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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.

Photobook: Shutterfly vs. Printique (no contest)

Last post I noted the bird photobooks I was putting together. I had originally put one together in the summer on Shorebirds, and then backed off doing more until the last month or so. For the first one, I saw a coupon for Shutterfly and used them to produce a lay-flat photobook.

It looked fine, and the photo quality was…ok. Nothing more. Before deciding to do a whole series, I poked around and looked for reviews of other places, and thought I’d try Printique. The first of the those arrived today, and suffice it to say I’ll be using Printique for the rest of the series.

Deep, rich blacks. Beautiful color prints. And the thickness of the lay flat pages is unbelievably thick and durable. The Printique book is about twice as thick as the Shutterfly book despite having similar number of pages. Cost? The Printique one was a touch more, but not much. General costs:

  • Shutterfly – 38 pages, 10×10″ lay-flat – $93.49 total cost
  • Printique – 42 pages, 10×10″ lay-flat – $107.17 total cost.

`$14 more, for 4 more pages, but vastly improved stock thickness and photo quality. I also preferred the tools for developing the photobook on Printique.

Just my observations on using the two! I’m not in contact with either company or being compensated here! Just some friendly advice if you’re looking for a really high quality photobook to display your photos.

Comparison of thickness of the two books! Astoundingly better quality of page stock for Printique with very thick durable lay-flat paper.
Final photobook for “North American Waterfowl” by Printique.

Something for posterity: Bird photobooks

As you get older you start to wonder about things like…why the hell do I have thousands upon thousands of digital photos on my computer? What’s the purpose? What’s going to happen to them when I’m gone? I certainly have an online presence in social media and my website where my photos are shown, but I wanted to start making something more tangible that perhaps my son and others could have, something more than just photos on a hard drive.

My wife always makes photobooks from our “big” yearly vacation, as well as one for family photos for a given year. Why not do the same with all the thousands of photos I have sitting around on my computer? I started to make photobooks based on themes (categories of birds). So far I’ve only gotten one back from the printer, but I really liked it so have followed up and made five more that are currently being printed. This morning I just finished #6.

I’m keeping them pretty simple, with what to me is an elegant black hard cover and background on the interior pages, with photos and a short descriptions of the species, date, and location the photo was taken. Simple, because I wanted the books to focus on the photos themselves, and not any descriptive material from me.

The six I’ve completed are:

  • Shorebirds
  • Raptors
  • Owls
  • Warblers
  • Waterfowl
  • Sparrows

Here are some example pages from some of the books. I’ve got a least another 8 or 10 planned. It will take me a while to get them all done, but will be a nice series to have and hold for the future.

Owl Photobook 
Photography by Terry Sohl
Pages from the Owl Photobook
Shorebird photobook
Photography by Terry Sohl
Pages from the first I did on Shorebirds
Sparrows & Towhees photobook
Photography by Terry Sohl
Pages from the most recently completed on North American Sparrows & Towhees

“Bird Facts and Stories From Around The World”

I get frequent inquiries about potential use of my photos, from those wanting basic prints, to kids wanting to use photos for a project, to college professors wanting them for lectures, to commercial enterprises wanting to use them. For any educational or non-profit conservation activity, I gladly provide the photos for free. I love, for example, a middle schooler asking for a photo for her project, and then having her send me a photo of the finished work. Priceless.

When people want to sell a product to make money, and want to use my photo for that product, I charge a fee. The fee depends upon usage, so when I was contacted by a Norwegian author recently, I gave some thought to my fee. She was writing a children’s book, “Bird Facts and Stories from Around the World”, and wanted to use a handful of photos for image sources for the book’s artwork. My price? I just wanted a copy of the book! It sounded like such a cool idea, and frankly, when artists use my work for “inspiration”, I usually am quite low in any fee I charge.

I just received a copy of the finished book…it’s gorgeous. I love the style of the artwork, and it was cool to see things like the pheasant painting here that was based on my photo. It’s got a really diverse selection of birds that she chose, with facts and figures about each. I’ve translated a few pages to English just so I got a feel for the book, and think it’s something that could spark a child’s interest in birds.

I’m getting a nice collection of printed materials that have used my photos, but I think this one may be my favorite!  The book is by Line Renslebraten…don’t see it online anywhere yet in case you 1) wanted to pick up a copy, and 2) read Norwegian. 🙂

Bird Facts and Stories From Around The World - By Line Renslebraten

Cover of the book, Bird Facts and Stories From Around The World”.

Bird Facts and Stories From Around The World - Ring-necked Pheasant

A page from inside the book about Ring-necked Pheasants, with the artwork at the bottom based on my photo

Bird Facts and Stories From Around The World

 

Winter’s Snow’s Take Flight

Winter's Snows Take Flight

When I can’t stand to open a paper or look at the news online (this week would be one of those weeks), retreating to the safe space of birds and nature is always a good idea. A revisiting of the daily haiku’s I used to do. Migration has actually been a slow and delayed by the harsh winter, but streams of geese were flying over one morning last week. Always one of the first signs of spring, and a VERY welcome sight after this past winter.

Silver lining to the flooding – Icy Art

With a snowier winter than I ever remember in my 26 years in South Dakota, and with a couple of inches of rain over the last week, we’ve also had flooding far worse than I ever remember. The number of roads that are closed boggles the mind, while parts of Sioux Falls and the surrounding area where I have NEVER seen flooding are now flooded with several feet of water. Yesterday I went out to take photos of the flooding, and while it was incredible to see, I ended up on a gravel road east of my home town of Brandon, pointing the camera down at the ground. What was it that attracted my attention away from the flooding and flood damage?

As the water has started to retreat, there’s a massive amount of ice that’s being left behind, from massive chunks big enough to block traffic on roads, to very fine ice crystals that formed as temperatures cooled after the main flood event. What caught my attention on this road was an icy shelf of ice and ice crystals, suspended over the road. As the water started to retreat, we had a cold night, and the top of the water started to freeze. With the water movement and retreat and the freezing, some of the patterns left on this suspended ice shelf were incredibly beautiful.

I’m glad I arrived as I did, because as it got warmer, this icy shelf started to collapse. Indeed, as I walk through it, one step would crack through the shelf and lead to the collapse of surrounding areas as well. But with some careful shooting, I was able to capture the photos below. It definitely wasn’t what I was planning on shooting when I went out, but I really had a blast shooting these one-of-a-kind icy patterns.

Ice Pattern - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 2 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 3 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 4 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 5 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 6 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 7 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 8 - Minnehaha County, South DakotaIce Pattern - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 9 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 10 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 11 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 12 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Photo / Haiku of the Day – Dakota Prairie Falcon

Prairie Apparition

Prowling Dakota skies

A flash across desolate plains

bound for the horizon

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

When I head to the central part of the state in winter to photograph raptors, I usually do come across a handful of Prairie Falcons during the course of the day. Falcons in general seem to be camera shy, but these guys are particularly difficult to photograph. They tend to flush long before I can get within camera range. There’s always that oddball individual bird, however, and this is one of them. As with every other Prairie Falcon I come across, he DID flush early, while I was still perhaps 50 yards away. However, he was curious! I’d given up on him, but to my surprise he started circling back towards me. I stopped the car and got my camera ready, and was rewarded by a flyby at perhaps 30 feet up, right along the road past my car. One of my favorite falcon shots, given the difficult I’ve photographing these guys. I also love the pose, with the eye contact and the warm morning light.

Winter’s Omen – Photo / Haiku of the Day

Winter’s Omen

Charming you may be,

Harbinger of glacial hell.

Snow Bird? PLEASE GO BIRD. 🙂

Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis

I saw the first Dark-eyed Junco (what many people around here call “Snow Birds”) of the season in my yard this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having them around in winter. However, they are sometimes the ONLY species in my yard in winter. Seeing one now is the first sign of the impending wintry, Dakota hell, a hell that may not be over until they leave next April. Cute you may be! But I MUCH prefer the seasons when you are not around!!

The Sparrow’s Nightmare – Haiku / Photo of the day

The Sparrow’s Nightmare

Petite feathered grace,

luminosity expressed, shrouding:

The sparrow’s nightmare

American  Kestrel - Falco sparverius

With fall migration in full swing, I noticed an influx of raptors today, with a number of Red-tailed Hawks perched on roadside telephone poles and fence posts. Accompanying them were American Kestrels in high numbers, a species that breeds here during the summer months, but can sometimes be found in very high densities during migration. Despite all my sightings of American Kestrels, I have few photos of the species. Along with the Belted Kingfisher, I can think of few birds more wary of my camera lens. For that reason, this photo is rather special for me…a brilliantly colored male American Kestrel, that uncharacteristically paused for a moment before flushing at my approach.  Just enough time to grab a few photos of one of my favorite species.  As for the poem, for decades they were called “Sparrow-hawks”, with the species thought to be most closely related to the Eurasian Sparrowhawk. It wasn’t until 1983 that the American Ornithological Society noted the much closer relationship with other North American falcons, and the species was renamed the American Kestrel.

The Autumn Rebel – Photo / Haiku of the Day

The Autumn Rebel

The flamboyant rebel

Defies autumn’s chilly hand

While verdure surrenders

Northern Cardinal - Haiku of the Day

Autumn has arrived in South Dakota, both by calendar, and by feel. A week ago I basted in heat and humidity while working outside all day. This morning I bundled up while I headed outside. The leaves are just starting to turn on most trees, yet it won’t be long before autumn’s brown replaces the summer verdure. I do LOVE the fall though, as it’s usually a pretty active birding period with migrants. While in summer, the brilliant colors of a bird are sometimes lost in the lushness of the surrounding landscape, in autumn stark contrasts are often seen. This is one of my favorite photos, “just” a Northern Cardinal on a crisp fall day, shuffling through the leaf litter looking for food. The warm, late afternoon light, the contrast between bird and surroundings, and the wonderful pose and head turn make it a scene I mentally picture when I think of the wonderful fall season.

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