My “Recipe” – Digital Processing of Bird Photos (from RAW)

This morning I had a nice short excursion to try to grab some photos of migrating sparrows. It was just an hour, but I managed to photograph 6 species, and got some photos in nice early morning light. As I start to process those photos, I thought I’d share my “typical” recipe for processing photos from RAW from my Canon 90D, something I always wanted to blog about.

I don’t do a huge amount of digital processing. I try to use the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) mantra, and keep the habitat and bird as I saw it. I’m trying to show the whole flow for a typical photo, and while the steps below may look daunting, processing from RAW to a final TIF for long-term digital archiving is typically just a couple of minutes for me. That involves two software packages: Adobe Photoshop (and plugins), and Topaz DeNoise AI. A very good example of a typical processing flow follows here, for a Harris’s Sparrow I photographed this morning on top of a fence post.

Open and evaluate the photo in Adobe Camera Raw. Here’s the original photograph straight from my 90D, as it appears when I first open it in Adobe Camera Raw. Note that as is often the case when you’re shooting birds, there’s a lot of “empty” space. You often try to “fill the frame” with the bird to get maximum detail, but birds don’t often cooperate! Thankfully with today’s DSLRs, there are plenty of pixels where you can crop some of the frame, and still have sufficient detail for large-size prints. I’ll eventually crop, but for now my main focus is on the overall exposure.

Example - Adobe Camera Raw screen
Original photo, straight from my Canon 90D, and what it looks like when I open in Camera RAW.

Correcting for exposure: The first thing I notice in the photo is that it’s overexposed in the whites on the underside of the sparrow, and a bit too bright for the scene overall. Not an uncommon situation, as in this case, the sparrow popped up on the fence post for just a second, and I quickly grabbed a photo with a lot of time to change camera settings. If you don’t like to deal with the hassle of shooting RAW and shoot in JPG, you’re already in trouble, as that exposure is baked in and you don’t have nearly as much flexibility in saving that detail in the whites. However, in RAW, you can adjust that exposure before converting to your long term archive format (TIF for me).

Below is a zoom of the bird as I correct exposure in Camera Raw. It can often be done simply in the “Basic” tab, with slider bars where you can correct exposure, contrast, and other elements. Here I’ve simply made three quick changes to lower exposure overall and bring out some detail in those whites (with all other settings shown on the right representing default values for this shot):

  • Drop exposure overall for the whole scene by -0.40
  • Change the “highlights” setting to -80. This lowers overall exposure only for the brightest parts of the scene, a very useful feature in this situation when I want lower exposure in the whites.
  • “Dehaze” increased by +10. Dehaze is described as basically compensating for light scatter in the atmosphere. It’s a strong tool that really is wonderful in providing increased clarity to an image when shooting in hazy conditions, but overall it does a nice job in deepening contrast. Here just a touch of an increase results in some darker background tones and darker tones on the bird, giving the image more “pop”.

Note the end result of this basic adjustment on the bottom, with whites on both the fence post and bird showing much more detail, and a less starkly bright exposure overall. There are other tools in Camera RAW you can also use for exposure adjustment and the like, with Curves being the other tool I often use.

Before and after - Changing exposure settings in Adobe Camera RAW
Before and after applying exposure and other corrections prior to RAW conversion

Other settings for RAW conversion: For this photo there’s not much else I want to do before converting from RAW to TIF. Note the “Detail” tab. I set everything to 0, as I don’t want Camera RAW applying sharpening or noise reduction, as I don’t think it does nearly as good a job as Topaz DeNoise AI (coming step). Also note the “Optics” tab. I always make sure I check the box for “remove chromatic aberration”. It’s not going to make much of a difference for this image, but for an image such as a bird in flight against a bright blue sky, it corrects for the “color fringing” that can sometimes occur. This is very lens dependent, and my primary birding lens (Canon 100-400mm II) has a fluorite and other elements that help minimize chromatic aberration. Still, it is sometimes noticeable a the fringe of a very high contrast area as a pixel or two coloring, and this setting helps correct.

Camera RAW provides a specific correction for the lens you’re using, as it does for “profile corrections”, another box I always check. This corrects for distortion and vignetting. Neither are huge issues with the Canon 100-400, but there are other lenses I have where use of this setting has been quite helpful for correcting vignetting (a shadowing around the corners or edges of a photo).

That’s it! White balance overall looks pretty good on this photo, but correcting for color imbalances is about the only other correction I typically handle in the RAW conversion stage. If white balance is off and there’s an odd color cast to a photo, there are ample tools in Camera RAW for correcting, from basic changes in color “temperature” and “tint”, to more specific corrections. Now I’m ready to convert to TIF…

Basic adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW
Settings for both “detail” and “optics” in Adobe Camera Raw

Conversion to TIF: There’s not much to this step. There’s a “down” arrow in the upper right of Camera RAW that opens up the conversion to TIF (or other format). I use TIF for long-term archiving of a photo as it’s a “lossless” form of photo storage, as opposed to JPEG. JPEG provides a smaller file, but at the cost of image quality. To be honest, it’s virtually impossible to visually distinguish between the highest-quality settings JPEGs, and a TIF. You do have peace of mind with a TIF though in that your photo will always be saved at the highest quality, while each new save of a JPEG may cause an additional small loss of information.

Settings are below…not much to it! The only other thing to really consider is colorspace for your output. That’s a topic for another blog post. Take my word for it and just choose SRGB, and go ahead and convert.

The result here…a beautiful, “lossless” TIF file with 6960 x 4640 pixels that’s corrected for exposure, chromatic aberration, and vignetting.

Converting from RAW to TIF in Adobe Camera RAW
Screen in Adobe Camera RAW for conversion to TIF

Noise Removal: This photo was shot in pretty early morning light, and I used ISO 1000 to ensure enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo. Shooting at as low an ISO as possible is always a good idea to reduce noise, but thankfully there are some wonderful tools for correcting noise in an image. For the last year or so I’ve been doing it with Topaz DeNoise AI, simply…awesome…software that I use for both noise correction and sharpening.

In the zoomed out photos above, it’s hard to see much of the noise, but for “pixel peepers” like myself, I’m not fond of the noise you see when viewing an image at full resolution. Remember when converting from Camera RAW, I didn’t do any correction for noise, so my converted TIF right now is showing all the noisy warts from the sensor on my Camera 90D. Next thing I do is load the TIF into Topaz DeNoise AI.

Topaz will both remove noise and sharpen the image. When you load the image in Topaz DeNoise AI, it will select default “remove noise” and “enhance sharpness” settings, based on its own evaluation of your photo. To show you the effects of each in turn, first here are default settings from Topaz DeNoise AI in reducing noise for this photo. Note the background color around the bird and the dramatic improvement in noise (image immediately below). Also note the eye itself, with the textured look in the original image, vs. the smooth, noise-free look in the corrected version.

I flipping love this software, but do realize it’s not everybody’s preference to dramatically reduce noise. Some people prefer some of that original “grain” in a photograph, which I think harkens back to the days of film photography where that grain was part of the image. I say bull-puckey to that! Noise in a digital camera is just that…noise…not a feature of the subject or environment you’re trying to photography. It’s a digital artifact. Reducing that noise provides a much cleaner image, with the smooth even tones that represent the reality around us. Particularly for a photo like this where the background is this wonderful smooth bokeh from the original photo, noise reduction makes for a much more gorgeous background.

The software is great, but beware getting TOO aggressive in trying to remove noise, as you will start to lose detail in areas where you don’t want that detail lost. If you get too aggressive in noise reduction in Topaz DeNoise AI, I’ve also noticed some smudgy edges that can result, as as the border between a bird and a background.

Noise Reduction in Topaz DeNoise AI
Noise reduction example in Topaz DeNoise AI

Sharpening: I also use Topaz DeNoise AI for basic sharpening of the full resolution imaging. Don’t expect miracles with any sharpening software. Garbage in = garbage out, and if you don’t have a good sharp image to begin with, a sharpening algorithm isn’t going to save the shot. However, it can give it that extra “crispness” that can really help bring it over the top.

I used to use Photoshop sharpening tools, but now find the default sharpening in Topaz DeNoise AI to be superior. It helps too at how easy and fast it is, in that I can both remove noise and sharpen an image simultaneously. The first image below shows the software screen itself, and how very simple the basic operation is. If you set it to ‘auto’ it evaluates your image and chooses the ‘correct’ level of noise reduction and sharpening. I always let the software calculate auto settings, and then it shows you a preview of the impact of those settings. Pretty simple…if you want to increase noise reduction from that default setting…simply slide the bar and get an instant preview of the impact. Same for sharpness. You can also play with “recovering original detail”, which “places back” detail that may be lost by the noise reduction, or you can specifically target color noise reduction. In this case, basic noise reduction and sharpness effects are damned good, and I didn’t change the settings. I will often play around with the settings though before saving a new output image.

The image at the bottom shows a before and after, for doing BOTH the noise reduction, and sharpening. For sharpening, it’s subtle, as the original image was quite sharp on it’s own. But you do see some more crispness in the feathering around and in front of the eye and elsewhere in the image.

Topaz DeNoise AI - Example of screen
What the Topaz DeNoise AI software looks like as you’re processing.
Before and after - Sharpening with Topaz DeNoise AI
Before and after processing through Topaz DeNoise AI, showing the improvement in sharpening in the crisper feathering on the bird.

Final step – Cropping to preference – That’s pretty much it for most photos! I do keep it simple. At this stage I still have all the extra space around the bird, so my final step before presentation online, or for a print, is to crop to a pleasing composition. I do typically keep the corrected TIF file though with all the original pixels, in case I want to reframe a photo later with a different presentation. Here’s the final output (compare to the top original photo above). Even with the cropping of all the empty space, thanks to the 32.5 MB sensor on the 90D, the photo has enough remaining pixels to retain a lot of detail, and provide 300 DPI prints up to 10×14 or more.

Note some additional processing steps I sometimes take are below.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

Other” processing steps: This example with the Harris’s Sparrow is pretty typical, when I’m dealing with a pretty high-quality photo to begin with. Dependent upon the photo some other steps I sometimes take are:

  • Shadow/highlight adjustment – You can’t ask for much better lighting than the Harris’s Sparrow above, with warm, early morning, and even lighting and a bird that’s posed perpendicular to the light source (behind me as the photographer). That’s obviously often not the case! In harsh lighting situations or other cases where the result is a high-contrast image, sometimes deep shadows are a result, and you’d like to try to bring out some detail in those shadows. There are shadow/highlight tools in Photoshop that I’ll use in those situations. Note dependent upon the photo, trying to bring out detail in the shadows can end up simply bringing out the noise in those shadows. Again, garbage in = garbage out, and if there’s not detail in those shadows to begin with, you’re not going to magically pull it out in post-processing. The best time to try to try to pull out details from the shadows is during RAW conversion, analogous to what I did with this photo in trying to bring out detail in the (overexposed) whites.
  • Selective adjustments – Sometimes you don’t want a specific adjustment to impact the whole image, but just one part. In that case there are many tools in Photoshop that allow you to select specific parts of the image, and apply color adjustments, exposure, sharpness, noise, or other changes to only the selected area.
  • Cloning out unwanted elements – I try to keep my photos as close to the original scene as possible, and that means inclusion of habitat elements if they were in the shot at the time. However, Photoshop has tools that do make it quite easy to “get rid of” unwanted elements in an image. For example, in the final image above, it’s simply the sparrow on a post, with a perfectly “clean” background. What if there were a few blades of grass or an overhanging branch that intersected one corner of the photo (for example)? In that case, it is extremely easy to use the “clone” tool…selecting an area of the background nearby the unwanted feature, and effectively copying and brushing over the unwanted feature. You can often thus end up with that “perfect” background with the unwanted element removed. I try to keep my use of this to a minimum, for those really “special” images where I want that last bit of perfection before printing or selling.

That’s it!! – I’m not selling my typical “recipe” or toolset as the best answer for everyone. A bit part of your own personal workflow is 1) what software you have, 2) what you’re comfortable with, and 3) what effects you’re trying to achieve. The process above “works” for me as I’ve used it for countless thousands of photos, and I can whip through any one photo quite quickly. Your mileage may vary, but I hope the examples above are helpful.

Science to the rescue! Saving the day on high ISO images

I’m not fond of processing all the photos I take. That could be why that up until 3 months ago, I had unprocessed folders of bird photos corresponding to trips going all the way back to 2014! Thousands of photos, taken and never processed, witting there waiting to see the light of day. In some ways it has been fun over the last 3 months, going through those photos, finding hidden treasures of things I don’t remember even taking. However, it’s also been a royal pain in the butt to slog through them all.

The light is at the end of the tunnel though! In another month, month and a half, I’ll have caught up! The last thing I thought I needed though was another step in the process of processing a RAW digital file into the final polished form. I try to keep my workflow very simple, with a basic RAW conversion and subsequent simple things in Photoshop (which typically for me is just some cropping if appropriate, and adding metadata about where the photo was taken). However there are always some photos that require a little bit more.

Photos that require “more” often include those taken in low light, whether it’s early in the morning, late in the evening, or due to cloudy or shady conditions. In those cases, to get enough shutter speed for me to hand-hold the camera (which I almost always do), you have to bump up the ISO setting. That does help getting a photo in low-light, but at the cost of a noisy image, and image that also seems to lack detail. Given how picky I am about my photos, I thus typically don’t shoot much in low light situations, unless it’s a rare bird or something else I really want to document.

Science to the rescue! Yesterday I was poking around Twitter, and came across someone posting a before-and-after of a really grainy, high ISO photo that had then been processed through “Topaz DeNoise AI” software. I’ve seen ads before for noise software like that. I have always been…skeptical…to say the least. What you see on those ads often seems too good to be true, turning a crappy, noisy picture into award winning material. But this wasn’t an ad from a company, it was a regular joe who was really pleased with the result and was sharing.

OK, I thought, what the hell, I’ll give it a whirl. I downloaded the software on a 30-day free trial, and was looking for an unprocessed, high-noise photo try it out with. Given my pool of unprocessed photos was much smaller than 3 months ago, I didn’t have much, but did have a photo of a Barred Owl from the state park across the street from just a few weeks ago. Barred Owls are quite rare in South Dakota, thus my using high-ISO in really bad lighting just to record the event.

I opened one of the owl photos in the software, and let it do it’s thing. Pardon the language but HOLY. CRAP. The software was showing a preview of the output at a 100% crop, showing the center of the image that was focused around the owl’s face. What was a recognizable, but noisy mess had been turned into something that was completely noise free. That part doesn’t shock me, as you can ALWAYS easily remove noise…but typically at a cost to image detail. Here, the opposite occurred, with feather detail around the face of the owl suddenly showing up, information content I thought didn’t even EXIST in the original image.

Topaz DeNoise AI software is something that may not only change how I process photos, it may change my birding habits themselves! I rarely go out with the camera is light is poor (which given our gloomy, often cloudy winters, is a lot!). I’m looking forward to experimenting with more high-ISO photos and seeing just what the DeNoise AI software can do! Even imagines with much more modest noise seem to get a nice “kick” in clarity and sharpness, more so than what I can typically get out of Photoshop. The only downside I’ve noticed is that depending on how aggressive you get with pushing the software, the image can start to turn into something that looks more like a painting than a photograph, but that’s just when I bump up the default “auto” settings where the software determines the appropriate level of correction, and instead push a maximally aggressive processing.

Cool software! Not an “ad” or anything for this software, as yesterday was the first day I even knew it existed, and I’m not getting reimbursed or anything for “endorsing” it with this post! Just passing along the info for photographers who want a potential solution to high ISO, noisy images.

Before and after photo using Topaz DeNoise AI software
Click on the image and look at full resolution to see exactly what the Topaz DeNoise AI software can do. A very noisy image, in both the background and the plumage on the owl’s face, is suddenly COMPLETELY noise free on the right, but what shocked me the most is the plumage detail that was ‘recovered’ by the software.
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