Photo of the Day — Willet

140119 143120 chuq 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Willet

140119 143121 chuq 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Willet

Posted in Photo of the Day

Photo of the Day — Squabbling Snowy Egrets

While exploring Sweet Springs, the quiet was interrupted when two snowy egrets decided to argue about who was in charge….

140119 143748 chuq 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Squabbling Snowy Egrets

140119 143751 chuq 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Squabbling Snowy Egrets

140119 143753 chuq 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Squabbling Snowy Egrets

Posted in Photo of the Day

Going from Good to Great in Bird Photography

I’ve been doing a fair amount of image critique over the last few weeks and with the bird photography part of it I keep seeing some common themes and mistakes that can help newer bird photographers improve their images. Since I’ve had this discussion online four times in the last three weeks, which means it’s time to write it up and get it posted so I can point to it instead of writing it again….

Look for the light first

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Most bird photographers go chasing birds first. When I go out on a photography outing, I’m going to where the birds are, but when I get there, the first thing I look for is good light. Unless I’m trying to photograph a rare individual of a notable species, I will typically try to find a location with good light.

In most circumstances, the most important thing to find is good light because it’s almost impossible to take a good image in bad light. That means finding the right position and the proper angles that when the shot does appear, it’ll be well lit. I’ve come to believe it’s better to wait for a good shot than search out a poor one, so I’ll hold off shooting in bad light and wait for better light and better opportunities.

Find good backgrounds second

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Once I know the angles where I can get good light, I try to find the places in the location where I’m shooting where I the birds will be accessible with backgrounds that make good images. An ugly background or a lot of clutter will ruin an image.

Sometimes you’re chasing birds and your options are limited, but you still need to be aware or the background and clutter. Easier said than done when in the middle of shooting, but if you do your planning at the start and know where the good angles and clean backgrounds are, it helps you time your shots as a bird flies through so you shoot into those locations.

Then you wait

Then you wait — the more you move around, the more noise you make, the more movement the birds see and the more they’ll move away from you. Find a good location in good light, where the birds are going to come into your preferred angle and background, then sit down and wait. How long? Long enough to get the shot, or realize you guessed wrong and that the location wasn’t as good as you’d hoped. Out in the field I see a lot of photographers who never give a location a chance to produce a bird, one that often shows up shortly after they leave.

You give up too easily and too quickly

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Every spring in Palo Alto the Black-Necked Stilts nest and raise chicks. This pond is literally five feet from the side of an access road. How did I get the shot? I sat my butt down on the edge of the road where I had a perfect view of the pond where the chicks and nests were, at an angle where I had gorgeous late afternoon light hitting the birds perfectly, and then I waited.

I almost got strafed by mom twice, she overflew me once close enough to feel the breeze of her wings, but she never attacked. After a while, she settled down and relaxed, and so did the chicks. 45 minutes after I sat down, this chick completely forgot about me and walked right up to within 10 feet of me.

That was despite having to work around half a dozen other photographers, most of whom were there less then ten minutes and one I had to tell to sit down and stop flushing the birds. And despite having traffic on the road behind me including one car that saw photographers, screeched to a halt in the road, doors slamming, for a five minute iphone session.

Far too often I see photographers show up, look around, and shoot whatever they see at the time they arrive. They’re too busy looking for photos to actually stop and take a good one. If the birds are there, moving around and making noise will scare them and make them hide. Stop moving, be quiet, wait and watch. If you’ve chosen your location well, the birds will appear and so will your shot.

Sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes I can wander around and get great shots. But most of the time, the time between my arriving at a specific spot and any shot I am willing to show anyone is at least half an hour. It’s not uncommon for me to stay in one place for an hour or more, and if the birds cooperate, I might shoot a location for a couple of hours before I feel I’ve gotten all that spot will give me — this trip.

Study your target

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If you look through my refuge photos, especially when I’m shooting at Merced NWR, you’ll probably notice some common elements in the background. Birds have likes and dislikes, preferences and habits. If you learn these you can take advantage of them by positioning yourself for where the light and the birds are going to intersect, then waiting for that to happen. This location in Merced is a favorite of the Ross’s Geese, they hang out here during the afternoons as often as half of the trips I make. Their night roost is usually elsewhere, which means that as the afternoon heads towards twilight, the flock will start leaving for the night roost.

If you know this, then you can position yourself to be there when the flock takes flight and do so in a location where the light will be flattering to the birds, with a background that complements them. If you know a bird likes a specific type of tree or food, staking that out and waiting will usually bring better results than poking around at random hoping to find them. At the time I write this, the apricot and plum trees in the yard are blooming — and the goldfinches have arrived to drink the nectar in the blooms. Once you learn this habit, you can almost guarantee great shots of that species if you want them by knowing the timing and scheduling time to be there when they arrive.

Learning their behaviors and setting up your shots to intersect with them is no guarantee, but it can significantly raise the offs of getting the kind of shots you want to take. Do your homework and planning, and it’ll pay off.

You Set Your Standards Too Low

Newer photographers seem to define the success of a shoot by how many photos they publish. I’ll be honest: when someone tells me to take a look at the 300 images they just uploaded from their weekend trip, I make very pleasant noises and I run for the border. I might look at the first dozen or so, but to be honest, I’ve never seen a 100 image upload where the images were good enough for me to plow through all 100.

If you really want people to see and appreciate your best work, you can’t hide it in a big gulp of average work. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was not to settle mediocre work just because I didn’t get good images that trip.

Don’t settle. Learn to edit (The Online Photographer has a good essay on this)

Don’t get in the mindset of thinking about how many images you can use from a shoot; teach yourself to publish only your best, and edit out all but the best, unique images of a shoot. Nobody needs 25 shots of a left shoulder portrait red-tailed hawk.

My philosophy is to find the smallest set of photos that are technically good, show something interesting and are unique. I see no value in publishing 30 “left profile” shots of a bird, find the best couple that show off the bird in that position and retire the rest. You dilute the value of your images (and bore the crap out of your viewers) when you dump 100 images into your flickr stream where 80 of them are similar to each other. Given that philosophy, I edit pretty ruthlessly, stick the rest in an archive and forget about them.

So why keep them at all? Because disk is cheap, and sometimes, you miss something. So I’ll go back to the images after a few months and take a fresh look. Sometimes an image pops out and shows you something you missed during the initial edit. Most of the time, they’re still nice but still boring… Sometimes I also come up with a new idea or project, and I can go back to the archive and look for images that might work for that specific use. Mostly though, the retired archive is there to hold images I never expect to need, in case something comes up sometime in the future I can’t plan for today. So far, that’s been a rare event, but since disk really IS cheap, it’s worth doing. What’s important here is to get them out of your active lightroom setup so they don’t get in your way or tempt you to waste time on them…

Fewer, better images will get attention that lots of okay images won’t. Edit your images because your viewers won’t edit them for you. They’ll edit you.

Techniques for a better photograph

Head in a Clean Space

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Zack Arias talks a lot about the idea of head in a clean space. The idea is that you want to avoid clutter around the head. Easier said than done when you’re shooting a bird sitting in a tree, but worth the effort of trying. Having branches growing out of the birds head impacts the viewer’s reaction to the image, not in a good way.

Watch your focus

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I love autofocus. I depend on it. But far too often, autofocus is going to fail you because it’s going to put the focus point on the beak or the breast of the bird, not the eye. Rock-sharp eyes can make or break an image. Don’t settle for fuzzy eyes. You need to learn how to adjust your autofocus to work in different situations and how to adjust the AF points so they can focus on the eyes whenever possible. Many nature photographers get in the habit of shooting their lenses wide open aperture all of the time; if you stop down a bit (say, F/8 instead of F5.6) is increases your depth of field and gives you more of a margin of error to work within your autofocus system.

Avoid clutter and work for isolation

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Try to avoid as much clutter in your image as possible. David duChemin talks a lot about trying to keep clutter out of an image. What’s clutter? Anything that isn’t enhancing an image is cluttering it and detracting from it. Clutter is any element that’s not telling a part of the story. Working in the field instead of the studio makes managing clutter harder — but that’s why you need to study locations and choose your angles and backgrounds before you start shooting. When it’s time to shoot, you’re going to have limited time and opportunity to get the bird in a frame and avoid the clutter and chaos. That’s why planning ahead on a shoot is critical.

It’s all about the eyes.

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Good view of a bird’s eyes, with eyes free and clear of obstructions and crystal clear focus will make or break most photos. It’s incredibly hard to create an image without a good view of the eyes that anyone will care about. There are special situations where you can create an interesting shot without them, but if you can’t see at least one of the  bird’s eyes, it’s probably not going to succeed as an image.

Your watermark

Your watermark should not be the first thing I notice, or the most prominent element in the image. Watermarks are a very personal and a somewhat controversial item and we could argue about them for days. I use one but I try to keep it very subtle. People who put really obvious preventing copying and they are hurting how people react to the image. The reality is someone with fairly simple photoshop skills can remove almost any watermark in about five minutes with enough quality that it can be used online. If you don’t believe me, send me a link to one of your images, and I’ll show you how to remove your watermark.

Learn to Show Movement

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Learn how to show motion and activity. That’s more than just freezing a bird on the wing. Sometimes the best flight shots have a bit of wing blur. Experiment with slower shutter speeds and see how you like the result. Put the flight in some kind of context so the viewer sees what the bird is doing, not just the bird.

Create a Connection

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Help the viewer connect with the bird. We’re back to the eyes, create visual connections where the viewer feels the bird is watching back.

Put the Bird in its Environment

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Show the bird within its environment. Teach the viewer what the bird is doing, how it lives. Give the viewer a reason to see the bird as an individual with a life, not just a static senior portrait like all of the other images they’re looking through. Make the image unique in some way so that what they see isn’t what all the other photographers are showing, too.

Experiment with new techniques

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Learn how to take advantage of bad lighting. Backlit? Try silhouettes. Dim light? Look for ways to build abstract images. There are lots of ways you can still create interesting imagery even when the light and the birds refuse to cooperate.

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Some days, of course, the best thing you can do is put away the camera and just enjoy the show. Or head home and try another day. There are days when it’s simply not there. Forcing it leads to mediocre images, and you don’t want to settle for that. Try again some other time.

Move beyond Press and Pray

To take that next step and start taking great images reliably you need to start taking control of your photography, and grow beyond going out, wandering around, pressing the shutter and hoping good pictures happen. Sometimes they do — we all get lucky. But you don’t want to be lucky, you want to be great.

The move from good to great involves work and practice. You need to know how to operate your camera and make it take the shot you want and not the image it wants to give you. You need to know your location and your light. You need to learn your subjects so you can be at the right place and the right time when your bird intersects with your light at your location.

You need to work at it. You need to get picky. Don’t settle for bad light, bad backgrounds, bad location and mediocre pictures. Edit ruthlessly and only show your best. And think your way through taking pictures instead of simply pushing the shutter button. That will start you down the path towards consistently great images.

I’d love to hear what you think and what suggestions you have. You can leave comments here, or come join the discussion over on our Google+ Bird Photography community.


Posted in Photography

Photo of the Day — Morro Rock from Sweet Springs Nature Preserve

I never get tired of taking pictures of the rock. And remember, at one point, someone took a look at that and said “that’ll make a hell of a quarry” — and started taking it apart and selling it.

140119 143415 chuq 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Morro Rock from Sweet Springs Nature Preserve


Posted in Photo of the Day

Photography Before and After — Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Time for another in my Before and After series: I’m taking some of my best images and processing them through my workflow step by step so everyone can see what came out of the camera and how it is turned into the final image. (Look here to see all of the tutorials in the series)

The purpose is to explain my processes and techniques in the hopes that all of you will be able to borrow some of them for your own work, and because I hope to get feedback from you on techniques I haven’t discovered yet that will improve my own images.

I’d love to hear what you think of these articles and whether you find them possible. If you have questions on any aspect of them, please leave a comment or drop me an email.

Here’s today’s image as I originally published it. We’re not going to reproduce this, we’re going to start over with the raw and process it from scratch, so the final result will be different (and perhaps better). We’ll find out together…

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But first, a digression on this image

This is an image that is one of my favorites, but which doesn’t get much love online. It’s a classic example of the kind of image that the big move to online viewing hurts: the colors are subtle and muted, the attraction of the image is in detail, and most of that detail is lost at online viewing sizes and when reduced to the ubiquitous thumbnail size or on the screen of your iPhone, it becomes a meaningless orangish blob.

But print this puppy at 8×10 or 11×14, and sit down and look at it, and the image is glorious. On paper, this is one of my most popular images. On screen, it’s not nearly as well thought of. Without saying anything against the digital revolution in photography, this is the kind of image that is at risk of getting lost in our move to a pure digital reality for images.

Processing Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

And here is that image as its unprocessed raw file.

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When I show the unprocessed raw image to people, the common reaction is “why did you even bother processing this?” — at first glance, this image would likely end up in the ding pile for most people.

I really liked the underlying structure of the image. There’s a lot of interesting action going on. I knew from being there that there was color in the sunrise that the camera had muted into greys but which could be coaxed out. And there are some interesting layers in color and texture I thought could be emphasized. The worst that would happen would be a waste of some time, but I really felt the image could be turned into something decent.

It’s a great reminder not to be too fast on the delete button or too quick to judge an image a failure. Not every image is WOW out of the camera, some have a shy beauty that needs some encouragement. It’s always worth some time when working through a photo shoot to consider images that are technically fine to see whether there’s a great image to be found with a bit of work.

This image was shot with my Canon T3i and a Canon 24-105 F4L IS lens, with no filters, using a tripod and remote shutter release. Exposure was 1/250 @ F5.6 ISO 400. I probably should have shot it at F/8 or F/11, but if I’d done so or lowered the ISO, I would have gotten blurring in the birds.

Processing workflow

This is my basic processing workflow. Before I process an image it gets imported into Lightroom and I do some basic work on it, like attaching GPS and location info and basic keywords. The full workflow (import to print) I’ll discuss some other time. This is the develop module part of the processing.

  • Crop
  • Camera Calibration & Lens Correction
  • Color Balance
  • Black Point/White Point
  • Exposure, Shadows & Highlights
  • Clarity & Vibrance
  • HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance)
  • Local Adjustments
  • Sharpening (Detail) and Cleanup
  • Special Effects

The basic goal of the processing workflow is to start with the large changes that are global and affect large parts of the image in big ways, and work your way towards smaller and more details/localized changes. I also try to process an image in the same general way each time, and only do a task once. Sometimes a chance later in the processing makes me go back and tweak a value I’d set earlier, but the goal is to spend as little time as needed on an image while getting the most out of it — efficient and powerful processing.

Make your processing workflow a habit. Poking at an image at random makes it harder to get a great image and impossible to reproduce the results on a different image later. You want to know what your workflow is and follow it, not spend time with each image wondering what to do next. As you teach yourself to follow a specific workflow checklist like the one above, you’ll find that “what do do next” will become obvious, and your processing speed will go up.


First step is to crop the image. The horizon isn’t level (mine never are, unless I add a bubble level to my camera, which I don’t often enough), and I want to adjust the shape of the frame to focus in on a part of the scene.

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One of the things I like about this image is the banding from top to bottom, with the very dark rushes on the lower edge, and different, lighter bands of activity moving to the top. Unfortunately, un-cropped the rushes is overwhelming so I need to trim that back. I have to sacrifice that tree on the right, but cropping this in a panoramic format didn’t look right (and makes printing a challenge). I wanted this to continue to work well in a standard  frame and mat look, so I’m using a standard crop format here.

Here’s how it looks cropped.

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Camera Calibration and Lens Correction

First thing you should do on every image is set your camera calibration and lens correction. Camera calibration is a subjective thing and different vendors and bodies will have different choices available. Adobe Standard will be there for every camera. With Canon bodies I find I prefer Camera Faithful almost all of the time. What this value does is give “hints” to the RAW rendering engine on how to interpret the data when rendering the image.

Lens correction profiles allow you to tell Lightroom what lens was used. If it’s a lens from a major vendor chances are a profile exists for it. This helps Lightroom auto-correct for certain lens flaws like chromatic aberration and distortions, especially around the edges of the frame. It’s possible to manually make changes as well, but for most images I don’t; the big exception being buildings where I need to straighten up walls and edges.

If your lens has a profile you should use it. If it doesn’t, leave this disabled.

Color Balance

Setting color balance is the next step, up in the Basic section. I’ve found that you can get decent color by using Auto White Balance but that I can rarely get the best possible color by leaving the choice to the camera. It gets close, but it rarely gets it perfect. Shooting in RAW mode allows me the option of deferring the white balance decision to when I process the image, though, so since I shoot almost 100% of the time in RAW, I almost always shoot 100% of the time with AWB set in camera. When I bring the image in to process, I’ll choose a specific white balance that I think best represents the lighting at the time.

Given that this was shot in early dawn under significant fog, there isn’t an obvious right choice here. Any of “sunny”, “shade”, or “cloudy” would be appropriate. There are times when experimenting with color balance can give you some interesting results. Here is this image showing how changing color balances affects the image, including setting it to “tungsten” which creates a very cool image. Under some circumstances, that might make for a very interesting image but not what I want for this one.

color balance Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

There is no “right” answer here but choosing a specific color balance helps you get the colors set to the ranges that work best for the image and reduce the amount of tweaking you’ll need to do later — most of the time. Notice also how much color has re-appeared in the image just by setting the color balance to either cloudy or shade. This image is a classic example of the kind of conditions that will confuse the camera and why you shouldn’t trust auto-white balance most of the time. AWB is nice starting point under easy conditions, but it’ll trip you up when the lighting gets tricky.

This is also a great example of why you need to be wary of dismissing an image because at first glance it doesn’t seem special. Simply setting an explicit white balance instead of deferring to the camera’s decision makes a huge difference in the overall quality of the image, and brings back the color that was in the dawn in person but missing from the image because of the camera’s decisions. This is why it’s a good idea to learn how to control your camera’s features and not over-rely on the automation. I think it also could start a great argument with the “did you photoshop it?” crowd, but we won’t go there…

You can change or tweak this later, but choosing “shade” brings the image a lot closer to what I want it to look like without a lot of work, so we’ll start there.

 Black and White Point

The next change is to set the black and white points. This will let you adjust the overall contrast of the image and help create the strong blacks and whites that can create impact in an image. But this is a dawn image with a strong dose of fog, and an aspect of shooting in fog is that the images will tend towards high-key light values and be relatively low contrast. If you mess around with the black and white points too much, you can effectively delete the fog out of the image — which is sometimes what you want, but not here. We want that foggy, soft look.

This image already has strong blacks in it so I can set a traditional black point with the blacks kissing the left frame of the histogram. If you try to set a very white white point like you might under mid-morning sunlight, much of the sky washes out and the sun effectively blows out — not good. So I’ll take the strong blacks, but be very wary of adjusting the white point because the color is subtle and I don’t want to lose it. I end up with blacks = -75, and white being adjusted just to +16. You can see just a touch of solid black in the rushes. This is how I like to set my blacks in most images, and it allows for a very strong black to show up on paper when you later print the image.

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Exposure, Shadows & Highlights

Next up we adjust with the exposure, shadows and highlights sliders. Exposure sets the overall light levels for the image, while shadows and highlights adjust the light and darker areas independently. The shadows slider in Lightroom 5 has become a close friend of mine because it allows me to bring out the detail in the shadows amazingly well, and because of that I rarely turn to the tone curves any more (sssh: don’t tell photographers who live and die by adjusting curves, with Lightroom 5 I find it’s rarely necessary). 

For this image, I’m going to leave well enough alone for the most part. Adjusting the shadows doesn’t improve the image, it just makes the dark areas darker. I don’t think the exposure needs to be changed. I end up shifting highlights to -40; because the fog adds a lot of white to the colors, this deepens and intensifies them a bit.

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Clarity and Vibrance

Clarity can be thought of as a “smart sharpener”, while Vibrance is an intelligent saturation adjustment. A bit of clarity helps most images; I typically set it around +20 and it does some localized contrast adjustments much like sharpening does; on good images, it can sometimes replace doing any sharpening in the detail module although I typically do both clarity and sharpening.

Vibrance has almost completely replaced the saturation slider in my workflow. the Saturation slider adjusts all instances of the colors the same, while vibrance will adjust lower-saturated colors more and high saturation colors much less, making it a more foolproof way to tweak the colors on the image. For this image I’ll use my normal +20 for clarify, but since it intensifies the blacks, I’ll drop the black slider to -65 to compensate.

For Vibrance, since one of the things I’m trying to do is bring that subtle dawn color out, I’ll push clarity fairly hard at +35. We’ll continue to work on the color in the next section.

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HSL — Hue, Saturation, and Luminance

Now we move to the HSL section where we can start adjusting colors with more precision. This section allows us to take specific color channels and change the color itself (hue), how saturated the color is, and how bright the color is (luminance). You can make some very dramatic improvements to an image this way, but if you’re not careful you can make the image look like it was snipped out of a bad sci-fi movie, so I’ve found a delicate touch is necessary.

This image looks to me like it has a bit of a blue cast in the sky, but when I go and examine the sky in detail, it turns out it’s really neutral gray from the fog and not bluish. One easy way to explore this is to use the saturation sliders and set various colors to -100 and see what happens. As it turns out, the sky is mostly oranges with some yellow, and the sun is mostly reds with some oranges and yellows, and there’s a grey wash across the sky from the fog. Since I want to emphasize the oranges, I use the hue slider for red and set it to +25 to shift the sun more into the oranges.

Any other changes you have to be a bit careful, because large changes of a color channel where there’s noise and color patterns in the sky can cause major blotching and be incredibly hard to fix later. You can minimize this by staying in the +-15 range, and +-20 is really pushing it. Some of that you can fix with noise reduction, but you’re better off not putting it in in the first place.

As I work this image I’m coming to realize it’s a tough one to get what I want just using Lightroom, so I’m going to pull out the plug-ins and do some serious work on it shortly. Because of that, I’m not trying to absolutely optimize the image colors now, but to set up the colors so that when I shift to the plug-in I have the image set up so that I can finish it in the plug-in. For a rather average image (my 3stars), I won’t use plug-ins because the image isn’t high enough quality to warrant the investment of time, but for my better images like this one, it’s worth the extra steps.

I am still trying to emphasize the orange tone of the image, so I end up with Hue Red +25 (mentioned above) to shift the sun towards orange, saturation I shift Orange +3 and Yellow -22 to pull some of the yellows out. With luminance I darken the primary colors a bit with Red -8, Orange -15 and Yellow -10.

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I’m now going to re-arrange my workflow a bit to bring in the plug-ins. I primarily use the Nik plug-in suite (now owned by Google). Shifting to them implies making a TIF copy of the image, so once I do, I can’t go back and make further adjustments to the RAW image in Lightroom — unless I want to toss out the work in the plug-ins and re-do them. If I want to do any localized adjustments, now is probably the best time to do those, but for this image, I’m happy with what I have. I will be doing sharpening later using another Nik plug-in.

Nik Color Efex Pro

The first plug-in I’ll typically use is Nik Pro. It has a lot of options available to go in and massage color, contrast and other aspects of the image. Color Efex Pro is a tool that has a large number of image manipulation tools. I must admit that I didn’t really see the advantage of it for a long time, but once I started using it, I realized just how powerful it was, so when I do decide to do extended processing on an image, I’ll typically start with it.

To fire up a plug-in, right-click on the image, and choose the plug-in via the Edit In menu. You need to configure your plug-ins in the preferences of Lightroom in the External Editing section. Many plug-ins will set this up for you during install, but you still need to make sure the TIF you create is configured properly; often it’ll set up the color space to sRGB, which can cause banding and other problems. Make sure when you send things off to the plug-ins you give it as much info as possible. I will typically use the ProPhoto color space for this but AdobeRGB works as well. I also set it for 16 bits of bit depth and a fairly high resolution at 240 pixels per inch.

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The first thing I want to do is try to bring out the colors a bit more and give them a bit more variation from top to bottom, and I want to make sure the flying birds are more distinct and visible. I’ll do that with the Pro Contrast function. Before is on the left.

Color Efex Pro 4ScreenSnapz001 600x322 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

After that, I’ll use Detail Extractor. If clarity is lightroom’s smart sharpening, Detail Extractor is clarity on steroids. If my workflow was plug-in centric and I used plug-ins on all images, I’d use this on images and do minimal or no sharpening in Lightroom. Note also there’s more contrast adjustment which is lightening the image and bringing out the colors in the sky. Unfortunately, it’s brightened the rushes at the bottom too much, but I’ll fix that later.

One more contrast adjustment to get the colors where I want them. This time it’s using Contrast Color Range. Color Efex Pro has over 50 functions you can apply to images, but chances are you’ll end up finding yourself using half a dozen or so a lot and the rest rarely. You can stack these so multiple effect the image in a single edit, and you can even set presets to give you recipes if you build an effect you want to use again.

Color Efex Pro 4ScreenSnapz003 600x322 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The image is now close to what I want, but the top third is a bit too bright and the rushes at the bottom aren’t as black as I want. Note the colors in the middle 2/3 of the image and note how the flocks in flight and the tree lower right are standing out. That was a big purpose of the processing in this step.

One option here would be to use a pair of Graduated ND Filters, one to darken the bottom and one to darken the top, but experimenting with that I don’t like what it’s doing to the top part of the image. Instead, I’m going to switch to another plug-in where I can work with a bit more precision on that part of the image.

Here’s the before and after for the changes made in Color Efex Pro

Color Efex Before and After
120108 072553 chuq beforeefex Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
120108 072553 chuq afterefex Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Nik Viveza

Home stretch now. Nik’s Viveza allows you to make localized changes to an image via what they call control points. These act a lot like Photoshop’s layer masks in creating active areas of an image for adjustment. You set a control point by clicking on a location and setting a radius. The area affected by the control point is set by the color of pixels similar to the ones under the control point. It’s a lot easier than layer masks (most of the time), and once you get the hang of how the control points work, you can do really interesting things to an image with them.

We’ll start by darkening the rushes. here I’ve set four control points, each on the dark part of the rushes. I’ve grouped them into one logical control area, and so when I adjust the control area, it’ll adjust all of them equally.

Viveza 2ScreenSnapz001 600x354 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

I then create five more control points along the top with smaller circles and group them. They’re all set on the lightest points of the image. Finally, two more control points in the middle covering a large area of the image, grouped.

The bottom set I set brightness to -21 to darken the reeds.

The top set I’m trying to blend in that bright area with the rest of the sky, so I drop brightness by -21, and I pull back contrast to -20, and I also reduce saturation a bit at -22, and I reduce structure by -11. Structure is Nik’s version of Lightroom’s clarity, so it’s another smart sharpening tool. In this case I’m removing structure, so I’m reducing sharpening and smoothing the area a bit, taking out some of the noise and detail. Reducing structure in skies is one way to smooth them out and get the noise out that I find works well.

The middle control points do two things. One important one is they take control of those pixels so that the control areas above and below don’t. I decided as long as I was tweaking to add structure (+35) to bring out the birds more, and add in saturation (+26) to pull out more color. Now to my eye the entire sky has a nice orange glow to it with some interesting banding, but all of the colors look the same to me, including the sun, but the sun has just a touch of red in it coming through the fog to set it out. The birds  are now visible streaming through the image and help create  a structural pattern that gives the eye things to look at. The rushes at the bottom frame the image and are nice and dark again.

The image is done except for cleanup. Here’s the before and after for the Viveza edits.

Viveza Before and After
120108 072553 chuq afterefex Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
120108 072553 chuq afterviveza Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The changes here are subtle, a few final tweaks to get it just right. That’s an important aspect of this workflow: start with the large global edits, and work  your way to the smaller, more subtle and more specific regional edits. While I don’t say you should never go back and adjust something from a previous step, you want to avoid working in a way where a change forces you to go back and redo a previous change (unless you realize you made a mistake), and any updates to previous steps should be tweaks, not major changes. If you find yourself redoing your processing along teh way, I’d argue you’re doing it wrong. Top down, global to local helps you avoid waisting time redoing your work along the way.

Final steps

The image is done, but we need to do some cleanup with final sharpening and noise reduction. Since I’m using plug-ins in the processing, I’ll do these final steps in plug-ins as well, using Nik’s dFine for noise reduction and Sharpener Pro for sharpening.

Nik’s Sharpener pro has two modules, one for RAW presharpening and one for output sharpening. I did the RAW sharpening in Lightroom, so I’ll only do output sharpening. I’m going to target this for online use; you should sharpen separate copies of the image for online and print because the needs are much different. This is a place where one size doesn’t fit all.

A lot of the time I’ll trust Nik’s sharpener and just accept the defaults. In this case, I’m going to boost the structure a bit because it emphasizes that white fog band just above the ground a bit, and again, it brings the birds out a bit more. It is bringing out some more noise, but we’ll fix that.

Sharpening is one of those things that can be really hard to show off online, but you can get a sense of the changes in the loupe view:

Sharpener Pro 3ScreenSnapz001 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Then on to dFine to clean up the noise. There’s a lot of noise but dFine does a great job of cleaning it up. This is a case where I need more than the default to get the clean look I want, so I crank up the constrast noise removal. This is effecitvely de-sharpening the image, but for an image like this, that’s okay. It’s not something I’d do where I’m trying to preserve a lot of small detail, like feathering on a bird.

Dfine 2ScreenSnapz001 600x327 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

And we’re done.

120108 072553 chuq done 600x400 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Here is the before and after from the RAW image to the final.

RAW vs Final
120108 072553 chuq Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
120108 072553 chuq done Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

And since you never exactly reproduce the same image when you reprocess it, here’s my original version of this image compared to the new one.

Old Master vs New Master
120108 072552 chuq Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
120108 072553 chuq done Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Actually, not quite done…

Doing my final look at the image, I found a dust spot that the sharpening brought out. A quick spot removal took care of it. It’s something that might not show up at all in online images, but which would make you crazy when printing it.

LightroomScreenSnapz0101 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge  LightroomScreenSnapz0111 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

LightroomScreenSnapz0121 600x401 Photography Before and After    Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

And with that, this image is done. If I wanted to take it further and print it I’d go back to the TIF created by Viveza and from there do a separate set of sharpening and noise reduction aimed at the higher resolutions of a print image. I would also spend a chunk of time pixelpeeping at 100% looking for artifacts, noise, dust spots and probably clone out some of the birds that are really fuzzy or indistinct (subjective call, when does it stop being a bird spot and start being a noise spot?)

Final Thoughts

Right now, highly saturated colors and really large, distinctive objects are trendy in landscape photography because subtlety suffers when mashed down to online file sizes and those subtle details disappear completely when you turn it into a thumbnail, which is often the first (and only) look a person gives an image on a screen. I’m hoping that fad is temporary and we’ll go back to imagery that’s more realistically saturated, but I may be lecturing into the void on that one.

If there any things I hope this image teaches you, it’s two things:

  • Don’t trust your camera to do your work as a photographer. Modern cameras do a great job of getting a decent image, but they still can’t get the image you’re envisioning. You need to learn how to tell your camera how to shoot an image the way you want it, not accept the image the camera offers to take for you. Which of you is in charge, you or the camera? Too often with the automation cameras offer, we defer to the camera.
  • When reviewing and editing your images from a shoot, don’t toss an image because it doesn’t reach out and slap you in the face at first viewing. There are a lot of gems sitting on hard disks around the world that only need a little care and attention to bloom. Again, if you defer to the camera to give you great stuff, you’ll miss a lot of potentially great stuff. Look behind that initial rendering at the structure and bones of an image and see if you can identify whether there is potential within it. Don’t be afraid to experiment — the worst that happens if you put in some time, decide it’s not there and archive the image. It’s definitely worth the effort if you find a few like this.

This image definitely looks best printed out and on paper. It’s one that I hang proudly on my wall here in my office. If you’re curious about how it looks printed, it’s available as part of my portfolio on my Smugmug site, and you can have a copy printed up and delivered there. Think about it this way: these before and after pieces take hours to create; if you buy the print you help fund the writing of these articles — and you get the print. We both win, and it encourages me to write more of these….

I’m curious that my original processing of this image emphasized the reds and this time through I emphasized more of an orange palette. There are other minor changes but the images are for the most part very similar. Once I start reprocessing I don’t refer to the original, so I don’t use it as a guide when I create the new version. My best guess is that in the original I keyed the color palette off of the reds in the sun and pulled those out across the rest of the image, while this time, I took the oranges in the sky as the base and built the image colors from there. There’s no right answer, I like both images a lot, but they have different feels with the different color bases.

This image could easily cause days of debate about the whole “get it right in camera” and “have you photoshopped it?” schticks because I started with the same base image and ended up with two very different looking images, and yet both of the final images looked more like I remember the original scene than the “in camera” one did, which was very grey and with colors a lot more muted than the actual scene.

That difference and the differences with the RAW image and the two versions based on it all really come down to one key decision, too: color balance. I haven’t checked the older image files, but I’m guessing the original image was processed with a color balance near daylight, while this reprocessing I shifted the color balance over to cloudy. If you look back at the color balance comparisons earlier in this piece, you’ll see the daylight color balance has a reddish tone to it. That one decision point affected the final result significantly and nudged it in two different but equally interesting directions. Which one you think is better is purely subjective.

It should also be noted that if you did take the camera default and left it “as shot”, you probably wouldn’t have gotten an interesting image out of it all; it would have been tough to pull good color out of the image from the starting point the camera chose. All of which is a good practical example of what I said earlier: take control of the image and your camera rather than defer to what the camera feels like giving you.

That doesn’t imply (as some photographers will tell you) that you have to live in manual focus and manual exposure, although you need to know when it’s best to use both. What it does mean is understanding how to adapt the camera’s thinking to what you want instead of what it thinks you should get. For me that means shooting a lot (>90%) in Aperture mode, but using exposure compensation to help the camera understand my intent and adjust its thinking for conditions, and when to use the various exposure evaluation variations your camera has. Knowing when switch from, say, center-weighted evaluative to spot metering can save you a lot more pain and heartburn than switching to manual exposure and trying to dial it in, especially outside in rapidly changing conditions.

Thanks for reading, and for your feedback. Next time it’s probably time to show the processing of a bird image…


Posted in Photography - Getting Geeky with Lightroom

Photo of the Day — Sweet Springs Nature Preserve

One of my favorite places, Sweet Springs Nature Preserve is near Morro Bay and is a small wild area on the edge of the harbor. I always find time to visit when I’m in town.

140119 135903 chuq 1024x592 Photo of the Day    Sweet Springs Nature Preserve

Posted in Photo of the Day

Photo of the Day — Panoche Valley Farm Building

A farm building in Panoche Valley, San Benito county. Shown in both color and black and white. I don’t do much (enough!) black and white conversions, but sometimes I do, and sometimes they turn out pretty good. I like both versions of this, and can’t decide which I like better.

120220 085151 chuq 2 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Panoche Valley Farm Building

120220 085151 chuq 1024x682 Photo of the Day    Panoche Valley Farm Building

Posted in Photo of the Day

Diving into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (warning, water politics neepery)

One of the things I’ve been doing the last few weeks instead of important things like posting selfies or writing for this blog is trying to understand the implications of the drought on California. Researching the wildlife refuges for my refuge project just as the drought was really hitting its stride this winter brought the water issue to the center of my attention, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on how the drought is going to affect us (as residents of Silicon Valley and California), and about the birds I’m studying and photographing.

That has dropped me knee deep into California water politics without a pair of hip waders. At the center of these politics is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which is politics-speak for a pair of tunnels to be dug under the delta to transfer water from north of the delta (where it is) to south of the delta (where it’s needed). Back in the 1980′s there was a plan called the Peripheral Canal to do something similar at ground level that was quite controversial and eventually rejected.

Water is a major issue in the state. Want to start a fight between northern and southern california? mention water. The northern half of the state looks at what southern california did to the Owens Valley and says “over my dead body”. The southern half of the state looks at the water and mutters “damn hippies….”. The farmers don’t care what happens to anything else as long as they get their water. The people who depend on the fishing industries that depend on the delta fish populations look at the farmers and think “chum….”.

It’s an incredibly complicated problem. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been digging into it, especially with the tunnel plan. I wanted to get a sense of how all of this was going to affect the birds and refuges, and whether the tunnel project was necessary, and if it was possible, and if it was a good idea.

I’m still not entirely sure. My sense of things right now are that (a) we’re screwed no matter what, (b) the tunnel project is incredibly complex and I’m unconvinced the state can build it successfully, and (c) if they can build it, it might well be a good thing — but I have caveats to that.

Want to dive in?

If you want to start dive into this yourself, you can start at the Bay Delta Conservation Plan project web site. The current draft plan and environmental impact reports tally well over 300 pages. 300 dense, geeky, stultifying pages.

Fortunately, there are others who are digging into this as well and sharing their info. The best source I’ve found to find out about all of this is Maven’s Notebook, so if you want a starting point for investigating this, here’s where to start.

Also, realize that the delta area isn’t the only place with water politics; the colorado river is another hotbed of distribution woes and challenges, and the problems there are a big issue with the ongoing problems of the Salton Sea. A good overview of this region and its water challenges was written up by National Geographic. A third location where there are issues is Lake Tahoe, and this week we heard our first politician publicly suggest that we should just pump water from the lake to cover the drought for the farmers. Expect that fight to continue in the future.

If the idea of reading 300+ pages of plan docs and EIR notes makes you want to poke your eyes out with an icepick, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, there are others doing that for us and publishing their results. The best one I’ve found so far is a formal review by the San Diego County Water Authority. As one of the customers for state water (and at the far/wrong end of all of the supply chains for water in the state they have a big stake in this and making sure it all works successfully. They also are one of the few actively building desalination capacity and are actively working on conservation and re-use projects, so they seem to be the group of experts who have their act together the best. They seem to be a good team to listen to about the problems and opportunities.

 My take on all of this

Enough deep background. That there’s that much will give you a sense just how big and complicated this issue is. I am not a water technology geek, nor will I play one on TV. Having said that, I’ve come out of the last couple of weeks of digging with some observations and talking points that I hope will help you at least start to understand some of the issues we and the state need to grapple with here. My opinions are subject to change — and likely to — as I continue to dig into this. Which I will, because, god help me, I’m finding this all quite fascinating.

There are some details and issues that I’ve found that I think aren’t getting much play in the rather superficial discussions being done on this project by the media. I’m shocked that the media isn’t covering this well. Shocked, I tell you.

  • The biggest thing being lost in most discussions is the timing of this project. The plan for the tunnel project is that it will take 15 years to plan and build it before the tunnels go online. 15 years, not from today, but from the day the plan is approved and funded.
  • That 15 year timeframe does not take into consideration legal challenges. There are going to be many lawsuits over this project that will slow down the approval process and delay the start of the project.
  • Assuming we get the normal delays in funding (it needs to be voted on, which implies 2016 at the earliest) and the usual rounds of legal delays and court challenges, if this thing breaks ground by 2020 I’ll be amazed. If it ever breaks ground. And there’s still 15 years from that date before water will flow.

This means, bluntly, that not only can the tunnel project not solve the drought we’re in, it’s unlikely to solve the next one either. Any attempt to tie the project to the current drought to get you to approve it is a lie. The tunnel project has to be considered as a project to solve problems for our children, or maybe their children.

Which raises the question: shouldn’t we be putting this time and energy and funding into shorter term projects that would have results sooner, even if they are smaller in scale? Should we be pushing harder into solar-powered desalinisation? More recycle/reuse? Funding better and more efficient irrigation techniques? (read the Salton Sea piece for some background on that).

A couple of weeks ago I was able to sit down with some people from various organizations including Audubon and the Nature Conservancy and one of the topics was water use in central coast california. A lot of new acreage has been put into wine grapes down there. It’s a major cash crop in the state. Many of the newer vineyards, though, have come online by drilling a deep well and using very inefficient irrigation techniques for the vines. As a result, water pulls out of the aquifer have grown massively, and the water table has dropped enough that shallow wells are now going dry. The area has put a moratorium on new wells while they figure this all out, but many homesteads with older shallow wells are screwed. It looks pretty clear that they didn’t try to get a handle on the problem until well after the amount of water being drawn from the aquifer is beyond the recharge capacity — so doing nothing continues the growing disaster.

Do we build the tunnel? Or do we fund things like helping these regional water authorities create standards for irrigation efficiency, and even subsidize farmers costs for installing these improved technologies?

To me, the tunnel project seems more and more a boondoggle. We’re looking at the state that gave us the new Bay Bridge (with broken bolts and leaks) and the Bullet Train project (which simple looks like a planning disaster waiting to be taken out behind the barn) now asking us to trust them to build an even more complicated and difficult project and assume they can. It’s hard for me to accept that.

Other notes from the San Diego evaluation

The San Diego water authority made some really interesting observations in their review:

  • They made it very clear the plan as it’s currently laid out has a lot of unknowns and assumptions and they don’t believe the current budget takes that into consideration. What this means: the cost is going to go up, probably by a lot.
  • They note that the plan assumes there may be as many as ten or 11 boring machines digging simultaneously, and it’s unclear if there are that many machines and dig teams available globally. This puts into question the timeframe planning, because if they have to stage some of the digs due to lack of available crews, that’ll lengthen the project time (and raise costs).
  • Nobody’s figured out how to manage the tailings from the dig, where to place them and how to transport them. There’s a massive amount of muck that’s going to be taken out of the ground that has to go somewhere. Some of it may well be contaminated.
  • Many engineering studies haven’t been done on the dig locations: they don’t know what’s down there that they’re going to dig through. A number of property owners have refused to cooperate on test bores and they’re relying on bores taken “close to” the tunnel locations, not the actual location. We only need to see some of the fun going on in Seattle right now to guess how this will go.
  • The plan on how to build intakes on the Sacramento River that won’t impact the protected fish species are still conceptual — in other words, the details of how to make them work are still being designed.

Impact on Nature

This tunnel project is really two tunnels side by side, each 44 feet in circumference. In reality, it’s five sets of tunnels, and where they meet will be a maintenance shaft and facility. One of those points is planned for Staten Island, which if you read this blog regularly you might know as a bird refuge area. it’s owned by Nature Conservancy and is used for farming in a way compatible with it’s primary purpose as winter habitat for geese and sandhill cranes. It’s a primary wintering spot for some specific populations of Aleutian Cackling Geese.

Needless to say, Nature Conservancy hasn’t approved this plan to turn a significant chunk of the island into a tunnel access point. That implies to me an impending fight over eminent domain acquisitions and lots of court squabbling, which means lawyers get rich and the project gets delayed. But assuming the project wins and does win access to the area, building this project implies digging end point pits for the digging machines, plus there need to be access roads and other infrastructure like water and electricity. The project area needs to be “de-watered” for the duration of the project, meaning it’ll get pumped dry. My estimate is at least half of the island would be turned into project space for the duration — 5-10 years? Afterward, the area is supposed to be mitigated back to preserve status, except for the permanent shaft access area, the access roads to the shaft, the electrical and other infrastructure needed to support the shaft… you get the idea.

In the meantime, the birds are supposed to go, where?

140216 152106 chuq Diving into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (warning, water politics neepery)

The bottom line

So, yeah. my bottom line on all of this.

The tunnel project looks like a mega project that has taken on a life of its own. It’s scope is so big that once started it’s hard to stop. After all, we’ve invested so much in it already, it gets hard to decide not to push forward. That said, the scope of the project is immense, and the State of California hasn’t shown it can successfully build mega projects recently — look at the problems with the Bay Bridge and the Bullet Train. This project looks like the Bullet Train all over again: a good idea conceptually that in reality is expensive, high risk, low reward and probably unnecessary, and by the time we actually build it, the problem it’s due to solve is probably going to be solved (by necessity) in other ways, because if we wait for the tunnels to come online, the state is screwed big time.

The problem the tunnel is supposed to solve needs to be solved sooner than the tunnel is capable of. It’s better solved by putting funding and expertise into regionalized solutions, especially increased investment in desalinisation and recycling/reuse capabilities. We need to get more efficient at storing and transport. We probably need to increase our storage capacity with new and upgraded reservoirs. More important than all of that, though, is that there is a lot of possibility for reducing water usage in many regions, especially if we get serious about helping agriculture improve water usage efficiency in irrigation and perhaps in shifting to less water intense crops. Subsidizing agriculture’s adoption of better irrigation techniques seems to have a lot of potential.

The more I look at the tunnels, the less I like it. The basic concept is good, actually. The implementation scares the crap out of me. The opportunities for this project to scale in cost and time are massive. The risks are high, and there are way too many engineering unknowns at this point. And all to solve a problem that needs to be grappled today, when in fact, the tunnel project is a solution that won’t come online until kids being born now are in college. That, alone, should be enough to make us realize this is a boondoggle and we need to invest in other projects and solutions that may be smaller in scale, but have shorter-term returns on the investment.

To me, the tunnel project is a solution that’s lost track of the problem it was intended to solve.

Posted in Birdwatching, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area