Photo Tip – Consider “High Key” Effect for Animals with Patterns

Sometimes when on safari, you spot great animals … but unfortunately, it will be hard to create the separation you wanted between the subject and the bush around the animals.  Of course this makes all of the since in the world since mother makes many animals camouflaged for either avoiding predators or for stalking prey.  One animal that is often well concealed is the  leopard.  On our last trip to Chobe NP, we had great luck in spotting and photographing this stealthy hunter, but found him in sandy areas where subject separation was a challenge.  Image 1 shows the animal “as shot”.

Image 1 - Leoard lost in the background colors

To overcome this limitation, I decided to create a “high key” black and white of the leopard.  To do this, the steps were simple:

  • created a layer, converted the layer to black and white.
  • open an adjustment layer for curves
  • create an “extreme curve” by sliding the black curve right and the white curve left (see image 2).

    Image 2 - Showing curves adjustment with original histogram in background

  • Clone out minor distractions
  • Flatten the image

Below  is the resulting image.  Obviously not a traditional nature image, but still quite interesting.

Leopard with 'high key' effect

Following my luck with the leopard, I got to thinking about the result and what other animals might benefit from the treatment.  I think the result works best with animals with strong hide patterns such as giraffes or zebras.  To make my point, I tried the method on a zebra portrait … but rather than pick a ‘good lighting’ image, I decided to try it on an image shot near mid-day to see if the method can save a rather flat image.  I have horizontally flipped the final version as this orientation better fits my eye. The images below show a side by side of the before and after…. not bad in my opinion.

Before and After with 'flip' and 'high key' effect

Feeling rather emboldened by this work, I decided to tackle another ‘lost image’.  The image below of a mother giraffe and her foal was taken with hopes to create a silhouette image.  Unfortunately, I broke one of the key rules in wildlife photography – I captured the horizon directly in line with the young giraffe’s head.  In addition, since the image was shot just after the sun was set, the histogram was shifted way too for left, resulting in heavy noise when I attempted traditional exposure corrections in Photoshop.  The original image is shown below:

Giraffe and babe just after sunset ... and with lots of noise

As you can see, the result was rather dismal.  Okay, so I have attempted the technique used at the start of the article, with one exception: I think that the background landscape is needed to some degree to give context to the scene.  Without it, the giraffes are ‘floating in space’.  So here was my process to include the landscape:

  • make a copy of the background layer
  • convert the image to black and white (layer 1)
  • Use your mouse to highlight layer 1 and make another copy of it.(command: layer>new>layer via copy). By default, this will be called ‘layer 1 copy’.
  • Create an adjustment layer and, in curves, create the high key image as described before.  You now have the high key image, but not any landscape details.
  • Lower the opacity on ‘layer 1 copy’ until you get just enough background to satisfy your need.
  • This is a pretty good final image, but in my case, some of the background remained too strong.  There are a lot of ways to adjust this, but for simplicity, I merely used the ‘dodge’ tool set at 7% and went over the distracting areas.

And here is the result below.  The high noise I noted earlier, can still be seen, but now it actually adds to the ‘pencil sketch’ feel of this high key scene.

Call it a High Key or Pencil Sketch effect, it's still a heck of a lot better than my original image

Since I liked this technique with the light background, I decided to try the exact same technique on an image I had of a zebra mom and baby.  Again, you can see that the original suffered from a very busy background.

Zebra and foal in the mid-day sun. Rather blah

With this conversion, I decided to ‘flip’ the image horizontally.  I have discussed the logic of this in prior article. I use a basic rule of thumb: if I want to create a peaceful feeling, I like animals moving left to right across the canvas.  If I am conveying energy, the right  to left orientation is preferred.

As with the giraffes, I have left lightly visible background to give context.

Zebra and Foal in 'high key', but with some background included.

So that’s it.  Since first playing with this (which was last week), I have found a number of variations to enhance the impact I am trying to achieve.  I am still learning and a few of my efforts are shown below.  The curve for learning is not steep and I am enjoying exploring this.  I am sure you will too.  I look forward to seeing your images.

Running to meet the camera

Zebra Stallion in a proud profile pose

8 comments for “Photo Tip – Consider “High Key” Effect for Animals with Patterns

  1. Debbie
    January 30, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I love this effect and can see where it would work great in my photos. Do you know if it is possible using PSE instead of the full version?
    You have found a way to take those so so photos and make them wow photos. Thank you!

  2. Debbie
    January 30, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I love this effect and can see where it would work great in my photos. Do you know if it is possible using PSE instead of the full version?
    You have found a way to take those so so photos and make them wow photos. Thank you!

  3. P. B. Eleazer
    January 30, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I haven’t used Elements in a few years. I know it allows layers, that is good, but as i recall, it does not support curves, which was key to my work. I think you could probably use ‘levels’ adjustment and get the effect. I suggest that you pick an image with two dominate shades and play with it. Let us know if you were successful.

  4. P. B. Eleazer
    January 30, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I haven’t used Elements in a few years. I know it allows layers, that is good, but as i recall, it does not support curves, which was key to my work. I think you could probably use ‘levels’ adjustment and get the effect. I suggest that you pick an image with two dominate shades and play with it. Let us know if you were successful.

  5. February 17, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I’m impressed with what I’ve seen here. Photography is a lontime passion of mine, and I love poking around other people’s sites to check their pictures and read up on tecnhiques, etc. Keep up the good work. If you get a chance, take a look at my gallery at http://www.ducktrapphoto.com

  6. February 17, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I’m impressed with what I’ve seen here. Photography is a lontime passion of mine, and I love poking around other people’s sites to check their pictures and read up on tecnhiques, etc. Keep up the good work. If you get a chance, take a look at my gallery at http://www.ducktrapphoto.com

  7. August 12, 2010 at 6:31 am

    I had no idea that one could so much, as a very much beginner this is all very fascinating to me and I am really enjoying all these ins and out that you are talking about your work is amazing, while still kind of learn and read up on photography, I can only hope to develop this passion, like you. This really gives us beginners something to achieve to.

    Best regards
    Cyndi

  8. August 12, 2010 at 6:31 am

    I had no idea that one could so much, as a very much beginner this is all very fascinating to me and I am really enjoying all these ins and out that you are talking about your work is amazing, while still kind of learn and read up on photography, I can only hope to develop this passion, like you. This really gives us beginners something to achieve to.

    Best regards
    Cyndi

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