How Important is a Technically Perfect Wildlife Photo?

How Important is a Technically Perfect Wildlife Photo?

Do lighting, mood and emotional impact outweigh technical deficiencies?

I recently put out a request on social media for topics to write about.  I got a bunch of great responses and this one stood out as a topic I wanted to share my thoughts on.  

"Technical perfection vs the overall mood and feel of an image and the emotion it evokes. Why understanding light, mood, and composition is much more valuable than megapixels, sharpness, and the newest thing. - Konstantine Mamalis"

This is a topic I've changed my stance on over the 13 years I've been doing wildlife photography.  It seems to follow a path that many other aspects of photography follow, at least for me.  When I first started out I didn't know any better and everything looked "just fine" to me. Out of focus, horrible exposure, crappy light, none of that really mattered, I would just enjoy a photo I took and share it.  It wasn't because I didn't care about those technical aspects, it was because I was ignorant of them and hadn't really learned them yet, and I knew that.  Eventually I started getting better at proper exposure, figuring out my focus settings to get sharp photos and then I started to see quality light.  My eye for wildlife photography became a bit more developed and those same technical aspects improved along with my overall photography.  

Next came the stage when I thought everything had to be technically perfect for a photo to be good.  If the photo was just the slightest bit out of focus, in the trash it went.  Not great lighting, toss it.  If I messed up a setting and had to push the exposure around too far in post, deleted.  A slight distraction in the background or foreground, no good.  What I now see from that period of my wildlife photography is a sterile and in my opinion sometimes boring set of technically great photos. I had figured out how to get close to most birds and how to get clean foregrounds and backgrounds and that was all I was doing.  I had not yet developed a wildlife photography style other then "close and sharp". 

Eventually I yearned for something more creatively and started on my journey to develop my current style of bird photography which I talk more about in a previous post.  What also came along with my increased skills on the technical side of wildlife photography was a desire and an understanding that creating a great wildlife photo that elicits an emotion for the viewer and is beautiful to look at goes well beyond the technical aspects of the photo and sometimes can be in opposition of them. 

While I always strive for technical perfection in my wildlife photography I rarely achieve that, even with some of my favorite photos. The photo above is a great example of a compositional style I love to do that has the bird rather small in the frame and yet it is the only thing in focus in the entire scene which makes the bird still stand out.  It may not be possible to tell but when zoomed in on the full sized photo the Great Egret is definitely not tack sharp.  Here is where knowing your final use comes into play.  If I was planning on printing this photo really large it would certainly not hold up.  Since I knew I'd only be sharing it online with social media it works just fine.  To me the composition and lighting on the bird outweigh the lack of sharpness, so the photo works.  A few years back I would have deleted the image, actually I probably would have never shot it with the bird so far away.  Many of you may still delete such a photo if it's not tack sharp and I think that is completely fine. Everyone must set their own standards and be confident in their choice.

Below is another example of a photo where the moment, interaction and overall mood far outweigh the lack of sharpness created from shooting through the low hanging fog on the water.  The chick is even more out of focus from shooting wide open at f/4 but it was really low light so that was the tradeoff needed to maintain a decent shutter speed and keep the ISO under control.

The Blue-winged Warbler below was shot while borrowing a friend's Tamron 150-600mm lens, not the sharpest of all lenses but it worked. I caught focus on the bird's wings instead of the eye, it's close to sharp but not perfect. The overall framing made it worth sharing to me. In my opinion a creative use of foreground blur and composition made the photo more interesting even without the tack sharp eye.  Keep in mind I wouldn't use a photo that is obviously out of focus, it still has to be pretty close to sharp in the right spots. I also do not really add much sharpening in post other then a global default setting that is pretty low.  That's just my taste in processing, many others might selectively sharpen areas to make them appear more sharp.

The Downy Woodpecker above is a shot I had wanted for years. You can read all about the process of creating this photo on an older blog post. I had to work hard to get this exact shot and again the head and eye of the woodpecker are not tack sharp.  It gets a slide because of how hard I worked on it and my hope that the viewer can let that slide as well when they view the image as a whole. I think in this circumstance it helps that only the 1 stalk and the bird are in focus in this image which may help to make them appear sharper.

For the Prothonotary Warbler below I was shooting in a dimly lit swamp with a bird that was bouncing all around and would only stay on any given perch for a very short period of time. Everything is just a touch soft in this image due to camera shake while shooting a 500mm lens on a monopod and kneeling in waders in water about 3 feet deep. Again, I hope the viewer lets those slight technical deficiencies slide while enjoying the composition as a whole.  It's sharp enough that I should be able to sell this photo on stock photo sites without issue but if you really dig in there it's not technically perfect.  

This is a great example of where my opinion on sharpness has changed over the years.  I was of course trying hard to capture the warbler as sharp as could be, so I took a slight gamble and shot at 1/200 @ f/4 to keep my ISO down to 2,000.  I know if I shoot enough frames I can usually get a sharp photo at that slow of a shutter speed so I made that decision.  It could have happened, and has happened, that I choose too low a shutter speed or the bird I'm working with moves to much and I walk away with zero photos.  I now understand and know the risk of using those settings.  Getting a good grasp of the technical side of your gear can help or even allow you to get more creative with your photos.  

 
 

The next technical aspect that is widely debated is high ISO settings and noise/grain in a photo.  I personally don't mind an image with a decent amount of noise in the photo as long as it doesn't detract from the overall feel of the image.  Sometimes the noise can be overwhelming or simply throw off the color of an image, in which case it doesn't work out. For the photo of the Cerulean Warbler below the ISO setting was 16,000.  Not every camera can handle those high ISO settings, thankfully mine can. To me, the additional noise is completely acceptable and the lighting that made the bird and the leaves stand out against the darker background outweigh the less then ideal ISO setting.  I did apply some light noise reduction on the bird and leaves along with some stronger noise reduction on the out of focus and darker background to further reduce its impact but in the final image it's still there. The same is true for the Snowy Owl photo taken at ISO 4,000 which was required to freeze the action of the bird taking off.  I could have used a lower ISO but my shutter speed would have dropped too low to have a good chance of getting a sharp bird in flight photo.  

At this point hopefully you can see how having a good understanding of the technical side of things is certainly important and I'd say required to allow you to capture specific photos.  The key is to not let those technical aspects rule over the image. For example, I've heard on more then one occasion something along the lines of "I never shoot over ISO (insert your favorite ISO under 400)" While that may be great from a technical standpoint as far as image quality goes how many opportunities do you think could be missed from some quality light and situations that may require a slightly higher setting then that photographer refuses to go above? In my opinion a little more grain in the photo would certainly be better then not taking the photo at all.  Of course there is a limit to how far you can push the ISO but I'll happily push it more then I'm normally comfortable doing if the situation calls for it and I think there is a chance of creating a great wildlife photo.  It's all about the quality of light not always the quantity.

Another aspect of wildlife photography that can often outweigh technical failures to me is action in a photo. Often times the action or interaction is so unique or interesting that I start to let the technicals fade.  In the Tricolored Heron above I didn't have enough depth of field to get both the splash and the heron itself in focus.  In the end I think that was a benefit to the photo and it made it all about that splash and the fish at the tip of the bill compared to a photo of a bird with a splash.  The subject inadvertently changed due to the technical specs on that image.  Below I clipped the wing of the Common Tern in the air.  A big no-no for myself as well as many others is clipping a wing of the bird, especially one in flight.  I do however have the entire Black Skimmer in the frame and the interaction between the two tells such a story I was willing to overlook the clipped wings.  Hopefully other viewers feel the same.

A slight lack in sharpness in the photos above and below hopefully don't detract from the exciting hunting action that is captured in each photo.  The sense of movement is almost exaggerated due to that slight lack of sharpness in my opinion. These are examples of where you have to employ your own judgement to figure out where that line of sharp enough to show the action is.  Everyone will probably have a different opinion on this so it's really up to you to decide. 

Above is an example of when the overall scene can win out against some really shitty lighting.  At least it did for me.  I would normally never be out shooting in mid day full summer sun. While scouting this location I came upon this Snowy Egret wading in the shallows and the sun reflecting off the water was enough to fill in the harsh shadows and make the shot useable and even creeping into "nice" territory.   

Below is a circumstance where having amazing lighting won out over a bird that was too close to include the entire thing in the frame.  With the random dark and light areas I accepted the fact that I chopped of the Snowy Egret's back end and went with it.  The addition of some action as it caught a small shrimp gave the image some bonus points. 

Another technical aspect I see often debated is the fascination with more and more resolution in the latest cameras. With sensors putting out 40+ megapixels it seems everyone is in a hurry to put more and more pixels on their subjects.  While there are certainly times I find myself thinking it would be nice to have a little more resolution to play with while cropping in post, I can honestly say it's never been a hindrance to how I shoot. Especially when you consider how the vast majority of us all share our photos online and with sites like Instagram becoming the popular way to share these tiny relatively low resolution photos look exactly the same whether taken with a 12 megapixel camera or one with 50.  For years I shot with a 12 MP camera and for the past 4 years I've been doing great with the 16 MP Nikon D4s.  While I do crop pretty much every photo I share, I often try not to crop too much. I also submit every photo I share each day to stock photography websites and they have minimum resolution requirements I have to meet.  Even with my measly 16mp camera I rarely have an image not meet those requirements.  

I've talked to many other wildlife photographers who mention "wouldn't it be great to have all that extra ability to crop in close on your subject with a high megapixel camera?" My answer has a few points. First, cropping in after the fact is no substitution for getting closer to your subject.  Cropping doesn't change the actual distance you were from your subject when you captured the photo, it also doesn't change the relationship and distance between the subject and the background.  Both of those are greatly affected and often improved when you physically get closer to the subject.  My friend Scott wrote up a wonderful post diving into this concept a bit more.

Second, when is the last time you saw a photo online and thought to yourself "look at all that resolution!"  I'm guessing it's never or very rarely. If a photographer shot the exact same photo with a 12mp camera and a 50mp camera and shared it online at lets say 2000 pixels on the long side I would guess it would be impossible to tell the difference.  I'm not trying to say there are no advantages to these higher resolution cameras. If you do a lot of very large format printing you will certainly see a difference and I guess it's probably cool to be able to zoom in on your computer and see minute feather detail on closer portraits.  

Third is the overall image quality.  Super high resolution sensors most often do not have the dynamic range (I know they keep getting better) and more importantly the low light capability of most lower resolution sensors.  For my style, I more often find myself shooting in lower light then I do in bright light where resolution could be more important.  Having the ability to shoot cleaner and better color images in low light situations is a far more valuable tool to me then any resolution increase.  That of course may not be the case for you but it's at least something to think about. 

The Great Egret photo below shows how a heavy crop on an already medium resolution photo can work just fine.  The original shot on the left, captured with my Nikon D4s at 16 MP was then cropped a good bit to the vertical photo on the right.  The final image dimensions are 1816 x 2729 pixels.  Not a lot of resolution at all.  This image is currently one of my most popular photos on Instagram.  My point being the average person doesn't care at all about resolution, just the final outcome of the photo. 

The last technical aspect I'd like to discuss is nailing the exposure.  In recent years I've become more and more willing to push photos around like crazy in post.  This is also a development of camera sensors becoming more and more incredible as technology moves forward.  It's another circumstance where the technical side of things can help you fix or let slide an imperfection. 

In the photo below of this Yellow-throated Warbler I completely botched my exposure and was roughly 2-3 stops over exposed.  In the past I would just chalk that up to a loss but in this case I really liked the closeness and the perch the bird was on so I tried to see if I could fix it.  Surprisingly the photo recovered nicely and I was able to end up with something worth sharing of this beautiful species of warbler.  

In this last example below it wasn't so much that my exposure was off but the fact that I had some of the worst lens flare I've ever shot as this Hooded Merganser swam directly into the sun reflecting on the water.  Again, knowing the technical side of things and what was possible for me in post processing allowed me to ignore the washed out look of the original photo and see the potential for a very unique and creative photo. With some pushing and pulling of the sliders and some detailed masking in Photoshop I was able to end up at the final result at the bottom, an image I and many others love. 

My goal with this post was to hopefully give you a few things to think about regarding the technical aspects of wildlife photography and maybe how much weight you place on each one.  I know it's a cliché to say that in photography it's all about the final image and not the technical aspects, but I have found over the years that to be more and more true.  Capturing a unique and creative photo that has the power to give the viewer an emotional response is much more engaging then the most technically perfect photo that fails to do that, at least that's my opinion. 

I think it's very important to do your best to master the technical side of wildlife photography with your camera, lenses, shooting techniques and post processing, by no means should you ignore those things.  Once you have them down though I think it frees you up to think more creatively and concentrate on the less then technical ingredients that can really make a photo have impact with your viewers.  That is the goal for most of us who share our passion with others I believe, to hopefully leave a positive impact on the viewer. If that means letting go of technical perfection to get there, it could be worth it.

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.