Playing With Pixels
Digital Imaging And The Wildlife Photographer

Photos © 1999, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

Just a few years ago, serious wildlife photographers would not be caught dead without a set of telephoto lenses, camera supports, a selection of medium speed and fast films, polarizing and warming filters, flash with a flash extender, and perhaps a photographer's/hunter's "blind" in which to hide.

Today, those accessories are still very important. But there are other, very powerful tools that wildlife photographers can use to get great end results. They are the digital imaging programs of the computer world. In fact, without a digital imaging program, a professional wildlife photographer might find it hard to compete in this highly competitive field. And for the amateur, digital imaging programs make wildlife photography even more fun.

Many digital imaging programs are available. For very serious wildlife photographers, there's Adobe Photoshop ($600), which offers advanced image correction, enhancement, and manipulation. For weekend and vacation wildlife photographers, programs like PhotoSuite II ($50), Corel Draw 8 ($130), Adobe Photoshop LE ($100), and Wright Design ($100) offer basic and way-cool digital imaging functions.

I use Adobe Photoshop to enhance my wildlife photographs for a simple reason: it offers unlimited enhancements. But you don't necessarily need such a sophisticated program; less expensive programs can help you and your images look good, too.

Here's a look at what I do in the digital darkroom--and how you can use the same techniques on your own wildlife images.

Jaguar, Belize, Central America, In Captivity. Check out the original scan. It's rather dark and a bit flat because the animal was photographed in the shade. Plus, you really can't see the animal's eyes--a key element in wildlife photography. The jaguar's head now dominates the frame.

My first step was to use the Crop tool to add impact to the image; I cut out the "dead" space around the animal.

Next I lightened the eyes by using the Dodge tool. See the difference? There is more life to the image.

In looking closely at the picture, I noticed that the hairs on the jaguar's chin were washed out. To tone down this area, I used the Magic Wand tool to select the white hairs and then "pulled down" the film's curve in Curves, which darkened the area.

Then I used the Burn tool to darken the rock in the bottom of the frame, which detracted from the scene. This helped in keeping the emphasis on the jaguar's head.

To create the impression that the photograph was taken late in the day, I boosted the reds and yellows just a bit using Adjust>Colors. Had I wanted, I could have adjusted the colors from moonlight to bright sunshine.

The picture was still a bit dark, so I adjusted the brightness using Curves. I could have brightened the image using the Brightness/Contrast control, but the effect is not quite the same.

The final image in this series is an artistic creation. I used Filters>Angled Strokes to add a painterly quality to the image.

Lioness, Botswana, Africa. I liked the original shot. However, I wanted to create an image that leapt off the page.

Basically, I drew upon an old photographic zoom lens technique: zooming out quickly and evenly during a long exposure, which creates dramatic streaks in the scene.

In Photoshop, there is a Radial Blur in Filters that you can use to create the zooming effect. I tried this effect, but it completely blurred out the lioness' face--an effect I did not like. So, I made a duplicate layer (a picture on top of a picture) in Layers and used the Radial Blur only on the top layer. Next I used the Eraser tool and rubbed out the blur on the lion's face on the top layer. This revealed the sharp image of the lion's face on the lower layer. This gave me the effect I wanted.

Elephant, Botswana, Africa. Se-veral digital effects were used to create the final image. Most noticeable is the removal of the distracting branch in front of the elephant's trunk, which was easily accomplished using the Rubber Stamp tool. I simply cloned adjacent parts of the animal's trunk and placed them over the branch.

Using Curves, I pulled out the highlights in the animal's left tusk. Note the difference.

To "warm up the image," I increased the reds and yellows using Adjust>Colors.

Next I wanted to create the effect that I had taken the picture at a wide aperture, which would have blurred the foreground and background--leaving the point of focus sharp. This effect is easily accomplished by selecting the Blur tool and "painting" over, and therefore softening, the brush surrounding the animal.

Using the Crop tool, I cut off some of the brush area that surrounded the elephant--adding more impact to the picture.

Finally, I darkened the surrounding area to draw more attention to the elephant.

As you can see, it's relatively easy to enhance wildlife pictures in the digital darkroom. The degree of enhancement is limited only by your budget and creativity. If you do play with pixels on your computer, don't forget that honesty is the best policy: ID your pictures as digitally enhanced...or else you are cheating.

Editor's Note: Rick Sammon took the lioness and elephant photographs for this article while shooting three episodes of the ESPN Canon Photo Safari in Botswana, Africa in 1999. Safari arrangements were made by Afro Ventures ( The jaguar was photographed in captivity during the shooting of the ESPN Canon Photo Safari in Belize, Central America in 1998. Belize travel arrangements were made through the Belize Tourism Board ( Botswana pictures were shot on Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100; Belize shot was taken on Elite Chrome 200.

Adobe Photoshop

Corel Draw 8

PhotoSuite II

Wright Design