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Wildlife Photography: High-Key Mountain Hare in the Snow [How I Shot It]

By Will Nicholls on March 4th 2016

One of my favorite times to be out with my camera is in the snow. Everything is just so magical, and it adds something extra special to your photos. In the north of England, we only occasionally have snow (thanks, climate change!), but when we do, I’m straight out with the camera.

Snow also makes it easy to try out a high-key style. High-key images lack shadows and have blown out backgrounds. It isolates the subject perfectly, and when combined with wildlife, it looks like the animal was photographed in a studio.

How Do You Take a High-key Wildlife Photo?

High-key is something usually reserved for studios with models, where you can artificially light the scene and use a white backdrop to get exactly what you want. If you’re trying this with animals though, it becomes challenging in different ways. Snow or white clouds make for great white backdrops – although the latter rarely results in good photos because of the angle of view.

Positioning yourself so the backdrop is all white, focus on the subject and expose the image as you usually would. The difference is that you want to make the background as light as possible, without blowing any highlights on the animal. If your camera has the option to allow highlight warnings during playback, then enable this – you’ll see flashing red or black coloring over areas of the image that are pure white. This is great for showing when you’re overexposing too much and affecting the subject.

The following image is an example of what isn’t a high-key image; you really want to completely remove any detail in the backdrop.

This isn't a proper high-key image because the background isn't blown out.

This isn’t a proper high-key image because the background isn’t blown out.

 

Shooting in raw is an absolute must for this. It retains so much more information in the file, allowing you to make adjustments later. The key thing for this is that you can adjust the white balance during post processing with no degrading of the photo – this isn’t the case for JPEGs, and snow often looks too blue out of the camera.

As long as you get the basic principles right here, that’s fine. You’ll rarely create a perfect high-key image of wildlife in camera; you just can’t adjust the white balance finely enough on the back of the camera nor can you do it quick enough with an animal. So, the rest of the high-key style is tied together during post production.

Processing the File

This bit is simple really, and it can be done in either Photoshop or Lightroom (as well as other editing softwares, but I will only be looking at the two Adobe programs here). Firstly, if you’re using Photoshop, open the raw file and make the initial adjustments. Watch your histograms and expose the photo as much as you can to what kind of result you want. When you first open the file, everything will look a lot duller and flatter than it did on the back of the camera; that’s just the nature of raw files. You have to make the initial adjustments, unlike when shooting in JPEG.

There’s a brilliant tool in both pieces of software which allows you to tell the program exactly what should be pure white. Doing this, the software then adjusts everything to suit. In Lightroom, this tool is found in the Develop window. In Photoshop, open up Adjustments > Levels to find it.

choosewhitebalance

Now just select the darkest white area of your background – this is usually in the corners where vignetting is taking effect. Make sure that the subject looks normal after the adjustment. If not, just play around by selecting different areas of the background and find out what works best.

Once you’ve done that, fine-tune any settings and sharpen to perfect the shot. In Lightroom, you will probably need to increase the exposure a little, depending on how you shot the photo.

The Result

You’ll probably find yourself hooked to this style. It’s awesome, and makes for great photos. I think it adds a certain finesse to a photo. In fact, it’s this style that often has people asking me if my photos are paintings!

Will-Nicholls

The settings used for this photo were 400mm @ 1/200, f/8, ISO 400.

Will Nicholls is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He is the founder of Nature TTL, a nature photography blog filled with tutorials, inspirational features and kit reviews. You can download his free eBook: 10 Top Tips to INSTANTLY Improve Your Nature Photos.

3 Comments

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    Will, I don’t get many opportunities to shoot in snow conditions in South Carolina (US). But from past experience using film, I’ll set my exposure compensation to +1 or +2..
    I didn’t know about this Lightroom tip. Thank you.

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  2. Bob Davis

    I like the image…what lens/camera did you use?

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    • Will Nicholls

      Nikon D4 and Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR II lens. But the effect is possible on all types of kit :)

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