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How to Finish Your Wild Animal Photos With Tone Mapping

Funny thing about animals is they move around, a lot. So a technique like HDR, which requires several images that are nearly identical in everything but exposure values, is usually not an option for wildlife photographers. Often thought of as mainly a tool for landscape and architecture photography, High Dynamic Range photography captures a series of shots at multiple exposures to provide detail in both highlights and shadows which a camera cannot capture in one frame. But, in the case of a running horse or flying bird, even at high shutter speeds and frame rates, there will be large differences in their position from frame to frame. This makes multiple exposure HDR pretty impractical, if not nearly impossible, for wildlife and other action photography.

While the multi-shot HDR technique may not work well for high-speed creatures, software like Aurora HDR is a useful tool to put the finishing touches on your wildlife photos. Instead of capturing a series of shots at multiple exposures as you would for landscapes, you use a single shot in a process called “tone mapping”. This is a fast and easy way I use Aurora HDR to Tone Map a single image and add some extra pop and punch to wild animal images.

Quick Steps to Use Tone Mapping in Aurora HDR

  1. Process your file in Lightroom as you normally would, then right-click on it and export to Aurora HDR using the “TIFs with Lightroom Adjustments” option.  
  2. When Aurora opens, make sure the “Tone Mapping” button is checked on the import screen (bottom left). The only other setting available when processing a single image is “Chromatic Aberration Removal”, only check this if your image needs it.
  3. Once the image opens, go straight to the “Basic” category of presets. Open this using the small category button directly below your image.
  4. Select the “Realistic” preset using the guidelines below, and see if you like it.
  5. Next, try the “Smart Enhancer” preset using the guidelines below, and see if you like it.
  6. Now decide which one you like best. Or try some other presets. Or just go nuts and start flinging sliders around!
  7. In my experiments, most of the time I liked the “Realistic” preset, with some tweaks, the best. But, it depends on the image, so be sure to experiment!
  8. Once you like what you see, hit “Apply” (upper right) to save and import the image as a new file back into Lightroom.
  9. Start to finish, this should take about a minute or less once you get the hang of it for most correctly exposed images.

Delving Deeper into the Settings

Realistic Preset

For wildlife the “Realistic” preset is a good place to start, it enhances your shot without making it look overprocessed. As with most things in the digital darkroom, I prefer to take a lighter, more gradual, approach. The key to this looking good is don’t overdo it! Start by changing the opacity of this layer to 50%, you can find this right below the histogram in the upper right corner of the screen. You can also use the slider that appears on the preset thumbnail after you have selected it.

Generally, an opacity of 30% to 60% looks good. It doesn’t cause any huge color shifts, and opens up details nicely throughout the image. Use the before/after slider or toggle at the top of the screen to see how much of an effect the tone mapping is having on your image. Then, make any changes you like on the HDR basic panel, although most of the time it will looking pretty good without too much extra adjustment.

Smart Enhancer

Also in the Basic category is the “Smart Enhancer” preset. I find this is usually a stronger adjustment, and can look overprocessed if not blended more via a lower opacity, typically 20% to 50%. Because it often starts with opening up the shadows, it can cause your image to look a little flat if you do not blend it, or if the slider is set too high. Also, be careful your image doesn’t become too oversaturated, as this preset increases both saturation and vibrance. Generally, I start with an opacity of 40% and slide my saturation back to 0. Then adjust these a little at a time to find exactly what I like, again using the before/after toggle at the top to judge the impact of the effect.

Finishing Touches

Often you can stop after the steps above, but you can certainly go further and address any other tone issues in your image, add artistic effects, or anything else you would do to a multiple shot blended HDR image. In the case of this buck, the improvements in tonal range did create an issue by darkening the out of focus foliage in the foreground. What had framed the big guy before now pulled your eye away as a distraction. Here I used an adjustment layer to lighten these areas, and then a layer mask to make sure it only affected these specific spots. Making just a few tweaks to Contrast, Shadows, and Blacks did the trick.

What Works Well for Wildlife

Mammals

Most of the mammal photos I’ve processed worked well, especially in higher contrast scenes where a soft out of focus background was not the main goal. Typically, the “Realistic” preset is a good starting point, adjusted to 50% opacity or below. For example, with these wild horses and using that preset, note the added muscle tone, details in eyes and muzzles, and healthy sheen in their coats.


Reptiles and Amphibians

Overall, I liked most reptile images I have tone mapped, so long as they were not a particularly smooth shiny species. Turtles and alligators worked well, but some snakes and frogs did not. Note the richer color and less shine in the shell, and improved contrast in the grass.

Birds

This was very much a mixed bag. With the delicate structure of feathers, and the emphasis on clean backgrounds, I think many bird photographers won’t love tone mapping their images. I found it is dependent on the species, and often using a layer mask to reduce the effect on backgrounds or other smooth areas worked best. Note the extra detail revealed in the feathers, especially the head and tail.

Bugs and Other Macro Subjects

In a word, meh. Most of my experiments didn’t improve the images, probably because so many have dark and/or smooth backgrounds. The tone mapping process added too much noise or contrast in the wrong spots in my images for my taste. I would love to see what other macro photographers produce, if it is simply due to my style of macro photography versus the process.

Wrap Up

While this is not the best choice with all images, it worked well on many of my favorite wildlife photos. In the digital darkroom, I like techniques that produce consistently good results in a short amount of time. Using Aurora’s single image tone mapping feature is a quick way to add a finishing pop to your pictures, so you can get back into the great outdoors with your camera.

Gear

Like this article?  Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques.  Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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