High Contrast Swan

This article discusses various considerations when creating high contrast swan images and some approaches that can be used in post. When we’re out with our cameras it can be beneficial to look beyond what we are physically seeing with our eyes, and imagining a photograph in our brains.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-2000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4333 pixels on the width, subject distance 37 metres

To put the photographs in this article in perspective it is important to illustrate a standard type of image that I captured that morning at Hendrie Valley. As you can see with the photograph above there was nothing particularly unique about the lighting or subject matter. If you check the EXIF data you’ll see that I didn’t use any exposure compensation. Now let’s have a look at another swan photograph that I captured on that same morning under similar lighting conditions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-400, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, full frame capture, subject distance 25.4 metres

The main difference with this image is that I used -0.7 EV exposure compensation to underexpose the image. One of the advantages of using a mirrorless camera for this kind of exposure adjustment is that you can immediately see the results, without having to guess. I found the pattern on the surface of the water a bit distracting so I made some additional corrections in post as you can see with the following version of the same photograph.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-400, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, full frame capture, subject distance 25.4 metres

The amount of contrast that you create with your images is a matter of personal choice based on the creative vision you have in your mind. As regular readers know I hate working in post so I didn’t spend a lot of extra time on the photographs in this article. Nor did I do any time consuming masking or dodging. I simply did what I would typically do in post, and made adjustments to create a high degree of contrast.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, full frame capture, subject distance 25.6 metres

When photographing this type of subject matter I typically capture short bursts of images at 18 frames-per-second using continuous auto focus as the subject bird is slowly moving. I find that this helps capture subtle differences in body and/or head positions. Comparing the image above with the one that follows, illustrates the potential benefit of this technique.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, full frame capture, subject distance 25.3 metres

One of the things that I really love about using DxO PhotoLab 4 is the Spot Weighted DxO Smart Lighting function. I find this really helps squeeze more dynamic range out of an image. In the case of the swan images in this article I placed my Spot Weighted box on the body of the swan and made adjustments in the ‘medium’ range. This helped bring out more white feather detail.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3637 pixels on the width, subject distance 26.5 metres

While in DxO I also darkened highlights and lightened the mid-tones. This helped balance out the exposure on the swan. I also added some black to start the process of enhancing contrast in the photographs. Then I exported a DNG file into PhotoShop CS6 as is my standard practice. Once in PhotoShop I made a few simple adjustments using contrast, highlights, shadows, white,  and black sliders. These increased overall contrast further.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-320, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4604 pixels on the width, subject distance 37.9 metres

I made a couple of minor adjustments in the Nik Collection. My final adjustment in that suite was darkening the shadows slightly using Viveza 2. When creating high contrast images of white birds I sometimes go back into PhotoShop CS6 to tweak brightness slightly. The final step in my process is to run my images through Topaz DeNoise AI.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-320, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4639 pixels on the width, subject distance 38 metres

If you click on the images and scroll through them, you’ll see a significant difference between the first and last photographs in this article in terms of mood and drama. The important point is that the lighting conditions for all of the photographs in this article were very similar. What we choose to do with available light, and how we interpret our images in post, are key factors in our photographic expression.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are indicated. This is the 1,076th article published on this website since its original inception.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-400, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, full frame capture, subject distance 24.8 metres

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