Lessons from my Workshop: Bald Eagle before and after

by Nov 25, 2019

It’s hard to believe it, but it’s been over two months since I headed to Washington and took the Photo Workshop/Retreat from Art Wolfe in Olympic National Park. Time is just flying away this year (mostly in a good way).

I’ve had a number of people ask me if what I got out of the workshop and whether I got my money’s worth, and so I’ve been trying to figure out how to properly explain that.

The short answer: I thought then workshop was of great value to me and was well worth the time and money, most of the reasons why are subjective and not easy to explain. For instance, when I’m out shooting, I find I’m seeing possible compositions differently, trying to think more in terms of the structure of the composition as opposed to just the primary subject, even if it’s something like a bird. I’m finding I’m slowing down and thinking more and trying to plan my shots ahead, and therefore actually pressing the shutter less. Even with bird photography where so much is recognize and react work trying to catch things as the birds go through their normal activity, I’m choosing my locations differently and being more away of the compositional aspects and light of a shot before settling in to see if something is going to happen. I’m wasting less time taking shots I’ll throw away because of image clutter or bad light, so I believe overall, the quality of my in-camera images are better and there are fewer dings and throwaways because I’m learning to not take a shot that I can see won’t work.

Where I think it’s easier to show how things have changed is my digital darkroom work. For example, take a look at these two images of a Bald Eagle I shot a couple of years ago. One is my original processing result from 2017, and the other was one I just did because I was about to send it out for use by someone and I’m routinely re-processing images to bring them up to date before I do that.

Can you tell which is which?

Bald Eagle at their nest, Milpitas, California

Bald Eagle at their nest, Milpitas, California

Yes, the one with the darker sky is the new image.

One thing Art did in his critiques was take the raw unprocessed files, and then do a quick edit on them in front of everyone. Not only did that mean you had nowhere to hide when it came to getting good captures in camera, it gave us all a good look at his editing workflow. He uses Lightroom for these critiques, for what it’s worth.

One thing he does that initially just blew me away as insane: he immediately sets highlights to -100 and shadows to +100. I quickly realized that this made a lot of sense; effectively what you’re doing is maximizing detail and local contrast in the mid-tones, and then adjusting from there. When I had that realization, I told Art I was stealing this and planning to adopt it into my own workflow, and so I have (with credit!).

In all the lightroom tutorials I’ve looked at over the years, I’ve never see someone do this, and yet, when you look at the results, it seems obvious.

Another thing I took from his critiques: focus on the subject, get it right in the image. I found that I was spending too much time trying to both the main subject and all of the surrounding background stuff right, and in reality, much of that is wasted energy. Which doesn’t mean you ignore it, but if the subject is correct, the background will allmost always complement it (if, of course, you plan your compositions properly).

A third: lots of local enhancements, rather than trying to do most of the work with global ones. Use the global tools to get the basics of the image right, and then focus on using local enhancements — the brush, the fill tools — to optimize the image. This is where the luminance and color masks in the radial fill and gradient fill are really your friends.

I have actually created an import preset that automatically sets some basic values on every image I import, and that includes this -100/+100 adjustment, along with some basic tweaks to think like texture, clarity and my default sharpening values. You can (and should) always review and tweak these, but I know — in general — where I want my starting points to be.

I also have one personally recommendation: I’ve taken to setting a snapshot whenever a finish an image. When I go back and tweak or reprocess it, I’ll set one when I start and finish that round of changes. That way, I can easily find every revision of an image over time without having to try to find these points in the history. This new habit came in really handy recently when I did an update of a set of images and published them, and then didn’t realize that when I had them all selected, his the “auto” button. When I later realized the images looked weird and it was easy to identify which had been modified (hint: select the base of your image collection and set the view sort to “edit time/descending”), and quickly set them back.

One side result of this: I’m spending less time tweaking images. Thanks to the snapshots above, I can see the reprocess of this image too about 7 minutes and 30 seconds start to end. I think the quality has taken a distinct step forward, but I’m also finding I expect different thinks out of the images when I decide they deserve some darkroom time.

I’ll also note this image especially benefits from the texture tool in Lightroom, which is new to the recent releases and didn’t exist when I did the initial processing. I will deserve the “you need to remember to reprocess your worthy images as you mature” and “you really benefit from keeping your tools up to date and learn to use the new features that are added” arguments to some other time (you’re welcome. but it’s true, he says staring at my friends who like to tell me they’re fine continue with Lightroom 6, or in one case, Adobe CS 3. Yes, you. You’re kidding yourself).

The thing I like about this image is that it shows quite objectively how some things I learned at the workshop have paid off. Other things like how it’s changed my view of composition and light in the field show up more in where I don’t waste time on an image that won’t work, but here, the change is both visible and obvious.

And yes, Bald Eagles are majestic birds, aren’t they?

And yes, workshops can be totally worth the time and money, as long as you know what you want to accomplish going in, are willing to be taught while there, and then put in the time and energy to implement what you learn instead of falling back into old habits again once home. The value is there, you just have to grab it and drag it home with you.