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How to Make Wildlife Photos Look Great with ACDSee Ultimate

With wildlife, moments are fleeting, and there are literally once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities. While it is ideal to “get it right in the camera”, I also believe that while all photos are created in the camera, they are finished in the digital darkroom. Some moments we capture are worth a little extra work to rescue if a mistake in settings is made or the light wasn’t quite right at the time.

Out of the many software products out there to process photos, ACDSee Ultimate 10 offers an all-in-one solution to process your photos. In this article I’ll take you through how I process my wildlife images in the Develop Mode in ACDSee Ultimate to get them looking their best, or rescue shots that need a little extra help.

The Digital Darkroom

I am going to break an unspoken rule of photographers on the web, and show you one of my crappy images. To ease into this, let’s first look at the “after” image processed via ACDSee:

After pulling an all-nighter for star photography, on the drive home I came across a sandhill crane pair and their colt (with sandhills, the chicks are called colts). Having photographed them earlier in the year on their nest from egg through hatching, I was excited to see the now “teenager” lounging next to the original nesting pond. Short on sleep, I whiffed on my settings, not checking the first shots to make sure they were right. While I caught my mistake pretty early, I loved the pose and low angle of this particular image. But, this image needed some help in the digital darkroom… there were dust spots, a distracting dark area in the upper right corner, poor contrast, and flat, washed out colors. This will be our sample image as I show you how I took it through my workflow and what adjustments I used to make this colt look the way he should.

Develop Mode

In ACDSee, the Develop Mode is where we go to process our RAW photos, and make adjustments to images. Everything you do in this mode is “non-destructive” processing, so you won’t lose anything when you make an adjustment. The changes made here can be undone, no pixels are harmed in the developing of your images!

There are four tabs within the Develop Mode: Tune, Detail, Geometry, and Repair. For my workflow, I go through these in a slightly different order than presented in the program, I’ve found this gives me the best results for my wildlife photos. Keep in mind, your digital workflow should fit your style of photography and processing. Experiment with all of the settings, and find what works for you.

Quick Tip: When in the Develop mode, you can toggle back and forth between your developed version and the original by clicking and holding the “Show Original” button in the lower left of your picture window, or pressing and holding the “Z” key.

Step 1: The Geometry Tab

The Geometry tab addresses two main areas; issues caused by your lens and camera combination such as distortion or vignetting, and issues caused by the photographer, like crooked horizons, or compositions in need of refinement.

Lens Corrections

You may be surprised how much this setting can affect your images. ACDSee has a large database of lens and camera profiles, which you can use to automatically make adjustments to correct your image based on your particular equipment.

Animals all have distinct shapes and sizes, if this is distorted in any way it can cause your image to seem “off”. Often, when something just doesn’t feel right about an image, it’s due to distortion. Using lens correction is a smart and fast way to make the perspective and dimensions of your subject look right.

Cropping

I usually crop early if it is obvious the image’s composition will benefit from it. My reasoning is I want to see the image with the right composition throughout the process. My ulterior motive is it can also remove problems, like dust spots, instead of spending time fixing them. On a big batch of files, each step you don’t have to take adds up to serious time savings!

In this case, applying a small crop refines the composition, making the colt slightly larger in the frame, and balancing the image so the colt’s eye falls closer to the upper right third. Remember when cropping, give your animal room to be alive in the frame. Too tight of a crop can cause your image to feel cramped, taking the life out of your wildlife shot.

Quick Tip: Make sure you have enabled “Snapshots” on the “View” menu. Then, get in the habit of making frequent Snapshots. Photographers have a tendency to always want to make just one more tweak. Snapshots allow you to go back to a point in your workflow, restoring all the settings from then, right before you made that “just one more tweak” that didn’t work out so well.

Step 2: The Repair Tab

This tab provides tools to remove pesky dust spots on your images. When removing spots, I prefer “Heal” over “Clone”. The Heal option usually creates a better result as it samples pixels surrounding the spot, attempting to blend in the area being repaired. To get the best results, make your brush bigger than it needs to be and add some feathering, this will blend the repaired area in even more.

Clone simply copies the pixels from wherever you right click on the image to wherever you left click on the image. While this can work well in images featuring large areas of a color, nature is rarely that simple. Usually, large areas of a solid color have subtle gradients to them. If I were to use Clone in the water on this image, and selected a source too far from the dust spot, I would pull in a different tone or hue. This results in a lighter or darker blue spot where the dust spot had been. That is not a fix, it’s replacing one problem with a new problem!

The exception though for animals is if you have a spot in an area of high detail or texture, such as scales, feathers, or fur. In these cases, I favor using Clone, as Heal may soften the texture too much, creating a noticeable soft spot in the midst of your animal’s coat.

To compare the Heal vs. Clone options, in this image of a gray fox I’ll clone out the leaf sticking to its upper hind leg. In the Heal version, there is a noticeable softening of the fur where the leaf was. In the Clone version, the fur matches more evenly and blends better. The key is to make sure you are sampling an area that is the same color, brightness, and that the fur is lying in the same direction as the area being cloned over.

Step 3: The Tune Tab

That’s “Tune” for “Tune Up”, not “Play me a Tune”. There is a lot to the “Tune” tab, encompassing exposure corrections, color adjustments, special effects, and more. You can “tune” the entire image or make adjustments only to specific areas.

When working with these tools, think “big brush” versus “little brush”. If you are painting something, you use a big brush to cover a wide area. You aren’t looking for precision, just to cover as much area as possible. You use a little brush for fine detail work, where neatness and accuracy matter. In your digital darkroom, some settings are big brushes that make global changes to the image; like exposure, saturation, and contrast. Others are little brushes, that allow you to precisely adjust a very specific part of the image; like clarity, tone curves, or Light EQ. Every tool has a use, but the big brushes are easy to overdo, causing your images to look overprocessed.

Quick Tip: Right clicking any slider will reset it to its default setting.

White Balance Panel

Correcting color is the first thing I do on the “Tune” tab. Accurate colors are especially important in in wildlife photography. If, for example, your image is used in a field guide, the animal’s colors must be true to life.

In this image, the camera on auto white balance chose a color temperature of 6140K, which created the yellowish cast you can see in the original image, especially in the water. In my colt photo, using this tool adjusted the overall image to a bluer 5500K, removing this yellow cast and making the water look a lot less muddy!

Adjusting white balance will affect all colors in the image, it is a broad brush approach. But, it is a necessary step in making sure different animal species, and their environment, look correct.

General Panel

Now that I have used ACDSee for a while, I tend to use the Light EQ panel first. But, in the case of this image, it needs some overall global adjustments at the start. Since every image is different, there are no hard rules for what you should use, or in what order, every time.

“Big Brushes”

  • Exposure – An overall adjustment for images that are too bright or too dark. It’s measured just like exposure compensation on your camera.
  • Contrast – A term thrown around a lot in photography, it is the distance between brights and darks in an image. An increase in contrast makes the shadows darker and the highlights brighter. A decrease moves both toward the middle, creating a flatter or washed out look to your image. Think of fog as low contrast and midday bright sun as high contrast.
  • Saturation – How intense colors appear. Increasing it moves the colors in the image toward their pure form, decreasing it moves them toward colorless gray.

“Little Brushes”

  • Highlight Enhancement – I admit the name threw me at first, this slider works to recover detail in areas of the image that have been “blown out” or overexposed. This is a one-way slider starting at 0, where moving to the right increases the effect. For my colt shot, sliding to 10 restored some details that were lost in the highlights.
  • Fill Light – This is the counterpart to Highlight Enhancement. It works to restore details to “blocked up”, or too dark areas. Adding 10 here also helped open up the details in the shadows.
  • Vibrance – A saturation adjustment tool for only the colors in an image that are not already highly saturated. Most images benefit from a little vibrance to add color to drab areas of a shot. For animals I usually start fairly high, around 30, and then ease the slider to the left until it looks realistic.
  • Clarity – This changes the contrast just on the midtones of your image, leaving the highlights and shadows alone. The visual effect is to make a photo crisper, giving it more definition by adding clarity. Removing clarity has the opposite effect, it can make scenes less defined, taking on a dreamy quality. For most animals I like adding clarity, starting at about 20, and adjusting from there. This makes the texture of their skin or coat really pop, eyes appear more lively, and the overall image sharper.
  • Dehaze – Similar to the Clarity slider, this restores both contrast and saturation to an image. As its name implies, this is especially useful for subjects shot in haze or fog to recover details. Even images not shot in these conditions can benefit in some cases. This is a tool that can easily be overdone however. Too much and you may see vignetting and chromatic aberration show up in your images that may not have been visible before.

Light EQ Panel

This panel tool adjusts tone levels, or the average brightness of a pixel and its surrounding pixels. You can use it to adjust images that are too dark or too light, but the real magic of it is being able to adjust different tones in specific parts of your image, without affecting other parts.

Light EQ is an extraordinarily complex bit of software that can look intimidating, but it is really simple to use.

On an area of your image where you want to adjust the tone, use your mouse to click and drag up or down to make the highlights in that area lighter or darker. Right click your mouse and drag up or down to make shadows lighter or darker. Repeat wherever you feel you need an adjustment.

Alternately, you can click directly on the equalizer graph in the Light EQ panel to make these adjustments. This graph is a visual representation of all the tones in your image, showing the amounts of highlight and shadow. As you make adjustments you will see an overlay appear on this graph showing how you are adjusting the image throughout its full range of tones.

ACDSee can also automatically set what it considers to be the ideal brightness for an area. At the bottom of the Light EQ panel is an “Auto” button, you can click this to let ACDSee take over. You can also double click an area on the image to have it automatically brightened or darkened. Personally I like to have more control over the process, but in my tests the program did a fair job when making automatic adjustments.

Light EQ works well on wildlife, I use it to enhance the details in overly dark or light areas, while protecting details in areas that don’t require adjustment. However, it is a tool that is easy to overdo. When in doubt, gentle processing is usually best!

Quick Tip: As you work with this tool, I strongly recommend using the “Advanced” option in the mode dropdown at the top of this panel. This will give you the most control to adjust the tones in your image.

Step 4: The Detail Tab

I am only going to touch on this tab briefly, as I do not use these features for many of my wildlife images. The Detail tab includes tools for sharpening and noise removal. With animals, too much of either sharpening or noise removal can add strange artifacts and make fur or feathers appear unnatural. I prefer to apply these very lightly in wildlife images, if at all, using other tools like clarity to give a sharpening effect.

And…Done!

These are all the adjustments this particular image needed. While there are other features available in ACDSee to edit your images, if you have gotten it close in the camera, the settings I have covered will get you great results in the digital darkroom for your wildlife photos.

Remember, you are working with RAW files, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Take Snapshots often, and push each slider to its extreme to see the results. If you don’t like what you produce, you can always reset and start over, the best way to learn is by getting in there and trying it out!

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