A few quick comparisons of bird images

Late March can be dull, dreary and boring in Southern Ontario. So, I grabbed one of my cameras and headed out to grab a few quick bird images at Grimsby harbour.

Even though I didn’t find anything exciting, it’s often good to practice one’s technique before spring migration is in full tilt. I was lucky enough to capture a couple of reasonable gull images, a goose in flight and a duck. Nothing too special, but fun none-the-less.

As I was doing a bit of work in post it occurred to me that it may be interesting to do some basic ‘before and after’ image comparisons using out-of-camera jpegs with corresponding ones processed from RAW files. Since readers use many different types of software I didn’t think doing a detailed step-by-step process description made much sense. Instead I thought it would be better to briefly discuss what I thought was lacking in the jpegs. Then describe the general approaches I tried to use to get the images to where I wanted them when processing the RAW files in post.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-220

This first capture was done in bright sunlight. I knew that trying to hold highlights on this high contrast subject would be very difficult due to the small CX sensor in my Nikon 1 V2. I accepted the fact that I would likely end up with some blown-out highlights. Having said that, I did want to get as many details as I could back in the image so adjusting highlights was necessary. There is a lack of definition in terms of feather detail on the white areas above and below the duck’s wing as well as on the duck’s face and neck. This indicated that some work with sharpening, contrast, micro contrast and other settings that affect edge acuity would also be needed. The dark areas of the duck have little, if any, indication of even feather shape so some work to bring out some shadow details was also needed. Finally, the duck had just popped up from a dive and I did not capture the framing very well so some cropping was also required.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-220

I cropped the image allowing some room on the left hand side to give the duck a sense of direction. You’ll notice that some highlights are blown-out as was expected but there are more feather details in the highlight areas and some feather shape is now visible in the dark areas. You’ll also notice that the image has a bit more snap in terms of overall sharpness and definition…this is easily visible in the water details.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220

My first thoughts when looking at the image above was that I liked the positions of the wings, and that the overall framing wasn’t too bad. Since the photograph was captured in overcast conditions the white gull against greyish water was a killer in terms of the image having detail and definition…everything looked flat. The water droplets cascading off the bird were barely visible and there was almost no wing or tail detail at all. Everything looked washed out and the gull was disappearing into the grey background. The image really needed a sense of definition and what little colour that was in the image needed to pop more. Bringing out highlight details, adding contrast, making the colours more vibrant, and really enhancing edge acuity to bring out feather details were the major challenges.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220

You’ll notice a lot more wing and tail feather details. These were created by reducing highlights, then adding contrast, micro-contrast, and adding a touch of sharpening, I also did some work with ‘levels’ and ‘curves’ in CS6 to create higher contrast in an attempt to get more separation of the subject from the background. These adjustments also helped to give the water droplets much more definition, helping to add a feeling of motion to the image. I also did some selective hue adjustments to the yellow and red to give the bird a touch more colour.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360

The above image of a goose in flight was from the end of a long AF-C run shot at 15fps with subject tracking. I liked the wing position revealing some potential feather detail on the  goose, although that detail lacked a sufficient degree of definition. The framing was tight and would only allow some minor cropping along the right hand side of the image to better position the bird in the frame. While the nostril detail was good, the eye was almost disappearing into the black feathers of the goose’s head. I needed to do some dodging with the eye to bring it out a bit better.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360

The first thing I did with this image was to reduce the highlights as I wanted more ‘density’ in the feather areas before making other adjustments. Then I added contrast and micro-contrast as well as a bit of sharpening. Working with black and white sliders, as well as ‘curves’ settings helped to give the image a bit more snap. I also adjusted the yellow hue slightly to give the goose’s body a touch more colour.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220

As this gull was coming in to land on the cement pier at Grimsby harbour it began to shriek, creating a nice ‘open mouth’ moment. This image was also taken in overcast conditions which contributed to the lack of subject separation from the background in terms of the overall flatness. You’ll see that there are virtually no details underneath the wing and the feathers on the top of the wings are poorly defined. Ideally I would have liked a nicer position of the gull’s wings but it was gliding in against a very strong headwind and I knew that was the best I was going to get given my limited time at the harbour. This image required many of the same adjustments already discussed with the previous gull image.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220
Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-220

After adjusting highlights down, then adding contrast, micro-contrast and some sharpening, I did some work with black and white sliders and made adjustments to ‘curves’. You can see that I was able to get a bit more definition on the body of the gull and enhance the wing detail a fair degree. I tightened up the crop, removing the distracting cement pier in the bottom left hand corner.

I used the detail extractor function in Nik (Color Efex Pro) with all of these images. I’m not sure what a similar function would be called in other software programs. Functions like ‘clarity’ or ‘structure’ can also help improve edge acuity and make an image appear ‘sharper’ and better defined.

When I’m working with an image I’m not shy about being very aggressive with sliders to see what happens to a specific image. This gives me a good sense of what range I need to work within with that slider. I’ve found it is also important to have a clear idea of how I want an image to end up before I start making adjustments in post. This helps me feel comfortable taking an image to the edge with a particular slider before using another adjustment to bring it back towards the vision in my head.

Above all else I’d encourage you to throw caution to the wind and be experimental with your post processing as one never knows where that experimentation may lead.

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11 thoughts on “A few quick comparisons of bird images”

  1. Been out all day photographing cranes (around 15,000 of them, we were told), Whooper Swans and a lot of geese, Jackdaws. Both me and the wife used our V2s and the 70-300CX.

    Enjoyed your article, and the detailed explanation of your methods attaining so close to perfection!

    1. Hi Tord,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article – thanks for the supportive comment! I still have a lot of learning and experimentation to do with the detail extractor in Nik Color Efex as this was my first attempt with that particular adjustment. I really need to figure out how to best apply it.
      Tom

  2. Nice article Thomas

    Maybe a bit overdone, especially the goose; you lost all that blue blurred background and added quiet a bit of noise / texture in the sky. Also (maybe not that possible because of the tight frame) making the horizon level could be welcome (yes I know I’m among thoses who are picky with the geometry :))

    I really like the duck and the last gull

    1. Hi Bertrand,
      Thanks for your comment and observations. This was my first attempt using the detail enhancer function in Nik so I’m still experimenting and your overdone comment is certainly appropriate.
      Tom

  3. You make very good images of birds. I am yet to get to that level where I can appreciate the fine nuances of shooting birds in flight. Nevertheless this is a good post with simple and detailed explanations as usual. Nice shots and done well to improve the quality in post processing. One question which I have is :why shoot jpeg when most of the sites talk about shooting in raw to keep details to when processing?I am still learning photographing still objects but can visualise how much practice will be needed for these beautiful shots. Keep them coming. Cheers. Srikanth

    1. Hello Srikanth,
      Thanks for your positive comment – I’m glad the article was helpful! I always shoot in RAW + jpeg fine as an occasion the quality of the jpeg will be sufficient for my needs, and shooing in both saves me some time. The main reason is that I use the jpeg as a baseline when determining what I plan on doing to an image in post.
      Tom

  4. I always enjoy your detailed analysis of your workflow – its different to mine but thought provoking making me reconsider what I do.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks Ian – glad that the article was of interest! Like all things photographic, post processing is a creative process allowing for individual interpretation and experience.
      Tom

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