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The digital alterations behind an insect field-guide photo

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Microdaceton, a miniature trap-jaw ant (Kibale Forest, Uganda).

I’d love to claim that images spring forth from my camera fully-formed & beautiful, surpassing any need for downstream correction. Alas, no. Even my best shots are improved with a little tweaking. In this post I explain how I crunch a raw capture to produce a field-guide type photograph.

For brevity I will leave aside the details of the original exposure*. During the session I snapped 15 takes of the ant, deleted the worst on-camera, and imported the following files to Adobe Lightroom:

The camera raw files: which image to choose? I went with the highlighted one at center-left.

A closer look at the original capture.

After selecting an acceptable image on the basis of focus and aesthetics, I noted the following problems:

  1. The ant is too far off-center to the left, a hazard of a moving subject.
  2. The magnification is not strong enough, leaving too much white space for too little ant.
  3. The whites are too gray.
  4. The substrate has distracting dirt specks.

Still in Lightroom, I performed the following adjustments to correct problems 1-3:

I adjusted the levels to bring the background to full white (= histogram values go all the way to the right), pull the darks down to full black (=histogram values go all the way to the left), and made a few minor corrections to render the background as color-neutral as it was in life.

Lightroom is a powerful program, but for those without it, similar manipulations can also be done in Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and other common imaging software.

After cropping out the unused right portion of the image to bring more ant into the image, I dealt with problem #4- the dirt- by exporting this levels-adjusted file to Adobe Photoshop:

Out of Lightroom and ready for Photoshop.

Why Photoshop? I prefer it to Lightroom for the nitty-gritty of dealing with little imperfections like sensor dust and substrate dirt. Lightroom can remove  spots as well, but Photoshop gives more control.

I do a search-and-destroy mission for dirt using Photoshop's clone tool.

With spots removed I’m ready to make the final adjustments. Captures from the Canon MP-E macro lens are naturally soft, so I used photoshop’s “unsharp mask” to bring crispness to the image.

The final Photoshop manipulation corrects for the softness resulting from the MP-E lens's excessive native diffraction.

The whole process takes about 5 minutes, with another few minutes devoted to keywording the metadata. This miniature trap-jaw ant is now ready for my commercial galleries, my facebook page, and my Google + stream!

The final product has more bite than the original!

*If you must know: Canon 7D dSLR with an MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens at 4x, lit with diffuse twin flash, the ant walking about on white plastic.

[h/t to Ted MacRae, whose recent Tiger Beetle post inspired this article]

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. tcmacrae 2:20 pm 10/24/2012

    Including screen shots of the Lightroom dialog box before and after makes this post so much more informative than mine with its rambling prose, and your starting photo, despite its problems, is definitely not ‘crappy’! :)

    Question: did you apply Unsharp Mask before or after resizing, and what pixel and level values did you use with the 170% amount? I’m thinking I might still be going a little too soft-handed with USM on my photos.

    Link to this
  2. 2. TheHymenopteran 5:55 pm 10/24/2012

    Exactly the sort of informative postprocessing post that I want to read Alex. Thank you for these sorts of lessons, they are much appreciated. The final product does indeed have much more bite, excellent.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 10:10 pm 10/24/2012

    Thanks for the commentary, guys!

    Ted- we’re not ever supposed to sharpen at greater than a radius of 1 pixel, but the MP-E’s diffraction is so severe that anywhere more than 2x I usually sharpen at about 2 pixels. Threshold of 5-10 or so.

    Link to this
  4. 4. tcmacrae 11:49 am 10/25/2012

    Okay, those values are about what I’m using – thanks!

    Link to this

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