David Cardinal: Taming Color in Wildlife Photography
Aug 2012 14

Most articles on color management focus on the issues of reproducing product colors or skintones. But studio and portrait photographers aren’t the only ones who face color management issues. Even though wildlife doesn’t come with a set of Pantone chips that need to be matched, accurate color management and a full color-aware workflow is essential to creating the best possible wildlife and nature images.

Even though color management is no less important in wildlife and nature photography than it is in the studio, its goals are much different. Instead of aiming for faithful reproduction above all else, often achieving pleasing color is more important. Particularly for landscape photos, saturated sunsets and gorgeous blue skies may do a better job of communicating the emotions we felt when capturing an image better than a strictly accurate rendering of what might have been a thinly colored horizon.

White Balance

Both the color fidelity and emotional content of the color in a nature image begins with white balance. It’s usually not possible to stick a color card — even one as small as the Datacolor SpyderCHECKR — or even a Datacolor SpyderCUBE directly in the image to help. And your camera’s automatic white balance won’t know the difference between a sunset that is supposed to be a gorgeous orange and a poorly lit photo of a ruddy-furred mammal. So unless you have an elephant conveniently located in your frame from which to set your mid-tones, the specific white balance you use is typically up to you.

In another twist, animals look “friendlier” and “healthier” if they are shown in slightly warmer tones than would be considered accurate. In the film era, before white balance could be controlled through a simple twitch of a dial, many of us in the nature photography community left 81A warming filters on our lenses. Now we can achieve the same effect using a DSLR by simply tweaking the Auto white balance to render scenes slightly warmer than the camera would otherwise.

Of course if you shoot Raw, you can tweak your white balance after you shoot — with a simple slider in your raw processor. Whether or not you typically shoot raw, I highly recommend capturing some test shots using Raw and at least experimenting with changing the white balance. That will give you a better idea of how different white balance settings make a scene appear.

Even simple scenes present trade-offs when setting white balance. In the first bear image from our Alaska Grizzly Bear & Puffin safari trip last year, I’ve set the white balance “low” to render the water a pleasing blue. This has the disadvantage of making the bear look too “cool.” The second version uses a “higher” white balance temperature, rendering the bear a nice, warm brown, at the cost of having the water look muddier. Since the bear probably won’t complain either way, how you decide to process your images is really up to you and what you are looking to communicate with your viewers.

Rendering Color Faithfully

Fortunately for nature photographers of all types, most animals and plants have colors that are easily contained within the color gamut of today’s pro and prosumer DSLRs, and can largely be recreated on inkjet and continuous tone photo printers.

This means that if you take reasonable care to properly expose your image, and use profiled monitors and printers (I use SpyderSTUDIO to calibrate all of mine), along with soft-proofing before printing, you should be able to faithfully print most scenes.

There are some exceptions to this rule of thumb. This Summer Tanager from our recent Texas Hill Country Photo Safari, for example, is such a saturated red that it is difficult to display or print in its full glory. Opening the Raw file in Adobe sRGB shows reds that cannot be accurately rendered in sRGB:

Switching colorspaces to Adobe RGB allows the red feathers to be accurately rendered.

Lest you think that only exotic species like this Tangager cause trouble, below is an image of one of America’s most photographed species – the Northern Cardinal. In the nice sunlight the red feathers as captured by my Nikon D700 (still one of the best cameras on the market) are over-saturated even in Adobe RGB.

To accurately render the color in the feathers of this bird I needed to switch to the much larger ProPhoto RGB color space, which you can see below:

It is great that there are colorspaces that include pretty much every color found in nature and then some, like ProPhoto RGB, but using them comes with two important caveats:

First, ProPhoto RGB’s color are so spread out that using only 8-bits to store them will cause problems. So for ProPhoto images, I highly recommend shifting to 16-bits in Photoshop or Lightroom. That will double the size of your files, but provides enough bits for each color to accommodate the larger color space.

Second, you absolutely need to convert from ProPhoto RGB to a smaller colorspace (typically sRGB) before you put the image on the web or send it to anyone without a fully color-managed system. Otherwise the image will appear massively washed out.

There is one additional limitation to remember. Just because a large colorspace can mathematically contain your image’s colors doesn’t mean you can print them. Printers (and paper) have a much smaller color gamut than ProPhoto RGB, and sometimes even smaller (and certainly different) than Adobe RGB.

Using the Perceptual intent to render your print through a profile generated by SpyderPRINT will typically do a good job making the needed compromises, but you’ll need to follow some of the other advice found on this site for soft-proofing and tweaking your image to make sure your print looks the way you want.

is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it. You can learn more about David on our Friends with Vision page, or on his own website, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow David on Facebook or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience