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]