Black Hunter

Get the full story of this amazing Barn Owl image and see why Andy made the cropping decisions that he did....

Light is everything. It defines whether an image is just a record shot or something more memorable, evocative, and inspirational. Of course, as wildlife photographers we are at the mercy of the subjects we seek, and more often than not have to take advantage of the light that we find rather than being able to manipulate it. This episode of ImageTalk is more than just about light though, I want to show you how a little creative composition in post processing can help really improve the impact of a shot.

This evocative image of a barn owl about to give a vole a very bad day is one that I really love. It is so much more than just another shot of a barn owl hunting. Its poise, the light through the wings and its status as the nation’s favourite owl all combine to make this one of my most simple yet compelling owl images in recent years. It just screams at me off the page whenever I see it, hopefully you will have the same reaction too. With backlit images like this one, we can make a conscious decision whether to shoot directly into the light or not. I ALWAYS prefer to shoot into the light, it gives the image atmosphere, makes it oh so much more than just a photograph and I just love the look.

The most important thing about this picture of course is not the techno analysis but the fieldcraft to get a barn owl hunting in the first place. I made a conscious decision to avoid the usual place where the barn owl hunted, which was easy and front lit, to choose somewhere less frequently visited where the only choice was to shoot backlit.

So where did I get the black background from? Did I have a team of volunteers holding up a huge black sheet for a promise of a bacon sandwich and ever lasting fame? No, much simpler than that. It's a patch of woodland that is incredibly dark when the sun sets behind it, this lets me play tricks with the exposure to create the black background effect. I have used this many many times in my work, in fact in one of my earlier books I dedicated a whole chapter to it. The backlight is slightly deceiving too as it is not pure backlight but coming in at an angle from the side. The angle is still oblique enough to give the light through the wings and the halo, but shallow enough to cast a little bit of light onto the barn owl's face. Anything else would have been too arty for this shot, it works just as it is. It was another Rouse gamble and this time it worked, but the twenty or so times before it had not!

Talking about Settings & Gear....

At this point you have to decide what kind of backlit image you want, something like this with some detail on the owl or just a rim defining the shape. For the latter it would be a case of shooting right into the light, using -3 stops of exposure compensation and a couple of those naughty Photoshop curves. I toyed with this idea for a while and actually did both, but prefer this one as a combination of reflected light from the vehicle’s windows and naughty Photoshop gave the image a little more life I think.

Exposure wise I added - 1 2/3 stops of exposure compensation to make the trees black. This also would remove the chance of over-exposing the highlights of the owl, something that the camera simply loves to do if left unsupervised.

Talking about Composition....

The original image above had a lot of lovely black space and really draws attention to the owl. For me it works really well the way that it is and I shot it deliberately to have space. Yes this works for the composition, but I like to shoot images with extra space to give me some extra options during processing. I like to create several versios of my images, which gives commercial clients a choice of what use as different uses need different crops and formats. Of course my clients have people to do this for them BUT if I present an image that already fits the "brief" then I am more likely to get it used. In this case I figured that the barn owl needs to be more dramatic, so it needs a more aggressive crop and a change of format to portrait style. As you can see from the image below, I have been fairly brutal with the cropping to give a much more 'in your face' composition. Now I don't make a habit of this as clients don't generally like cropped images, but this one is razor sharp and has plenty of pixels. So I used Photoshop Bicubic Smoother interpolation as part of the crop and adding a tiny bit of smart sharpening to the owl to compensate for the slight loss in pixels. When I check the image at 100% it's still great quality, and that is the acid test for me. I see soooooo many images online that have been cropped to hell, the quality is just appalling. This has been cropped and re-interpolated, i.e. it's back to the original size. If the quality was in anyway degraded I would not let it out to the big wide, critical world of my professional clients, trust me on that!

Here are the 4 elements that influenced the way that I cropped this image:

1) The barn owl is now peering into the bottom corner and clearly looking at something - probably a vole with lunch written on it! Naturally the picture leads the viewer down the diagonal from the owl to the bottom right hand corner.

2) Leaving this space at the top-left is essential for the natural flow from the corner to the bottom-right.

3) The backlit wings provide a natural edge to the top of the frame, just close enough to anchor it but far enough to not be crowded.

4) The biggest amount of empty space is now beneath the owl – the zone it will drop into when it swoops. In the original shot the owl looked lost in too much darkness, but now the overall balance feels right.

Of course I should point out that these are just my views on what will work the best here and you may have very different ideas. Like I said above I do not make a habit of this degree of cropping unless the original image can take it, i.e. it is RAZOR sharp ar 100%, so sharp in fact that you can cut yourself on it, so sharp that Mr Sharp of SharpsVille, Tennesseee, will be suitably impressed, so sharp that.....well you get the idea anyway. We will do a much more intensive FotoSkool post on image interpolation in the future as it is a topic that many of you ask about. For now I will just say that you do not have to waste a lot of money buying third party products to do this interpolation / resizing for you as Photoshop Bucubic Smoother does a great job and I have used it for all of my picture expansion when I have been asked to supply huge 10 metre images for advertising.

So the moral of the story here is don't be afraid to crop your images if they are sharp enough and the original image is just the start not the end!

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