By Jim Zuckerman
I was really excited today here in Kenya because I got a picture that I’ve wanted for years. Other photographers have photographed giraffes at water holes where their legs are spread, but I never had that opportunity to get a good shot of this until today. I had just arrived with my group at the Sweetwaters Permanent Tented Camp, and we were on our way to lunch when a beautiful reticulated giraffe approached the pond in front of the restaurant. With just a little hesitation, the animal assumed the vulnerable position that enables him to drink. I had my camera with me but not my tripod, but I pulled out my 500mm f/4 IS Canon lens and, hand-holding this monster lens, used a shutter speed of 1/640th of a second to capture the wonderful moment. The image stabilization feature helped insure it was sharp.
The original sky was white, and since I felt it was distracting (because our eye tends to go to the lightest part of picture first, and I wanted the giraffe to hold all the attention without any distractions) I used Photoshop to insert another sky that made sense with the diffused lighting. This was taken about 1:30pm, and I was very lucky the sky was overcast. Mid-day sunlight would have been a disaster. The contrast would have been too harsh and shadows under the giraffe would have been black. It would have been a picture that I would never show because it would be so disappointing. With an overcast day, I can shoot from morning to early evening. When the sky is clear, sunrise and sunset offer the most beautiful lighting, and the middle of the day is used for resting, downloading and organizing images, or simply enjoying the ambience of Africa.
The technique I used to replace the sky was the layer mask procedure I explain in Lesson 2 of my Photoshop: Creative Techniques course here at Betterphoto. The tops of the bushes behind the giraffe are very difficult to cut around in Photoshop such that it looks real. Therefore, instead of cutting them out I blended the clouds with the bottom portion of the image using the gradient tool and the paintbrush tool. First I pasted the clouds over the entire image of the giraffe, and then with a layer mask (Layer > layer mask > reveal all), I blended the two photos such that the clouds merged with the foliage in a natural way. It is not 100% perfect because I don't have a Wacom tablet with me. Instead, I used the track pad on my laptop with is very awkward to work precisely. The top of the giraffe's back and the clouds don't blend perfectly, but I'll fix that when I get home. However, I'm 99% happy with this now.
Layer masks are one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop.