Photo Tip: Photographing Ivory

Properly exposed elephant tusk: a real challenge - Photo © P. B. Eleazer

Last year I was viewing member submitted photographs at the South African site: Outdoor Photo.  I was impressed with some of the close-up images of elephant tusks.  The details in the ivory really told a story about the life and struggles of the animal.

Since Chobe is dense with elephants, I decided I would try to ‘fill the frame’ with shots of elephant parts on my trip.  I photographed details of feet, tails, eye/eyelashes and … ivory tusks.  Upon reviewing my images after the first day of shooting, I noticed the histograms on many of my elephants and particularly on those shots that included close-ups of tusks were spiked to the right (over-exposed).  That’s one of the beauties of digital shooting, one can get immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

The Challenge - a dark animal properly exposed will over expose tusk details - © P. B. Eleazer

Here are two shots that over state the problem.  In the first, I wanted to shoot the little elephant with it’s mother in the foreground.  I properly exposed the baby, but look at the blown highlights on mom’s tusks:

Young elephant behind his mother - © P. B. Eleazer

Okay, problem is obvious, but, look what happens to the dark area if I ‘compromise’ and try and expose for the highlights.

Proper technique is to expose for the highlights, allow dark areas to create drama. If you really want the darker details, try recovery with HDR techniques or a program like Topaz Adjust - © P. B. Eleazer

Armed with this learning, I decided to bracket my tusk shots and learn what exposures worked.  There was about a 2 F-stop difference between the proper exposure for the tusk and the proper exposure of the elephant.  This really takes us back to a basic rule of thumb for landscapes which is ‘expose for highlights and let shadows define’. I hope my learnings will give you a head start when you next photograph an elephant.

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