In this guide I will give you a step by step process on how to easily edit your bird photos in Lightroom to get vastly improved results from the original RAW images.
I would also like to appeal to people to only shoot in RAW mode if you are willing to edit your photos. I hear so many people proudly saying they only shoot in RAW mode, but when I ask them if they edit their photos they say things like “I know how to use my camera settings so well that the photos don’t need any editing”, or” I only crop the image” My answer to that is you are just wasting space on your SD card. If you don’t do any editing then you are better off just shooting in JPEG mode as you will waste a lot less space and you will get the camera manufacturers algorithm applied to your images to make them more desirable.
Another point to always be conscious of when editing bird photos, is to concentrate on how the editing effects the bird in the photo, and not the entire photo itself. The bird is the subject, and the exposure, sharpness and colours etc. need to be adjusted with bird at the forefront.
I will be taking you through the process by way of two examples. Please note that I am using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic 9.3 Release.
Example 1: Bar-tailed Godwit
One can see in the image above that the photo is overexposed, however when looking at the histogram there is no clipping occurring so all the details should be able to recovered when it comes to editing.
Step 1: Apply lens and chromatic aberration corrections.
This is a simple clicking of two checkboxes. It doesn’t make a big difference, but in theory a camera’s lens does not take a photo exactly how the human eye sees it, so there is a preset applied specific to your lens to make the slight adjustment when this is clicked.
Step 2: Cropping
This is the time to crop the image to the desired size and aspect you want. I try to stick to well-known aspect ratios e.g. 3:2, 16:9, 1:1, or 4:5. For this image I am going to select the wide angle 3:2 ratio. Also when cropping, one of the biggest mistakes I see people make, is that they crop too much, and the bird looks like it doesn’t have any space to breathe. Also a good rule to use is “The Rule of Thirds” which you can google, but basically don’t just slap your subject in the middle of the picture as it looks amateurish.
Step 3: Setting the Blacks and Whites
Setting the Blacks and Whites gives your photo a greater tonal range. This can be done easily by holding down the shift key and double clicking on the word Blacks and then Whites.
Step 4: Highlights and Shadows
By adjusting the highlights and shadows you will bring in a lot of lost detail to your images. I find that highlights are usually a killer for detail and unless the photo is shot in deep shade then you can take the highlights down all the way to -100. Similarly with shadows you can usually increase this value a lot, but I find that if you increase it too much, it might start looking a bit fake and increase the noise in the image. A safe value to use is usually +75, but drag the slider and see what looks good to you.
Step 5: Exposure
Now is the time to adjust the exposure, and in this case it is going to make quite a big difference as this image is quite overexposed. In this case I will take the exposure down by -0.88.
Step 6: White Balance and Tint
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is to not look at adjusting the white balance of their photos. Yes your camera has an auto white balance function that we all use, but it often doesn’t get it totally correct. Lightroom can also automatically adjust the white balance for you, but I find it often over compensates. In this photo the original white balance was 4800. When I auto correct it in Lightroom it changes it to 4150. Now the original value of 4800 I definitely find too warm (too orange), but the Lightroom correction of 4150 I find too cool (too blue). When I change it to a value in between I find what I am looking for. In this case I used a value of 4456. The tint slider in layman’s terms affects how green (lower values) or how purple (higher values) the image appears. I just applied the auto correction (value of +3) for this and was happy.
Step 7: Clarity, Texture, Dehaze and Contrast
Ok so to explain the differences between these settings can be pretty technical, but I am going to describe the basics of all four.
Texture mainly deals with high frequency areas of contrast, and by increasing the texture you can bring out the details and sharpness of objects in the near focal range of the photo. I usually play around with values from 0 to 30, and mainly within the 7 to 25 range. For this image I chose 23.
Clarity improves the sharpness in the mid frequency ranges. Don’t use it too much for images where you want to preserve a good bokeh effect. I have used 23 in this case.
Dehaze is a fairly new addition, and I am quite wary of it. It is used to increase contrast in the low frequency areas. When I use it, I tend to use it sparingly. In this image I used a value of 5.
Contrast is similar to clarity but it works on the whole tonal range of an image, whereas clarity (which is sometimes called local contrast) only affects the mid tones. In this image I have used a value of 23.
If the descriptions above for texture, clarity, dehaze and contrast don’t make too much sense to you, you can just rely on the actual names. They pretty much say what they do.
Step 8: Vibrance and Saturation
RAW images need their colours enhanced, and now is the time to do it. Both vibrance and saturation are used to increase the colour depth of the image, but they do it in slightly different ways. Vibrance is the least aggressive and recommended way to adjust the colours, as it largely leaves alone areas that are already saturated. I normally use a vibrance value of around 18 to 30 and have chosen 23 in this case. I left the saturation value at 0, but for some photos you might want to increase this slightly to really make the more colourful areas pop even more, but only add a little when doing this.
Step 9: Sharpening
At last we can sharpen the image. For some reason I find the strange value of 59 works out pretty good in most cases. Be careful not to over sharpen as you will end up with harsh visible lines around edges of your objects often resulting in what is called a halo effect. The other important thing to do is adjust the sharpening mask. To do this hold down the alt key and adjust the mask. When doing this all the areas in white will be sharpened and the areas in black will not. This means that you will not be increasing the noise in the black areas and you will leave it more blurred giving you a more desirable bokeh effect.
Step 10: Noise Reduction
The last step is to decrease the noise in your image. The trick is to find the sweet spot. Too much noise reduction will result in the loss of sharpness, while too little will leave you with the nasty grain. I usually always look at the ISO of the image as a starting point just to get an idea of how much noise is probably in the image, but you can of course just scrutinise the image yourself and look at how noisy it is. So this might sound obvious but the less noise in your image means you should be doing a little or no noise reduction, whilst if there is a lot of noise then you will have to do more (but up to a point). The other thing to consider is what you are doing with your finished picture. If you are merely posting it on social media then you can actually get away with a bit of noise in your pics, as these are mostly viewed on smartphones with high resolutions and small screens so the noise is hardly noticeable. I usually use a value of between 0 and 25. This photo doesn’t have too much noise and I am happy with using a value of 6.
Step 11: Marvel at your Achievement