10 Step Introduction to Lightroom – Editing Wildlife Images

Editing Wildlife Photography

Post processing has always been an essential part of photography. In the digital age, compared to darkrooms, the ability to create moods, enhance in-field work and to develop an overall style is a lot faster and easier. You can work on a photograph within a multitude of editing software programs but the most popular one is Adobe Lightroom Classic. This software program really needs no introduction, if you have any interest in photography at all I’m sure you have heard of it, or even have dabbled around in it trying to understand how best to use it. This article is a beginner’s introduction to the power of Adobe Lightroom and why colour grading and editing is such an essential component of wildlife photography.

Before we get into the Lightroom software, I want to remind you to always shoot in raw. Shooting in raw will give you the greatest amount of flexibility and range to push your images while maintaining the highest quality.

Not only is Lightroom a powerhorse editing tool, it’s the ultimate organizational tool. The process of importing images, culling, creating collections, tags and of course editing them is done in one place. As you progress with your editing you can work back and forth between photoshop and also install plugins to help with your editing workflow.

Let’s get into it! Just a reminder, I am doing this edit to showcase all of the tools and the end result is a little bit different than my typical style but I also want to show you how far you can push your wildlife photography.

Step 1 – File Preparation

Before you even open Lightroom, ensure that you have your photographs on an external hard drive. You never want to import your images directly onto your laptop or desktop as it will fill up your hard drive space and working memory and cause your computer to run very slow. 

On your external hard drive choose a naming convention that allows you to organize your photographs efficiently and so that you can find them later without any issue. For example if I went on a Svalbard Polar Bear expedition in the month of May in 2022 I would create folders on my external hard drive as such:

Main Folder: “2022_May_Svalbard_Polar Bear Expedition” and then if I had different cameras or equipment I would then put in sub categories with the different gear. The sub folders could be “Canon R5” and “Drone” as an example.

Step 2 – Lightroom Preparation

Head into Lightroom into the develop module and we need to create the same folders that we created on our external hard drive but as 2022_May_Svalbard_Polar Bear Expedition as a Collection Set (main folder) and then the particular equipment as the sub folders or you can put down each individual day. See the below screenshots for the examples.

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After this you can head over to the Library module located at the top and to file import where you can begin importing your images so that we can edit them. You can see here below the source of the original file is on Lacie 1 and we are adding the images into our Lightroom and choosing the folder that we just created as the moving to destination and as we scroll down we can add in keywords to help us find these images later if needed. I used Polar Bears, Svalbard and 2022 to keep it simple.

Editing wildlife photography Lightroom

While photographing Polar Bears in Svalbard you may get a variety of different conditions white bears with white backgrounds in a high key scene or you may get varying lighting conditions depending on the conditions. Let’s edit one of my photographs of a Polar Bear cub eating a washed up whale carcass using Lightroom and I’ll walk us through the adjustments and the outcomes.

Step 3 – The Crop Tool

The very first thing I like to do is ensure my horizon is straight and the image has been cropped appropriately. In this case, my focal point was just the Polar Bear cub and I was zoomed in as much as possible therefore I have to rely on cropping in Lightroom to fix this to get the focal point in the intersecting rule of thirds bottom right portion.

The crop tool is the one on the far left of this panel.

Lightroom Wildlife Photography Tips

While clicking on the crop tool, you can see that a lovely rule of thirds grid shows up to help us have a straight horizon and also to help with the placement of our main focal point. I’ll put the polar bear cub in the bottom right corner in this case.

In this first Basic panel, you are able to do quick adjustments that are applied globally. Meaning each slider will affect the entire image. Let’s start off with exposure.

Step 4 – Exposure Adjustment

In this image here I was under exposed shooting matrix metering. Likely the really bright areas of the water cause my exposure meter to underexpose this shot by about 1 stop. It’s totally okay as we shot it in raw and we can change the exposure slider and move it to the right to properly expose our subject. When you look at the histogram at the start, a lot of the information in the curve is on the left hand side of the graph which means we should have a dark image. However, because this was shot in the morning with natural light, that does not make sense and we should increase the exposure to a proper value and move the information in the histogram towards the right.

My goal with the exposure is to get the Polar Bear cub, my main subject, perfectly exposed so we can see all of the details of the face and body. As I increase the exposure to +1.70 my histogram moves over to the right where I believe this photo needs to be exposed. If I have over exposed or underexposed the histogram will show me with a blue warning for under exposed and a red warning for over exposed as per below.

Edit Wildlife Photography in Lightroom

After the exposure, I’ll continue down to contrast and increase this slightly. Then I’ll head down to highlights and reduce them slightly until the detail reappears in the brightest areas. In this case I ensure that I can see all of the detail in the fur and water. Next I’ll adjust the shadows and as I mentioned before I want to make the facial features of the Polar Bear more noticeable so I’ll increase my shadows. I also reduce my whites as I do not want really bright areas in my image. I also typically leave the blacks as they are in this area and would address them in my tone curve. For this image, I also increased vibrance just slightly and left saturation for my own personal preference. I find that people add too much clarity, saturation and contrast when they are first getting into editing wildlife photography.

editing wildlife photography lightroom

As you can see when I zoom in to the Polar Bear cub’s face, the catch light is there but it’s very subtle so we will enhance this later on. What I want to address is the Polar Bear cub is not popping as much as I would like as there are a lot of midtones in this image.

For the tone curve, I like to add in a slight contrast curve here and bring my black point up slightly so that I do not have jet blacks present in my shot.

Lightroom wildlife photography
Step 5 – Image Colour Grading

Colour grading is an essential component to your wildlife photography as this is where you can generate mood and overall style. When you shoot in raw, your camera provides you with a lovely contrasting, vibrant JPEG preview on the back of the camera but as you import your raw images you’ll notice the RAW shots are dull, non-contrasting and lack saturation. Therefore we must go add this information in and do so with managing the vibrance slider the, white balance, HSL sliders and with split toning. With this shot, I found the overall white balance a little bit cool so I have gone up to the white balance beside the Basic panel and have added some warmth to the white balance temperature as well as magenta to the tint. Your goal is to ensure the whites in the scene are true white. Avoid drastically editing the white balance to add colour grading to your image. The result of over using white balance to create a mood is very obvious and not visually pleasing.

Wildlife photography polar bear editing

This area of Lightroom is where you can really push your creativity with colours and hues to generate a style. For example, a lot of my images have a blue tone and that is done through split toning here in the colour grading panel.

In addition as you scroll down you’ll see the HSL sliders which stand for Hue, Saturation and Luminance.

Hue sliders change the colour output of an existing colour. For example adding more red tones to a yellow or more green tones to a yellow. In this case, I like the blue tones to look a bit more aqua colour so I move them to the left slightly.

Saturation is exactly as it sounds, the intensity and richness for each colour present in the scene. When editing, I like to simplify the colours in my scene and this is a great place to neutralize really bold colours that take away from your subject. In this particular image, there is not a wide range of intense colours present and therefore not much was done. A reduction in the yellow colours as well as blue colours.

Luminance is the brightness values of particular colours. You can go into this section and play around with the sliders to see which colours are present in your scene. For the yellow and slider I I know that the polar bear’s fur has yellow present and in order to make my subject stand out even further, I’ll increase the luminosity values of yellow. If you move a slider and nothing changes then chances are that colour isn’t present in the scene.

As I go down to the Colour Grading panel, I want to have cool shadows and warm highlights. The reason for this is that I want to have some separation with my subject and the negative space. Within this panel I usually use about 5-8% saturation levels. As you can see this result of adding blues to the shadows and warm tones to the highlights reduces the overall purple tones that were present.

Step 6 – Graduated Filters

Graduated filters are horizontal or vertical filters that you can apply with soft fade or hard lines into a scene based on how much you stretch out the filter. In this case below I want to change the intensity, tonality and exposure of the water as I find that the brightness takes away from my subject. When pressing ‘O’ on the keyboard you can see that there is a red area and that is the area that we will be editing with the slider parameters on the right. In this case I reduced the exposure, changed the white balance temperature and tint to blue and green, increased the contrast and finally added saturation.

Editing Wildlife Photography in Lightroom
wildlife photography Lightroom editing
Step 7 – Radial Filters

Radial filters are very similar to graduated filters as you are editing a portion of the entire image. They are not global edits, edits done to the entire image but rather larger more broad sections. For example, I am using a radial filter here on this image to create a little vignette to darker the perimeter and add more attention to the focal point.

Lightroom Wildlife Photography
Step 8 – Local Adjustments

As I have mentioned we started on global edits and now we are getting more and more refined in to the areas we are editing. Local adjustments are small particular edits done with using the brush / wand tool.

For this polar bear cub image, I’ll using the local adjustment brush to increase the clarity and exposure of the eyes to make the catch light more pronounced.

editing wildlife photography

Now because the highlights are very bright on the polar bear cub’s face as well as the rocks in the background I want to reduce the overall highlights on these areas so I’ll use the local brush to do so. For added accuracy, I use the Range Mask feature once I have used this tool on the image and it remains selected scroll down until you see Range Mask and then choose Luminance. Now we can use the slider to mask the particular highlight areas without darkening the shadows even further. We can paint all over the place, care free as we are masking the exact areas of the brightest luminosity values.

Wildlife Photography Editing
Wildlife Photography Lightroom
Step 9 – Spot and Heal Tool

Now that we have finished the overall edit, we can go in and fix any blemishes or distractions from the image. Typically I like to do this step near the beginning because there may be areas that bother me but for more laptops and computers this may cause lag when editing in Lightroom. Therefore we will do this step last. You have the option of Clone or Heal and what clone does is take the source pixels and paste them directly onto the blemish you have chosen. Heal takes a blend of the pixels from the source and puts them. I typically use Heal more than Clone as it produces better results. For the size you will choose the area slightly bigger than your blemish as you will want to feather the clone or heal brush from 75% to 100%. Opacity would be set to 100% if you wanted to fix a harsh blemish or 80% can work for minor adjustments.

For this example, there is a bright rock on the bottom right and I want to remove it as it’s distracting. You can see the tool in use here and the resulting image after.

Wildlife photography edit lightroom
Wildlife Photography Editing Result
Step 10 – Export Settings

Now the final step is to export for your website, social media and for printing. These export settings are for social media to ensure you files are high resolution but they are limited in total file size to protect your work. If you are printing, your export settings would depend on your printer settings but ideally you are printing at full resolution, in TIF or largest JPEG no compression, large colour space like Adobe RGB 1998 or Adobe RGB Pro, 300 ppi so the printer can print at 300dpi or 200dpi output size depending.

Editing wildlife photography in Lightroom

I hope you enjoyed this article on the 10 Step Introduction to Lightroom! For more advanced wildlife photography editing you can visit www.artica-studios.com to view our wildlife photography course focusing on in field and post processing. Cheers! Chase

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