in the background highlights. I tweaked up the color Saturation slider (+7) until I noticed more color in the coat of the cinnamon black bear.
These corrections are based on image looks, not on any pre-determined amount. I’ve heard people say an image needs “so much” of this or that, but I make my processing decisions based on the image in the workspace I’m viewing. You can also tweak individual colors in the HSL Adjustments dialog box in ACR, but I didn’t do that in this image.
This is the completed image out of ACR, prior to final adjustments in Photoshop. The background lacks some contrast, giving it an HDR effect, but in my final steps of processing it was easy to paint in some extra background contrast using a mask. I don’t do any sharpening in ACR, so I selected the bear and tree trunk for image sharpening, inverted the selection then did some noise reduction on the background. BRP