The steps I'll be covering are:
1 - Image Corrections
2 - White Balance
3 - Exposure
4 - Shadow/Highlight
5 - Contrast and Colour Enhancement
6 - Sharpening
7 - Noise Reduction
Step 1 - Image Corrections
The first thing to do when opening any image is to head over to image corrections and make sure that you enable 'Profile Corrections' and 'Remove Chromatic Aberration'. The profile corrections will acknowledge the lens you used, find the relevant information about the barrel distortion and correct this problem for you. Usually when photographing birds you will be using a long lens and these corrections will be less obvious, however the problems are still there and need sorting.
Chromatic aberration is a little complicated to explain here, but it's vital to remove the effects - which you will see as a coloured halo on edges (usually edges of high contrast). Modern lenses and their coatings are becoming more and more efficient at cancelling out this effect - it should be noted that it took me a while to find an image with enough chromatic aberration to get across my point as the Nikon 200-500mm F/5.6 that I frequently use is highly adapt to decreasing this problem. Anyway, here is an example of chromatic aberration and how effective the 'remove chromatic aberration' option is.
Correcting your white balance is vital to achieving realistic colours in your work. If you are shooting in RAW, then you really don't have to worry about white balance whilst you are shooting - you can use AUTO WB, one of the presets such as Cloudy or a set number on the Kelvin scale (I personally use 5560K, unless there is a real need to change, such as night photography).
There are many ways to correct white balance; but in CameraRaw my favourite way to adjust the white balance is to pick a preset from the drop down menu which matches the conditions of the shoot and then make small adjustments to find the point I like. I do it this way because although white balance is extremely important, the look of your image should be down to what you find pleasing, if this is slightly warmer or colder than white then so be it. Please bear in mind however, that I am using a colour accurate screen and so I can trust that the colours that I am seeing will come across in print, if you are not using a screen that is calibrated to a printer or has a bad representation of the RGB spectrum then it may be wise to use the preset and the preset alone.
Below I have placed three images; colder on the left, adjusted preset in the middle and warmer on the right. You can expand these by clicking on them.
Key to making any photograph look 'as it should' is exposure... Exposure is once again down to your own idea of how the image should look. You may have heard that you should be trying to replicate the exact conditions that the subject was photographed in; I prefer to think that you should be trying to make the image look as appealing as you can without actually changing or faking the light that it was captured in. What I find appealing leans towards the brighter end of the spectrum, I generally try to push the histogram as far to the right as I can before I either start clipping the highlights.
I can't stress enough that it is dependent on the scene that you are shooting and that if you were photographing foxes at night underneath street lights for example, then brightening the image would likely ruin it. The two images below depend on their exposure as the main effect to reach the artistic aim. Firstly, by increasing the exposure, I could extend the work that was done in-camera to isolate the Mute Swans on a white background. Secondly, by lowering the exposure on the Coot image, the morning colours were saturated and the highlights popped from the dark background.
This often will not need touching, if you are shooting when it is cloudy then the light will be fairly soft anyway and so shadows will have soft transitions and not be too dark. However there are times when these two options become extremely useful. With dark subjects it's often hard to obtain detail in their feathers, this was the case with the Rook below that I used +75 shadows, along with an exposure increase to get some of the detail back into the feathers.
It's easy to go too far with shadows and reveal too much detail, try and remember what the subject looked like when you were stood near it. Did it appear as a completely black figure? Likely not, did it look like someone was shining a torch onto it? Again, probably not, so don't reveal too much detail. Increasing the shadows will also cause an increase in noise to those areas, so bear that in mind whilst you're editing.
You can apply the same (although reversed) logic to highlights. I used -50 for this same image because when I photographed the rook, trying to get a balanced exposure meant that the Rook was darker than reality and the background was brighter. I knew that the bush behind it was a yellowy/orange, that's way I say waiting for it to land on that perch and so I needed to bring this back in post-processing. As I mentioned in the last section, darkening a colour will appear to saturate it too and so -50 on the highlight scale was enough to darken and saturate the background to my liking.
In the first image I used in this post, you can see that I used -100 highlights and I'll quickly show you why...
Below you can see the results of if I had not used the highlight slider altogether. As you can see, to keep in the detail in the snow I had to lower the exposure and now the image is far too dark.
Contrast, for me is a final step. I complete all the previous steps, by which point I have achieved a detailed image; by this I mean that I have the exposure correct, whilst simultaneously keeping detail in the dark and bright parts of the image. The final stage before cropping, sharpening, resizing, etc... is to add a small amount of contrast. Too much contrast and you'll find that you start to lose too much detail, not enough and you'll find that the image has no impact, no punch. Usually an increase of contrast between +5 and +15 is enough for me.
Colour enhancement is another that you really have to be careful with. Too much and it can be off putting, simply because it doesn't look real, but you can use a small amount to make a big difference. In CameraRaw, there is a useful panel called 'HSL' or 'Hue, Saturation, Luminance', which you can see next to this text.
I don't think I have ever touched the 'hue' option, but if you are interested it allows you to change certain colours, you could push your oranges closer to being red for example. I would say that I use 'saturation' to some degree on about 80% of my wildlife images and 'luminance' (brightness) on maybe 25%. On the example image below, I used the saturation panel to enhance the oranges and reds, this made the roof of the house in the background, the legs and the beak more pronounced than before and help them to stand out from the fairly muted background. And don't forget that you don't only have to take them up; in my landscape work I will often chase a muted 'pastel' type colour pallet and the HSL panel comes in handy when decreasing certain colours rather than affecting the whole image with the basic global 'saturation slider'.
Sharpening is another part of the process that seemingly has a thousand techniques, however for my wildlife work I will only tend to use one, and that is selectively using the 'unsharp mask' filter. For this part you'll need to come out of CameraRaw and into Photoshop. If you are completely done with your editing of the colours, contrast, exposure and so on, then duplicate the background layer (Command/CTRL J). Now head up to the top of the Photoshop frame and go to filter > sharpen > unsharp mask.
A box will appear in front of your image that look like the image below:
Inside the pop-up box you will get a preview of the sharpening affect. You can move this around by either dragging around inside the small preview box, or clicking on the actual image where you would like the preview to be (I would recommend the eye). Now, as you can see there are three options; amount, radius and threshold. I'll start by saying that you don't need to touch 'threshold', because we'll be selecting where we want to be sharp in the next stage. 'Amount' is fairly literal, in that the further you push the slider the more the sharpening effect is applied. 'Radius' tells Photoshop how 'blurred' the mask that it is applying is, this is a crude way of explaining and if you don't quite understand how it works then you can follow this link to read about it: www.myphotocentral.com/tutorials/unsharp-mask-explained/.
In reality, with bird photography, you don't want to stray too far from the 1.0 value with radius. I tend to go below 1.0, to about 0.8 and then have an amount of around 85-95%. The handy thing about 'unsharp mask' is that by clicking and holding inside the small preview box you can see what the image used to look like, when you release your click, it will show you the effect that you will be applying - you can then play with the sliders until you are happy with how sharp the image is. Remember though, if you're image was soft at the start, you cannot save it and end up with an acceptable image by sharpening!
You'll remember that I said my preferred method was 'selectively' using the unsharp mask filter - now comes the selective part (don't worry it's not too long or difficult). Once you've applied the filter to your duplicated layer (likely called 'layer 1'), you need to apply a mask - do this by clicking the small box with a circle inside of it on the panel below the layers. A white box will appear next to your layer.
The next step is to make sure that you have clicked on the layer mask (white square) and to use a black brush at roughly 40% hardness (you'll need to asses the hardness of the brush for your own needs) and 100% opacity to paint any area that you don't want to be sharpened. This is typically any area that isn't your subject.
Here are the results:
Step 7 - Noise Reduction
There is little need to repeat everything I just said in the sharpening step, because it is extremely similar in method for noise reduction. However, firstly, make sure that you are happy with your sharpening and then hit 'CTRL + ALT + SHIFT + E', this will merge the layers you have created and make that state a new layer on top of the old ones. Now go to filter > noise > reduce noise. There is once again a certain level of personal choice, but if your background is as soft as in the examples throughout this post, then put the strength to +10 and everything else to 0 (unless you need to reduce colour noise, in which case increase it until the colour noise is gone).
Now comes the masking, but you just created a mask for the sharpening which should be an outline of your subject. If this is not the case, then you will need to use a black brush to paint the mask where you would like the noise reduction to not affect. However, if you do have the layer mask from the sharpening, then hold down SHIFT and click and drag the layer mask up to the top layer (probably called 'layer 2') and release. The final step is to invert this new layer mask, because currently the noise reduction is affecting the subject and nothing else. To do this you simply click on the layer mask and press CTRL + i - you can now touch up the mask if needed. Remember to paint black where you want the effect to not be and white where you would like it to show up!
Here are the results:
I've included the filters so that you can see how the masks should look. I have also exaggerated the effects for the sake of this tip, I would not recommend sharpening to this amount!
This turned out to be quite a long post, but I hope it can be of help! Thank you for any likes, shares and comments, and feel free to start a conversation in the comments if you have any issues or ideas.