What makes a good wildlife image?

In this blog I would like to discuss what I look for in my images when I am deciding what is a keeper, and what will never see the Develop panel in Lightroom.

When I get back from the field the first step in my workflow is to import the images into Lightroom. Once they are loaded, the culling begins, and I am ruthless. There are many, many reasons why I will delete an image, but I like to focus on the positive, so here are the top 3 things what I look for in an image.

Sharpness/Focus: This is the first thing I look at. Is the subject sharp? if not, then there is no reason to even look at it any longer. Even if everything else in the image is perfect, you can’t bring back an out of focus subject. For me, most times, it’s not even if the subject is in focus, but if its eye is in focus that will determine if I keep an image.

So what causes this? Many reasons, but the most common are missed focus, camera shake, and subject movement.

In a previous post, I talked about why and how I used Aperture Priority to get the fastest shutter speed. I do this to reduce 2 of the reasons above. Using a faster shutter speed will allow you to lessen the effects of camera shake and subject motion. One important thing to remember about using any image stabilization available on your camera, is that it will do nothing to reduce the blur caused by the subject moving. It only helps to reduce any blur that is caused by camera movement. The only way to stop subject blur is to use a faster shutter speed.

it is not uncommon for your camera to focus on the wrong subject, especially if you are shooting into a busy background with a fast-moving subject. To reduce missed focus I always shoot in continuous AF (Canon calls this AI Servo). This allows your camera to continue to adjust focus if your subject moves. I will go into more detail about AF setup in a future post

Background: The next aspect that I look at when evaluating an image is the background. To me this can really make or break an image.

If I have a tack sharp subject, but the background is very busy, or distracting, then that image will be deleted. What point is there in keeping an image of a subject if you can’t distinguish it from the background? If a viewer has to hunt for the subject, then in most cases that image has failed.

A couple of posts ago I explained how I work with the background when I am creating an image. One tip for the background, is to look past the subject when you are taking the image. Sometimes it’s as easy as moving a foot to the left in order to drastically improve the background.

Exposure: Some of today’s cameras have such a wide dynamic range that their ability to capture detail in the highlights and shadows amazes me, but even they have their limits.

This is where knowing your gear is extremely important. Knowing what you can recover in post production, allows you to make exposure decisions in the field. For example; I know that if I am shooting my Canon 5D MKiv at an ISO of 1600 or below, I can expose for the highlights and lighten the shadows at least 1.5 stops without causing the grain to increase to an unacceptable level.

So there we have the first three things that I use to cull my images. When I am culling my images I will scan all my images in this order. First I will look at all of them for sharpness. I will mark the un-sharp ones for deletion, and then when I have looked at all of the images, I will delete the ones I have marked. I will then repeat the process looking for background, and then a third time looking for exposure. This allows me to look at a large quantity of images and quickly get to a manageable number.

Then I will look closer at each image looking for the ones that are the best of the best. Those are the ones that I will spend my time on editing, and you hopefully get to enjoy.

Please leave a comment if you have any questions, or if you have a topic you would like me to cover.

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