Processing a Field Guide Photo

Here’s a photograph I took a couple days ago for the Ants of North America guide:

Lasius umbratus

The image did not look like this straight off the camera, however. Below, I show the CS4 photoshop manipulations I performed on the original RAW file to transform it into the final picture:

Dozens of images of an ant running about on a white backdrop. Which one to choose?

Here's my favorite of the session. The ant looks downright friendly, and this aspect shows both the side view and part of the face- great for a diagnostic image!
The image is underexposed, though. I adjust the levels to bring the background up to full white, it's natural color.
Sampling a known white point in the image is the easiest way to make the adjustment.
Ah, that's better!
Dust on the sensor and dirt on the backdrop are cloned out.
Now, more levels adjustments. Reduce shadows slightly, boost contrast, and correct for oversaturation.
Photographs from the MP-E lens are naturally soft. I apply unsharp mask to make a crisper image.
Finally, I crop out the excess white areas, leaving the ant's eye near the right thirds line for the most pleasing composition.

The point I’d like to make about these manipulations is that I try to keep them to a minimum.  The trick is to get as much right as possible on the original exposure.

Some things I can’t control, of course. The MP-E lens is always soft. Running ants are difficult to frame exactly where I want them.

But I can make sure I shoot on a clean backdrop, using a camera with a reasonably clean sensor, to cut down on the amount of cloning in post-processing. I can create diffuse lighting to minimize glare and shadows. And I can arrange the strobes and camera settings to ensure a proper exposure, so that downstream levels adjustments are minor tweaks rather than major alterations.

Post-processing is one of the topics we will cover in detail in BugShot 2011. You are planning to attend. Right?

21 thoughts on “Processing a Field Guide Photo”

  1. Very nice image and great info on the CS manipulation.
    I wish I could attend the bugShoot 2011 but I’m in the east coast!

    One question… did you take single shots using the MP-E or burst shoot the running ant?

      1. I see… you may want to check these out from Manfrotto. They are coming out next month and the “MAXIMA” has 670 Lux at 3.3′ continuous and with it’s hybrid function, it will turn to a flash and increase the power 4x running on lithium.
        I’m awaiting it’s arrival.
        I’m planning on one or two of the “MIDI” to illuminate both sides of the subject.

        1. Cool, thanks.

          I have a 100 LED array that I sometimes use for video, but I find with the MP-E lens it’s only good up to 1/160 sec at f/7. Not enough to freeze a moving ant with any depth of field.

  2. Very informative, thanks Alex. My technique is very similar, but when shooting on the white background I always try to overexpose the shot by at least 1 stop. In my experience that results in less noise in the image of the critter.

    1. In this example I was shooting in a dimly-lit room so the LCD appeared correspondingly bright. I didn’t think to check the histograms- I actually thought I was slightly overexposing these until I got them on the computer!

      Thank god for RAW.

  3. You know, I just spent the last two years learning all this by trial and error. I could’ve just waited for this post. 🙂

    Seriously, nice to have some confirmation of the process. I, too, go for more rather than less exposure (actually, I tend to take several shots of both and weed them down).

  4. Henry Robison

    I am already signed up and raring to go to BugShot 2011! Thanks for this wonderful explanatory series of photos. Can’t wait for Labor Day!

  5. This is full of good tips. Thanks again, Alex for improving all our photographic efforts.

    And speaking of good tips:

    One thing I note about the white background photos at the guide is that species with whitish pilosity – e.g. Prenolepis, Paratrechina longicornis — appear to have none.

    Also, no scale lines could create confusion.

  6. Pingback: Collecting Insects: Scanning Dragonflies | The Dragonfly Woman

  7. Just rediscovered this post…and discovered unsharp mask. I wish I’d applied that to some of my pictures from this weekend before saving the “final” copies (I shot in JPEG so don’t want to muck around with them much more)! Oh well, it will go into my now-overflowing toolbox for future work!

  8. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make the BugShoot. (Still looking for west coast venue) Have you considered writing a book on insect photography (ebook can be self published) or video taping some of your BugShoot sessions and posting or selling DVD? There’s not a lot out there, especially of this quality focused on insects and ants.

    1. Hey Scott. Thanks for your comment. I’m about 1/2 way through my first draft of an insect photography book. I’ve been talking to some publishers about it but am leaning towards self-publishing. It’s going a bit slow as I’ve been teaching, but stay tuned for updates!

Leave a Reply